Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Raymond Carver is sometimes unjustly accused of creating only the kinds of characters who lack cunning and insight. Ralph Wyman may lack the ability to understand how to deal with what is, for him, a very traumatic moment in his life, but his inability to deal with his wife’s confession cannot be blamed on stupidity. Ralph’s drunken wanderings occur because he is slowly discovering the basic truth of what his father had told him years before, that life is a very serious matter.

This idea is the basic theme of Carver’s story: Ralph’s own initiation into the very serious matter of life itself. As the son of a grade-school principal, as a college kid with too grandiose visions of his own ability, even as a student who drops out of the mold for awhile, and as a converted “serious student” who then marries and tries, not unsuccessfully, to take a respectable position in a comfortable small town, Ralph Wyman still must learn the horrors of living in a world in which one’s expectations may not always be met, in which weakness is a given, and in which deceit, like a bad memory, thrives in the silence of a guilty, human heart.

The most interesting twist that Carver administers to his very traditional initiation story is the way the story ends, Ralph’s surrendering to his own physicality in turning to respond to his wife’s attention. Readers often expect that initiation stories will end in what James Joyce called an “epiphany,” a moment of seeing the whole truth. Carver sets the reader up for such a revelation but then concludes not with clarity but with more complexity, the mystery of that dynamic human force, desire. Trying to stay away from his wife completely, Ralph cannot keep his body from responding to her when she wants his forgiveness. He is, in fact, powerless in the surge of desire that rises in him. As confused as he is in trying to know how to act toward Marian, he cannot stop from turning to meet her. He stands in awe as he sees how very little he understands.

Does Ralph understand more about himself and Marian at the end of the story? He probably does not. However, the limits of his experience have been reset, and he knows much more about “this serious matter” of life.