Analysis

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Last Updated on July 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

Raymond Carver’s short story “Neighbors” was written in 1971 and first published in Esquire magazine that same year. In 1976, it was included in Carver’s collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

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“Neighbors” tells the tale of two neighboring couples in an apartment complex who lead different lives. The Stones leave for a vacation and ask the Millers to take care of their apartment, plants, and cat for them while they’re gone. Throughout the story, the Millers’ envy and curiosity grow while they’re taking care of the apartment, as they desire the kind of life the Stones lead, and as they begin to feel consumed by the allure of the apartment and attempt to step into the lives of the Stones.

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As the story progresses, the dialogue between Bill and Arlene Miller changes. Initially, the two seem content, if a little bored, and they speak in long conversations. However, after spending some time at the Stones’ apartment, Bill comes home, and the description of the scene is much shorter each time he returns. His dialogue with Arlene is brief and vague. The increasing brevity and vagueness of his actions shows that his time seems to be getting lost while he is at the apartment. When asked what took him so long at the Stones’, he first says he was playing with the cat and then later that he needed to use the toilet. Later still he becomes even more vague, saying he “must’ve been playing with the cat or something.” It’s clear that his communication, his sense of time, and his thoughts become foggy and distant. This gives the reader the idea that Bill’s identity is slowly being washed away as his demeanor becomes vague and indecipherable.

Eventually, Bill lies on the bed in the apartment masturbating; later, almost in a trance, he begins putting on the Stones’ clothes, including Harriett’s brassiere and underwear. He stands, transfixed, looking out the window for an hour before coming to and departing. Both Bill and Arlene are growing more and more interested in going to the apartment, and Bill even walks in on Arlene there at least once, when she hadn’t told him she was going and when he was supposed to be at work. It is implied that Arlene has been masturbating on the Stones’ bed as well.

The end of the story shows the Millers coming to the realization that they have locked the key inside the apartment. In terror, they throw themselves at the door, but there is no sense of fear for how this will affect their friends. Instead, they simply seem feverish to reenter the mesmerizing apartment. The story ends extremely abruptly, cut short as soon as Bill and Arlene throw themselves at the door, giving the sense that the spell has suddenly and sharply been broken. A reader can imagine that when the transfixed Bill and Arlene Miller are suddenly thrust back into the mundane reality of their lives, they snap back to being their former selves.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

Raymond Carver’s fiction, especially his earlier stories, has been described as minimalist because of its remarkable flatness of tone, unadorned language, spare plot lines, and characters bereft of identity and affect. This was the story with which Carver first entered American popular magazines, and it launched his career as a major literary figure. In keeping with this minimalist style, “Neighbors” follows an ordinary couple whose lives have little pleasure, little drama, little distinction, through three days behind doors not just closed but locked. When the story ends, neither they nor the reader can say exactly what transpired, if anything. These are protagonists who live unexamined lives on deadend streets.

One recurring image is that of the mirror. Invading some new corner of the Stones’ private realm, Bill frequently turns to a mirror as if he is uncertain who he is. Perhaps he is looking for an outward sign of the life transformation he seeks. Has the shadow of discontent that darkens his every moment been lightened? Perhaps he just wants to be sure he still exists. This dependence on a reflection to be assured of the status of his own being is a powerful metaphor for his inner emptiness and lack of sense of self. In contrast, Arlene is not seen looking into a mirror. Bill is her mirror. She responds to and repeats the changes in him. The Millers misunderstand the nature of their quest so badly that even when they symbolically appropriate others’ lives, they expect that their transformations into more alive, more exciting, human beings will show up in the mirror.

Some critics have found Carver’s flat prose, arid landscape, muddled and unhappy characters, and enigmatic endings nihilistic, vapid, or pointlessly bizarre. Others argue that such unhappy and empty people, unable to even articulate their own pains much less fix their own lives, are powerful evocations of the modern experience of living lives without significance.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 156

Bethea, Arthur F. Technique and Sensibility in the Fiction and Poetry of Raymond Carver. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Campbell, Ewing. Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Gallagher, Tess. Soul Barnacles: Ten More Years with Ray. Edited by Greg Simon. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Halpert, Sam. Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.

Lainsbury, G. P. The Carver Chronotope: Inside the Life-World of Raymond Carver’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Powell, Jon. “The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 647-656.

Runyon, Randolph Paul. Reading Raymond Carver. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Raymond Carver. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Stull, William L., and Maureen P. Carroll, eds. Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1993.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

Bill and Arlene Miller’s violations of propriety and privacy may come as a shock to the reader. The trust given them by the Stones is betrayed by these pallid people in a series of abuses that escalate in offensiveness. Readers may experience a further shock as they recognize in the Millers’ behavior their own suppressed impulses to snoop, their own persistent urges to know others’ most intimate secrets. In this regard, the Millers mirror universal impulses. Indeed, to gain such knowledge is a kind of intercourse accompanied by a secret thrill, a psychic rape for the reader as it is for Bill and Arlene. Readers may even realize to their chagrin that as readers—literary voyeurs—they, like Bill and Arlene, are entering into and vicariously sharing the closely held secrets of others’ lives.

The story seems to suggest, however, that this impulse to know, explore, and even take over others’ lives is exacerbated in Bill and Arlene’s case by the emotional and spiritual emptiness in their lives. The protagonists represent the condition of modern man and woman, hollow at their centers; they are humans who know they are missing something. They believe that what they are missing is possessed by others but withheld from them. Their belief is mistaken, it seems, for the story suggests that others may be in exactly the same condition.

The Millers, like so many others, seek to fill the void in their inner lives with things they can take possession of, such as drugs, alcohol, food, gewgaws, and clothes. These external stimulants arouse them but do not satisfy their inner hungers. Finally, the drive to consume those other people who have more satisfying lives takes over. The Stones themselves must be ingested, acquired, totally assimilated, obliterated, sacrificed to fill the awful emptiness. “What’s gotten into you?” asks Arlene when she begins to sense that Bill has quite literally taken possession of the Stones and their lives. Both Bill and Arlene soon find that such psychic possession is arousing but not truly satisfying. They must return like addicts to the Stones’ apartment. For a moment Bill becomes an adventurer, a rogue, a man capable of being thrilled, a man capable of thrilling his wife. He feels more alive, but the fix he has given himself does not last long. He must get more. At the end of the story, both Bill and Arlene have eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they suddenly and inexplicably stand outside the entrance to their Garden of Eden, cut off. Clutching each other at the apartment door, they are a shaking Adam and Eve in exile, overwhelmed by their sudden loss and their unknown future.

The behavior of the Millers is not to be interpreted as sexually deviant. The perversity of their behavior is more disturbing than that. Their cramped, bland, lusterless, but comfortable lives mirror their inner emptiness, their spiritual vacuity. Beneath the muted surface of their lives is a seething restlessness and loneliness that, if confronted, could turn their lives from banality to horror. Perhaps it is against that horror that they brace themselves at the end of the tale, as they stand holding each other at the Stones’ door, so close to looking at the terrible mirror in the other’s eyes.

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