A Conversation With My Father Summary

Grace Paley

A Conversation With My Father

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

A Conversation With My Father Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Conversation With My Father by Grace Paley.

“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.