Dr. Priscilla Glanville
The Open Destiny of Life
In the short story “A Conversation with My Father,” written by Grace Paley, there are two stories intertwined. The main story is about a visit between a middle-aged woman and her elderly, bedridden father. It is during this visit that the two of them discuss fiction and give their opinion towards tragedy in literature and in life. The second is a story that the daughter creates for her father at his request. She proceeds to tell him a story about a mother who, in order to be closer to her drug-addicted son, decides to experiment with the same drug and becomes a drug-addict herself, only to be deserted by the son when he rises above his dependency. Building on her relationship with her own father, Paley artfully uses intertwined narratives and character relationships to present the themes of experience and opportunity.
The central conflict between the father and daughter lies within their different life experiences due to a vast generation gap, leaving them with different views not only in life but also in literature. He is an eighty-six year old man, bedridden due to heart disease and, despite his health problems, fully alert. A physician by profession and an artist in retirement, he is still very particular with details and requires that of her as well. In comparison, the daughter, who is also the narrator, has a completely different view on life. Young, comfortable with herself and with changes necessitated by a changing world, she rejects her father’s tendency to cling to the familiar and reject change. Mellow and creative-minded, she is committed to art as a form of self-actualization, whereas her father sees it as a mere vocation- something a careful few “do” but ignorant multitudes play at “doing” while waiting for something real to do.
Thus, it is not surprising tension builds between them when he asks her to tell him a story in the same style as that of his favorite writers from the past. Anticipating her story as a possible form of therapy for the two of them, he requests that she write a basic story with identifiable characters such as those written by de Maupassant and Chekhov, who were noted European writers whose tales often had a tragic outcome. Wanting to please her father, she tries to create a story that he would appreciate; however, she cannot fulfill his request to compose a straightforward, tragic story, despite two attempts. In both versions, she intentionally leaves the story open-ended, as if hoping for some epiphany that will make the main character realize the error of her ways and turn her life around. When she refuses to end the story in a realistic manner, the father becomes upset and asks, “How long will it be? Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?” (34). This conflict will remain unresolved, as she is unwilling to tell the story in a manner that he sees fit, and in turn accept the tragic nature of his illness.
Instead of devising the tragic figure he wants to relate to, she creates her own version of an ideal parent. Through the story of a woman who becomes a drug addict in order to empathize with her addict son, she is subtly expressing the anguish and abandonment she feels in the wake of her father’s rejection. She is also expressing their mutual need for validation and fear or being alone. The most telling feature of her story is the fact that the drug-addicted mother has the ability to change. She refuses to “leave her there in that house crying,” and instead has her get clean and take a position as a receptionist at a rehabilitation clinic (34). Thus, she is leaving open the possibility for change at the end. While her father believes the woman has no “character” (34) and is destined to a tragic end, the daughter believes that a happy ending can occur. She says of her invention: “She’s only about forty. She could be a hundred different things in this world as time goes on” (34). She clearly believes that, in both literature and life, a plot that follows “the absolute line between two points . . . takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (31).
Finally, it is obvious that these two stories mirror each other in the sense that they are about tenuous but essential connections between parents and their children. The daughter abhors the kind of story her father wants because it is limiting. He, meanwhile, rejects her tale because he sees in it her inability to face tragic realities of fiction and life, including his impending death. Their different attitudes towards the possibility of opportunities and change, fictional or real, stem from their different world views and experiences. She went to college, but dropped out to become a writer, hoping to win his affection. He loves her, but does not approve of her dropping out of school, her writing style, or her views on life. In the narrative she creates for him, the father she would rather have surfaces as the mother who uses drugs as a means of being closer to be her son. One wonders what his perfect daughter would have been like, had he written the tale. Would he have wanted her to be more like him? Would he have preferred her to be inferior? Would everything have been different? . . . maybe.
Throughout the story, two reoccurring themes are experience and opportunity. The narrator believes that fiction should reflect the opportunities of life not available to previous generations. In comparison, her father prefers the works of authors with whom he can relate, the kind of writers who spoke of a more rigid society characterized by everyday struggle and limited prospects. Their unwillingness to compromise their beliefs for the sake of one another turns a friendly visit into a heated debate. “I had promised the family to always let him have the last word when arguing, but in this case I had a different responsibility” (34). They get so caught up in the argument that they forget why she is visiting in the first place, to spend some time with her dying father. A situation like this can only breed resentment and apathy. It leaves so many hurtful things being said and so many loving words being muted by anger. If she could not fulfill his request for a simple story, then what does this say about their relationship? What would you do if you were in the same situation? Would you appease the wishes of a dying parent or would you stand your ground?