Do you consider Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing" a pessimistic or optimistic story?

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mdelmuro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't know if I'd classify this story as pessimistic or optimistic. I'd say this story says something about one of the overwhelming human desires—the desire to be understood and experience empathy from others. While we could call this story optimistic because Ann and Howard do experience empathy at the end of the story and are able to empathize with the baker, I'd hesitate to do so.

Let's back up and start over to discuss how this story is about empathy:

  • The story opens with Ann at the baker's ordering Scotty a cake. Throughout the story, Carver uses the narrative technique known as free indirect discourse that allows the reader to peek inside the characters' minds. When meeting with the baker, Ann thinks the unfriendly man must have had children of his own and "There must be that between them." 
  • In the hospital, when Ann is leaving and runs into the black family who is waiting for Franklin, she feels the desire to "talk more with these people who were in the same kind of waiting she was in." Then, when she returns to the hospital, she asks about Franklin, who has died.
  • Finally, at the story's climax, Ann and Howard confront the baker who has been terrorizing them on the phone. It turns out that this man has been looking for someone to understand him and his lack of his family. The three have a communion of sorts as they sit and share rolls and coffee throughout the night, empathizing with each other.

Life is often disappointing and tragic, Carver suggests, so the least we can do is try to understand one another.

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A Small, Good Thing

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