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Omniscience and Empathy – Grace Paley’s “Samuel”

1855 words (7 pages) Essay in Literature

08/02/20 Literature Reference this

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Grace Paley’s “Samuel,” involves a young character named Samuel and his three friends playing on a moving subway train headed towards the Bronx in which Samuel is accidentally killed. Grace Paley could have used a couple different Point of Views to write her story; however, in deciding the vantage point from which to tell her story, she chose to tell her story from the point of view of a narrator that is not a character. Paley’s choice of Third Person Omniscience narration allows her to present events an unlimited way that offers a more inclusive view of the characters of the story (Kirszner & Mandell, 2017). Additionally, Third Person Point of View allows the narrator to draw on the empathetic emotions of readers by revealing the details of the story to allow the characters minds, motives, and intensions to be clearly understood by readers. My goal in this paper is to analyze how Grace Paley effectively demonstrates the use of third-person omniscience point of view to draw empathy for the characters in her work, “Samuel”.

Omniscient narration is a classical technique that was very popular with writers around the eighteenth century it allowed authors to control all aspects of the storytelling experience, whereas contemporary writers were much more inhibited and more often used First Person Point of View. “Classical narratology makes sharp distinctions between author, narrator, and character…. It is crucial to know whether information is coming from a mere character (via the narrator) or from the narrator himself” (Martens, 2017, pg. 182). In “Samuel” Paley narrated the story allowing her to reveal and comment on the thoughts of all characters in the story. Using Third Person Point of View to describe both the characters and events of the story, Paley identifies the young playful boys as tough, and fearless. This is referenced by the statement, “Some boys are very tough. They’re afraid of nothing” (Paley, 1974, para.1). As the train moves down the tracks, Samuel and his three friends are playing between the locked doors of the subway cars (Paley, 1974). In the previous passages, Paley, the omniscient narrator interprets the behavior of the characters and describes what each character is thinking. By narrating the story in this way, Paley helps readers understand that Samuel and his friends are playing a dangerous game. Readers can also emphasize with Samuel and his friends by clearly understanding that they are fooling around, having fun, and are just being boys (Paley, 1974).

Considering the narrative insight into Samuel and his friends playing in such a dangerous way, it is a natural question for readers to ask why the adult characters did not interfere. The narrator states, “the men and women in the cars don’t like the boys to jiggle and Jump, but the adults don’t want to interfere” (Paley, 1974, para. 2). Readers can apply a psychoanalytic critical approach to explore the reasoning behind the lack of adult interference. Psychoanalytic criticism, developed by Sigmund Freud, believed it possible to, “interpret literature based on the reflection of our unconscious life” (Kirszner & Mandell, 2017, pg. 1669). This approach can be used in “Samuel,” because the adult actions were based on unconscious thoughts tied to their own childhood experiences and perceptions involving socially acceptable ideas, desires, and actions. For example, based on the narrator’s point of view, it is revealed that as boys, some of the men on the train were once brave like Samuel and his friends and that, “One of them had ridden the tail of a speeding truck from New York to Rockaway Beach without getting off, without his sore fingers losing hold” (Paley, 1974, para. 2). Without the benefit of Third Person Omniscient point of view, the story would not have provided the character insight needed to evaluate this revealing perspective concerning why some of the men may have dismissed their concerns.

Paley evokes feelings of empathy for Samuel and his friends by stating in the story that nothing bad happened to the adult male passenger, who rode on the back of the truck, then or later (Paley, 1974). Empathy allows readers to understand and share the feelings of the characters promoting understanding towards the adult passenger that reflected on his fearless and gutsy playing during his childhood, leading him not to interfere with their playing. Additionally, the narrator reveals that two men among others looked at the boys and thought to themselves that their playing must be fun, then ironically, the narrator states that they also thought the kids were acting stupid (Paley, 1974). The use of third-person omniscience by the narrator, revealing insight into the passenger’s thoughts as they watched the boys, allows readers to empathize with the nostalgic, youthful memories of the adult onlookers, helping readers understand why interference may not have been deemed necessary.

The narrator’s omniscience perspective also reveals that the ladies in the car became angry at the four boys and “hoped the boys could see their extreme disapproval” (Paley, 1974, para.4). Although one of the female passengers were compelled to get up at tell the boys to stop, she did not. The actions of the women can also be viewed from a psychoanalytic approach; perhaps their inaction is driven by unconscious beliefs regarding lack of authority as women. This passage may give readers insight into Paley’s own feelings as a female writer. According to Scheick and Williams, in an interview with Grace Paley, she revealed that for a long time she believed her life was crap as a woman because of the position of marginalization, restriction, and being viewed as no more than a “girl,” that women were placed in (Schieck, Williams & Rainwater, 2015). Perhaps the narrators experience is also supported by the following passage, “But three of the boys were Negroes and the fourth was something else she couldn’t tell for sure. She was afraid they’d be fresh and laugh at her and embarrass her” (Paley, 1974, para.4). Paley’s motivation to become a writer, based on what she referred to as the “the dark lives of women,” allows her to use this point of view to help readers understand and empathize with women’s views concerning how they may feel insignificant or devalued societally (May, 1995).

Grace Paley’s “Samuel” is more than just an ordinary story, it is a story that allows the reader to experience much of what the writer herself has experienced during her lifetime. Using Third Person Omniscience Point of View, Paley has given readers a closer look at social and racial injustice. By allowing access to the perspectives of the story’s characters, readers can learn from them, better understand them, and empathize with them. Through Paley’s literary work “Samuel,” readers learn that the boys playing on the train are not afraid, the men and women watching them are worried about them, the men are reminiscent of their youth, the women are afraid of being embarrassed if they intervene, the boys are minority children, and an angry man pulls the emergency switch causing Samuel’s death. At the end of the story, Paley shows empathy through grievance of the loss of Samuel, illustrated by the notice of death to his mother, her grievance, and the statement, “never again will a boy exactly like Samuel be known” (Paley, 1974, para. 12). “Samuel” is an example of how third-person omniscience allow narrators to fully inhabit characters, making them relatable to readers, therefore eliciting empathy from readers.

Works Cited

Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell. Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing.              Cengage Learning, 2017.

COMPACT LITERATURE: READING, REACTING, WRITING, is an Introduction to Literature text. It features new stories, new poems, and new plays, along with a comprehensive guide to writing about literature and full coverage of critical thinking and argument. Authors Kirszner and Mandell take students through each step of the research and writing process, helping them to craft literary analyses and arguments and demonstrating that writing about literature is a process of discovery, examination, and debate.

Martens, Lorna. “Mood, Voice, and the Question of the Narrator in Third-Person Fiction.” Narrative, vol. 25, no. 2, May 2017, pp. 182–202. EBSCOhost, proxygsu                  h&AN=123442771&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Focusing on texts that blend fictional and autobiographical material, this article examines cases in which a character and an overt third-person narrator sound alike, such that instability in mood and inconsistency in voice result.  The phenomena can occur accidentally, but they can also be deployed intentionally for effect in fiction as well as in works that blend autobiography and fiction.

May, Charles E. “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.” Masterplots II: Women’s LiteratureSeries, Mar. 1995, pp. 1–3. EBSCOhost, proxygsu                  h&AN=03331WOM11409610000140&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, which contains seventeen stories that originally appeared in The AtlanticEsquire, and other magazines, is the second of Grace Paley’s highly regarded collections of stories. Yet it is a body of work loved and respected by many readers, especially women, who hear in Paley a familiar and long-silent voice, and other writers, who know that she is a consummate master of her craft who constantly experiments with the basic nature of narrative structure.

Paley, Grace. Samuel.

Grace Paley (1922- ) grew up in New York City and attended Hunter College 
there. Initially interested in poetry, she began writing short fiction in the 
1950s, at the same time raising a family and participating in several political causes.

Her stories have been published in the collections Little Disturbances 
of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the 
Same Day (1985). Her Collected Stories appeared in 1994 and was nominated for 
a National Book Award.

Scheick, William J., and Catherine Rainwater. Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015. EBSCOhost, proxygsu

This source examines the writings of these ten important women authors, this book  

illuminates significant moments in literary history when women’s voices are profoundly

reshaping American literary tradition. The ten essays in this book raise new and

intriguing questions about the ways these leading women writers appropriate and 

transform generic norms and ultimately revise literary tradition to make it more inclusive

of female experience, vision, and expression.

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