Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Raymond Carver wrote mostly about the joys and sorrows of politically powerless and socially insignificant working-class people. In this respect he resembled John Steinbeck, whose best-known work is the Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Carver differed from Steinbeck, however, in having no political agenda. Steinbeck was a socialist for most of his life, believing that the lives of the masses could be improved by government and by substituting faith in socialism for faith in God. Carver was apolitical in his writings but seems to have had a working-class distrust of politicians and people who did not work with their hands.
Like many contemporary minimalist writers of his era, Carver displays a nihilistic view of life. His favorite theme in his stories and poetry is alienation or anomie. The latter is the feeling that many people have of being only half alive, of being on a treadmill or in a rat race, of being trapped in meaningless jobs, of not being able to love and not being able to relate to others—perhaps especially of not being able to see any higher meaning to life.
After shedding his inhibitions through liquor and marijuana, and feeling somewhat invisible in the presence of his sightless house guest, the narrator confesses that he does not believe in religion or anything else. “Sometimes it’s hard,” he says, “You know what I’m saying?” Robert replies: “Sure, I do.” Although the narrator knows...
(The entire section is 442 words.)
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Alienation and Loneliness
Like the characters in many of Carver's works, the main characters experience, or have experienced, alienation and loneliness. The narrator is unhappy in his work, jealous of his wife, and unconnected to other human beings. In addition to not being connected to others himself, he seems to resent his wife's connections to other people as well. When he speaks of the impending visit by the blind man he states, ''I wasn' t enthusiastic about his visit ... A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.’’ Further, once Robert arrives at the narrator's home, the narrator makes no special effort to engage him in conversation. He prefers to remain isolated and observe. Indeed, as the conversation lags, the narrator turns on the television, an act that is not only rude, but one that provides evidence of the narrator's complete disengagement with his wife and her friend.
The narrator's behavior can be judged not only through his own responses to his wife, but also through the responses he reports his wife makes to him. For example, when the narrator says to his wife that he doesn't have any blind friends, she snaps at him, ‘‘You don't have any friends ... Period.’’
It also seems clear that the narrator's wife has suffered through long periods of isolation and loneliness in the past, before her current marriage to the narrator. In the days just after she worked for Robert as his reader,...
(The entire section is 963 words.)
The stories in Cathedral mark a departure from those in his two previous collections. The greater length of these later stories allows for a richer representation of the texture of experience, especially of the inner lives of characters. One consequence of this more elaborate rendering is a more generous indication of theme. Without sacrificing his descriptive sharpness or his ear for dialogue, Carver has opened his fiction up to a more ample and expansive portrayal of the lives and problems of his characters. Carver now seems ready for the amplitude and scope of the novel he has long delayed writing.
Along with an increased amplitude in the fiction comes an increased hopefulness in the prospects of his characters. No longer are the lives of the characters necessarily determined by an unrelenting necessity. For some, at least, there is hope, a chance to redirect and gain control of their lives, to come to terms with loss and suffering. The desperation of the early stories has given way to the promise of a life enriched by purpose and meaning. This is not to suggest, however, that Carver has eliminated fear and anxiety from these later stories. He still includes them, but with the suggestion that by some mysterious power of human resiliency, they can be either accommodated or overcome. In "Careful," for instance, Carver beautifully portrays a man's groundless fear that the wax in his ears will harden and incapacitate him. In "A Fever," he...
(The entire section is 338 words.)