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Last Updated on September 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

Dissatisfaction and Isolation

Raymond Carver’s short story “Neighbors” centers on a couple, Bill and Arlene Miller, who have begun to feel vaguely dissatisfied with their rather mundane lives. This sense of dissatisfaction increases as the Millers are tasked with looking after the apartment of their neighbors, the Stones, whom the Millers envy. Carver writes at the beginning of the story that

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Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. But now and then they felt they alone among their circle had been passed by somehow, leaving Bill to attend to his bookkeeping duties and Arlene occupied with secretarial chores. They talked about it sometimes, mostly in comparison with the lives of their neighbors, Harriet and Jim Stone. It seemed to the Millers that the Stones lived a fuller and brighter life. The Stones were always going out to dinner, or entertaining at home, or traveling about the country somewhere in connection with Jim’s work.

The mention of Bill’s “bookkeeping duties” and Arlene’s “secretarial chores” implies that the Stones’ lives revolve around their jobs, which lack the glamor of Jim’s career as a salesman. The Stones, meanwhile, seem to maintain a lively social life and are able to “combine business with pleasure trips.”

Rather than taking action by endeavoring to make their own lives “fuller and brighter,” the Millers seem to regard the unexciting nature of their days as having been determined by outside forces. They also seem to believe that they are the only ones among their friends and acquaintances who feel dissatisfied with their daily lives, a belief that likely makes that sense of dissatisfaction all the more isolating. Bill and Arlene are isolated not only from the rest of “their circle,” however, but from each other as well—they lie to each other about what they separately do at the Stones’ apartment and are only truly united at the end of the story, when they are locked out of their fantasy world together:

They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.

Living Vicariously

Bored with their own ordinary lives, Jim and Arlene Miller live vicariously through the Stones. This is first exemplified in the way Bill and Arlene admire the things the Stones bring back from their trips, accepting souvenirs from the Stones’ travels rather than traveling themselves. As the Millers spend more and more time at the Stones’ apartment, however, this vicarious living takes on a more surreal and transgressive edge. The Millers begin to feel like they can experience the Stones’ life by interacting with their possessions, including by taking their pills, drinking their liquor, wearing their clothes, and even masturbating on their bed. The two begin to make excuses to go to the Stones’ place more and more often because they believe the Stones have a better and more interesting life into which they can, for a time, escape. Their trips to the Stones’ apartment not only offer an escape, however, but also reignite the Millers’ own passion for life and for each other—if only, perhaps, temporarily.

Private Lives

Through the Millers and the Stones, Carver explores the idea of an internal, private life. What is interesting is that the Millers clearly believe the Stones lead an idyllic life with all the travel, socializing, and excitement they could hope for, but readers are never given a glimpse of the thoughts or emotions of the Stones. The Stones’ lives are separate and ultimately unknowable to both the Millers and the reader, and their thoughts will remain that way, too—no matter how deeply the Millers pry into the Stone’s private lives and possessions. Likewise, the Stones will probably never know what the Millers have done in their apartment. The story thus shows that one can never truly know the inner workings of someone else’s life. The Stones likely believe the Millers have a quaint and content life, and it is also possible that the Stones could, in reality, have a very unhappy life, but readers cannot know for sure.

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