Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2190
Despite her small literary output, Grace Paley’s innovative style and the political and social concerns she advocates in her work have enabled her to generate significant critical attention. Her stories treat traditional themes, focusing on the lives of women and the experiences of love, motherhood, and companionship that bind them together. She presents these themes, however, in inventive rather than traditional structures. Her stories are frequently fragmented and open-ended, without conventional plot or character development, structural innovations that make her work more true to life. The stories gain their vitality by Paley’s use of distinctive language—the voice, idiom, tone, and rhythms of the New York City locale. She writes best when rendering the razor-tongued Jewish American urban female, with an ironic wit, who does not hesitate to voice her opinions.
To speak out is a basic theme in Grace Paley’s stories, and it reflects her own life and political principles. The women in her stories are like her; they are political activists who speak on nuclear energy, on the environment, and on all conditions that affect the world into which their children are born. This intermingling of politics and art brought Paley mixed reviews, but she has continued to stretch the limits of the short story, in both form and content.
The Little Disturbances of Man
“Goodbye and Good Luck,” the first story in Grace Paley’s first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, shows her characteristic style and theme. The story begins, “I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh.” Aunt Rose knows what her sister—Lillie’s “mama”—does not, that time rushes by relentlessly, that the old generation is quickly forgotten as the new generation supplants it, and that mama’s life of stodgy domesticity (the “spotless kitchen”) has meant little to her or anyone else as her life slips away. Mama, however, feels sorry for “poor Rosie” because Aunt Rose has not married or led a virtuous life.
As a young girl, Rose cannot stand her safe but boring job in a garment factory and takes instead a job selling tickets at the Russian Art Theatre, which puts on Yiddish plays. The man who hires her says “Rosie Lieber, you surely got a build on you!” These attributes quickly gain the attention of the Yiddish matinee idol Volodya Vlashkin, “the Valentino of Second Avenue.”
Although he is much older than she and has a wife and family elsewhere, he sets her up in an apartment. Their affair continues on—and off—over the years while he has many other lovers, but Rose is not lonely herself when he is gone. She never complains but worships him when she has him and is philosophical about his infidelities: An actor needs much practice if he is to be convincing on the stage. While she never asks anything from him, “the actresses were only interested in tomorrow,” sleeping lovelessly with wealthy producers for advancement. They get their advancement: Now they are old and forgotten. Vlashkin himself is old and retired, Aunt Rose fat and fifty, when his wife divorces him for all his past adulteries. He comes back to Rosie, the only woman who never asked anything of him, and they decide to get married. She has had her warm and love-filled life, and now she will have a bit of respectability, a husband—and, “as everybody knows, a woman should have at least one before the end of the story.”
The theme is seen most clearly when Rose contrasts her life with her own mother’s. Her mother had upbraided her when she moved in with Vlashkin, but her mother had “married who she didn’t like. He never washed. He had an unhappy smell he got smaller, shriveled up little by little, till goodbye and good luck.” Rosie, therefore, “decided to live for love.” No amount of respectability, no husband, advancement, or wealth will save one from imminent change, decay, and death; so live for love, Aunt Rose would say, and you will have the last laugh.
The characters and tone may change in other stories, but the theme remains the same. In “The Pale Pink Roast” Anna sees her former husband and asks him to help her move into her new apartment. He is in “about the third flush of youth,” a handsome, charming, but “transient” man. In the midst of hanging her curtains, he stops and makes love to her. Then, admiring her fancy apartment and stylish clothes, he asks archly who is paying for it. “My husband is,” she responds. Her former husband is furious with her. The new husband, she tells him, is a “lovely” man, in the process of moving his business here. Why did you do it, then, her former husband wants to know: “Revenge? Meanness? Why?” “I did it for love,” she says.
Over and over the female characters must choose between the safe but boring man and the charming but worthless lover. In “An Interest in Life,” the girl has her secure but dull boyfriend yet dreams of the husband who deserted her. In “Distance,” Paley tells the same story over again, but this time from the point of view of another character in the story, a bitter old woman full of destructive meanness. She was wild in youth, but then opted for the safe, loveless marriage, and it has so soured her life that she has tried to force everyone else into the same wrong pattern. Her own very ordinary son is the analogue of the boring boyfriend from “An Interest in Life.” At heart, the bitter old woman understands the young girl, and this is her redeeming humanity.
In a slight variation of theme, “Wants” demonstrates why the love relationship between man and woman must be transitory. The desirable man wants everything out of life; the loving woman wants only her man. “You’ll always want nothing,” the narrator’s former husband tells her bitterly, suggesting a sort of ultimate biological incompatibility between the sexes. The result assuredly is sadness and loneliness, but with islands of warmth to make it endurable. In “Come On, Ye Sons of Art,” Kitty is spending Sunday morning with her boyfriend (“Sunday was worth two weeks of waiting”). She is pregnant by him and already has a houseful of children by other fathers. She takes great pleasure in the fine morning she can give her boyfriend. The boyfriend, a traveling salesman, delights in his skill as a salesman. He only regrets he is not more dishonest, like his sister who, ignoring human relationships, has devoted herself to amassing an immense fortune by any means. Kitty’s boyfriend wistfully wishes he too were corrupt, high, and mighty. They are listening to a beautiful piece of music by English composer Henry Purcell on the radio, which the announcer says was written for the queen’s birthday; in reality, the music was not written for the queen, but rather for Purcell’s own delight in his art, in the thing he did best, and no amount of wealth and power equals that pleasure.
In her later stories, Paley has been striking out in new directions, away from the inner-city unwed mothers and the strongly vernacular idiom, to sparse, classical, universal stories. The theme, however, that there is no safe harbor against change and death, and that the only salvation is to live fully, realistically, and for the right things, has not changed. “In the Garden” has, essentially, four characters who appear to be in some country in the West Indies. Lush gardens of bright flowers and birds surround them, suggesting a particularly bountiful nature. One character is a beautiful young woman whose children were kidnapped eight months earlier and now are certainly dead, but she cannot face this fact, and her talk is constantly about “when they come home.” Her husband is a rich landlord, who did not give the kidnappers their ransom money; he shouts constantly in a loud voice that everything is well. There is a vacationing communist renting one of the landlord’s houses, who, out of curiosity, asks the neighbors about the case. He learns that the landlord had once been poor but now is rich and has a beautiful wife; he could not believe that anything had the power to hurt his luck, and he was too greedy to pay the ransom. It is known that it was “his friends who did it.” There is an elderly neighbor woman who is dying of a muscle-wasting disease. She had spent much time with the beautiful woman listening to her talk about when the children would return, but now she is fed up with her and cannot stand the husband’s shouting. For a while, since she is too wasted to do much more, she follows with her eyes the movements of the communist, but “sadly she had to admit that the eyes’ movement, even if minutely savored, was not such an adventurous journey.” Then “she had become interested in her own courage.”
At first it may appear that nothing happens in the story, but it is all there. The garden is the world. The young woman with her beauty has won a rich husband; the landlord, through aggressiveness, has clawed his way to the top. Both these modes—beauty and aggressiveness—have succeeded only for a while, but inevitably whatever is gained in the world is lost because human beings are all mortal. The communist—by being a communist, “a tenderhearted but relentless person”—suggests someone who will try to find a political way to stave off chance and mortality, but in fact he merely leaves, having done nothing. The old woman, who realizes the fecklessness of trying to help, and who has found mere observation of process insufficient, becomes more interested in the course of her own courage in facing up to inevitable change. She and her husband are the only ones who admit to change, and this seems the right position, the tragic sense of life which makes life supportable.
The Collected Stories
The Collected Stories gathers over thirty years of stories from Paley’s previous collections, allowing the reader to track the development of Paley’s feminism and pacifism, as well as her depiction of urban family life. The Collected Stories also brings with it an opportunity to examine one of Paley’s most enduring fictional characters, a major figure in thirteen stories, and a minor figure in several more. This character, Faith Darwin, first appeared in the “The Used Boy-Raisers,” where it was clear that she served as her author’s alter ego, so that Faith, like Paley, is of Jewish descent, lives in Greenwich Village, has married, divorced and remarried, has two children, and is also a writer.
In addition to paralleling Paley’s own life to some degree, the Faith Darwin stories track the various political movements in which Paley has been involved. For instance, in “Faith in a Tree,” Faith s personal life is refrained in the light of her political principles, indicated by a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. In “Dreamer in a Dead Language,” Faith’s father, whom she had loved and admired uncritically, is critically reassessed in the light of her growing feminism. In later stories, however, Faith herself is subjected to criticism and revaluation. In “Listening,” Faith is confronted by her lesbian friend Cassie, who accuses her of ignoring her in her fiction. Faith is also criticized by other characters in “Friends,” “Zagrowsky Tells,” and “Love,” the latter story detailing the breaking up of friendships over disagreements concerning the Soviet Union.
In these later stories, Faith must deal with changing times. In “The Long-Distance Runner” Faith faces her own aging process by returning to the old Jewish neighborhood in which she and her parents had once lived, and which is now populated by African Americans. When Faith decides to live in her old apartment for three weeks with four African American children and their mother, Mrs. Luddy, she discovers that, despite their differences, they share a sense of sisterhood because they are both women and mothers. The centrality of motherhood in the life of women is a continuing theme in the Faith Darwin stories, beginning with “The Used Boy Raisers” and emerging again in such stories as “The Long Distance Runner” and “The Exquisite Moment.”
Stories such as “The Long-Distance Runner,” with its African American family, and “The Exquisite Moment,” involving a Chinese houseguest, also remind the reader of the multicultural element in Paley’s fiction. Faith’s own neighborhood—a Greenwich village community of artists, left-wing political activists, and people from minority ethnic and racial groups—is different from what is considered mainstream America, but at the same time it reminds the reader that this world, too, is part of the American scene. This urban community, which blends and mixes ethnicities, religions, and radical politics, along with her role as a fictional version of Paley herself, makes Faith Darwin’s stories a particularly representative aspect of Grace Paley’s collected work.