Popular Mechanics Raymond Carver

In Raymond Carver's "Popular Mechanics," what does the baby symbolize? When is this symbol first mentioned and when is it mentioned throughout the short story? How does this symbolism help the reader understand the story?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Raymond Carver's short story "Popular Mechanics," the baby represents innocence. Even in the first sentence, the narrator infers that all is not well in the household. The visual image that is created of beautiful white snow as it melts, turning into what he describes as "dirty water," spoils the initial scene and the reader is faced with less than desirable images of "streaks," a window which faces the backyard and cars that "slushed." The fact that it is getting dark both outside and inside is symbolic as the dark inside reflects far more than physical darkness and it foreshadows what follows. 

There is obviously a conflict and the husband is leaving. The reader becomes aware of the baby when the wife takes the photograph from the bed. The husband finishes packing and turns off the light. This is significant because it is after he turns out the light that matters go from bad to worse. The innocence of the baby is not even a consideration anymore. As the couple grapple over the baby, the narrator points out that "the kitchen window gave no light," further emphasizing the fact that the baby's innocence is lost on the couple who are only concentrating on their own needs and their stubborn refusal to concede, if only to protect the baby.

The tragic ending becomes almost predictable with words like "screaming...hurting...fisted, forced...." The reader is prompted to ask him or herself about the safety of "this baby" and understands the story better because of the symbolism, which reveals how the baby's innocence has been overlooked.  The man's grip is not the only thing that is "slipping." People slip on snow and slush all the time, connecting the end to the beginning of the story, but it does not need to be a matter of life or death. However, the final image of the baby's future brings the stark reminder that communication is crucial to our very survival. When the snow melts and things change (figuratively), there is a need to hold on to the precious things in life and to ensure that pride and stubbornness do not leave people in the dark. 

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