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Love, loss, ignorance, loneliness are some of the basic tenets of human existence. Ever since man was created, the question of how to find love has always lingered? How to deal with a loss? Gaining insight and relegating ignorance to the backburner are but some of the issues that have preoccupied human beings. This, it would appear, is waht human beings were created for. To live life, satisfying and painful as it might be, to discover fresh grounds, to conquer the negative aspects of life, the whole essence of humanity depends on this. Raymond Carver has been hailed as a twentieth century writer, successful in every way possible, in representing these facets of humanity in works of fiction with an unparalleled simplicity, simplicity that shows what complex existence human beings sometimes lead. Human beings in his works are evidently creatures living on the edge, on the verge of toppling over.
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Many a time this is their doing that puts them in this precarious situation, sometimes the circumstances are just beyond them and are but helpless pawns in the game of existence. They find themselves shoved into a battlefront they much would have liked to avoid. How does Raymond Carver, the great writer that he his, help us delve into the yet critical aspect of humanity that we are guilty of ignoring it. It has been written of Carver:
In his calloused hands, with dirt under his fingernails, he carried the same torch that Wordsworth and Coleridge had used to set poetry aflame. Raymond Carver employed "the language really used by men" to tell the story of the damaged white American. Broken hearts populate Carver’s literary country; they hide out in the wood-paneled camouflage of middle-class American homes, where sticky liquor bottles crowd kitchen shelves and yellowing baggage occupies the garage. These characters are tougher than they know, ignorant of their own resilience, and blind to the pitched battle they wage against loneliness. Though they continually suffer from alcoholism, divorce, and domestic violence, their stories do not approach the level of melodrama; these divorcees, drunks, and adulterers are as mundane, ordinary, and pathetic as day-old white bread (Art and Culture 2008).
His three short stories, now lying on the table awaiting dissection should help gain a few useful insights and a new appreciation of what it means to love, to experience deep and profound loss and what it means to open eyes to important things long blinded by our attitude and darkness of the heart that has the effect of stopping humans from experiencing the beauty and joy that abounds about them.
What do Raymond Carver’s three short stories, “Small, Good Thing”, “Cathedral” and “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”, all carry in common? What is the point inherent in all of these supposedly classic narratives? Granted, all of them seem to start from, and lead to divergent viewpoints, but without a doubt they all touch on the very basic of all human need and desire: Love. Though not similarly, love is a motif that runs through all three of Raymond Carver’s stories. Love lost, love unrequited, understanding love, gaining a new, if brutally honest or even skewed appreciation of love, romantic love, love beyond the ordinary. What Carver seems to be imploring us is to look at what composes humanity. What makes us human? What should we do to attain this sometimes lost cause. What is it that will driver us ever close to this critical aspect of our existence?
The three stories tell that, if ever we should want to lead a meaningful existence, we should be able to let go, be a kind, forgiving, open hearted and an open minded lot. Not many, I presume, think differently. We shall focus our attention on each of the three stories in order to find out how this is so.
In “A Good, Small Thing” we are confronted with the family of Scotty, an eight-year-old who has the misfortune of being knocked down by a car on his birthday. From the start of
the story reader is surrounded by this dark brooding mood that something terrible is bound to take place in what upto now seems to have been a serene existence. All along we get this feeling, the one that all human beings dread, the one about what is not supposed to happen happening. Anne Weiss goes to order a birthday cake for her son, Scotty. The baker’s lack of interest beyond what his work entail is somewhat disconcerting and Anne does not like it one bit. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn't like that (Carver 1983).
Nevertheless she orders the cake for her son instructing the baker on how the cake should be made to look like. The cake will represent a rocket taking off into space. Matters of space and spaceships must fascinate Scotty.
After ordering the cake, Anne goes home and she all but forgets about the weird baker. Monday, Scotty’s birthday, comes swiftly and on the day that everything should go perfectly well, everything that can go wrong goes wrong. As if it was scripted. Instead of Scotty enjoying his wonderful cake he ends spending his birthday at the hospital in a coma after knocked down by a hit and run driver. This has the effect of throwing the somewhat perfect existence of the young family into depths of anxiety and finally sadness like they have never known before. This is one story that is both beautiful and sad. The enormity of the tragedy that befalls Anne and her husband Howard tugs at every cord of the reader’s heart forcing us to share in the anxiety of Anne and Howard becoming our sincere hope that Scotty lives.
The readers’ as well the family’s expectations are however dashed when Scotty passes away three days after being admitted in the hospital. The devastation of the couple when Scotty does not make it is there for all to see. The family hits rock bottom. Fortunately as we read on we discover how they overcome it in a special way.
This tragic story in spite of its dark nature opens us into the life of Anne and Howard Weiss and that of the baker, all the principal characters that in more ways than one represent us. Ironically it is at the hospital that Anne discovers how far apart as a family they were becoming, with life for her revolving around Scotty and less about all the three as a family. It is at the hospital that this critical discovery is made and is somewhat happy that they been reunited albeit at a bad moment.
All around Anne there are telling stories. Few of the people she comes in contact with seem to totally lack the ability to understand what she is going through. The nurses for and the orderlies for starters exhibit a total lack of compassion, going about their duties in machinelike manner, grief of a mother meaningless to them. One nurse even has the cheek to ask what is wrong with Scotty with that I-couldn’t-care-less attitude and offers that he such a sweetie. All around Anne it looks like the doomsday bells are tolling in the fullness of time for her benefit. The only patient he comes to learn about, Franklin, dies and the baker having lost the subtleties of human interaction keeps making calls that are almost a prelude to Scotty’s passing.
When Scotty passes on it is as if almost all is lost for Anne and Howard but in one twisted stroke of fate, the beautiful thing happens. Anne and Howard are able to reach out to another human being and help him rediscover the feeling of being part human company. How it is to be human again. The loss of a son did help another person become whole again. At the end of we learn the vital lesson of forgiveness and kindness and how it is important for us as human beings to practice them.
In the second story “Cathedral” we are introduced into the not so eventful life of the narrator who is detached from some parts of humanity and displays arrogance. This narrator we however come to discover is a lonely, insecure human being unable to fully reap the joys of human existence.
When the narrator’s wife invites her longtime blind friend Robert, he can but offer his somewhat arrogant commentary of the situation form how his wife and the blind man to the moment he steps on his porch to entering his house to eating and drinking with them late into the night. Being that he leads a deadbeat existence he surmises that the same must go for his wife’s blind compatriot. He finds it amusing that a blind man should have a wife and lead a married existence.
He questions Beulah’s wisdom in getting married to Robert seeing as how Robert was in no position to acknowledge the finer details of her beauty, both natural and artificial. How mistaken he is.
The narrator also offers us insight into the previously unfulfilling love life of her wife to an Air force officer. How it almost led to her demise. The narrator’s life as we have also seen is no better than those of the people likes to describe for us. He does not think much of his work which he does for the sake of doing it.
Carver uses the symbol of the cathedral to show us that we need not lose the true meaning of humanity. The cathedrals were built magnificently because they are the houses people intended to praise and worship God in. Humanity should also be enjoyed to its fullest. The joys of compassion and understanding are all there for the taking. We should not let prejudices cloud our view of the beautiful aspects of our lives as human beings. At the story’s end the protagonist is lifted from the ignorance that had made his life a bitter pill to swallow. A blind man full of life liberates him yet all along he thought the life of blind man must be one long, boring existence.
Finally to the third story which is “What We Talk about when We Talk about Love”. In the story we met two couples who over a drink of gin pour out the contents of their hearts regarding the strange subject of love. The two couple friends Mel and Terri, and Nick and Laura empty glass after glass of alcohol into their innards as Mel McGinnis leads them in a topic that we all think we know so much about yet in reality we know so little about: The eternal story of love. Because of alcohol it appears that they are not shy of tackling a matter that is all but meaningless at times, yet for the love of God we couldn’t live without. Fred Moramarco writes: Carver want us to consider questions about the meaning of love as it actually occurs in the world… the world of late 20th century Albuquerque, New Mexico, the transient western U.S. city where Carver’s story is set (Moramarco 2008).
The couples doing the drinking and doing the talking are evidently slaves of love and alcohol. Love and alcohol both have a way of clouding reality when it is at its peak. But when it wears off we come crashing down in a manner that might be harmful.
Some of us will carry the wounds of this crash for a long time while others will recover as fast as possible. What has however been observed to be true of love and alcohol is that we are always back, seeking them no matter the damages they cause us. It is almost like a drug and we could all do with a quick fix. In this story the writer has used the element of light and darkness stating that the couple drank from day till darkness caught up with them. This is a telling symbolism in that when it comes to matters of love and even our addictions, say alcoholism, they have a way of throwing us right into the centre of trouble. We have all looked back sometimes and asked ourselves what good were certain relationships for and the answer is nothing yet we cannot explain our endless quest for them. The same can be said of harmful addictions. No good either.
In conclusion we can say that all the three of Raymond Carver’s stories lead to some sort of discovery. An epiphany occurs to the characters and their eyes are open (Gioia et al 2005). The characters discover some things they had no intention of ever knowing after being confronted by unique situations and they all come to acknowledge and gain a deeper appreciation about these aspects of life, chief of them being love. Love between a wife and a husband and love between all fellow human beings. What is baffling enough is that carnal love is disposable, same as alcohol if you compare it with food. No nutritional value. Yet what is always first on our agenda is carnal love. The stories tell us what it is we should find valuable in our lives.
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