The Loudest Voice Summary
by Grace Paley

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The Loudest Voice Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Loudest Voice” is the first-person-voice recollection of Shirley Abramowitz, who remembers her childhood as a place where “every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up” and where her “voice is the loudest.” Shirley is the daughter of Jewish immigrants, a bright and uninhibited child who talks loudly and incessantly and, like her father, fearlessly speaks her mind.

On a cold November morning, Shirley is summoned by the teacher organizing the school’s Christmas play. Knowing that she has a loud and clear voice, he asks her to be his narrator. The Christmas play, and the involvement in it of Jewish children such as Shirley, occasions debate and commentary throughout the Jewish community, where some embrace assimilation into primarily Christian America, while others firmly safeguard the integrity of ethnic and religious identity. In the Abramowitz home, Shirley’s mother disapproves, but her father counters with the argument, “In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas.”

Shirley herself is proud of her voice and eager to perform; during the month of rehearsals her excitement focuses her usually dispersed energies, and she becomes the director’s efficient and trusted assistant. The day of the play arrives; Shirley narrates sensitively and admirably, giving an objective and amusing account of her classmates’ earnest presentation. The story concludes later that night as the Abramowitzes and a neighbor discuss the day’s events in their characteristically opinionated fashion, and Shirley, lying in bed, silently says her prayers and then loudly yells to quiet her parents’ arguments.

In “The Loudest Voice,” Paley creates a delightful and very immediate protagonist. Shirley’s personality is defined by her comments—her perception of the loneliness of unpopular people, her innocent fusion of the Christmas play with the very Jewish world in which it is performed, and the overheard conversations and repartee that have remained in her memory. The story’s title signals an affirmation of personal freedom, for Shirley, who is constantly being silenced in her day-to-day life, proudly believes that a voice worthy of the Christmas play must also have the power to make both its opinions and prayers heard. The story contrasts loud voices with the silence of death, memory, and contemplation, and implicit in Shirley’s pride is Paley’s own valuation of the freedom of self-expression.

As she tells her story, Shirley makes a few simple comments that establish the distance of passed time, the death of her parents, and the warmth with which she views the past. The incident of the Christmas play, though simple and basically undramatic, is like a prism reflecting many facets of her childhood and the life of that remembered community. Her father’s assertion, “What belongs to history, belongs to all men,” informs Shirley’s own generous feeling toward the municipal Christmas tree which, like the Jews, “was a stranger in Egypt,” and defines her open attitude toward life. Through many such touches, Paley portrays with empathetic lightness the ghetto mentality as it makes the transition to acceptance and comfort, and, in a larger view, distills centuries of Jewish exile and accommodation into the experience of a single child.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Shirley Abramowitz lives in a predominantly Jewish community where everyone slams doors and mothers yell out of windows. Shirley has such a loud voice that the neighborhood grocer accuses her of shouting the labels off his cans. Shirley’s papa defends her. He says that all will be quiet in the grave.

A happy child, Shirley goes to school in an old red-brick building where the children must stand in straight lines. Because her last name begins with an “A,” she is always first in line. One day, the monitor tells her to go quickly upstairs to the sixth-grade room. When she gets there, the...

(The entire section is 1,348 words.)