Later the Same Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Grace Paley’s output is small—three books of short stories in twenty-five years—but even at a time when markets for short fiction are limited and the literary stars are novelists and poets, her reputation has grown steadily. Paley’s work is particularly savored by writers and teachers of writing. This new collection, like The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), displays the apparently effortless simplicity and clarity of her work.

As in any craft, the appearance of natural ease in storytelling requires not only great skill but also respect for both the medium and the material. Fiction’s material is human life. Paley’s characters command attention as distinct individuals from the moment of their first appearance, a feat that she manages even in the absence of introductory comments or descriptions of their work, background, or physical appearance. In similar fashion, Paley can provide a sense of resolution and meaning without shaping tidy plots or constructing scenes that put opposing values in conflict. Her distinctive viewpoint includes the wider world as an important element in the context of daily life and thus makes her work impressively humane, responsible, and—ultimately—hopeful about the human condition.

One secret of Paley’s craft is her seeming absence of craft. She ignores both Edgar Allan Poe’s prescriptive definition and the structural rules promoted when short fiction was a commercial staple; she neither strives for a single emotional effect nor builds plots that reveal characters at carefully limited moments of significant conflict, change, or revelation. It would be difficult to chart one of Paley’s stories so as to discover the exposition, point of attack, rising action, and climax. Paley shows people in the process of living and convinces readers that she has accurately rendered their experience; and at the same time, she successfully manages to avoid the ambiguous, unfinished, and often unsettling quality of the fiction once referred to as “slice of life.”

The absence of crisis and conflict throws the emphasis on character; the reader’s impatience with open endings is dissipated because the characters satisfy. They behave understandably—and like most people, are unlikely to be dramatically altered by one single event, though their interests, and also their feelings and responses, are likely to change over the years as circumstances change. Though Paley does not quite write linked stories that can be put together into something approaching a novel, many characters from her earlier collections reappear. The young women who were rearing preschoolers alone in the 1960’s are now coping with their parents’ old age, a friend’s death from cancer, the end of childbearing years, and the loosening bonds of motherhood.

Most of the stories are set in a world as distinctive as any local colorist’s Kentucky or Maine or Mississippi. It seems less limited primarily because residents of college towns across the country are citizens—either in spirit or in exile—of Paley’s small square of New York. There, rehabilitated tenements and surprising patches of green create a walking neighborhood with its own school and greengrocer and butcher and deli and well-known faces; where the church is important primarily as a building whose basement holds a meeting room and a mimeograph machine that can be used to promote peace, ecology, and neighborhood causes.

Though there is a certain amount of parochialism in its specifics, the world of Paley’s stories is impressive because its people are engaged by a range of concerns. Love and affection and friendship are important in their daily lives, but so are China, the educational bureaucracy that refuses to let parent volunteers tutor Spanish-speaking children, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the PTA, Union Carbide, and a grandmother’s recollections of Russia in 1905. Her characters are adults, with a long perspective not only in their own maturity but also in memories across the cycle of years; their energies may shift focus and their friendships be interrupted by political differences, but they are part of an enmeshed continuity.

Although most of the stories in the volume are told by or about Faith—the character that many readers assume is a fictionalized version of Grace Paley herself—some reach into other lives. “Lavinia: An Old Story” convincingly creates the mingled hope, joy, and anger of...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Later the Same Day is Grace Paley’s third collection of short stories. As in her first two anthologies, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), many of the stories in Later the Same Day are so short (two to four pages) that some reviewers doubted they were stories at all, calling them nervous, haphazard sketches or too underdeveloped to allow Paley’s artistry to shine through. For example, “Love” seems to be an inconclusive episode in which a man tells his wife about his past loves, one of whom is a fictional character in her own book. “Lavinia: An Old Story” is a brief monologue in which a black woman tries to talk her daughter’s suitor out of marrying her. “At That Time: Or, The History of a Joke” is itself little more than a joke in which the virgin birth becomes the source of several satiric jabs at the Christian religion.

The stories “Anxiety,” “In This Country, but in Another Language, My Aunt Refuses to Marry the Men Everyone Wants Her To,” and “Mother” seem sketchy, cryptic, and irresolute. “Anxiety” consists primarily of a woman’s warnings to a young father who is taking his daughter home from school, “In This Country” is a two-page prose poem in which a female child tries to determine whether her maiden aunt has a life of her own, and “Mother” is a two-page memoir brought on by a woman’s hearing the song, “Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.” The two short pieces “A Man Told Me the Story of His Life” and “This Is a Story About My Friend George, the Toy Inventor” are more like brief parables than fully developed narratives. In one, a man who is unable to fulfill his dream of being...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Grace Paley’s concern with “women’s stories” has made her the center of current discussion among feminist critics about whether women’s mode of storytelling is truly different from that of men. The basic issue seems to focus on the goal-or end-directed nature of male stories as opposed to the less linear and more open-ended stories of women. Moreover, Paley’s stories raise the issue of whether male stories are more egoistic and self-centered than the communal and collaborative stories written by women. If such distinctions do exist, they not only raise significant issues about the nature of story in its most basic sense but also suggest some of the reasons that the stories of women have often been undervalued in a culture that is basically goal oriented and egoistic. Whether such distinctions can be supported or not, Paley herself has said that as more and more women talk to one another, such issues will have to be faced. Moreover, she is well aware that there are significant social implications of women banding together and talking to one another more.

Later the Same Day is perhaps Paley’s most emphatic treatment of the importance of language communities and the collaborative nature of story, for the stories here are more interrelated than they were in her earlier two collections, and her concern with the basic characteristics of “telling” and “listening” is more direct and insistent here. Because Paley’s stories not only are “about” women but also raise the more crucial issues of a distinctive woman’s “voice,” Paley will no doubt continue to be at the very center of subsequent discussion and debate about the unique nature of women’s literature.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Aarons, Victoria. “Talking Lives: Storytelling and Renewal in Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 9 (Spring, 1990): 20-35. Argues that although Paley’s characters try to reinvent themselves by telling stories, she ironically undermines their attempts to do so. Through storytelling, her characters build communities of women; the telling of stories becomes the saving of identity.

Baba, Minako. “Faith Darwin as Writer-Heroine: A Study of Grace Paley’s Short Stories.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 7 (Spring, 1988): 40-54. Focuses on Faith as a middle-aged woman in the 1970’s and...

(The entire section is 512 words.)