Grace Paley combined several elements and devices in her short story “A Conversation with My Father”. The most striking themes in this short story are abandonment and family relationships.
In this new story, the daughter is describing facts, whereas the father wants a more complete description, full of details. Following this, we see that the daughter prefers to be optimistic, while the father prefers reality.
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This is illustrated by the following quotes: “No, Pa, it could really happen that way, it’s a funny world nowadays”, and to this, the father replies “No… Truth first. She will slide back.” Her story describes the life of a mother and her son, and how she becomes a junkie to remain close to her son, who has become a junkie. In the end, the son quits the drugs world, but the mother cannot.
Her son leaves her, introducing the element of abandonment in the story. This theme is pursued further, but in between lines. For example, the son left his mother at a critical time, when she needed him most, whereas the narrator stayed with her dad, even in his dying days.
The father does not believe that the woman in his daughter’s story is strong enough and that even though she manages to quit doing drugs, she will fall back. I would tend to agree with him, because a lot of substance abusers, who quit, eventually, fall back. Her story is too optimistic, with a sense of denial for the tragedy.
As the story ends, the father says “Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?” Again, here we wonder whether the tragedy refers to the mother/son situation, or the fact that he will be dying soon. Earlier on, the father had said “what a tragedy. The end of a person.”
And again, here the daughter refuses to accept that this is the end…whether it is the end of the mother or her father. This all relates to hope. When she started her story, she was determined to have hope in her story, to demonstrate that “everyone…deserves the open destiny of life.” I find it ironical, as she tries her best to present the story with an open end, with plenty of hope. However, when she read the story, her father says that it does not communicate hope.
It’s the “end”. On a lighter tone, there is another obvious pair of ironical sentence. The father says “Doesn’t anyone have the time to run down to City Hall before they jump into bed” and to this his daughter replies “In real life, yes. But in my stories, no.” I find this ironical, as nowadays the opposite is true.
Today, in real life, people jump to bed and then get married, or never get married. This is a contrast between then and now, and how the people, as well as literature, have changed.
on A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley
Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father” was originally published in the New American Review in 1972. It was subsequently included in Paley’s second collection of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, published in 1974.
“A Conversation with My Father” is a metafictional story; that is, a fiction about fiction. The inclusion of a story within a story, the descriptions of the narrator writing that story, and the narrator and her father’s conversation about fiction are all elements of metafiction.
She is a self-aware, self-referential narrator, placing herself in the story she tells her father, continually commenting on her relationship with the stories she has created. The narrator presents her own—and Paley’s—view of what constitutes a story.
On one level, the story is about women’s relationships with their fathers and sons. Paley recounts a visit between a middle-aged woman and her elderly, bedridden father, who suffers from heart disease. The father reproaches his daughter, a writer, for not constructing straightforward narratives.
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