Literature Annotations


Paley, Grace
A Conversation with My Father


Genre Short Story (6 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Communication, Death and Dying, Family Relationships, Narrative as Method
Summary

This is a story about storytelling. The narrator--a writer--and her aged, ill father are discussing the narrator's style of story writing. The father wants her to write a story that is simple, "Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next." The writer doesn't like telling stories that way because "it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life."

Because she wants to please her father, the writer narrates a one-paragraph tale about a woman and her teenage son, a drug addict. But this is not what the father had in mind at all. "You misunderstood me on purpose . . . You left everything out." The father asks the writer questions, attempting to fill in details of the story that he believes are important. The writer agrees to tell the story again.

The second version is longer, complicated, unlikely, and, like the first version, has an unhappy conclusion, ending, "The End." The father is discouraged and saddened by this version. How could his daughter, the writer, leave the mother in the story in such an abandoned state? As they discuss the ending the father becomes exasperated with his daughter's bantering: "Tragedy! . . . When will you look it in the face?"

CommentaryThis story concerns coming to terms with death. The father sees that all of life's endings are tragic. He has interest in the details of living and in how a life plays out. His conversation with his daughter is really about his own dying. But she (we assume she is a daughter, although the first-person narrator could be a son) refuses to acknowledge that this is really the issue. He wants her to recognize that he is dying, and that this is a tragedy for both of them. She prefers to joke, and to keep all the narrative options (endings) open. In effect, however, their "conversation" allows them to negotiate a mutual (unarticulated) narrative about the father's dying. Analogies can be drawn with the negotiated narratives that patients and their physicians and other caregivers reach.
SourceThe Collected Stories
PublisherFarrar, Straus & Giroux
Edition1994
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Aull, Felice
Date of Entry 06/25/98