In Grace Paley’s “Samuel,” which appears in the author’s second story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), issues of racism and motherhood emerge as prominent themes. This story, which mostly takes place on a subway in Paley’s favored New York City setting, features four boys playing on a subway car. Three are “negroes and the fourth was something else” (196)— else meaning presumably not white. Their joking around evokes varied responses from the adults around them. All of the passengers’ reactions contrast with the loss Samuel’s mother feels when the boy dies on the train, demonstrating the central relationship between a mother’s love and the nurture of human life.
“Samuel” opens with Alfred, Calvin, Samuel, and Tom going home by train from a missile exhibition in Manhattan. They play on the platform and in the train car. When the train speeds up, the boys also mimic machine gun sounds—the result perhaps of their visit to the missile exhibit. Their play disturbs the other people on the train, who “don’t like them to jiggle or jump but don’t want to interfere” (105). Many wrongly assume the boys’ mothers do not know where they are, revealing the biased assumptions of the adult passengers about the boys. Some of the men, though, see their younger selves in the boys and compare themselves to them when they played and sometimes did risky things too.
Before the train slows unexpectedly, a woman watches the boys and wants to warn them to be careful, but she is too afraid they might “be fresh and laugh at her and embarrass her” (196). Yet once the train slows, she fi nally tells them to take more care or they will “be killed” (196). At fi rst, the boys seem gracious, but then they openly laugh at the woman, indeed embarrassing her (197). Their laughter is interrupted by an angry man “whose boyhood had been more watchful than brave”; he pulls the emergency cord that halts the train and accidentally kills Samuel (197).
Samuel’s death invites myriad speculations from the passengers. Some wonder who he was: The women wonder whether he was an only child, and the men remember similar “afternoons with very bad endings” (197). Notably, the women’s reactions are different from those of the men. They wonder about his family situation: Did Samuel have siblings? In other words, does his mother have other children, or was he her only child? By contrast, the men think of similar events with disastrous consequences; their thoughts link their own memories to the present, without thought of Samuel’s family.
Both the women’s and the men’s responses are similarly characterized by Samuel’s anonymity to them, a point emphasized by Paley as she describes how the train personnel deal detachedly with the death: “The train had stopped hard, halfway into the station, and the conductor called at once for the trainmen who knew about this kind of death and how to take the body from the wheels and brakes” (197). The passengers are inadvertently responsible for the boy’s death, through their collective agitation and prejudice, their lack of intervention, and their ultimately pulling the emergency cord that causes his death. On a more global level, the passengers’ collective behavior extends as a metaphor for militarism and war culture, which can fl ourish on factors such as prejudice, apathy, and violence.
For those who knew Samuel, his friends and his mother, the boy’s death evokes a much more visible emotional and physical reaction. His friends “stayed close to each other, leaning and touching shoulders and arms and legs” (197). And Samuel’s mother “screamed all day and moaned all night” (197). Paley demonstrates through the contrast between the reactions of the passengers and those of the boy’s friends and mother how important his individual life was.
While Samuel’s mother’s loss is like the women passengers’ response in its family concern, she, as his mother, particularly demonstrates the depth of the loss of one boy. Here Paley suggests women’s unique perspective, as mothers, on matters of life and death. The author’s regard for mothering and raising families was “typical of her gender and generation and further fueled by an extraordinary capacity for compassion and an impulse toward nurturance” (Arcana 57), and this regard becomes manifest in the fi gure of Samuel’s mother, in sharp contrast to the white passengers’ intolerance of the boys. Their intolerance is collectively acceptable, as long as the boy is anonymous, with no visible family. But his mother understands, even after she gives birth to another son, there “never again will a boy exactly like Samuel be known” (198).
Arcana, Judith. Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Paley, Grace. “Samuel.” In The Collected Stories. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.