Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 7 Reading

Dreamer in a Dead Language: Close Reading



There is no rest for me since love departed

No sleep since I reached the bottom of the sea

And the end of this woman, my wife

My lungs are full of water. I cannot breathe.

Still I long to go sailing in spring among realities

There is a young girl who waits in a special time and place

To love me, to be my friend and lie beside me all through the night.

 (p. 266)


            Grace Paley uses poetry in her short works of fiction to provide insight to the minds of her characters. This is an effective agent of communication as it is capable of evoking a complex emotional response using relatively few words. Poetry can be cryptic, and interpreted infinitely

Of course its my mother. My mother, young.

I think it’s a different girl entirely (p. 266).”


Paley uses poetry to throw the reader into the mind of a character with little context. She encourages the reader to ask questions, rather than answering them immediately through conventional exposition. Mr. Darwin’s poem is introduced early in Dreamer in a Dead Language, setting the emotional atmosphere of the story.

               Mr. Darwin’s poem ages as the short story progresses. The poem grows increasingly relevant and intricate, and, as a reader learns more about Darwin’s troubled mind, one begins to learn how truly relevant and significant his latest poetic work is. When I first read his poem, I thought Darwin’s wife was dead and that he longed to join her, to “lie beside her through the night.” I interpreted the poem as a weary old man’s unending dedication to his late lifetime partner. As the story unfolded I began to realize that the piece was far less endearing than I had originally imagined. Rather, it became increasingly tragic. Mr. Darwin lost the wife he knew after an operation went poorly “Her operation changed her (p. 278).” Living in a nursing home with her, Mr. Darwin feels trapped, drowned in the stale atmosphere of people who he feels are much older than himself. Mr. Darwin is a self-proclaimed idealist, and his idealist nature shines through his dense and tragic stanza. He wants what is right for him, and is willing to give up everything for the young life that his young soul deserves.

               Dreamer in a Dead Language follows the lead character, Faith, through a complicated and troubling time in her life. Through Faith, Paley exposes some of the harsh realities of familial life, relationships, and responsibility. Her ex-husband Ricardo is behind on his child support, and doesn’t visit the children often. Since her divorce with Ricardo, Faith’s life has been turbulent. There is no rest for me since love departed. She, in trying to make ends meet, invests in a typewriter with the hope of “going into business.” Her mother is unwell and lives in a nursing home, and her father isn’t content living there with Faith’s mother. Much like the intolerable Mrs. Hegel-Shtein, life is making Faith sick.

               Perhaps with this short story Grace Paley hopes to teach her readers a lesson about idealism. The idea of an ideal life can overpower the reality of such, resulting in eternal longing and dissatisfaction. Maybe Faith and her father would do better to focus on their present situation, devoting energy and support to the people in their lives that care about them most: their family. Mr. Darwin’s poem is a glimpse into the mind of a man who would drop everything to pursue the ideals of his imagination. Much like his poem, Darwin’s dream may seem harmless, even venerable, on the surface, but in pursuing it he would be disregarding his responsibility to his family.

Faith’s son reminds her that, no matter how overwhelming, some responsibilities are not to be ignored.

“Why is everything my responsibility, every goddamn thing?

It just is, said Richard. Faith looked up and down the beach. She wanted to scream, Help!”

Week 7 Close Reading “The Collected Stories” Zach Page

            In Grace Paley’s The Collected Stories, Paley takes us through a series of short stories and narratives, each one completely different and unique from the rest. All of the stories are told from the perspective of different people who are completely different in many ways (different ages, genders, races, etc) which is a literary style that is presumably hard for many authors to achieve. The audience finds themselves wrapped up in one story only to find a quick ending, immediately followed by the start of a new story.

            In her short story, A Woman, Young and Old, Paley tells the story of Lizzy, a young girl who falls in love with a corporal. From the beginning of the story, we get a feel of the family dynamic within this certain family: it is run by several uptight women who are very traditional in their thinking. It is important to note that the only male figure that is part of this story is the corporal. We never learn his real name but we do know him by his nickname: Browny. Lizzy, who is under the age of fourteen for most of the story, instantly falls in love with Browny and has convinced herself that they are to be married. By the end of the story, they are engaged.

            It is important to note that the only male figure in A Woman, Young and Old is Browny. Paley is proving to the audience that women can have power and authority over the decisions that happen in her household. Though her stories are timeless, the audience is to imagine this story to take place in a time where women were not offered the same rights and liberties they are offered today. As a liberal female author, it is very important to Paley that the message of feminism be spread.

            Paley writes, “’Women,’ said Grandma in appreciation, ‘have been the pleasure and consolation of my entire life. From the beginning I cherished all the little girls with their clean faces and their listening ears…’” Throughout A Woman, Young and Old, we feel a sense of community among the females in this story. From Lizzy, to her sister, to her grandmother, there is a connection that bonds these women. Lizzy’s grandmother is a very strong, independent, and wise woman. The story flows beautifully from the beginning as we glimpse into the dynamics of this strong family. The story ends beautifully as well, with the females sticking up for what they believe in.

            Grace Paley does a wonderful job of conveying her message of feminism and female power and leadership. It is a very important message to be portrayed and she does it in a flawless and artistic way. Along with her other collected works in this book, Grace Paley tells beautiful simple stories with elegant images that makes it easy to want to read her works. Our imaginations flow picturing the scenes of such beautiful works coming alive in our heads, coupled with strong messages of hope and leadership.

Pissed a Paley: The Essay That Caused a Lot of Juicy Discourse – Jonah Barrett

Grace Paley is a vital voice in recent American literature, or at least that is what I’ve been told. She also happens to be an author I have never heard of until the beginning of this year. That is not to say she is unimportant, but the circumstances in which we met have been most unfortunate. I selected to review her work because The Collected Stories is the only anthology we are reading in this class. I love anthologies, sadly I think it’s because of my dwindling attention span due to the iPhones—bite-sized dabs of fiction for the casual writer to digest in one sit before checking Snapchat for the hundredth time. It’s in my big red chair, at the end of another long day, that I finally crack open the used edition I have purchased. I try to ignore the $2.99 Goodwill sticker hidden under my college’s $11.99 one. Paley stands triumphant in the cover’s photograph, a small crow to her left as she sticks her thumbs down her cardigan pockets in the midst of what is likely a public park. With a number of Hallmark-ish story titles littering the table of contents—“An Interest in Life,” “The Little Girl,” and “Listening” being a brief sample—I am already preparing to brace myself for a slew of cliché tales about warm memories and garden reflections.

“In 1954 or ’55 I decided to write a story.” Dear God. The urge to check my snaps intensifies. “I had written a few nice paragraphs with some first class sentences in them.” Something could have happened on the social medias within the past three minutes. “But I hadn’t known how to let woman and men into the language—“ But there, there is where I actually pause for a moment. Perhaps it’s just been Evergreen’s reconditioning of my mind, or fourth wave feminism, or all the nonbinary friends I have made along the way; but something about this doesn’t rub right. “Women and men,” the gender binary, a thing that is beginning to become a thing of the past, all the way back to the far off year of 2011. But surely, this mindset of opposite genders is just a slight bump in the road on the path to enjoying Paley’s work, so I think as I luckily end “Two Ears, Three Lucks” for “Goodbye and Good Luck.” My hopes are quickly crashed. Because this is second wave feminism, girls vs. guys, paving the way for further waves down the road. While we should honor the past, we have moved past this mindset, probably.

“Boys are disgusting,” my friend Lynda says. We are sitting in her living room sipping tea, and she has caught me picking my nose. She dramatically stares at the ceiling in a huff.

“I’m sorry,” I say, wiping the armrest. “It was too painful to ignore.” Lynda looks down at her tea with a self pitying glance, stirring the hot liquid a bit with her finger.

“Men and boys… I suppose I don’t understand them,” she sighs. I can’t help but stare at her current hairdo. She has been experimenting with pompadour hairstyles. Combined with her black swing dress and the antique furniture scattered throughout, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve stepped back in time.

“Girls are so much nicer, and cleanlier. Like this one actress I know!” she snaps her fingers. “I have to show you.” She turns toward the Xbox by the television, and the act drops a little. “D-d’you know how to put Netflix on that thing?” she asks.

I shrug. “Don’t you? It’s your home.”

“Yes but… Kevin is in charge of the TV things.”

“I… guess I could try. Where’s the remote?”

“I-I don’t know… I don’t work the television, that’s a dude thing…” We sit there in silence for a moment. Lynda breaks it. “We’ll have to wait until my boyfriend comes back so he can turn it on,” she says. I take my turn to look up at the ceiling and I can hear her sigh. “I hope he gets home soon, he needs to fix the fridge too. I don’t want the milk to go sour or the corn beef to go bad.”

Lynda’s life is filled with pies, a cat named Faith, and a handsome boyfriend. She tells me how she hates her cashier job, and plans on marrying Kevin in her goal of finally becoming the suburban housewife she’s always dreamed of. Paley often wrote about this archetype, and variations of it, providing fresh insight from the at-the-time modern woman’s perspective, dealing with misogynist men whist simultaneously trying to find love in others. I finish “Goodbye and Good Luck” with a sour look on my face. The heroine has finally been chosen by her dream man, at the end of his life and at the fresh end of his marriage. A woman should have at least one husband before the end of her story, and Aunt Rose manages to squeeze one in, just in the nick of time, before morality knocks on the door. Thank God.

But this way of thinking—the necessity of romance, the binary divide between men and women—can I really blame Paley for writing about it? For writing just from the perspective of her world, that world of yesteryear? Perhaps “A Woman, Young and Old” will be a little more progressive. Paley is a feminist, her writing’s been called feminist, at least. Google “Grace Paley Feminism” and the first article will report that she had said to find the label confining. She still credited the movement though, saying “Every woman writing in these years has had to swim in the feminist wave, no matter what she thinks of it, even if she bravely swims against it, she has been supported by it—the buoyancy, the noise, the saltiness.”

“It’s very damp, clammy. You don’t want to go down there. Trust me. You’d get sick. Suffocating. Very nauseating. The smell of the clamminess and the mildew and everything. Whew! Smells unbearable. Gets in your clothes.”

We are entering the second hour of The Vagina Monologues. It’s terribly uncomfortable and I’m horrified at the thought that I might be the only one in the room that feels weird. I can only manage one hard swallow between monologues while everyone is clapping. Lynda turns to me before the next one starts up.

“This is so great,” she says.

“Oh, yeah,” I say.

She slaps my shoulder. “You just hate it because you have a dick.”

“Probably.” But why do I feel weird? The third wave of feminism is strong in the night air and I wonder if I do just hate this because I’m a man. What would that say about me? Perhaps I’m no different from all the other piece of shit men discussed in the play. I thought I was different. As a gay man vaginas aren’t actually a turn off for me, but the aggression in the play still makes me pee a little. I’m disappointed in myself; I thought I’d be better than this.

“I love women. I love vaginas. I do not seem them as separate things,” an actor recites. But of course this is the 90’s. Trans people are not actually people yet, in the mainstream eye. We can talk about damp cellars and coochie snorters until the sun rises but we are always only talking about women. My school—the same school that charged me $11.99—tries to change this with an additional series of student-written monologues slapped on the back, because Eve Ensler will sue everyone if we disrupt the pre-established flow of her play.

“To everyone who says my gender isn’t ‘real,’ FUCK YOU!” an actor shouts. Snaps applaud from all around in agreement as the actor goes on. If we include this one trans-inclusive monologue at the end of this problematic production maybe the damage will be undone. Another actor steps up.

“To all the ‘allies,’ of the LGBTQIAA community, FUCK YOU!” More snapping. More discourse. Another actor.

“To anyone who uses ‘gay’ as a bad word—“ and it keeps going. The audience continually expresses their approval and agree with one another as racism, police brutality, intersectional problems within the queer community, and every other conceivable social justice topic is swiftly blanketed over in a monologue that lasts a total of ten minutes. It’s okay that we’ve shown The Vagina Monologues because we have just undone all Eve Ensler—her transmisogyny, her binary views on gender, her apologist approach to a statutory rape—did over the past two hours. But why did we have to show it in the first place? Why are we reading Grace Paley? There is something off about all this. Perhaps Paley’s characters are comfortable in their gender binary, and perhaps others are trying to break its mold.

I couldn’t hold my desire down, and I kissed him again right onto his talking mouth and smack against his teeth.
“Oh, Browny, I would take care of you.”

“Oh, sweetie, please take care of the fridge,” Lynda tells Kevin as soon as he comes through the front door. He is carrying several bags of groceries on both arms, the blue handle of something poking out from one of them.

“What’s that?” she asks from her chair.

Kevin breathes deeply and sets the groceries down by his feet, taking off his jacket. “We needed a new broom.”

Lynda climactically crosses her arms and pouts. “I hope you don’t expect me to be the one sweeping, seeing as I’m the woman here.”

Kevin pauses from hanging his jacket on the coat rack. “…No?” he says.

Lynda blinks a few times, she seems let down. Another long ironic speech on equality lost to chance. “Oh…” she says. I peer at my friend as Kevin walks into the other room with the groceries. Maybe Lynda isn’t giving into the heteronormative lifestyle like I thought. Maybe she’s just lazy.

“The fridge, Kevin!”

“I’ll do it!”

Lynda has her problems, but we all do. I still like her. I cannot really get into Paley, still. Her writing is less “bouncy and fresh” to me and more akin to a pile of dry leaves, as brown as her photo on the cover. She is an important voice, but her words should probably be taken with a grain of salt. It’s easy to fall into the trap of forgetting that stories are not timeless, and they are bound to their respective eras. Paley is a piece of history, but perhaps her stories, among other pieces of work, should be kept in mind as relics and not held up to the progressive ideals of the modern day when we read them.



Bernstein, Adam. “Grace Paley; Acclaimed Short-Story Writer.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 24 Aug. 2007. Web. 17 Feb. 2016. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/23/AR2007082300858.html>.

Paley, Grace. “Grace Paley, The Art of Fiction No. 131.” Interview by Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, and Larissa MacFarquhar. Paris Review. The Paris Review. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

The Vagina Monologues. By Eve Ensler. The Evergreen State College, Olympia. 13 Feb. 2016. Performance.

Paley, Grace. The Collected Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Segal, Lynne. Once a Feminist: Grace Paley. Thesis. Birkbeck University of London, 2010. Print.

Grace Paley “Wants” Close Reading

In Grace Paley’s ultra short story “Wants” (pg. 129) the reader becomes acquainted with the narrator through a chance encounter with her ex-husband outside a library. The female voice shares her past relationship and her thoughts on time, marriage, and herself. The story is so short that the experience of reading it is akin to a flashback to a forgotten memory or a dream about a stranger’s conversation overheard in passing. The dialogue and the narrator’s inner voice quickly inform us of their twenty-seven year marriage they shared and we never leave the library. This husband, while an interesting enough man and adequate enough provider, has left her back where she began; wanting, wanting to be a better person, citizen, and mother.

            The way Paley guides the reader through time in the story takes two different journeys. One path is the action and external conversation with the ex-husband in and out of the library that leaves the narrator in the same physical space on the steps. The other is the inner voice of the narrator that throughout the physical movement in the story goes between past and present, recollection and regret, wants for the past and future self. The external exchange with her sharp-tongued husband is brief, allowing the reader enough exposure to see he is neither a forgetful nor a forgiving person. Towards the beginning on page 129 she greets him by addressing him as her “life” to which he replies, “What? What life? No life of mine.” This remark instantly denies her feelings and he goes on to blame her for their divorce citing her never inviting “the Bertrams to dinner.” Whether or not he is an ill conversationalist, maybe not the best at small talk, or just generally spiteful, the contrast between what is said and what she thinks is certainly striking and makes the transitions from external to internal voice interesting.  The exchange with her husband is so different from the interaction with the librarian. Paley writes, “I gave the librarian a check for $32. Immediately she trusted me, put my past behind her, wiped the record clean…” (pg.130) This stranger, woman, and librarian is instantly able to accept this 18 year late fee and however impersonal this exchange it affects the narrator enough so that she tells the reader about it. The narrator says she doesn’t understand how time passes and how things add up. How when you do nothing about your late library books, husband and family problems can sneak up and not everything can be forgiven but it’s never too late to make change.

            After her former husband leaves her on the steps of the library the narrator gets to thinking about the things she wants and unfulfilled promises. She wanted to only have one husband, to make changes in the school system, and to end the Vietnam War for her children through political action. It’s not too late for her to change herself and become the person she wants to be, the one who makes action for change. This is representative of Paley’s political life and the issues she fought for. The catalyst for the narrator in “Wants” is looking out the window and seeing a row of sycamore trees that have just come into maturity. Seeing this as a message of hope she decides to return the two library books she rechecked out to prove to herself she can make the changes she wants. She says, “I can take appropriate action, although I am better known for my hospitable remarks.” (pg. 131) To be better known for hospitable remarks is to say that she is more known as a person who doesn’t always take action but can. Everyone can choose to be political but things get in the way, and maybe in the form of inviting the neighbors over for dinner.



Sylvia C, Grace Paley close Reading (several stories)


In The Collected Stories, Grace Paley drops readers right into the middle of the story, without giving us an introduction or context, and rather, leaving us to make sense of it as the story progresses. Though it’s clear we are not starting at the beginning (and should not expect to get the absolute end), the stories are enjoyable and the characters witty, intense, and passionate. Character development, rather than plot, seems to drive most of her stories. Paley seems committed to revealing people as they are, finding truth in everyday nuisances and honest dialogue. Her characters are humorously typical, but still manage to surprise readers with their complexity and vividness.

In “A Conversation with My Father”, the narrator and her father are sitting in the hospital and he asks her to write him a simple story, just once more. He wants “recognizable people and… what happened to them next”, (232) and we get an interesting glimpse into Paley describing her own work. At the end of this story is where I found a crux in the novel. She writes the story of a woman who becomes an addict to get closer to her son, and eventually the son becomes disgusted with her lifestyle and moves beyond her. The woman dies amongst fools, and the narrator’s father comments, “what a tragedy. The end of person”. To this, the narrator replies, “It doesn’t have to be. She’s only about forty. She could be a hundred different things in this world as time goes on… She could change… It really could happen that way” (237). Is she talking about the woman in this simple story, or really, about herself?

I get my answer in the next sentence. Her father tells her she must look her own life in the face, and though she has been told to let him have the last word, she refuses to abandon this woman,  “there in that house crying. [And] neither would Life” she thinks,  “which unlike [her] has no pity” (237). Life doesn’t end as the story comes to a close, real people are not characters that cease to exist at the end of the page. Instead, authors rework it, exploring different imaginary outcomes for a history that’s already happened. In life, Paley cannot control what happens, but in the story, she can.

Paley uses Faith, a single-mother of two boys as an alter-ego in several of her stories. On the surface,“Living” is about a woman named Ellen who is going to die. It is however, intertwined with a different voice, Faith’s, who can’t help but remark on the lack of validation others feel for how she is suffering. She writes, “I really was dying. It seemed I was going to bleed forever.” And finally, when Ellen calls to say she is dying, Faith responds “Please! I’m dying too Ellen”. Ellen says she is frightened, worried about who will take care of her kids, and Faith admits she is selfish, “I didn’t worry about them. I worried about me” (166).

The three page story picks up pace rather quickly, and things turn around for Faith, who seems to go through menopause, and then gets so back into shape that she almost gets pregnant again. Her tall, handsome boys come home to her. In the next paragraph, after Christmas, Ellen dies. This story wonderfully portrays the adamant suffering of the storyteller, who needs and longs to be listened to, and finds this in her stories where she could not in real life.

Furthermore, she writes from the standpoint of a male flawlessly, and through that, is able to provide a reflection all women, and subsequently, reflect on herself. By using the perspective of a male, both the audience and the author gain some distance and are able to look through a less immediate perspective.

She, like the audience realizes the standards set for women, by men, and by other women. Faith “really is an American and was raised up to the true assumption of happiness” (148), so long as she fulfills the myths, legend and expectations set before her. She blames herself often, saying “a man can’t help it, but I could have behaved better” (55), and then later, she poses the question “what is man that woman lies down to adore him?” (94).

In “The Little Girl”, Paley writes “them little girls just flock, they do. A grown man got to use his sense.” He foreshadows the girl’s death by calling the bed she will later be raped in, her “coffin”. Later, and in the voice of the man Charlie, whose bed the girl was raped in, Paley writes “ We been in this world long enough. We seen lots of the little girls. They go home, then after a while they get to be grown women, integrating the swimming pool and pickerting the supermarket, they blink their eyes and shut their mouth and grin” (231).

All this time, the poor girl, a 14-year old runaway with no family chasing after her, mauled and beaten, then tossed out like trash, is a victim. But in the final paragraphs, as Paley sheds light on her from a different angle, her character develops and changes what could have been, but was not, history. The poor girl becomes a heroine, her murder becomes a choice. Finally she controls it, as the author writes the end as a suicide. And once again, Paley, a true feminist, gives the universal Plight of women everywhere, some Poise.


Jarrod Tallman – “Grace Paley: Tightrope Walker” – 16.02.16

GracePaley portrait_photo credit Diana J. Davies

It is easy to politicize the tales of Grace Paley, to trace theories of gender politics and feminism over the top of them, to speak of her stories as devices that inscribe the woman’s otherwise unwritten experience. And these are all viable and vital truths in the effort to manufacture justice within the societies of our time. But it might be hasty to assume that Paley’s stories are necessarily about orienting us on the morally correct side of these issues.[1] Many of her stories do much more by doing much less, simply refracting beautiful images, brought to life by lucid observations of dynamic characters struggling in a world, much like our own, where justice is not an intrinsic quality. But more on that later.

For the time being, I am going to forego the autopsy of critical and cultural theory, opting instead to praise the way she uses the medium of language to create a communication between imaginations.

Barry Hannah once said in a Paris Review interview: “Grace Paley is one of my favorites. I thought she was like twenty-five when she was around sixty because her stories were so bouncy, fresh.”[2] I found Grace Paley through Barry Hannah, who I found through Amy Hempel, who I found through Chuck Palahniuk, who I was introduced to through a girlfriend when I was about twenty-five. After Chuck introduced me to Amy, I must admit, I never read anymore of his work. He said it himself, speaking about Amy: “You will never write this well. You won’t learn this part until you’ve ruined a lot of paper, wasting your free time with a pen in one hand for years and years. At any horrible moment, you might pick up a copy of Hempel and find your best work is just a cheap rip-off of her worst.”[3] I am of the belief that the same high praise might very well be said of Grace Paley’s short fiction.

One thing that these three writers have in common: Amy, Barry and Grace, is an animated style rooted in the oral tradition of storytelling; a literary style that, amongst many other things, actively acknowledges that a story is being told by a character, with all their imperfections, absolving the narrative of factual scrutiny and placing the potential for meaning in the fictional population of characters, a population to which the narrator unabashedly belongs. This style relies heavily on the use of first-person narrators, who often tell us other stories within the main story container using a third-person point of view.

In “A Woman, Young and Old,” the story starts out with a first-person narrator giving us a past tense account of her mother, through a story about her grandma, which consists of a retelling of a story she heard from her grandma’s perspective:

My mother was born not too very long ago of my grandma, who named lots of others, girls and boys, all starting fresh. It wasn’t love so much, she said, but she never could call a spade a spade.

In two sentences, Paley pulls a thread through three generations, two tenses and at least three points of view, maybe four (the narrator’s second-hand account is not the same as the narrator’s first-hand account or the grandma’s). In some ways, the rest of the story merely unpacks the depths of these two sentences[4] as the narrative continues to explore, mostly through the apparent certainty of the past tense, three generations of women’s relationships to men.

After the bulk of the narrative is presented in various forms of past tense (mainly simple past and past progressive), the open-ended story is drawn to a formal conclusion through a shift out of the past tense and into the present tense. What, after all, is more open-ended than the present tense?

The first of the four crafty paragraphs that lead to this formal ending begins with “Mother never even noticed.” This paragraph is the last paragraph written completely in the past tense and, in congruence with the apparent certainty of the past, it ends with a list: “…she gave him a giant jar of Loft’s Sour Balls and a can of walnut rum tobacco.”

The next paragraph is where it starts to get really fun. It begins in the past tense: “Then she went ahead with her own life.” Even though this first sentence is in the past tense, the preposition ahead propels Josephine’s mother toward a present convergence with the narrator, Josephine.

In the middle of this paragraph, in all of one sentence, Paley switches from past progressive, to present, to present perfect progressive, an uninterrupted intersection of the past and the ever continuing present: “We were content, all of us, though it is common knowledge that she has never been divorced from Daddy.” Additionally, there is a nuanced distinction between two collective points of view. There is the first person plural we that reveals the feelings of “all of us,” referring to a domestic family, and the “common knowledge” that is shared by a broader communal family.

To close this paragraph, Paley takes the reader way back to an “earlier curlier generation of LaValles [who] came to Michigan from Quebec” before dropping us back off in the present where “…Sid has a couple of useable idioms in mother’s favorite tongue.” Again, the past merges with the present in one uninterrupted sentence.

The second to last paragraph begins with the present perfect tense: “I have received one card from Browny.” This event, which happened only once before “now,” introduces the despair of the uncertain present, a present that is interrupted by Browny’s barely past tense note on the card: “Health improved.”

The capstone paragraph to this short story, the formal conclusion to an otherwise open-ended narrative, starts with a climactic sentence in the present progressive tense: “Living as I do on a turnpike of discouragement…” In this fluid tense of open-ended uncertainty, anything is liable to happen; a stark contrast to the apparent certainty of past tense recollection that forms the body of the story. This formal move creates the dramatic perspective swing that might mark a paradigm shift, or closing of an epoch, giving the story a simultaneous sense of an ending and a beginning.

Continuing to merge the past and present, Paley starts the following sentence with the certainty of the past tense to make concrete the physical action of hugging. It’s interesting to consider an alternative that she might have written: “I enjoyed the feeling of Browny’s body,” but grasping at a past feeling is not the same as the tangibility of a physical interaction, and not congruent with the certainty of the past tense. No, it had to be the act of hugging. “I enjoyed hugging Browny’s body, though I don’t believe I was more to him than a hope for civilian success.” Notice how second phrase of this sentence introduces doubt into a once certain past, I don’t believe I was, concurrently revealing our often unfulfilled desires for the future, I was…a hope.

Trailing after the climactic opener and the dense concluding sentence, a montage of sentences settle into the simple present tense: “Joanna has moved in with me. Though she grinds her teeth well into daylight, I am grateful for her company. Since I have been engaged, she looks up to me. She is a real cuddly girl.” These simple stable facts of the present act as a formal dénouement.

In “A Woman, Young and Old,” Paley demonstrates her masterful control of language in many ways, one of which is this shifting of tense: a subtle and effective formal technique that enhances the central theme and reverberates the images packed in the title and opening sentences. In the meager library of my mind, Grace Paley and Barry Hannah[5] are some of the best in the business at moving the reader though various dimensions of space and time with a subtle sur-reality.

Of course, the first-person point of view is not readily apparent in every story, but the narrator as a character is consistently reflected through syntax, rhythm, and language; the distinct perspective of every description and each action, all celebrate the fact that a story is being told by a specific character––there is no God-like narrator (or author of self-satisfied virtue) telling the reader what is right and what is wrong––and any truths that might exist in the works are implicitly tied to the narrator’s perspective, who is herself a character in her own story. In this way, the story’s potential for meaning arises from characters, not a didactic plot.

Paley’s character Virginia is clearly aware of this dilemma. In “An Interest in Life,” speaking about John’s mysterious absence, Virginia says:

I had to give him up after two weeks’ absence and no word. I didn’t know how to tell the children: something about right and wrong, goodness and measures, men and women. I had it all at my fingertips, ready to hand over. But I didn’t think I ought to take mistakes and truth away from them (Paley, 63).

Virginia recognizes that truth is not the conclusion of a didactic lesson, that it comes from making mistakes, or, as Errol Morris says, “[it’s] a pursuit, a quest. You investigate, you look, you think, you study, in the hope that you can learn something about the world.” For the most part, Paley allows the reader to reach their own conclusions.

And this is what makes the bulk of Paley’s fiction so valuable and timeless as literary art: her ability to balance the values of creation and the values of humanity.[6] Paley’s dedication to her life as an activist rarely stains her ability as an artist to create non-judgmental portrayals of potentially immoral characters. Albert Camus once said, speaking of the importance of keeping art separate from politics,

Considered as artists, we perhaps have no need to interfere in the affairs of the world. But considered as men, yes… This does not mean…that we must sacrifice our artist’s nature to some social preaching or other… But if we intervene as men, that experience will have an effect upon our language. And if we are not artists in our language, what kind of artists are we? Even if, militants in our lives, we speak in our works of deserts and selfish love, the mere fact that our lives are militant causes a special tone of voice to people with men that desert and that love.

By and large, with a few exceptions, Paley’s stories avoid the crude and unsympathetic trap of didactic writing and the zealot’s fervent imposition of political agendas. Yet, through a masterful performance of craft, they achieve a climate where something can be learned and they do encourage us to think politically. In this equilibrium, Paley attains a literary reverberation of life that qualifies as true art, at least in certain perspectives where the value of art has not yet crumbled beneath the weighty value given to political agendas. It is this lucid high wire act, this dangerous balance between the artifice of creative indifference and the reality of organic intolerance against human suffering, which positions the reverberative art of literary fiction as perhaps the most honest human endeavor––for what else is there to live for but the stories we tell ourselves and others, characters in our own lives?


[1] Paley’s fiction has been criticized for turning politics into story and/or story into politics. Judie Newman offers a close reading of “Faith in the Afternoon” as an example of Paley’s political writing, stating: “When people form lines, hold up banners, and advance in ranks, to ‘march’ against war, they may not look very different from their militaristic opponents lined up opposite them…And the short story form has to address the same problem.” Newman, Judie. “Napalm and after: The Politics of Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 31, North American Short Stories and Short Fictions. 2001. pp. 2-9.

[2] http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5438/the-art-of-fiction-no-184-barry-hannah

[3] http://www.laweekly.com/arts/she-breaks-your-heart-2135354

[4] See Gordon Lish’s generative theory of consecution for more info on this concept.

[5] While Paley’s use of this technique seems to be more communally-aimed, Hannah’s stories tend to use these tense and perspective shifts to disrupt the stability of the individual.

[6] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. “The Artist and His Time.” p.211

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