A Conversation With My Father Summary
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“A Conversation With My Father” is a short story by American author Grace Paley, first published in the New American Review 1972 and later included in Paley’s 1974 short story collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. It centers on a middle-aged woman paying a visit to her elderly, bedridden father who is dying of heart disease. The father criticizes his daughter, a writer, for her writing style, and she attempts to tell him a story that he will appreciate. Exploring themes of death, mortality, storytelling, and the ravages of addiction on a family, “A Conversation With My Father” is one of Paley’s most acclaimed stories, praised for its genuine take on human relationships and its frank approach to death and loss. It is considered an early example of metafictional writing, a story about stories and storytelling. Paley has said that it is one of her most personal stories.
“A Conversation With My Father” takes place in a room where an old man of eighty-six lies. He is sick from heart disease and is dying. His daughter—the unnamed narrator—is paying him a visit. The daughter is a writer, but her father has never quite appreciated her writing style. He thinks her stories are confusing, and on this visit, he asks her to “just write a simple story.” He cites his favorite writers, Maupassant and Chekhov, saying they wrote about recognizable people, simply writing down what happened to them next. His daughter agrees to give it a try because she wants to make her father happy. However, internally she is not satisfied because she does not like stories that follow a simple narrative from beginning to end. She thinks they remove the necessary hope for something different to happen. She tells her father a tragic story of a mother and son. It is about a mother who loved her son very much, but the son broke her heart by becoming a heroin addict. Loving her son so much and wanting her son to know she was there for him, she took to heroin too, becoming a junkie alongside him. The son eventually picked himself up, kicked the habit, and cleaned himself up. Disgusted by his junkie mother, he left her, leaving the mother without the very thing she destroyed herself for.
Her father is displeased by the story, saying that she left out all the important details. These include physical descriptions, jobs, and family history. The daughter tells him the story again, this time filling in these details, but the father still is not pleased. He does say he appreciates that she ended the story with the words “the end,” because the story marks the end of the woman’s story as she sinks further into heroin and despair. The daughter disagrees, because, she says, the woman is only forty and could easily recover and save herself the way her son did. She might still have a lot of life to live. Her father disagrees, accusing his daughter of refusing to admit that her protagonist’s story is one of tragedy. He says there is no hope, the end.
The daughter wants to let her father have the last word, so she simply revises the story to say that the woman’s son never returns home, but the woman eventually recovers from her addiction and gets a job as a receptionist in a clinic for drug users, her past experience as an addict helping her to help others. The father has his doubts about the new ending, saying that the woman has no character and will likely slide back into her old habits of addiction eventually. The daughter says that it does not matter, the new ending is simply the end. There is nothing after, and the woman will simply continue working as a receptionist because that is the ending. She leaves, promising to visit her father again. The father wonders out loud how long his daughter will last in her current job and if she will ever accept that life is inherently tragic.
Grace Paley was an American short story writer, poet, educator, and political activist. The author of eleven collections of short stories, poetry, and essays during her life and another posthumously, she was best known for her short story Goodbye and Good Luck, which was adapted into a 1989 musical. She received multiple awards during her life, including the 1961 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, the Edith Wharton Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award for Literary Arts. Eight of her poems from the collection Leaning Forward were adapted into a concert by composer Christian Wolff in 1988. Known for her views on pacifism, she was a member of the War Resisters League during the Vietnam War and later served as a delegate to the 1974 World Peace Conference.
Any story I consider a favorite stirs up in me feelings of envy and wonder. “A Father’s Story,” by Andre Dubus, has this effect. On the first count, it’s the I-sure-wish-I’d-written-that moment. If you write and if you read, you know this feeling. Think early motivations. Maybe that feeling—we could dress it up and call it admiration, but that seems too mild—led you to write in the first place. Envy being the mother of imitation, maybe, hypothetically, it led you to write a story about a vampire gerbil that sucked fruit white. Gerbacula. Maybe you are very, very sorry about this.
On the second count, wonder; it’s when I stop reading and think, “I didn’t know you could DO that in a story,” or, to a lesser degree, “How did the writer pull that off?” Is literary fiction allowed to be as quick and funny as “You’re Ugly, Too”? How do the fragments in Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Columbus Ashore” remotely add up to a satisfying story? What about the surprising, associative, magical last paragraph in “Bullet in the Brain”? And there is no way a story written in Powerpoint is going to make me feel anything but annoyed, said my inner-skeptic, that idiot.
In “A Father’s Story,” there are plenty of how-does-he-pull-this-off elements: the central action is held back for ten of its first twenty pages; the main character talks to God, as in, actual conversations in which God says something back; and, finally, ultimately, it’s a story about faith, of the capital-F sort, and a story about love and devotion and nowhere the slightest whiff of irony.
Luke Ripley lives alone on a horse farm. Long-since divorced, he will never re-marry because doing so would violate his Catholic faith. His life revolves around daily mass, conversations with his priest, and the riding lessons he leads at the stable. His four children are grown, the three boys distant, but his youngest, twenty year-old Jennifer, visits occasionally during the summer. One summer night she comes home late, wakes Luke, and tells him she may have hit a man walking alone on a country road. Luke drives to the accident site and there and afterward, he must decide to what extremes he will go to protect his daughter.
The story works in large part because its first-person narration, the intimacy it generates, and the sympathy that follows during the long build-up to the central action. In the first ten pages, the reader gets back-story and learns of the routines and rituals that define Luke’s life. The reader understands Luke through his rituals. He is a man who wakes early; who prefers detective novels to watching television; who, aside from regular mass and infrequent dinners out, spends much of his time alone. In describing mass, Luke acknowledges the value and necessity of ritual: “For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.” The thread is picked up again, applied to his failed marriage:
“A Father’s Story” appears in Dubus’s 1995 collection Selected Stories
Twelve years later I believe ritual would have healed us more quickly than the repetitious talks we had, perhaps even kept us healed. Marriages have lost that, and I wish I had known then what I know now, and we had performed certain acts together every day, no matter how we felt, and perhaps then we could have subordinated feeling to action, for surely that is the essence of love.
With access to the interior spaces of his solitary life, we understand Luke as a man of discipline, a man with a code. Understanding what motivates Luke and why is crucial to the second half of the story, when Luke’s code is tested and he must decide how to react to the possibility that his daughter might have accidentally killed a man.
As the story unfolds, Luke’s relationship to his daughter becomes more complicated, as he draws a distinction between the variety of love he feels for her compared to his sons. He says, “Jennifer is twenty, and I worry about her the way fathers worry about daughters but not sons. I want to know what she’s up to, and at the same time I don’t.” Later, after the accident, Luke considers his actions and what he has done to protect his daughter:
I would do it again. For when she knocked on my door, then called me, she woke what had flowed dormant in my blood since her birth, so that what rose from the bed was not a stable owner or a Catholic or any other Luke Ripley I had lived with for a long time, but the father of a girl.”
If this is a triangle story, the third point is not another human but God—a risky choice to be sure. In the hands of a lesser writer, Luke’s relationship to God and his subsequent conversations could read as high-handed, proselytizing, or worse, the literary equivalent of a Hallmark Movie of the Week starring Hummel figurines. Instead the conversations seem a natural outgrowth of Luke’s faith, that faith based in rituals outlined in intimate detail in the first half of the story. Inside these rituals, their sheer unthinking repetition, dwells comfort and a familiarity—daily mass, early mornings watching the birds, Wednesday night dinners with his priest. During these times, Luke is able to free up space for spiritual contemplation and growth. In short, we as readers have access to Luke’s spiritual life—not a generic one, but one with particulars that define him. Subsequently, when Luke’s faith is tested by Jennifer’s car accident, he will fall back on his spiritual life and act, not think—or, more accurately, his actions will reflect his thinking on some deep level, a deep level some might call a soul. Because in a crisis, up to your armpits in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, when logic and emotions aren’t up to the task, what’s left but your soul? In Luke’s case, his is a soul shaped by his Catholic faith and his own very specific definition of what it means to be a father to a daughter. And in the end, he must answer for his soul, for what he does to protect Jennifer, as he speaks with God:
So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.
I love her more than I love truth.
Then you love in weakness, He says.
As you love me, I say….
“A Father’s Story” is sincere, intimate, felt. It’s a reminder that the way we spend daily life is, ultimately, the life we end up living. Our rituals define us, shape our souls. In this way, “A Father’s Story” is a story that matters even more today than when it was published in 1983. Here in the Information Age, if your rituals are anything like mine, they tend toward instant gratification, of privileging speed and access to information over depth and application of knowledge, of valuing the snarky comment over reasoned, thoughtful debate. This screentime, this daily mindless chatter, this funny cat video after funny cat video, what, I sometimes wonder, is this doing to my soul?
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Michael Hinken has taught English in the Russian Far East, covered municipal news in central Illinois, and now teaches composition and creative writing at the University of Michigan, where he received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2004. He was a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown during 2007-08. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in River City, the Tampa Review,West Branch and Third Coast, and his essays have appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Elysian Fields Quarterly and the Peoria Journal Star. He is working on a short story collection and, lately, finds himself returning to the following stories over and over to see how it’s done: “The Kiss” by Anton Chekhov, “Smorgasboard” by Tobias Wolff and “Glut Your Soul on My Accursed Ugliness” by Jim Shepard.