Grace Paley Short Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2190 words.)