Raymond Carver | Critical Essay by Michael Wm. Gearhart

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Raymond Carver.
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Critical Essay by Michael Wm. Gearhart

SOURCE: "Breaking the Ties That Bind: Inarticulation in the Fiction of Raymond Carver," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 439-46.

In the essay below, Gearhart traces the differences between the original story, "The Bath," and Carver's revision of the same story, "A Small, Good Thing."

Raymond Carver has been widely acknowledged as a short story writer whose glimpses into the lives of "everyday" people have made him a master of the genre. The typical Carver character is a down-and-out blue-collar type familiar with the trauma of marital infidelity, alcoholism, and financial hardship. As critics have thoroughly noted, these characters share an inability to articulate their frustrations in words which causes their social, moral, and spiritual paralysis: "each new moment can bewilder a character, freeze him or her into a confusion of inaction. Carver … is famous for the passivity with which his characters confront, or fail to confront, their experience."1

Carver's first two collections of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, are relentless portraits of human despair and futility. But with the publication of Cathedral in 1984, critics acknowledged an unmistakable loosening of Carver's stark "minimalist" prose style, and noted the development of human potential in his characters. Carver's premature death in 1989 precludes a definitive answer concerning whether this movement in his work was an aberration or the beginning of a trend, and Carver's recent retrospective, Where I'm Calling From, which includes little previously unpublished material, adds no insight into this question. However, a close re-reading and comparison of two key stories, "The Bath" and a revision of that story, "A Small, Good Thing," raise a more essential question: how do the characters in "A Small, Good Thing" escape the inarticulation that suffocates the typical Carver character?

In both stories, Howard and Ann Weiss's uncomplicated lives are upset when their only son Scotty is struck by a car and hospitalized on his eighth birthday. The baker, from whom the birthday cake has been ordered, begins to make threatening telephone calls to the parents when the cake is not picked up. (The parents, of course, have forgotten about the cake, and receive these calls as they individually slip away from the hospital to check on things at home.) "The Bath" closes on a note of existential terror with the mother answering the phone, assuming the hospital is calling, only to hear the baker respond to her question "Is it about Scotty?" with the cryptic, "It has to do with Scotty, yes."2

Conversely, "A Small, Good Thing" is three times longer than "The Bath," and introduces a completely opposite conclusion—one of healing and forgiveness. In this story the mother finally realizes that it is the baker who is calling, and she and her husband confront him with the news of Scotty's death (his condition is left undecided in the first version). This confrontation leads to the baker's examination of his own pitiful existence and to the subsequent scene of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Laurie Stone makes an important observation when she states that "Carver steers the story ["A Small, Good Thing"] with his distinctive descriptive wizardry, conveying how the parents feel through their actions."3 Carver generally eschews authorial comment in his stories in favor of brief, emotive descriptions, and continues to do so in "A Small, Good Thing." What, then, accounts for the fullness of style and for the final scene of resolution and reconciliation in this story so absent in his previous work? It is this: Carver's focus on the implicit communication between the characters through unspoken language and, moreover, the fact that this substitution of implicit communication for verbal inarticulation becomes a self-conscious act on the part of the characters.

Some differences between "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing" are immediately apparent. In the former, descriptions of the characters are brief, when they occur at all. The father is never given a name. In "A Small, Good Thing," even minor characters are described, and scenes in which they appear are developed. The effect is that a sense of humanity emerges between the characters that is wholly absent in the first story. The best example of this is a passage in both stories in which Ann Weiss's (the mother) interaction with a black family, who are awaiting the outcome of their son/brother Nelson's accident, is described. In simple terms, the passage is lengthened in the second story from approximately 250 to 650 words, most of them devoted to a physical description of the black family. But significantly, in the expanded version the characters share their pain and experience. Much of this occurs through verbal interaction, but not without some key nonverbal prompting.

In the first version, Ann explains to Nelson's father why she is at the hospital, giving the details of Scotty's accident and condition. The man's reply to her closes the scene: "The man shifted in his chair. He shook his head. He said, 'Our Nelson'" (56). Thus ends the interaction between the two. But in the second version, a slight nonverbal clue leads to the verbal interaction of the grieving parents: "'That's too bad,' the man said and shifted in his chair. He shook his head. He looked down at the table, and then he looked at Ann. She was still standing there."4 The man then proceeds to give the details of how his son was knifed, an innocent bystander at a fight. The paragraph that follows his description makes two things clear; verbal communication is disturbingly inadequate, but the nonverbal signals that trigger the attempt are sufficient to induce the desire for shared humanity:

Ann looked at the girl again, who was still watching her, and at the older woman, who kept her head down, but whose eyes were now closed. Ann saw the lips moving silently, making words. She had an urge to ask what those words were. She wanted to talk more with these people who were in the same kind of waiting she was in. She was afraid, and they were afraid. They had that in common. She would have liked to have said something else about the accident, told them more about Scotty…. Yet she didn't know how to begin. She stood looking at them without saying anything more. (74)

This passage contains an unusual amount of authorial direction to the reader, for the rewrite incorporates a crucial change. In the first version, when the man shifts in his chair, shakes his head, and looks down at the table, he is utilizing what Stephen R. Portch calls a "regulator": an action that involves "both speaker and listener."5 A regulator can "provide a pause … or tell the speaker to continue, repeat, elaborate" (9). In this case, the man's regulator says, in essence, "I don't want to talk about it." But in the revision, Ann utilizes a regulator of her own—her insistent stare—which causes him to continue. This minute difference allows for the possibility that these two people will communicate, and foreshadows the final exchange between the Weisses and the baker in "A Small, Good Thing."

Regulators are mostly subconscious, and perhaps this fact accounts for the tentativeness and ultimate inadequacy of the conversation between Ann and Nelson's father in "The Bath." But as the characters in "A Small, Good Thing" (particularly Ann Weiss) become increasingly self-conscious in regard to body language, their ability to use it as a substitute for verbal shortcomings increases accordingly.

Early in "A Small, Good Thing," the reader witnesses the deterioration of language and the subsequent dependence upon implicit communication. The inefficiency of words is obvious when Howard Weiss, the father, first returns home to clean up after being with Scotty at the hospital. The phone rings, and Howard assumes that the hospital is calling:

"There's a cake here that wasn't picked up," the voice on the other end of the line said.

"What are you saying?" Howard asked

"A cake," the voice said. "A sixteen-dollar cake."

Howard held the receiver against his ear, trying to understand.

"I don't know anything about a cake," he said.

"… what are you talking about?"

"Don't hand me that," the voice said. (62-63)

The reader knows that the voice is the baker's, but Howard does not. Language clearly works for the reader, while it baffles the character. But the inherent ambiguity of language is not always one of perspective. When Howard returns to the hospital, the doctor is attempting to explain Scotty's condition without causing alarm in the parents. The word "coma" is bounced back and forth between them, highlighting the concurrent imprecision and importance of language. The doctor begins by proclaiming that "it is not a coma," then changes to "I don't want to call it a coma," and finally relents with "It's not a coma yet, not exactly." Ann says, "It's a coma" (66).

While language breaks down, body communication becomes more significant. When Dr. Francis is unable to express himself adequately in words, he resorts to more physical and formal displays. Each time he enters the room, he "shook hands with Howard, though they'd just seen each other a few hours before" (65). When he leaves the room, he pats the parents on the shoulders; as their son's condition worsens, the physical displays become increasingly compassionate. When Scotty dies, Dr. Francis embraces Ann, and "He seemed full of some goodness she didn't understand" (82).

The doctor's unconscious use of regulators to augment his speech is a nonverbal device that becomes immediately evident to the reader, if not to the Weisses. He constantly resorts to "looking at the boy" as a way of buying time when he cannot offer verbal encouragement to the parents. It would seem that this lack of words might be disconcerting to the parents, but they find solace in the doctor's very appearance: "The doctor was a handsome, big-shouldered man with a tanned face. He wore a three-piece blue suit, a striped tie, and ivory cufflinks. His gray hair was combed along the sides of his head, and he looked as if he had just come from a concert" (65-66). Contrast his appearance with that of the radiologist, who later comes to take more x-rays of Scotty: "He had a bushy mustache. He was wearing loafers, a Western shirt, and a pair of jeans" (68). Ann's reaction to him is markedly different from her unquestioning faith in Dr. Francis: "She stood between this new doctor and the bed" (68). The radiologist is straightforward in his speech compared to Dr. Francis, yet Ann distrusts him. But when speech is inadequate, nonverbal signs gain added significance, and physical appearance is no exception. As Stephen Portch points out, "Physical appearance usually has an immediate—and often lasting—impact" (11). And judgment of a stranger based on physical appearance is to be expected. It is more significant that during this period of crisis in the parents' lives, their own verbal communication gives way to implicit communication.

After Dr. Francis has provided his less-than-satisfactory explanation of Scotty's condition, the parents attempt to verbalize their fears: "Ann put her hand on the child's forehead. 'At least he doesn't have a fever,' she said. Then she said, 'My God, he feels so cold, though. Howard? Is he supposed to feel like this?'" "'I think he's supposed to feel this way right now,' he said" (67). But both Howard and Ann realize that their words are empty, and although at this point the action is mostly subconscious, body language substitutes for their inability to fully articulate their fears, Howard "felt a genuine fear starting in his limbs," and Ann "knew now they were into something hard," but neither is capable of expression:

Howard sat in the chair next to her. They looked at each other. He wanted to say something else to reassure her, but he was afraid, too. He took her hand and put it in his lap, and this made him feel better, her hand being there. He picked up her hand and squeezed it. Then he just held her hand. They sat like that for a while, watching the boy and not talking. (67)

Although the process is a gradual one, the movement toward self-consciousness has begun, and soon these characters will make a discovery that no Carver character before them has made: they need not be the hapless victims of verbal inarticulation.

Scotty's condition remains unchanged for the next several hours, and both the doctor and the parents are increasingly alarmed that he is not waking. As his condition becomes less explicable, language is less adequate, and body language more important. Now the Weisses reveal their first spark of self-consciousness in regard to implicit communication. As Howard and Ann stare out the window, the narrator makes a rare intrusion: "They didn't say anything. But they seemed to feel each other's insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way" (70-71). Then Dr. Francis returns and again personifies the ambiguous nature of language. He is reticent about Scotty's tests until Ann asserts, "It is a coma, then?" (71). The doctor rubs his cheek (another regulator to stall for time) and answers, "We'll call it that for the time being, until he wakes up" (71). This, of course, is like calling a person dead until resurrected. But the parents cling to whatever hope is offered, and the doctor shakes Howard's hand and leaves.

The Weisses decide to check on things at home, and Howard suggests that Ann go, to freshen up and eat something. She objects at first, but when she looks at Howard, she makes a discovery: "She understood he wanted to be by himself for a while, not have to talk or share his worry for a time" (72). This ability of one character to empathize with another's inarticulation is a rarity in Carver's fiction. Ann has reached beyond her own personal situation to consider someone else's, and in so doing, she confronts her own inability to communicate. As she prepares to leave the hospital, her self-conscious awareness of the process is revealed:

She stood in her coat for a minute trying to recall the doctor's exact words, looking for any nuances, any hint of something behind his words other than what he said. She tried to remember if his expression had changed any when he bent over to examine the child. She remembered the way his features had composed themselves as he rolled back the child's eyelids and then listed to his breathing. (72-73)

Ann's cognizance of the significance of body language is even more evident when she returns to the hospital. Her husband's posture convinces her that something is wrong: "She looked at him closely and thought that his shoulders were bunched a little" (79). This information is repeated four lines later: "His shoulders were bunching, she could see that" (79).

Howard's body language is the result of his initial inability to tell his wife that the doctors have decided that surgery is necessary. But before the full impact of this information can set in, they notice that Scotty has opened his eyes. They run to his bedside, but Scotty's "eyes scrunched closed, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth" (80).

A shaken Dr. Francis escorts the Weisses to the doctor's lounge, and once more the shortcomings of language are highlighted as Ann gropes to find the words to express her grief: "She … though how unfair it was that the only words that came out were the sort of words used on TV shows where people were stunned by violent or sudden deaths. She wanted her words to be her own" (81). Her desire is to confront her situation rather than be controlled by it. But Dr. Francis is yet unable to express himself directly: "There are still some things that have to be done, things that have to be cleared up to our satisfaction. Some things that need explaining" (81). This time it is Howard who clarifies the ambiguity: "'An autopsy,' Howard said. Dr. Francis nodded" (81).

After returning home, the bereaved couple receives two more phone calls from the baker. Finally, Ann realizes that the baker is calling to harass them about the cake. Although it is midnight, she tells Howard to drive her to the bakery, and the stage is set for the story's final scene.

The closing action can be divided into two phases: before and after the baker is told of Scotty's death. In the first phase, almost all of the important communication is implicitly expressed through body language. When the baker explains tersely that he works sixteen hours a day just to make ends meet. Ann's response is entirely nonverbal, but it is clear that her point has been made: "A look crossed Ann's face that made the baker move back and add 'No trouble, now'" (86). The baker then responds with a less-than-subtle physical threat of his own: "He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand" (86).

This type of body movement substitutes for more than words—it also replaces socially unacceptable acts of violence. Portch refers to this type of implicit communication as an "adaptor," or actions that "originated for practical purposes and have become assimilated into behavioral patterns … the clenching of a fist in anger has the practical purpose of preparing the hand to administer a blow. But more often than not, the fist is clenched to signal anger without a blow being struck" (10).

When the Weisses first entered the bakery, Ann "clenched her fists. She stared at him [the baker] fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men" (85). She has effectively communicated to the baker through this adaptor what she later admits to him (and perhaps to herself) in words: "I wanted to kill you … I wanted you dead" (87). Similarly, the baker's manipulation of the rolling pin suggests that he will do what is necessary to defend himself if physical violence occurs, but these nonverbal signals serve to preclude that violence. The spoken messages delivered in the first half of this to preclude that violence. The spoken messages delivered in the first half of this passage amount to little more than childish verbal jabs, while the nonverbal signals are loud and clear. The Weisses and the baker are sizing up each other, waiting to see what will happen.

Things change when Ann reveals to the baker the details of Scotty's death. After a final admonishment to him, she breaks into tears, and Howard and she are notably silent for the final two pages of the story. The baker's initial reaction to the news of Scotty's death is nonverbal—"he shook his head slowly"—but then an outpouring of words that are the baker's healing takes place:

Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. (88-89)

The baker's ability to articulate his meaningless existence makes him unique among Carver's characters; he is the first to use language in a cathartic sense, the first to confront the nature of his own existence. His philosophical self-examination is a turning point in his life, for he takes the initiative of asking for forgiveness: "I'm not an evil man, I don't think. Not evil like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please,' the man said, 'let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?'" (88). The baker finds his forgiveness through the words that have for so long eluded him.

But more significant, perhaps, is the salvation of Ann and Howard Weiss, for they win a self-conscious battle with inarticulation and, in so doing, provide for the redemption of the baker. Had the embittered man not been confronted by the Weisses, he would never have faced his unresolved conflicts. But unlike the baker, the Weisses do not gain their epiphany through words, but through their ability to empathize with another's pain in the time of their own sorrow: "Although they were in grief, they listened to what the baker had to say." They do not speak; they listen. And they nod. In the absence of words, healing is the literal and figurative act of silent communion with the baker, who prepares hot rolls and coffee for the Weisses, reminding them that "Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this" (88). The concluding passage in the story serves as a final restatement of the double theme of verbal inarticulation and the ability of implicit communication to function admirably as its substitute:

"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving. (89)

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this reconciliation is revealed in the concluding sentence, which suggests that if a self-conscious understanding of nonverbal communication is gained, then human communication—not just implicit, but verbal—is possible. It is not until the Weisses have partaken of silent communion with the baker that they are able to talk "on into the early morning." Their willingness to allow the baker's actions to facilitate their healing is the culmination of their growing capacity throughout the story to understand implicit communication. In the absence of this ability, it is doubtful that they, much less the baker, could have avoided the fate of the typical Carver character—paralysis.


1. Michael Gorra, "Laughter and Bloodshed," Hudson Review, 37 (1984), 151-64.

2. "The Bath," in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Random House, 1982), p. 56. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

3. Laurie Stone, "Feeling No Pain," Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 20 (Oct. 1983), 54-55; emphasis mine.

4. "A Small, Good Thing," in Cathedral (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 74. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

5. Literature's Silent Language (New York: Lang, 1985), p. 11; subsequent references are cited in the text. This work is an excellent introduction to the occurrence of nonverbal signals in literature, and focuses on the work of specific writers, including Hemingway, with whose style of writing Carver's stories have been compared.

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