Samuel by Grace Paley
In Samuel by Grace Paley we have the theme of bravery, mortality, anger, connection, grief and loss. Taken from her The Collected Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Paley may be exploring the theme of bravery. All four boys are brave to be standing on top of the subway train as it is rolling through the city. Though some critics might suggest they are being foolish it might be important to remember that at times there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness. It is also interesting that one of the men on the subway can connect with all four boys. Having done the same things as the boys himself when he was their age. It is as though the man admires the boy’s creativity. Even if it may be dangerous. Which may be the point that Paley is trying to make. She may be suggesting that life in general can be dangerous and not everybody will make it through life. Samuel being the example. It is however noticeable that the woman who feels embarrassed to address the boys is completely conscious of how dangerous things are for the boys. Hence her calling out to them despite the fact that the spotlight of negativity could be shone on her by the boys. Just as the boys are acting with a degree of bravery so too is the woman who tells the boys to get inside the subway.
The fact that the man remembers doing similar things to the boys when he was their age may also be significant as Paley could be suggesting that the city is a hive of activity for young people. A place where they can have fun regardless of how dangerous it might be. An individual’s adrenalin is allowed to run free. Though only briefly mentioned the man who pulls the alarm chain on the train is an important character. We learn that he did not grow up doing the same things as the boys and if anything he is angered by their display of presumed disrespect to others. It might also be important that Samuel may not have died should the man not have pulled the alarm chain. He may have risked his life but this does not necessarily mean he would have died. What is also interesting is that it is clear to the reader that Samuel and his friends would lose their balance when the alarm chain was pulled. So death could have been inevitable. As to whether the man who pulled the alarm chain is aware of this is another thing. His anger may have manifested itself into malice towards Samuel and his friends.
The manner in which Samuel’s body is dealt with might also surprise some readers as there seems to be a sense that the railroad men are used to dealing with deaths on the subway. If anything Samuel is just another body and not another lost life. A life that was sure to have hope and potential. A hope and potential that his mother could see and which she through grief was not prepared to let go of. Something that is clearer to the reader by the fact that Samuel’s mother longs to see Samuel in each child born after Samuel dies. However she never does. Which leaves the reader suspecting that Paley may be suggesting that in life everyone is unique. Once a person is gone you do not get them or a part of them back. You are left to deal with the grief of losing a loved one for the rest of your life.
Paley’s change of point of view at the end of the story is also interesting as it makes Samuel more human to the reader. He is just not a kid who died on the subway but he is someone’s son (and possibly brother). He had a family and a day’s adventure in the city has cost him his life. It may also be a case that Samuel’s mother is not the only one affected by his death. His three friends have to live with the memory of Samuel’s death. They too are young and may be unprepared for the level of grief that comes with losing a close friend. A friend who did not necessarily need to die and as mentioned may have died simply because the man pulled the alarm chain that suddenly halted the train. Though some might suggest that Samuel knew the risks of what he was doing. The man who pulled the chain (out of anger) also has a role to play. Though he may not necessarily think he does.