Wants by Grace Paley

In Wants by Grace Paley we have the theme of conflict, acceptance, independence, selflessness, change and responsibility. Taken from her The Collected Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed woman and after reading the story the reader realises that Paley may be exploring the theme of conflict. Despite the passing of time the narrator’s ex-husband is unable to let go of some of the things that happened in his marriage to the narrator. One instance is the fact that the narrator’s ex-husband wanted a sail boat. Though he never managed to actually get one. It is as though he blames the narrator for this though the reality may be very much different. With it simply being a case that the narrator’s ex-husband couldn’t get a sail boat because firstly he couldn’t afford one and secondly he had responsibilities to his family. Responsibilities that he may actually be bitter about. Throughout the story the narrator’s ex-husband is unpleasant to the narrator as though she is responsible for how things turned out between both of them. However the reality may be very different as there is a sense that the narrator was always there for not only her ex-husband but her children too.

If anything the narrator may have acted selflessly throughout her marriage to her ex-husband. Though it is clear that she does have regrets in her life. She regrets not stopping the war (Vietnam War) for her children. This could be important as it highlights the fact that the narrator has a social conscience. Something which is somewhat ironic considering that she has kept two library books for eighteen years. The fact that the narrator returns the library books and that the librarian accepts the payment of the $32 fine. Then lets the narrator take the same two books out again might also be important as it is possible that the librarian is not only trusting the narrator but she is accepting that the narrator may have changed as a person. Something that the narrator’s ex-husband does not appear to think is possible. Though the ex-husband is clouded by bitterness. This bitterness may be significant as not only is the ex-husband blaming the narrator for how his life has turned out but he himself is not taking responsibility for his role in the marriage. Which may be the point that Paley is attempting to make. She may be suggesting that some men rather than focusing on their own flaws become bitter and direct their bitterness towards their wives or ex-wives.

There is also a sense that the narrator is somewhat independent of her ex-husband. Though she is blamed for how things turned out she is not necessarily affected by her ex-husband’s remarks at the end of the story. She appears to have moved on while the ex-husband doesn’t seem to be able to let go of things that have happened between the two of them. Similarly the fact that the narrator took a stance against the Vietnam War may highlight the fact that the narrator is able to think for herself. That she is not dependent on others to form her opinion. There is also one obvious difference between the narrator and her ex-husband. Throughout the story the ex-husband is blaming the narrator for things that may or may not have happened in his life. He is not taking responsibility for his life. While on the other hand the narrator is taking responsibility for her role in stopping the Vietnam War for her children. One person is selfish while the other is selfless.

The end of the story is also interesting as the narrator continues to take responsibility by going back into the library for a second time and returning the books. She knows that she will not read the books and does not wish to follow her previous pattern. Something which would further suggest that the narrator has changed as a person. It might also be significant that the ex-husband is not there to witness the narrator returning the books for a second time as symbolically Paley may be suggesting that the narrator in her second marriage has seen her life improve. Though wanting to have only married once the narrator also realises that she can still have the same husband even it is her second marriage. She can still find what she is looking for even if her ex-husband still remains bitter about his relationship with her. Though the narrator’s ex-husband has hurt the narrator with his remarks the narrator does not have to take responsibility for her ex-husband and how he feels. If anything the narrator is able to stand on her own two feet regardless of what her ex-husband might think about her. She is able to act and think for herself. Something that may not have been possible in the narrator’s first marriage.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Wants by Grace Paley." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 19 May. 2018. Web.


  • I like your analyses of the bitterness of the ex-husband. He does seem to blame her whereas she seems appreciative of his providing for the family. She mentions her intentions or longings to be a more involved citizen. Her comment in the library about bureaucracies was interesting as though she had some sort of experience with this. Her thoughts about the war are in the line of excuses for not having the Bertrams over to dinner. I was curious if it could merely be an exaggeration of how a simple excuse escalates with the passage of time in a relationship. The further you are from the initial event, the excuses have to get more and more elaborate as it is more and more difficult to go back to the first, albeit in the head of the person making the excuses.

    I was wondering if you could speculate on the trees in the second to last paragraph. Is it the next day, or could it even be the morning that she decides to go to the library the first time? Is seeing the trees the catalyst to having a new outlook on life, or did she already have that a-ha moment?

  • So the assumption is, the narrator has changed & become a more responsible woman. Also that she will probably now have a more consequential life.

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