What do "A Small, Good Thing" and "What The Doctor Said" reveal about communication?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Carver's story, "A Small, Good Thing" and his poem, "What the Doctor Said," reveals that direct communication can reveal a person's humanity.

In "What the Doctor Said," the focus between both the doctor and the speaker is a fatal diagnosis. This critical moment is all about direct communication.  The Doctor does not mince words with the speaker.  He says that there are many tumors and that he "stopped counting" because there were so many.  He also tells his patient that "it looks bad, in fact real bad." The fatality of the prognosis is confirmed with "I wish I had some other kind of news to give you."  There is a focused exchange between the Doctor and the patient.  It becomes evident that the patient is not going to survive and there is little that can be done to alter what is inevitable.  However, such clear disclosure allows a moment of humanity to be shared between both. This is evident as the patient is absorbing all that the doctor says:

I just looked at him 
for a minute and he looked back it was then 
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me 
something no one else on earth had ever given me 
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong 

There is a shared moment of humanity that is the result of directly telling the patient what awaits him.  This is reflected in the patient leaping to shake hands with the doctor.  In expressing his gratitude, even though it might have been habitual, direct communication allows human beings to see a part of themselves previously not seen.

In "A Small, Good Thing," Carver shows how human beings can feel denied because of indirect communication.  Initially, Ann herself does not feel validated because the baker fails to communicate in a personal manner to her. This is enhanced when the baker does not experience communication with the family about picking up the cake.  Carver expands this when the baker continually speaks through crank phone calls and terse messages.   Both Ann and Howard experience frustration at the limited form of communication they receive about Scotty's condition.  In each setting, people feel threatened and limited when there is limited emotional and informational transmission.

The ending of the story is where humanity is displayed because of direct communication.  When Ann pushes through the door, it is symbolic of pushing through the barriers to free exchange.  She articulates her pain in a brutally honest manner.  This is matched with the baker talking about his own pain. In seeing the Weiss's and the baker's openness, Carver suggests that we become more when we communicate freely.  As the baker makes food for them and the three eat as the sun rises, it is clear that "a small good thing" might just be the ability to freely talk to and with another human being.

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