Although Grace Paley has written a comparatively small body of work, publishing primarily short stories and poetry, she figures prominently among late 20th-century fiction writers. Part of her third collection of short stories, Later the Same Day (1985), “The Expensive Moment” features Faith Asbury, a protagonist who appears in many of her other stories, creating an “ongoing story cycle” (Arcana 3). Faith is a figure whom many readers have identified with the author herself, because of similarities to Paley’s life and political activism, but “this factor has increasingly distorted some interpretations of the stories” (Isaacs 3–4). In fact, many readers “feel that they have been tricked because the author has been so good at making up Faith” (Arcana 3). In “The Expensive Moment,” told in Paley’s distinctive narrative style, Faith, a wife and mother of two grown children, moves through the story in a series of conversations, in particular one she continues with her friend Ruth. In these conversations, Paley makes distinctions between men and women, as she depicts the contrasts between the language and values of both genders in the story. In “The Expensive Moment,” as in other Paley stories, the author’s protest against women’s oppression manifests when Faith connects to a Chinese woman “from half the world away who’d lived a life beyond foreignness and had experienced extreme history” (374) and creates a bond more mutual and effective than the relationships she has with several of the men in the story.
Before Faith meets Xie Feng, who is from China, she visits her lover, Nick Hegestraw, “the famous sinologist,” a man who studies Chinese language and culture. Her friend Ruth guesses Faith is having an affair from the way she describes Nick, with whom Faith discusses politics and culture. She asks Nick about China’s “rotten foreign policy” (369), a question that receives a series of theoretical answers from Nick and other people, including her own son Richard.
Although she understands political theory and cultural issues, Faith has other, more practical, more humane issues on her mind. She imagines the “beauty of trade, the caravans crossing Africa and Asia, the roads to Peru through the terrible forests of Guatemala, and then especially the village markets of underdeveloped countries” (369–370). These thoughts contrast with Richard’s beliefs, as he mocks his mother’s ideas of beauty. He is a product, she thinks, of “the Free Market, which costs so much in the world” (370). She compares her son to herself during an adolescent argument she had with her own father and then compares him to the serious young men she met during draft counseling. She realizes that “not one of them was trivial, and neither was Richard,” as she recognizes the intensity and promise of his youth (370).
Richard stands at a metaphoric intersection of two paths, “the expensive moment when everyone his age is called but just a few are chosen by conscience or passion or even only love of one’s own agemates” to do something meaningful for humanity (370–371). From Faith’s perspective, he is of the age when he could try to improve the world either by doing something destructive, like destroying a missile or setting off a bomb, or by doing something constructive, like becoming a lawyer or a doctor. She thinks, “He could have done a lot of good, just as much that way, healing or defending the underdog” (371).
When Faith meets Xie Feng, a Chinese woman Ruth has met earlier, they spend the day together, because the woman wishes to see her world—the world of the community and the home. Faith shows her around her home, pointing out its rooms, where her sons and her husband live with her. Then she takes her out into the neighborhood: “They walked east and south to neighborhoods where our city, in fields of garbage and broken brick, stands desolate, her windows burnt and blind. Here, Faith said, the people suffer and struggle, their children turn round and round in one place, growing first in beauty, then in rage” (376). The Chinese woman seems to understand Faith’s meaning; she, too, is interested in the lives of the next generation, her own children, her sister’s children. She asks the question Faith herself has contemplated earlier in the story; she, too, wonders about the best way to raise children: “Shall we raise them to be straightforward, honorable, kind, brave, maybe shrewd, self-serving a little? What is the best way to help them in the real world? We don’t know the best way” (376).
Paley demonstrates the connections between women—here between two women from opposite sides of the Earth—when Faith recognizes her own uncertainty in the woman’s questioning. The Chinese woman talks to Faith about the things Faith is truly interested in: the day-to-day business of living and raising families. With Xie Feng, Faith engages in the way one Paley biographer claims the author engaged with other mothers in her own neighborhood, who “in those days inspired her to. . . . think global/work local” (Arcana 64). This conversation, like the conversations with Ruth, contrasts the discussions Faith has with her lover Nick, who does not engage in the same kind of mutual exchange she shares with women friends. On the contrary, he lives in the world of ideas, removed from the lives of the community: “He was writing in his little book—thoughts, comments, maybe even new songs for Chinese modernization— which he planned to publish as soon as possible” (373). Soon, Faith loses interest in him; her interest is held by her new Chinese friend, suggesting the mutual concern among women is more meaningful to her than the preoccupations of men, which have caused “the colossal failures of patriarchy—war, ecological destruction, world hunger” (Taylor 18).
Arcana, Judith. Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Isaacs, Neil D. Grace Paley: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Paley, Grace. “The Expensive Moment.” In The Collected Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994, 365–377.
Taylor, Jacqueline. Grace Paley: Illuminating the Dark Lives. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.