Grace Paley and the subject of family in her work and life: Between motherhood, womanhood and generational relationships

Term Paper, 2005

14 Pages, Grade: 1,25



Introduction: A daughter, mother, grandmother and feminist

1. Grace Paley’s biography and her own family
1.1. Biography
1.2. Influence on her work

2. Subject of family in prose and lyric
2.1. “On Mother’s Day” and “Notes to Grandparents”
2.2. „ Friends “ and „ Faith in the Afternoon “

3. Feminism and family
3.1. Political activism
3.2. Feminism in her work


Introduction: A daughter, mother, grandmother and feminist

Grace Paley is a well-recognized author of prose and poetry, a political activist, and a passionate mother and grandmother.[1] She never detached her working as an author from her family life and her own family relationships, but made it a central subject of her work. Her life and work resist separation; it would only result in artificial and false distinctions (Arcana 1).

When Paley started writing in the early 1950’s, the male-dominated literary scene didn’t consider the life of women, raising children, friendships among women or communal life in neighborhoods with a lot of single mothers an interesting or appropriate subject of literature. Paley herself thought of the lives of women in these categories at first, but decided, since she didn’t know anything else to write about than her own life and experiences, she would just do that. At least women would have to be interested in these kinds of stories, she thought. She says she doesn’t think of herself as writing for a large readership. She writes stories she would want to read, and she writes of and for herself and her friends.

Besides political concerns and feminist issues, the family and generational relationships are the main focus in both Grace Paley’s life and work (Hulley 36). I will analyze this in three steps: first I will examine her biography and its influence on her work. In a second step I argue that the subject of family is a central and repeating issue in Grace Paley’s work, exemplifying this on a selection of short stories and poems. In the third and final section I will show how family matters are interwoven with feminist issues.

1. Grace Paley’s biography and her own family

Three factors have shaped Grace Paley’s biography: family, writing, and politics, which was on the one hand hard and stressful to manage, but on the other hand these factors are inseparably intertwined and draw from each other (Bach/Hall VII). It is almost impossible to separate the life from the work and vice versa, “we cannot read the texts as if they were the life; nor can we sever the life from the texts” (Arcana 2): Faith is not Grace and Mr. Darwin is not Mr. Goodside, but they represent certain attitudes, feelings and experiences. They are invented, but yet they live. Like for any author, for Grace Paley the literary figures withdraw from their inventor’s influence sometimes and take on a life of their own (Hulley 43). Speaking about the tricks and art of writing in “A Conversation with my Father” she explains:

Actually that’s the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic. You think they’re extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they’re just average with a good education. Sometimes the other way around, the person’s a kind of dumb innocent, but he outwits you and you can’t even think of an ending good enough (Paley, Collected Stories 234).[2]

On the one hand she deals with a lot of personal issues through her writing: the death of her mother[3] or the harsh and rigid attitude of her father[4] (Hulley 52), but on the other hand it is not necessary to know the biography to understand the text. It is autonomous and can be understood without knowledge of the author’s life.

1.1. Biography

Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1922, Grace Paley was surrounded by a large family, family stories about foreign places and violent persecution, and three different languages, Russian, Yiddish and English.[5] Her parents were rather segregated socialist Jews (Paley, Just as 158f), and Paley grew up in a large household with a lot of women. Her grandmother taught her Yiddish and read Russian poems to her (Ibid. 14), and “a child was expected to read” (Fromkorth/Opfermann 260).

Although, her whole linguistic legacy roots in this upbringing and environment, she and her siblings feel very sorry for not having asked more about their Russian heritage and for not having learnt more about the family history (Paley, Just as XIII).

She feels she was born in a family with a large spectrum of knowledge, talent and qualities. In the poem “Family” she says she was “nearly buried with opportunity” (Paley, Begin Again 43), which is helpful and lucky, but also a great responsibility. Family can also have expectations and hopes one cannot fulfill.

Now she is a passionate mother and grandmother herself, calls her motherhood “fascinating and life-enhancing” (Paley, Just as VI), and says about her daughter that she is the person who knows her better than anyone else (Gelfant 66). Paley is interested in generational relationships and addresses the handing-down and passing on of experiences from generation to generation in a lot of stories and poems.

1.2. Influence on her work

Grace Paley had a very close but still not uncomplicated relationship with her father, correspondingly women dealing with their father often appear in her stories. The feeling toward her mother was more generalized, due to her dying so early and to the fact that Grace Paley grew up in a household with many women (Hulley 52).

Nevertheless, she had a hard time dealing with her mother’s early death and expressed this in several pieces. In the story “Friends” Faith[6] is attacked by her Friend Ann on the train-ride back home after visiting their common friend Selena on her deathbed. Ann accuses her of having been too lucky all her life, while she herself, Ann, had suffered through a lot of bad blows. Faith replies, trying to explain her own suffering, “my mother died a couple of years ago and I still feel it. I think Ma sometimes and I lose my breath. I miss her.” (Paley, Collected Stories 309). This is a typical Grace/Faith passage. Faith and Grace face similar situations and encounter similar pains in life. Equipping Faith with these kinds of feelings and putting her in similar situations than she finds herself in, Grace Paley investigates, sees situations from different perspectives, and tries to understand what really happens and what kind of effects it has on the different people involved (Hulley 53).


[1] Combining the poetical with the political with the personal is Grace Paley’s maxim in her work and life. In her opinion it is not possible to draw clear lines between those fields, it is all part of life and cannot be separated.

[2] The woman she writes the story about is both fiction and reality. „She’s my knowledge and my invention,” Paley explains (Paley, Collected Stories 237).

[3] She addresses this in the story “Friends” for example.

[4] Paley notes that in “A Conversation with my Father” it is really her own father and herself she writes about, they are not fictionalized.

[5] Not mentioning the large variety of other languages in the immigrant boroughs of New York City she was exposed to.

[6] Faith is the narrator in many of Grace Paley’s stories. She is somewhat of an alter ego, although she is not Grace Paley and her biography and family are not congruent.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Grace Paley and the subject of family in her work and life: Between motherhood, womanhood and generational relationships
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England und Amerikastudien)
Grace Paley
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ISBN (Book)
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Grace, Paley, Between, Grace, Paley
Quote paper
Julia Merkel (Author), 2005, Grace Paley and the subject of family in her work and life: Between motherhood, womanhood and generational relationships, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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