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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Bath,” which originally appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, reappeared in the Cathedral collection, revised and renamed “A Small, Good Thing.” The second version is also reprinted in Carver’s final collection, Where I’m Calling From.

Both versions of the story focus on a couple whose son is hit by a car on his eighth birthday and who is hospitalized and in a coma. This horrifying event is made more upsetting by the fact that the couple receives annoying anonymous telephone calls from a baker from whom the wife had earlier ordered a custom-made birthday cake for the child. “The Bath” is a brief story, told in Carver’s early, neutralized style, focusing less on the feelings of the couple than on the mysterious and perverse interruption of the persistent anonymous calls.

The revision, “A Small, Good Thing,” is five times longer than “The Bath.” It develops the emotional life of the couple in more sympathetic detail, suggesting that their prayers for their son bind them together in a genuine human communion that they have never felt before. The parents are given more of a sense of everyday human reality in the revision, and their situation is made more conventionally realistic. The father feels that his life has gone smoothly until this point, and the story thus suggests that neither he nor his wife have ever had their comfortable, middle-class lives threatened by such a terrifying disruption before. Much of the detail of the revision follows the parents as they anxiously wait for their son to come out of his comatose state. Whereas the mysterious voice on the phone throughout “The Bath” suggests some perverse interference in their lives, in “A Small, Good Thing” the voice suggests a more concerned presence who always asks them if they have forgotten about their son Scotty.

The most radical difference in the revision, however, can be seen in the conclusion. Whereas in the first version the child’s death abruptly ends the story, in the second, the couple discover that it is the baker who has been calling and go visit him after the boy’s death. He shares their sorrow; they share his loneliness. The story ends in reconciliation in the warm and comfortable bakery as the couple, in an almost Christian ritual of breaking bread together, eat the baker’s bread and talk into the early morning, not wanting to leave—as if a retreat into the communal reality of the bakery marks the true nature of a healing unification.

Although the earlier version of the story seems to have been repudiated by Carver, the revisions that created the new story, “A Small, Good Thing,” provide a striking example of how Carver’s writing style and thematic concerns changed after his first two collections. Whereas “The Bath” is a story about a mysterious eruption into any life, “A Small, Good Thing” is a story that...

(The entire section is 713 words.)