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!”