Grace Paley (b. 1922)
Contributing Editor: Rose Yalow Kamel
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The challenge in teaching "The Expensive Moment" lies in the fact that most students in the conservative 1990s define family values in direct contrast with the middle-aged Faith Asbury. Her character is a redefinition of that term; she is a secular humanist who is unabashedly sexual, and who has a relationship with her children that encourages them to argue, confront, and engage with her, a single parent, as an equal. Furthermore, younger students not only unfamiliar with this story's context--the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution--but ignorant about our government's confrontations with its youth in the 1960s and 1970s, may find it difficult to understand why Faith mourns Rachel, her friend's daughter who went underground as a result of an "expensive moment" of choice to bomb military plants and prisons housing radical activists like Rachel herself.
I would therefore (1) encourage discussion and journal writing about the delicate balance that single mothers face maintaining their own personhood amidst political and personal biases that marginalize them; (2) expose students to other Paley stories told from Faith Asbury's first-person point of view (for example, "A Conversation With My Father," "Friends," "Ruthie and Edie"), that depict this eponymous maternal narrator in her youth and middle age as receptive to change, yet consistent in advocating a green and sane world where children can live out their lives; (3) invite guest speakers familiar with the cultural context of the 1960s and 1970s; and (4) show political documentaries questioning establishment values, for example, "Letters From Vietnam," footage about the Kent State disaster juxtaposed with the Tiananmen Square massacre. As sophisticated media users, students will be better able to see the interrelatedness of national/international generational conflict.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Paley's is a multicultural perspective, historically aware of the great waves of immigration that peopled the vibrant New York neighborhoods she evokes so well. Woven into the texture of her fiction are the problems of grass-roots working-class mothers who as urban, leftist Jews link playground politics with global conflict. Moreover, Paley is always aware that female sexuality is a source of literary creativity but never separates the craft of literature from the personal and political contexts in which gender conflicts arise.
Overarching is Paley's womanism, maternal and comradely rather than self-reflexive. It is that womanism that, despite the difference in their cultural backgrounds, links Faith with Xie Feng, newly arrived from mainland China to visit New York's teeming Vesey Street. Of an age, both women understand patriarchy, history, and the need to fight for a future to endure their loss of lovers, husbands, and especially, beloved children.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Paley uses a stylistic collage--fragments and ellipses, a merging of past and present tense--that conveys a sense of wholeness in which setting, character, and point of view coalesce and render with absolute fidelity a small urban world. Tonal irony as well as a near-perfect ear for dialogue make Paley a writer's writer.
Structurally, Paley's stories resemble women's diary writing-- fragmented, fact-focused, immersed in the transitory, seemingly disconnected aspects of daily life that define women's lives.
Paley's reading audience for her earlier stories about growing up as a second generation immigrant child ("The Loudest Voice," for example) was cosmopolitan, college-educated, and attuned to literary experimentation. Because the audience was not as responsive to political feminism as today's readers, Paley was considered a seamless stylist.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Some thematic comparison and contrast can be made with Tillie Olsen, whose ethnic and politically activist background is similar to Paley's. Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" and Tell Me a Riddle involve class and intergenerational conflicts; in fact, in Olsen's novella, feisty, elderly Jews, like Paley's parents, hold on to the secular humanism that they brought with them to America. But Olsen uses women's sexuality more sparingly, making it a problem of gender, rather than physical urgency for women. Furthermore, Olsen's lush, elegiac style differs from Paley's deft use of irony, humor, economy, earthiness. Another writer reminiscent of Paley in her depiction of the parent-child conflict and woman-bonding in a fluid and changing world is Tan, whose novel The Joy Luck Club has bits of dialogue and irony similar to Paley's, though Tan's humor is more life-affirming.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Keep a journal focusing on the importance of place in your life. To what extent does place influence identity?
(b) Write a first-person narrative focusing on your memory of exploring an experience or discovering an idea markedly different from those of your parents.
2. Compare the neighborhood settings in two other Grace Paley stories, "An Interest in Life" and "The Long-Distance Runner." Discuss the way settings in these stories make the first-person narrator feel integrated or marginal in her community.
3. Keep a collection of tapes or photograph albums focusing on intergenerational ties as well as conflicts.
Blanche Gelfant, "Grace Paley: Fragments for a Portrait in Collage," New England Review, 3: 285, is a lucid analysis of Paley's narrative style.
"To Aggravate the Conscience: Grace Paley's Loud Voice" in Rose Kamel's Aggravating the Conscience: Jewish American Literary Foremothers in the Promised Land, New York: Peter Lang, 1989, 115-49, is an analysis of Paley's short fiction in context with her life and beliefs.