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.



[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