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.