Grace Paley

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What are the themes in Grace Paley's "Samuel"? How is it postmodern?

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The characters explore themes such as memory, gender, authority, bravery, individuality, and loss in "Samuel."

In the story, adults watch with various reactions as four boys show their bravado by riding dangerously between two subway cars. Memories are gendered: the men watching are both worried and at the same time sympathetic, remembering their own acts of foolish bravado as youths and comforting themselves that they survived. The women are more angered and alarmed at the foolhardiness of the action. Shows of authority are gendered as well: a woman admonishes the boys with words to get back in a subway car, while a man simply takes action and pulls the emergency cord. When the sudden stop of the train from the cord kills Samuel, the story brings into questions the role of male authority: is it helpful or destructive? The story also raises questions about bravery: were the boys foolish or brave in testing themselves between the cars? We see Samuel's mother experiencing loss and trying to replace Samuel with a baby boy, only to have the realization that Samuel was unique and irreplaceable.

The story is postmodern in its focus on fragmentation: we get different, fragmented responses to what the boys are doing. The story is also postmodern in being ironic and ambiguous. It is ironic that the act, pulling the emergency cord, that was meant to save the boys actually killed one. The story is ambiguous as it explores themes such as bravery or individuality. For example, while Samuel's mother perceives him as unique, the group of four boys Samuel is part of are presented as indistinguishable. This raises the question of what individuality is, how subjective it might be, and how we perceive it. Is Samuel really unique?

The story can also be read as postmodern in being intertextual, though in this case the "texts" referenced include not only another work of fiction, but the way one man on the subway "reads" the boys' actions through the lens of his own boyhood story, influenced, in turn, by a movie called The Romance of Logging.

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