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

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This short story and poem reveal the idea that words often fail us. Language simply does not and cannot always accurately express our feelings or experiences. The verbal comfort offered by the doctor is really no comfort at all. He keeps saying how "sorry" he is, and "He seemed full of some goodness [Ann] didn't understand." His words can't really convey how badly he feels, but Scotty's mother somehow sort of understands it; perhaps it is the physical contact the doctor initiates with them.

Later, the baker's words don't seem to have much of an effect on Ann and Howard either; however, he offers the grieving couple coffee and warm rolls. He says, "You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this." Small, good things like eating are often more expressive and communicative that words. Ann finds that she is suddenly hungry, and she eats three of the baker's delicious rolls. She and Howard are comforted by the food and the gesture much more than by what the baker says to them, it seems, as the narrator does not even report much of his words but just the general subject matter.

In "What the Doctor Said," the speaker misses some of what the doctor tells him when he learns that he has lung cancer, but he doesn't ask the doctor to repeat it because he does not want "to have to fully digest it." The speaker rather sheepishly thinks that he may even have thanked the doctor for giving him such terrible news because the "habit [is] so strong." Language does not quite work here; it is not what is needed or wanted.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial