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The short-story "A Conversation with My Father", by Grace Paley, combines several themes and the author uses the elements of abandonment, denial, irony, humor and foreshadowing, to bring this emotional story together. This story is mainly about the relationship between a parent and his / her child. The primary characters are a father, and his child. There is no mention of whether the child is his daughter or son. The tone of the story and the conversations made me believe that the old man has a daughter, and hence I will refer to the child as his daughter.
The first sentence of the story, "My father is eighty-six years old and in bed", is the first foreshadowing element. Its full meaning comes to appreciation at the end of the story, because we know that the father is sick and old, and that he will die soon. This can be understood through the sentence "I had promised the family to always let him have the last word when arguing... ." and "Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he offers last-minute advice and makes a request." It is almost as if, it was his last wish and that he was too weak to argue with his daughter. The father's last request is to have his daughter "write a simple story just once more, the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write.
Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next." We get an insight in the lives of the father and his daughter. They are both well read and educated, and the daughter's stories have been published. Her dad seems to be very encouraging and have read all of her daughter's novels. However, we start to see some differences between the father and daughter. 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.
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. This short story depicts the father as a writer's greatest critic. He continuously criticizes her style, and encourages her to develop the characters in her story. This demonstrates the complicated balance that one strives to achieve within a parent-child relationship.
He criticizes her work but also provides encouragement. He tries to educate her using his greater understanding of life but she is someone who likes to argue with her dad. There is also a strange sense of humor in "A Conversation with My Father." The father always says that her daughter thinks everything is a joke. What he sees as sense of humor is in fact sarcasm from his daughter. She is using sarcasm when she says "An ex-junkie! Sometimes it's better than having a master's in education." She might be right, as experience is often as important as a formal education, but the father just replies "Jokes." 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.
There are also some contrast between the characters in the daughter's story and between her dad and herself. After reading the story, one can only start to understand the real story. It is not about the criticism or the jokes, it's about last request of a dying father, who although in bed, can still have an intellectual conversation with his daughter and enjoy her company.
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