Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

25 Nov 2011

(Short Story) A Man Told Me the Story of His Life by: Grace Paley

(Reaction) Writing Our Own Stories by: Francis Gabriel Concepcion

One thing remarkable about Grace Paley's story is how striking and truthfully it depicts our own world in so few words. The length, in fact, makes this story even more potent in many ways, as in short stories we are often told that every word should count.

A Man Told Me the Story of His Life is about a man named Vicente who dreams of becoming a doctor. His drive and passion towards this dream is seen in the second paragraph. I learned every bone, every organ in the body. What is it for? Why does it work? Here we see Vicente's dedication, as the amount of knowledge a doctor requires to practice medicine is tremendous.

But what happens instead is that Vicente is pushed and pressured by his school to become an engineer. This is due to the fact that the school has judged Vicente's skills to be more suited for the work of an engineer. The school tells him, You show on all these tests what a good engineer you will be. It doesn't show whether you'll be a good doctor.

From that statement alone we can deduce a number of things. For one, when we take a closer look at that statement, we see just how misleading it can be. The statement It doesn't show whether you'll be a good doctor for example, could mean that the test was inconclusive about Vicente's potential to be a doctor. It didn't exactly state that he would be a bad doctor. The point was that It didn't show. The test only showed that he would be an excellent engineer.

But in that that statement as well, we can see the point that the school is trying to make. Basically it is implied that: You will be more useful as an engineer rather than as a doctor because statistically that's what you're good at. It becomes more about efficiency and certainty rather than hope and potential. The school was not certain whether Vicente would be a good doctor. Hence they recommended he become an engineer instead because it would best suit him and his abilities.

Truth be told, the school was only looking out for Vicente, trying to ensure that he would have a successful career in the future. But it was, of course, at the expense of Vicente's dream. He responds: Oh, I long to be a doctor. I nearly cried. I was seventeen. I said: But perhaps you're right. You're the teacher. You're the principal. I know I'm young. Vicente feels, therefore, that he has no choice but to accept the recommendation of adults. He is made to feel inferior and foolish. That is somewhat implied when he says I know I'm young. There is the suggestion that Vicente believes he doesn't know well enough about himself to make such a big decision. And yet, ironically, it is a decision he should make himself, because his happiness is reliant on such a decision.

This, then, becomes a problem we all have to face eventually in our own lives. Many of us, at Vicente's age, did not seem to have any sense of direction. When we look at the problem, however, can we truly place the blame on anyone? Perhaps we can blame ourselves? Or is society, perhaps, at fault?

One possible reason is because youth are too often much too reliant on adults telling them what to do? I know I'm young is a statement of resignation. It means that the youth is resigned into believe and accepting whatever is decided for him, even if in his heart he does not agree. If a growing teenager is unable to make decisions for himself, then what more the bigger decisions in life? If decisions are always made for the child, there is no sense of independence developing, no sense of self. At that stage, particularly, isn't it important for the student to figure out for himself or herself what it is exactly that he or she wants in life?

A look further into the story, however, and the situation becomes even more complex. The school said: And besides, you're going into the army. This somewhat renders the whole test void. It no longer becomes about potential or about skill. And then I was made a cook. I prepared food for two thousand men. At this point, Vicente's use and purpose in life is rendered void and insignificant. He joins the army, but ends up merely as a cook. In fact this sentence makes a mockery out of the choices and suggestions that are given to Vicente. The fact that it began with, And besides... shows how lazily the situation is being dealt with. Vicente isn't being taken seriously.

It is by the end of the story, however, we see final verdict. When Vicente's wife becomes ill and the doctors are clueless as to what is it that ails her, Vicente himself steps up:

The next morning I called the doctor. I said: She must be operated immediately. I have looked in the book. I see where her pain is. I understand what the pressure is, where it comes from. I see clearly the organ that is making trouble.
This does not come as a surprise, however, as Vicente did study the books on his own. I learned every bone, every organ in the body. What is it for? Why does it work? He may not have had a formal education in the field of medicine, but his dedication and passion seemed to have made up for it in this scenario. In fact, he even tried to fight for his dream when the school discouraged him: I want to be a doctor. I already know how the organs connect. When something goes wrong, I'll understand how to make repairs.

At his young age, such a statement could be taken as arrogance or foolishness, but Vicente was able to prove otherwise later in his life. After Vicente told the doctor what was wrong, [t]he doctor made a test. He said: She must be operated at once. He said to me: Vicente, how did you know?

In a way the story also speaks of the quality and direction of life we often choose to live. In a way it speaks of one's calling. Do we settle for the lives that others want us to live, or do we work hard towards becoming who we feel we truly are?

The title and the length of the story, as a whole, are indicative of the theme it puts forward. It is narrated in a way that is both simple and straightforward. In fact, upon closer look at the story, the first two words Vicente said are the only italicized words in the whole text. This could be indicative of the notion that all the rest of the narrative is Vicente's speech. Put together with the title A Man Told Me the Story of His Life it then fits.

The story, then, is a man's summary of his life. Imagine, then, if you yourself were asked about your life's story, you would only include the parts that were most important. As a result, we realize that the one thing that Vicente was truly proud of throughout his entire life was his dream of becoming a doctor.


There is forever that notion that artists more often than not struggle with living standards if they are to pursue their art. And yet, there will always be people who continue to choose to be writers or artists or film directors. Several of today's popular writers themselves struggled before they reached the top. Maybe it's an indication that one should not give up, no matter how hopeless it all seems? Or maybe it's just a stroke of luck. I think, either way, there's no harm in trying. Not everyone falls under the get-rick-quick paradigm, but that doesn't mean that it can't be done over a longer period of time.

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