A Conversation with My Father | Summary and Analysis

Summary of A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley

Noted American short-story writer, feminist, and activist Grace Paley’s semi-autobiographical short story, “A Conversation with My Father”, originally published in 1972, was reprinted as a part of her larger collection of short stories titled Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in 1974. The metafictional story narrates the conversation between a dying father and her daughter on the art of storytelling. The story uses a first-person narrative technique, yielding a personal touch and prompting comparisons between the author and the narrator.


A Conversation with My Father | Summary

The story begins with a description of the narrator’s eighty-six years old, bedridden father who has lost his ability to walk, owing to a shortage of potassium in the body. He offers the narrator, who is also a writer some ‘last-minute advice’ on the art of writing, aware that his end is near. He says that he would like her to write a ‘simple’ story, of the kind that Chekov or Maupassant has written, about ordinary people and their lives and deaths. While the narrator is aware that it is not exactly her style, she is eager to make him happy, and consents. She says that she despises the rigidity and structure offered by plots, which she finds that it ‘takes all the hope away’. She would rather prefer the open-endedness and uncertainty of life.

She thinks of a story, composes it, and then reads it aloud to her father. The story centers around a young woman who is a single mother, and her teenage son. The adolescent boy turns to drug addiction, and her mother, in order to maintain her bond and camaraderie with her son, follows him into it. She claims that addiction is part of the youth culture, which she relates to and often identifies with. However, after a period of time, the boy gives up on his addiction, and repelled by his mother’s actions, abandons her, leaving her alone and grieving with only neighbors for sympathy.

The writer’s father, however, is unimpressed by the lack of detail and backstories of the characters, asserting that she has misunderstood what he meant on purpose – Chekov, Turgenev, and even unknown Russian authors who nobody had heard of would never have written a story like that. He insists on fleshing out the characters – details of the woman’s appearance, her family background, the father of her son and whether he was born outside marriage. His daughter insists that it is a story about a lively, happy, and intelligent woman and her son, which comes to a tragic end, and her marital status is inconsequential to the story, which frustrates her father further. She insists that ‘that’s the trouble with stories – the characters start out as extraordinary or remarkable but end up becoming completely ordinary or mediocre, with no good enough ending waiting for them. The author’s father, who had been an artist for quite a while, and was invested in the art and technicalities of storytelling, asks, “What do you do then?”

The narrator attempts to compose the story again, with some changes. Across the street from that story’s narrator, lived a woman and her son, whom she loved. Upon reaching adolescence, the boy turns into a drug addict, a rather hopeful one, the narrator muses. He was brilliant, writing persuasive articles for his high-school newspaper and distributing a periodical called Oh! Golden Horse around the city. When he starts taking drugs, his mother, desperately believing that guilt is the primary cause of cancer, wants to protect him from any such feeling. Believing that bad habits should be given some space in one’s home where it can be monitored and kept from getting out of hand, she also begins taking drugs in a bid to be supportive of her son. For a while, her house became an intellectual and cultural hub much like some famous author’s parlor, and she kept enough nutritious food lying around for her son and his friends.

On her neighbors voicing concern, she asserts that ‘it was her part in the youth culture and she would rather be with the young, it was an honor than with her own generation. However, one day, her son meets and falls in love with a girl who reprimands him on his addiction, encouraging him to get out of its grasp, which he does without much difficulty, prompting his friends and acquaintances to believe that he had never truly been an addict, just a curious ‘journalist’ in search of a story. His mother, however, did not have an easy time letting go of her drug addiction, taking them out of loneliness. In the end, the son and his partner move out, refusing to see the mother without a sixty-days-clean chit, leaving behind the poor woman, grieving and inconsolable.

Reaching the end of the story, the narrator’s father is dejected again at its apparent lack of ‘plain’-ness and its utterly hopeless ending. He appears to be fixated on the idea of ‘the End’, prompting a defensive response from his daughter claiming that it is not necessarily the end and that there’s still room for hope. Her father argues that she is unwilling to recognize the end, and is in denial, always joking her way around it, as he instructs her to help him with his oxygen supply, an obvious allusion to his own upcoming end. Sensing this, the narrator once again goes into denial about the inevitable, approaching end, constructing an alternative, happier ending for the woman who conquers addiction and gets a job as a receptionist in a community clinic, and is admired by the doctor and the patients. Her father laughs at her denial again, insisting that she must learn to look at the tragedy in the face.

A Conversation with My Father | Analysis

The story operates on two levels. Primarily, it is a story about metatextuality, and about the author’s own life to an extent, as Paley has talked about discussing books and authors with her father, Isaac Goodside, although never about her own works. This lends the story its semi-autobiographical nature, the narrator’s arguments with her father reflecting the author’s thoughts on the actual nature of writing and storytelling. The mentions of famed writers like Chekov, Maupassant, and Turgenev indicate how art is also an act of borrowing from an existing tradition; that creation is never absolute and always has elements of inspiration from other creations, somewhat in the line of the central argument of Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent”.

On another level, the story is essentially about the narrator’s denial of death and her father’s insistence on making her come to terms with it. On his deathbed, the narrator’s father is conscious of his fast-approaching end, and is also probably scared of it, prompting his pessimistic dismissal of the possibility of anything happy or hopeful in either of her daughter’s stories. He refuses to even entertain the possibility of the forty-year-old woman having a life despite getting abandoned by her son, reflecting his suppressed frustration and fear of death that is staring him in the face, prompting his outburst. Her daughter, on the other hand, refuses to entertain the possibility of an ending at all, right at the beginning of the story we are told that she despises the hopelessness of closed plots, in essence signifying her fear of her father’s death. Her humorous attempts to find hope in an obviously tragic storyline is a coping mechanism of joking around the possibility of death, which in her story is signified by the fate of the women. Thus, she keeps trying to change it into one with a more hopeful outcome, symbolically trying to change the fate of his father as she is with her protagonist. Thus, the story also raises the question of fiction, and its relationship with life and reality.





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