Zagrowsky Tells by Grace Paley

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Zagrowsky Tells Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In “Zagrowsky Tells,” Paley’s recurring character Faith appears again but in a secondary and not necessarily flattering role. The focus is on Zagrowsky, a retired Jewish pharmacist, as he sits in the park with his grandson, a black child named Emanuel.

Faith, a former customer whom Zagrowsky has not seen in years, approaches him and asks him about the boy. He begins to explain how he has come to have a black grandson, and as they reminisce about their shared past in the community he confronts her for having led a protest against him for supposedly racist practices. He denies having been racist, but Faith insists that he subtly mistreated his black customers. Faith then presses him to talk about Emanuel, and he tells the story: His daughter Cissy became mentally unbalanced, suffering attacks and even protesting his racism herself; she was committed to an institution north of the city where she became pregnant by a black gardener. Now she lives at home, still nervous and dependent, and Zagrowsky and his wife raise her son, Emanuel.

Having heard his story, Faith begins to offer advice about providing for the child’s racial identity, but Zagrowsky interrupts and angrily sends her off. Now confused and frustrated, he vents his anger on another stranger, an innocent man who approaches him to praise and ask about Emanuel. Faith quickly returns with a group of her friends and saves Zagrowsky from the bothersome stranger, then they warmly say goodbye, leaving Zagrowsky alone with Emanuel and uncertain as to what exactly has transpired.

“Zagrowsky Tells” really concerns two separate stories told by Zagrowsky. One is the story of his and Emanuel’s history, a sad tale in which much of the pain and the meaning is left between the lines. Zagrowsky is a proud and bitter man who must work hard to face the difficult truths of his life: his bigotry, his failures as a father and husband, his inability to trust or communicate with others. Thus, his story is easiest told when he relies on facts.

The other story, however, is the story he tells the reader. This account, given in the immediate first-person present, weaves together the external reality of the encounters in the park with the internal monologue of Zagrowsky’s mind. As he talks to Faith and looks after Emanuel, he is constantly digressing—observing, judging, evaluating, speculating, anticipating, imagining, and above all, remembering—and it is through his observations, thoughts, and memories that a true view of his life and his personality emerges. Paley thus portrays from within the fears, anxieties, and longing of a confused and repressed old man upon whom life has played an ironic joke.

As in so many of her stories, Paley’s prevalent attitude toward her subject is one of generosity. The case against Zagrowsky is not a clear one, for his bigotry is subtle and not malicious; he elicits empathy, comparing the histories of the black and Jewish peoples, communicating his desire to act fairly and honestly, and acknowledging, in spite of the accumulated years of guilt and shame, the incontrovertibility of the past and the life-affirming value of expressing oneself. “Tell!” he says, “That opens up the congestion a little—the lungs are for breathing, not secrets.”

The ultimate redemption, however, as well as the story’s emotional power, lies not in a reasoned defense of past bigotry but in the compassionate reality of Zagrowsky’s present situation, as intimated throughout the story. Given Cissy’s illness and Mrs. Zagrowsky’s limitations, Zagrowsky has willingly become Emanuel’s primary parent, teacher, and friend. The two are constant companions, and the old man’s devotion to the boy is absolute. Thus, during the course of the story the reader develops compassion—the same compassion that in the end motivates Faith to protect Zagrowsky—by recognizing the miraculous transformation that has been achieved in the heart of a bitter old man by the presence of...

(The entire section is 1,176 words.)