Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3732
Carver’s first two collections of short stories shocked readers with their violence and puzzled them with their laconic, Chekhovian style. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? contains twenty-two stories that provide stark images of lives lived in quiet desperation. In many of the stories in this collection, the characters are thrown out of their everyday routines and caught in situations in which they feel helpless and estranged.
Whereas the stories in Carver’s first important collection are relatively drained of imagery and recall the style of Ernest Hemingway, the stories in his second major collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, are even more radically sparing in their language; indeed, they are so minimal that they seem mere dehumanized patterns with no life in them at all. Whatever theme they may have is embodied in the bare outlines of sometimes shocking, sometimes trivial events and in the spare and reticent dialogue of the characters, who seem utterly unable to articulate the nature of their isolation. Characters often have no names or only first names and are so briefly described that they seem to have no physical presence at all.
The lyricism of Carver’s style lies in a “will to style” in which reality is stripped of its physicality and exists only in the hard, bare outlines of the event. Carver’s stories have more of the ambience of dream than of everyday reality. They are unconcerned with social issues, yet the stories are not parables in the usual sense. His characters give a feeling of emotional reality that reaches the level of myth, even as they refuse to give a feeling of physical or simple psychological reality. The most basic theme of Carver’s stories is the tenuous union between men and women and the mysterious separations that always seem imminent.
The stories that appear in Carver’s last two collections, however, Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From, perhaps because they were mainly written after Carver had been cured of alcoholism and had met Gallagher, are more optimistic and hopeful than the earlier stories; they also are more voluble and detailed, exhibiting an increasing willingness by Carver and his narrators to discuss, explain, and explore the emotions and situations that give rise to the stories.
Instead of separation, Carver’s later stories move toward union or reunion. They are characterized by a mood of reconciliation and calm self-knowledge and acceptance. Although this shift in moral perspective moves Carver’s fiction toward a more conventional short-story form, all of his stories are told in such a way that the universal human mystery of union and separation is exposed, even if it is not always explained. The simple, yet complex humanity revealed by Carver can neither be understood nor cured by the pop psychology of modern life; as in the great short stories of his predecessors, it can only be captured in the pure and painful events of human beings who mysteriously come together and come apart.
Carver was the most important figure in the renaissance of short fiction sparked in American literature in the 1980’s. He belongs to a line of short-story writers that begins with Anton Chekhov and progresses through such masters of the form as Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, and Bernard Malamud. On the basis of a small output of stories, Carver will remain a significant figure in the history of modern American literature.
First published: 1976 (collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, 1976)
Type of work: Short story
A young couple fantasize about taking the place of their vacationing neighbors.
“Neighbors” is one of the most puzzling and shocking stories in Carver’s collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? It focuses on Bill and Arlene Miller, a young couple who feel that the lives of their neighbors Harriet and Jim Stone are somehow brighter and fuller than their own. The story begins when the Stones go on a trip and ask the Millers to look after their apartment and water the plants. When Bill begins routinely to perform this task, however, his visits to the apartment make him sexually aroused. Moreover, he begins to stay longer and longer in the apartment, taking trivial things such as cigarettes and a container of pills, and nibbling food from the refrigerator.
Bill’s fascination with the apartment becomes more bizarre when he secretly takes time off from work and slips in to spend the day alone there. He first tries on a pair of Bermuda shorts belonging to Jim Stone, then a brassiere and pair of panties belonging to Harriet. The story comes to a climax that evening when his wife goes over to the apartment and the reader discovers that she is similarly fascinated, telling her husband that she found some pictures in a drawer. Although the reader is not told what kind of pictures they are, one may assume they depict the secret life of the Stones. When the couple go back across the hall to their own apartment, they consider that maybe the Stones will not come back. When they discover that they have locked the key to the Stones’ apartment inside, they feel desperate.“Don’t worry,” he said into her ear. “For God’s sake, don’t worry.” They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.
Typical of Carver’s early work, the story offers no explanation for the fascination the apartment holds for the young couple; the closest Carver will come to an explanation is Arlene saying, “It’s funny . . . to go in someone’s place like that,” to which her husband replies, “It is funny.” This is not a story about a sexually perverted couple; rather, it is a story about the fascination of visiting the secret inner reality of someone else and the excitement of temporarily taking on his or her identity. To enter into the dark and secret world of the “neighbors” is to experience a voyeuristic thrill.
The dissatisfaction that everyone feels at times with being merely themselves and the universal inner desire to change places with someone else is delicately handled in the story. For example, Bill’s fantasy of changing places with his neighbor is suggested by the simple act of his looking into the bathroom mirror, closing his eyes, and then looking again—as if by that blink, a transformation could take place. Moreover, the fact that Bill wants to make love to his wife after visiting the apartment reflects the erotic thrill of peeking into the life of someone else and then, almost in an act of autoeroticism, fulfilling that fantasy with whomever is at hand. The desperation the couple feel at the end as they find themselves locked out of the apartment, bracing themselves “as if against a wind,” points to the impossibility of truly entering into the lives of others, except to visit and, inevitably, to violate.
“Why Don’t You Dance?”
First published: 1981 (collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, 1981)
Type of work: Short story
A young couple inspects the furniture a man has set up on his front lawn, but more is at stake than a yard sale.
This first story in Carver’s controversial collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is characteristic of the qualities of his short fiction at the high point of his career. The story begins with an unidentified man who has, for some unexplained reason, put all of his furniture out on his front lawn. What makes this event more than merely a yard sale is the fact that the man has arranged the furniture exactly as it was when it was in the house and has even plugged in the television and other appliances so that they work as they did inside. The only mention of the homeowner’s wife is the fact that the bed has a nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed and a nightstand and reading lamp on “her” side of the bed; this is Carver’s typical unstated way of suggesting that the man’s marriage has collapsed and that his wife is no longer around.
The story begins its muted dramatic turn when a young couple furnishing their first apartment stop by and begin to inspect the furniture. As the young woman tries out the bed and the young man turns on the television, their dialogue is clipped and cryptic, reminiscent of the dialogue of characters in stories by Ernest Hemingway. When the homeowner returns from a trip to the store, the dialogue continues in its understated and laconic way as the couple makes offers for some of the furnishings, and the homeowner indifferently accepts whatever they offer. The homeowner plays a record on the phonograph; the young man and the young woman, then the homeowner and the woman, dance. The story ends with a brief epilogue as, weeks later, the woman is telling a friend about the incident. The story ends: “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”
The story is an embodiment of the way that modern short fiction since Anton Chekhov has attempted to embody inner reality by means of the simple description of outer reality. By placing all his furniture on his front lawn, the man has externalized what had previously been hidden inside the house. When the young couple arrives, they embody the ritual process of replacement of the older man’s lost relationship with the beginnings of their own, creating their own relationship on the remains of the man’s.
The story is not a hopeful one, however, for the seemingly minor conflicts that the dialogue reveals between the two young people—his watching television and her wanting him to try the bed, her wanting to dance and his drinking—presage another doomed relationship, exactly like the one that has ended. Indeed, there is more to it, as the woman senses, but she cannot quite articulate the meaning of the event; she can only, as storytellers must, retell it over and over again, trying to get it “talked out” and intuitively understood.
First published: 1981 (collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, 1981; revised as “A Small, Good Thing,” 1983)
Type of work: Short story
A husband and wife lose their young son in an automobile crash and are plagued by a mysterious telephone caller.
“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 moves toward a more conventionally moral ending of acceptance. The image of the parents in the warm, sweet-smelling bakery, momentarily reconciled by their sense of communion with the baker, is a clear indication of Carver’s moral shift from the skeptical to the affirmative, from the sense of the unspeakable mystery of human life to the sense of how simple and moral life is, after all.
First published: 1983 (collected in Cathedral, 1983)
Type of work: Short story
A cynical man has his prejudices challenged by an encounter with a blind man.
The title story of Carver’s third collection is typical of how his technique and thematic concerns changed after his personal life became more stable. The story contains much more exposition and discussion, more background and efforts at clarification, than the stories in Carver’s first two cryptic collections. “Cathedral” is told by a first-person narrator, a young man who resents the visit of an old friend of his wife—a blind man for whom the wife once read.
Unlike Carver’s earlier stories, which focus primarily on the immediate situation detached from its background, the first quarter of “Cathedral” recounts the narrator’s knowledge of his wife’s previous married life, her friendship with the blind man (especially the fact that they have sent audiotapes back and forth to each other), and even of the blind man’s wife, Beulah, who has recently died. Although the relevance of all this information to the final, epiphanic revelation of the story is not made clear, it does reveal the cynicism of the narrator, who obviously resents his wife’s relationship with the blind man. It also reveals him as an insensitive character who has prejudiced notions about a variety of subjects. For example, his only notion of blind people comes from films, and he asks if the blind man’s wife was “a Negro” only because her name was Beulah.
The conversation among the narrator, his wife, and the blind man that makes up the center of the story is inconclusive, mainly devoted to the blind man’s dispelling many of the prejudiced expectations the narrator has about the blind. The climax toward which the story moves—a confrontation between the narrator and the blind man—begins when the wife goes to sleep and the two men drink and smoke marijuana together. The encounter is triggered by a program on television about Christianity in the Middle Ages—which the narrator watches because there is nothing else on. When the program features a cathedral, the narrator asks the blind man if he knows what a cathedral is. The blind man says he has no real idea and asks the narrator to describe a cathedral to him. When the narrator fails, the blind man asks him if he is religious, to which the narrator says he does not believe in anything.
The blind man then asks the narrator to find some paper and a pen so that they can draw a cathedral together. The blind man puts his hand over the hand of the narrator and tells him to draw, with the blind man’s hand following along with him. The blind man even asks the narrator to close his eyes as they continue drawing. When they finish, the blind man asks him to look at the drawing and tell him what he thinks; the narrator keeps his eyes closed. He knows that he is in his house, but he says that he does not feel like he is inside anything. His final statement is typical Carver inconclusiveness: “It’s really something.”
“Cathedral” is a much-admired Carver story, often finding its way into literature anthologies for college classes; however, it is less experimental and innovative, more explicit, and more conventionally optimistic and moral than his earlier stories. The narrator has obviously reached some sort of traditional epiphany at the end. Ironically, whereas he had been morally blind before, now he is able to see. The story is about his ultimate ability to identify with the blind man, about the two men blending together into one entity. The narrator’s experience is a religious experience in the broadest sense; the fact that a cathedral brings the two men together makes that clear enough.
The story is much more “talky” than Carver’s earlier stories, partially because it is a first-person narrative in which the personality of the narrator is the very thematic heart of the story itself, but also because Carver seems to believe he has an explanation for things that he did not try to account for previously. The tendency toward explanation moved his later work closer to the kind of moral fiction of which his first mentor, Gardner, would have approved.
First published: 1987 (collected in Where I’m Calling From, 1987)
Type of work: Short story
The death of Russian writer Anton Chekhov is imagined by Carver with a poignant Chekhovian touch.
“Errand” has special significance in the Carver canon, for it is the last story in his last collection, Where I’m Calling From. Because it was published not long before Carver’s death, when he knew he had cancer, and because it deals with the death of one of Carver’s most treasured progenitors, Chekhov, it takes on a particular poignancy as a kind of farewell tribute to the short-story writer’s craft and art.
Much of the story seems less a unified narrative than a straightforward report of Chekhov’s death in a hotel in the resort city of Badenweiler, Switzerland. The story recounts without comment Chekhov’s last hours, as a doctor visits him in his room and as his wife, Olga Knipper, stands by helplessly. Knowing that it is hopeless and that it is only a matter of minutes, the doctor orders champagne and three glasses from the kitchen. A few minutes after taking a drink, Chekhov dies.
Up to this point, “Errand” is not really a story at all, for it does not have the implied “point” that is typical of the short story—especially since the innovations were introduced by Chekhov himself. What makes it a story is the appearance of the young waiter who brings the champagne. When the young man returns to the room the next morning to bring a vase of roses and to pick up the champagne bottle and glasses, Olga Knipper, who has spent the remainder of the night sitting alone with Chekhov’s body, urges him to go into the town and find a mortician, someone who takes great pains in his work and whose manner is appropriately reserved.
The young man listens as Olga tells him in great detail what to do. He should behave as if he is engaged on a great errand, moving down the sidewalk as if he were carrying in his arms a porcelain vase of roses that he has to deliver to an important man. He should raise the brass knocker on the mortician’s door and let it fall three times; the mortician will be a modest, unassuming man with a faint smell of formaldehyde on his clothes. As the young man speaks to him, the mortician will take the vase of roses.
As Olga tells this “story” of the errand the young waiter must fulfill, it becomes so real that it seems to be actually happening—it becomes, in itself, an example of the storyteller’s art. Meanwhile, the boy is thinking of something else: On the previous night, just after Chekhov died, the cork which the doctor had pushed back into the champagne bottle had popped out again; it now lies at the toe of the boy’s shoe. He wants to bend over and pick it up, but he does not want to intrude by calling attention to himself. When Olga finishes the storylike description of the errand she wishes the boy to perform, he leans over—still holding the vase of roses—and without looking, reaches down and closes his hand around the cork.
It is this single, simple detail that makes “Errand” a story rather than a mere report and thus a fitting tribute to the short-story writing art of both Chekhov and Carver. The cork is not a symbol of anything; it is a concrete object in the world that one can almost tangibly feel as the boy closes his hand around it. It is the unique and concrete act of picking up the cork that humanizes the otherwise abstract report of Chekhov’s death. It fulfills Chekhov’s dictum that if a gun is described hanging on a wall early in a story, then it must be fired before the end. It also embodies the most important lesson that Carver learned from Chekhov—that human meaning is communicated by the simplest of gestures and the most trivial of objects.
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