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edited by
William Cain
Wellesley College


Emily Dickinson in the Medieval
Women's Visionary Tradition
by Angela Conrad


The Concentrationary Universe
of the American Writer
by Steven Milowitz


An Unsentimental Reading of
Moby Dick
by Suzanne Stein


A Self Among Others
by Willie Tolliver

Film and the Fiction of James Joyce
Thomas Burkdall


The Evolution of the Scapegoat Theme in
Joseph Conrad's Fiction
Andrew Mozina

Arthur F. Bethea

Published in 2001 by
A member of the Taylor & Francis Group
29 West 35th Street
New York, NY 10001

Copyright © 2001 by Arthur F. Bethea

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any
form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented,
including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system,
without written permission from the publishers.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bethea, Arthur F., 1960-

Technique and sensibility in the fiction and poetry of Raymond Carver / Arthur F.
p. cm. — (Studies in major literary authors)
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 0-8153-4040-0 (alk. paper)
1. Carver, Raymond — Criticism and interpretation. 2. Postmodernism (Literature) —
United States. 3. Carver, Raymond — Technique. 4. Realism in literature. I. Title. II. Series.

PS3553.A7894 Z54 2001

813'.54 -- dc21


Portions of All of Us by Raymond Carver

Reprinted by permission of International Creative Management
© Raymond Carver 1996

Printed on acid-free, 250 year-life paper

Manufactured in the United States of America

Chronology of Key Works
Introduction 1
Chapter One Reassessing Indeterminacy's Importance: 7
An Examination of the Unreliable Narrators
in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
Chapter Two "What's in Alaska?": 41
Symbolic Significance in the Commonplace
Chapter Three The Education of Ralph Wyman: 51
The Epistemological Theme in
"Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"
Chapter Four Catatonic Realism? 59
Further Analysis of Will You Please
Be Quiet, Please?
Chapter Five Omission in What We Talk About When 87
We Talk About Love
Chapter Six Excessive Authorial Control?: 117
More Analysis of What We Talk About
When We Talk About Love
Chapter Seven Isolation and Withdrawal: 133
The Still Bleak Prospects for Carver's
Characters in Cathedral
Chapter Eight Communication in the Final Stories 163
Chapter Nine Raymond Carver's Poetic Technique 185
Chapter Ten A Thematic Guide to Carver's Poetry 197
Metapoetry and Tributes 198
Alcoholism 210
Marriage and Family 217
Nature 231
Death and Beyond 238
Chapter Eleven Conclusion 261

Notes 275
Bibliography 297
Index 313

I thank David Bergdahl, the chair of my dissertation committee at

Ohio University, and the other readers, Susan Crowl, Paul Dom-
browski, and Daniel Torres. I thank an anonymous reader who
rightfully encouraged me to reorganize and cut a much larger ver-
sion of the present book. Thanks also to William Cain for select-
ing my book for Routledge's Studies in Major Literary Authors
series. And thanks to International Creative Management for
granting me permission to quote from Carver's poetry for a nomi-
nal fee.
In my twenty years in academia, my mother, Delia Thomas,
has frequently supported me, economically and emotionally. This
book is a source of considerable pride for her, as she has always
emphasized the importance of education. Her mother, Mrs.
Luduvina Freitas de Souza, also played a key role in raising me.
An immigrant to this country, Luduvina worked hard to support
her family during the Great Depression. Although she acquired
her citizenship in her later years, she neither obtained a high school
education nor learned to speak English. It says something about
the American experience, of course, that the grandson of this
woman has a Ph.D. and a published book on a great writer who
probably would have written about Luduvina if he had known her,
so impressed was he by the struggle to survive.

Throughout the book when I quote a Carver text, I use an

identification tag such as WYP or WWTA only when this is needed
to avoid confusion as to what source is quoted.
These are the abbreviations I use most frequently:

All All of Us: The Collected Poems

Cath Cathedral
CF Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories
FiresFires: Essays, Poems, Stories
NH No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings
RC Adam Meyer's Raymond Carver and Ewing
Campbell's Raymond Carver: A Study of the Fiction
WWTA What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
WYP Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

I have limited parenthetical documentation to a minimum. If

a quotation is undocumented, the previous parenthetical note in
that paragraph pertains to it as well. If the first or more quota-
tions in a paragraph are undocumented, the first parenthetical note
will document the page(s) of the previous source use in the para-
Single quotation marks are used only when the context does
not make clear that a character besides the narrator is being
Key Works of
Raymond Carver (1938-1988)

1968 Near Klamath (poems)

1970 Winter Insomnia (poems)
1976 Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (stories)
1976 At Night the Salmon Move (poems)
1977 Furious Seasons and Other Stories
1981 What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (stories)
1983 Fires: Essays, Poems, and Stories
1983 Cathedral (stories)
1985 Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (poems)
1986 Ultramarine (poems)
1988 Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories
1989 A New Path to the Waterfall (poems)
1992 No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings (essays, poems,
1998 All of Us: The Collected Poems (American publication;
published in Britain two years earlier)

Raymond Carver was not an overnight literary sensation. Pub-

lished in 1962, "Pastoral" and the poem "The Brass Ring" were
his first works in non-student journals; he received two contribu-
tor's copies for the story and a dollar for the poem. This was a far
cry from the days when an unproduced 1983 screenplay for
Michael Cimino, Dostoevsky: A Screenplay, became, in Tess Gal-
lagher's words, "The Mercedes that Dostoevsky bought" ("Carver
Country" 11).
The struggle for critical and popular acclaim was long,
painful, and sometimes hopeless. Carver married young and had
two children before he was twenty. When he was not home caring
for the children, he earned small amounts of money in such occu-
pations as sawmill worker, gas station attendant, hospital custo-
dian, apartment manager, stockboy, hotel desk clerk, seller of
theater programs, and tulip picker; later, he had better-paying jobs
as a textbook editor and creative writing teacher. Maryann Carver
worked as well—indeed, she was more of a breadwinner than
Carver—yet the family constantly struggled financially, the
Carvers twice declaring bankruptcy. Their lifestyle was, moreover,
2 The Fiction and Poetry of Raymond Carver

unhealthily itinerant; after they were married, four years seems to

be the longest they stayed in one particular place. Economic hard-
ships, career frustrations, domestic pressures, a wandering
lifestyle, and Carver's discomfort with teaching took their toil. By
the early 1970s, he was an alcoholic on the fast track to the grave.
It is one of many ironies in Carver's life that as his career prospects
improved significantly with the publication of his first collection of
stories in 1976, his personal life unraveled completely; between
October 1976 and January 1977, he was hospitalized for alco-
holism four times.
Although I am not very concerned with documenting the cor-
respondence of Carver's personal life and his fiction—Sam Halpert
does that ably in Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography—I offer
this brief biography because Carver mines this rich, passionate,
confusing, hurtful experience throughout his career. His second
life, as Carver put it, is also reflected in his work, and largely ac-
counts for the significant change of tone in his poetry. Like many
of his characters, Carver was a survivor, quitting drinking after
several aborted attempts on June 2, 1977. The subsequent years,
which Carver referred to as "gravy," were marked by personal and
professional success: a stable relationship with the poet Tess Gal-
lagher; significantly increased book sales; and critical laurels such
as Cathedral's nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, the Mildred and
Harold Strauss Living Award, the Levinson Prize from Poetry for
Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, and Esquire
magazine's placement of Carver in the "red-hot center" of "the
Literary Universe in 1987" (Meyer, RC 17). Since Carver's death
in August of 1988 at the relatively young age of 50, popular and
critical acclaim for his work has increased. Robert Altman's 1993
film Short Cuts, based on many Carver stories, speaks to the for-
mer; six books of scholarly criticism along with numerous MA the-
ses, several doctoral dissertations, and scores of scholarly articles
listed by MLA Bibliography speak to the latter.1
I first started working on Carver in the fall of 1994, these ef-
forts culminating in a dissertation entitled "Raymond Carver: A
Study of Vre-Cathedral Prose and Poetry" (Ohio University 1996).
Planned and executed as a series of separate essays on Carver's pre-
Cathedral fiction and poetry, my dissertation examines, besides
virtually all the Fires poetry, unreliable narration, the symbolic use
of the commonplace, omission, and water imagery. Having been
extensively revised—there are no longer separate chapters on
water imagery or the Fires poetry, for instance—this text is now
complemented with further essays on the stories of Will You Please
Introduction 3

Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk

About Love (1981), a chapter on Cathedral (1983), analysis of the
final stories, which are collected in Where I'm Calling From: New
and Selected Stories (1988), and essays examining Carver's poetic
technique, key themes, and most important poems.
My principal aim is to provide criticism to college students
reading Carver, who will benefit from the entire book but espe-
cially from the extremely detailed readings in the early chapters.
Starting in chapter four, the readings are generally shorter, a
change motivated less by preference than by practicality and by a
desire for comprehensiveness; if I were to spend as much space ex-
amining the intricacies of Carver's work as I do in the first three
chapters, I could not cover as many stories and still have a book of
publishable length. I analyze a version of every story that appears
in Where I'm Calling From, the Carver book most likely to be as-
signed to students. As for the poetry, this study provides the first
easily available, detailed criticism of Carver's work in this genre.2
In their Carver monographs, Adam Meyer, Randolph Runyon, and
Arthur Saltzman devote a combined 25 pages or so to the poetry,
focusing on its connection to the prose and offering no analysis of
its intricacies. The other Carver studies virtually ignore this genre.
Almost thirty percent of this book is devoted to the poetry, as I an-
alyze poems from Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (1983), Where
Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985), Ultramarine
(1986), and A New Path to the Waterfall (1989) as they are col-
lected in All of Us: The Collected Poems (1998).
This book examines Carver's technique and sensibility, the lat-
ter term used to encompass treatment of characters, thematic ar-
guments about key subjects, and Carver's vision of himself and
those close to him. Engaging with the central issues in Carver stud-
ies, I reach these conclusions:

1. Despite the recent controversy surrounding the magnitude

of Gordon Lish's role in the development of Will You Please? and
What We Talk About, Carver's fiction has a solid place in the
twentieth-century American canon. "Will You Please Be Quiet,
Please?," "They're Not Your Husband," "Why Don't You
Dance?," "So Much Water So Close to Home," "The Third Thing
That Killed My Father Off," "Popular Mechanics," "What We
Talk About When We Talk About Love," "Where I'm Calling
From," "A Small, Good Thing," "Cathedral," "Blackbird Pie,"
and "Errand" are just some of the stories to cite to argue that
Carver is one of the best short-story writers in English of the twen-
4 The Fiction and Poetry of Raymond Carver

tieth century. Less clear, unfortunately, is the significant quality

and diversity of Carver's poetry; the poems are certainly more than
short-short stories or, as R. T. Smith opines unjustly, "the outlines
of unwritten stories" (qtd. in Schweizer 131).
2. As Carver's poetry developed, his verse became more pro-
saic, culminating with A New Path to the Waterfall, a rare amal-
gamation of prose, poetry, and prose poems. Narrative is a key
technique, yet the positioning of words and lines, stanzaic struc-
ture, repetition, alliteration, and, most importantly, imagery and
symbolism create an impressive poetry that deserves recognition
on its own terms as opposed to being mentioned solely in con-
junction with the fiction. Broader both thematically and emotion-
ally than the prose, Carver's poetry encompasses a vast gamut of
subjects including, most notably, writers and writing; alcoholism;
the domestic with marital relationships emphasized; nature; and,
most prominently, death.
3. Unreliable narration dominates Carver's first-person stories
and occasionally contributes to significant indeterminacies. Never-
theless, I depart from the views of such critics as Marc Chenetier,
Jiirgen Pieters, and Michael Trussler who emphasize the impor-
tance of indeterminacy in Carver's poetics. Though indeterminacy
touches all of Carver's work, it is insignificant in most stories; in-
deed, the vast majority of stories determine their meanings clearly
enough despite copious ellipses and avoidance of privileged points
of view. When important, indeterminacy usually pertains to char-
acter motivation or plot; with regards to theme, Daniel Lehman's
observation that Carver's "symbolic strategy resolves ambiguity"
is quite sound (45). While Nesset's description of the symbolic
function of the cathedral in "Cathedral" suggests nicely the sub-
tlety of Carver's technique—"the cathedral—like all of Carver's
symbols—represents mainly itself"—I disagree strongly with his
claim that the "metaphorical resonances" are "typically non-insis-
tent" (Stories 68). In Carver's work, traditional as well as story-
specific symbols determine meaning far more decisively than
Nesset would allow. Corollaries to these arguments are that
Carver's open endings are not always so open as they initially ap-
pear; that in many instances, omission does not create significant
indeterminacy; and that Carver deliberately and successfully cre-
ates many reader-perceived and some character-perceived epipha-
4. Although Carver's work contains metaliterary elements, in
Introduction 5

no story—with the possible exceptions of "Bright, Red Apples"

and "Put Yourself in My Shoes"—is a metafictional theme fore-
grounded ahead of any other theme. It is not true, as Trussler sug-
gests, that Carver's minimalism generally enacts a criticism of
fiction or narrative. Though this element might be important in a
particular story, "Why Don't You Dance?," Trussler's thesis does
not apply to Carver's minimalism in general. Indeed, the applica-
bility of minimalism to Carver's work depends upon the definition
of this protean term, which applies only when we restrict its mean-
ing to denote a style privileging such things as economy, simple
diction, and clear syntax.
5. The terms postmodern and postmodernist also apply to
Carver's work in varying degrees based upon the particular defini-
tion of the concept. Self-reflexiveness and indeterminacy are post-
modern qualities in some of the fiction, yet the strong order of
Carver's pieces owes more to modernism's privileging of structure
and unity.
6. I engage Alan Wilde's dismissal of Carver as a catatonic re-
alist, conceding that some stories can be read as deterministic,
though we should differentiate between characters who lack the
intellectual, emotional, and economic resources to improve their
lives and a world that prevents transcendence regardless of the
characters' efforts. If both visions are deterministic, Carver's is
generally the former. Wilde exaggerates the pessimistic and mono-
chromatic nature of Carver's fiction and, perhaps most impor-
tantly, ignores its poignancy and correlative value. A related issue
to determinism is Carver's control of his characters. I draw atten-
tion to What We Talk About stories to illustrate that some char-
acters act implausibly, yet generally Carver's symbolic, elliptical
technique does not deny characters their credibility.
7. It is fallacious to argue that Carver never belittles his char-
acters; a related fallacy is that Carver never judges them. To expose
or emphasize his characters' moral failings, Carver occasionally
employs farce or verbal irony that we, but not the characters, per-
ceive. Though never the norm, the use of irony and farce to delin-
eate characters' moral natures occurs in the early and middle
fiction. As Carver acquired a greater sense of his worth as both a
man and a writer, caricature diminished in his work.
8. Rejecting Bill Delaney's view that Carver's "writings are re-
markably devoid of allusions to religion" ("Poetry" 534), this
study argues that ironic Christian allusion including Trinity sub-
6 The Fiction and Poetry of Raymond Carver

stitutes is an important element in both the fiction and poetry, re-

inforcing Carver's nonteleological vision while occasionally elevat-
ing characters' stature or worth.
9. Mark Facknitz suggests that Cathedral demonstrates "the
emergence of a theme of salvation" ("Menace" 136). This is one
of many critical claims that exaggerate the thematic and attitudi-
nal shift between What We Talk About and Cathedral. Most con-
spicuously illustrated by the title story in Will You Please?, the
actuality of salvation exists in Carver's work before Cathedral.
True, Cathedral is Carver's most affirmative fiction collection and
What We Talk About his most pessimistic, yet the difference be-
tween the two, in terms of hope generated for characters, is rela-
tively small.
10. Meaning in Carver is created by referential and nonrepre-
sentational means. Carver's work creates, as one of my novel
teachers would put it, "theater of the lap." Meaning is also cre-
ated, however, by the textual axis—how the words relate to one
another besides what reality they mimic—and by secondary or ter-
tiary meanings of words that are not part of what is literally de-
noted. Carver's work does not fit easily in the genre of realism.
When nonmimetic meaning controls what is mimetically created,
the fiction moves out of this genre.

Many have lauded Carver for his fiction and at least one, De-
laney, believes that he was the most important American fiction
writer since World War II. Anyone privileging the long form will
look incredulously at Delaney's assessment; indeed, partisans of
Donald Barthelme may reject the idea that Carver was even the
most important short-story writer of his age. Nevertheless, he was
a major figure who contributed to the development of serious fic-
tion, influencing a number of younger writers, most notably Jay
Mclnerney, his student at Syracuse University, and more estab-
lished writers such as Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff. By drawing
deserved attention to Carver's poetry, this study should only en-
hance this worthy writer's reputation.

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