Violent or Healing: An Exploration of the Role of Water in Raymond Carver’s Stories

The beautiful Pacific Northwest serves as a perfect backdrop for Raymond Carver’s stories, full of recurring symbolism, underlying themes, and significant motifs, most importantly the repeated theme of water. Just as water plays such a significant role in the identity, culture, and nature of the Pacific Northwest, Carver’s continued inclusion of the theme in his short stories gives it a similarly significant role, but one that does not necessarily hold the same meaning throughout each story. Water is mentioned in many different forms: melting ice, snow, rivers, rain, and even running water in a bath or a sink. Though the theme of water holds significance in Carver’s literature, the role it plays in the respective stories greatly differs. On one hand, in some instances it accompanies and represents violence, but at the same time in other stories, it also exists on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, representing health and healing.

There is almost a universal acceptance of the healing powers of water. Isak Dinesen once wrote, “the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” On one hand, this speaks to the seemingly endless forms of water that exist in nature that we experience every day, but it also cites water as a cure. Swimming is therapeutic for countless numbers of people, sometimes drinking water is all someone needs to calm down, taking showers or baths can automatically relax and restore.

Carver explores these restorative qualities of water in many of his stories, but he specifically utilizes the theme of water in the form of bathing in “The Bath” (also known in later versions as “A Small, Good Thing”). With this short story, the importance of water is highlighted even just within the title, indicating the significance of the theme. In this story, a mother and father are at the hospital anxiously awaiting their young son’s emergence from a coma after getting hit by a car on his birthday. Naturally the story is filled with fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and helplessness, but the idea of water in the form of a bath exists as safe place for both the husband and the wife respectively. While the couple is waiting at the hospital, the narrator focuses on the husband, saying “fear made him want a bath,” (Carver 252) which establishes the bath as a place of safety. He returns home, washes his face, shaves, and gets into the bath, hoping it will restore and rejuvenate him, but he is interrupted by one of the many mysterious and aggressive phone calls from the baker of his son’s birthday cake. In turn, the wife, Ann, goes home from the hospital later, in the hopes of also taking a bath. She talks to a man in the waiting room on her way out, saying “‘my son was hit by a car…But he’s going to be all right. He’s in shock now, but it might be some kind of coma too. That’s what worries us, the coma part. I’m going out for a little while. Maybe Ill take a bath…There’s a chance everything will change when I’m gone’” (Carver 257). Here, the bath becomes not only a symbol of health, safety, and rejuvenation for the parents, but also represents possible health of their child. Ann hopes that in the act of her leaving the hospital and going home and taking a bath, her son will in turn finally wake up. In the later version of “The Bath” from Beginners, which was renamed “A Small, Good Thing”, Ann, in the same manner that her husband did before he got into his bath, utters the words “’I’m scared to death’” (Carver 818). This story is a constant cycle of expectation, disappointment and despair, and the bath provides a welcome break from that cycle, representing healing, safety, and comfort.

The story “What’s In Alaska?” also includes a scene involving a bath, and it’s used again as a symbol of comfort and restoration when the character Carl welcomes a bath after a tense interaction with his wife, Mary, who is later suggested in the story as adulterous. There are also other stories that don’t necessarily include baths, but they incorporate the idea of using running water from the sink or from the shower to restore health or experience a feeling of safety and comfort. In “What Is It?” Leo “splashes water on his face” (Carver 163) after a particularly intense and highly charged argument with his partner Toni, in an effort to restore himself after the confrontation. Additionally, in “Fat”, the unnamed narrator takes a shower after she gets home from work, escaping to a comforting place because her relationship with her partner Rudy is unfulfilling, distant, and misunderstood. We can all relate to utilizing water to instill a sense of comfort and health. Few things are more calming or restorative than a hot bath or shower, and even merely splashing water on your face from the sink can be the cure for tiredness or help dissipate any sort of negative feelings. Carver’s frequent use of water is not an accident—he uses it as a purposeful theme representing healing and safety to balance out the many negative thoughts and feelings that come with his stories.

Though water is sometimes used as a balance against the more undesirable qualities of his stories, Raymond Carver also uses water to actually accentuate or represent some of those negative feelings that pervade his literature. Even though I did just spend three pages singing the praises of water, highlighting its healing qualities and the sense of comfort it can instill, water does have another side. I grew up with a family beach house in Tofino, British Columbia on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and I have been surfing there since I was a little girl. One of the first things my dad told me when he taught me was that water would not always be my friend. The ocean is unpredictable, ruthless, and violent, and sometimes fighting it just pulls you further out into a riptide, crashes you into awaiting rocks, or just swallows you so deep that you end up drowning. Carver sits on opposite sides of a spectrum in his short stories—not only does he explore water as a symbol for health, but he also uses it as a symbol that accompanies violence.

The clearest representation of Carver associating water with violence is in his short story “So Much Water So Close To Home”. Three men on a fishing trip find a woman dead in the river, but decide to leave her there and not report it until after their trip is over, waiting several days to pack up their camp and find a phone to call the police. This incident creates a significant disconnect between one of the men, Stuart, and his wife, Claire. As indicated by the title, obviously water plays an incredibly important part in the story, beginning with the fact that the dead woman was found in a river. This almost contaminates the water in a way, associating with death and violence; given that we also know the woman was raped before she was killed. Additionally, while Claire and Stuart are arguing about the incident in the kitchen, Claire (who is the narrator), says “I close my eyes for a minute and hold onto the drainboard…Despite everything, knowing all that may be in store, I rake my arm across the drainboard and send the dishes and glasses smashing and scattering across the floor,” (Carver 865). Even though water is not expressly mentioned in this instance, Claire’s random and instinctive act of violence happens at the drainboard, which is definitely associated with water. Later in the story, Claire and Stuart go for a drive, and end up sitting at a picnic area next to a creek. Watching the creek, Claire finds herself identifying with the woman’s dead body, recounting, “I looked at the creek. I float toward the pond, eyes open, face down, staring at the rocks and moss on the creek bottom until I am carried into the lake where I am pushed by the breeze,” (Carver 870). Another instance where water accompanies the idea of violence is while Claire is driving the harrowing road to the dead woman’s funeral, and a man knocks on her window when she’s pulled over on the shoulder. She’s fearful that she’s going to be raped and killed by this man, just like the woman was, and in that instance she mentions how she “can hear the river somewhere down below the trees,” (Carver 879). Finally, the last significant moment where water comes into play lies at the very end of the story, in the version from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, when Stuart one-sidedly facilitates sex with Claire. She narrates, “He reaches an arm around my waist and with his other hand he begins to unbutton my jacket and then he goes on to the buttons of my blouse. ‘First things first,’ he says. He says something else. But I don’t need to listen. I can’t hear a thing with so much water going,” (Carver 279). Though it’s not an explicitly violent, there is definitely something vicious about facilitating unwanted sex. We saw earlier in the story what happened to the woman who was raped and how she ended up dead in the water, and the fact that Claire hears water as this starts happening represents Carver’s use of symbolism for water equating violence.

Similarly to the river in “So Much Water So Close To Home”, the river in “Nobody Said Anything” also serves as a representation of violence. The two boys in the story are trying to catch a giant fish in the river, and Carver somewhat disturbingly describes the hectic, philandering way that the narrator (one of the unnamed boys) ends up catching and pretty violently killing the fish. The river as the backdrop for this scene provides another example of Carver’s use of water to accompany violence. In addition, in the short, haunting story “Popular Mechanics”, where two parents engage in a physical fight for their baby, the story is introduced with an extremely watery backdrop. The narrator recalls that “early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark,” (Carver 302). The fact that this incredibly violent, disturbing story is introduced surrounded by so much watery imagery in the form of rain and melting snow, lends to the pattern of water representing violence.

As we see from these examples from his short stories, Raymond Carver explores two very different representations of water utilizing it symbolically and thematically in his works. Drawing upon the water-filled setting of the Pacific Northwest, his frequent inclusion of water in its various forms provides us with a significant yet inconsistent symbol. On one hand, it serves as a representation of healing and comfort, but on the other, completely opposite hand, it also serves to represent violence. Though it may be initially seem surprising and unusual to have this sort of frequent symbolism without a conflicting meaning behind it, Carver’s stories are rich with conflict, and these contradictory interpretations of the same theme actually aid in the sense of disagreement and conflict that always seem to exist in Raymond Carver’s literature. In the end, water exists as a very small piece of a much larger, more important theme in Carver’s writing. I think the fact that his grave now sits in ‘Ocean View Cemetery’ in Port Angeles, Washington, can be interpreted as a sign that the contradiction will always exist. Though he is now dead, his body lying underground, he is at peace, with a view of the ocean, showing us that even though water can sit side by side with violence and death, it can also sit just as securely with comfort and peace.

Discoveries in ‘The Tempest’ and ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’

Discoveries that lead to self-reflection and future enlightenment often hold the most significance in our lives. The capacity for discoveries to take a metamorphic effect on an individual and alleviate former times is conducive to their prominence. This notion is emphasized in William Shakespeare’s play; ‘The Tempest’ (1611) and Raymond Carver’s short story; ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’, (1989). The authors of these texts illustrate the differing aspects and transformative nature of self-discoveries and affirm the important role these discoveries play in an individual’s moral improvement.

Discoveries can often influence individuals to re-evaluate their personal morals and beliefs. In ‘The Tempest’, Shakespeare reinforces the potential for introspective self-improvement as a result of our discoveries through his characterisation of the protagonist, Prospero, and the process of discovery he undergoes to ultimately achieve an enlightened sense of self. At the beginning of the play, Prospero is depicted with his initial vanity, egotistical nature and immense power. This opening storm cast by Prospero is a metaphor, representing a need for change in values and initially represents him as being exceedingly powerful. The pathetic fallacy of the storm also expresses the turmoil of his emotional state and is symbolic of the general chaos which reigns in the world of the play. As Prospero recounts his loss of dukedom and the malice now present he exclaims, “I find my zenith doth depend upon a most auspicious star.” This remark is symbolic of Prospero’s recognition that he needs to achieve new ‘reference points’, and his realization that his power is more tenuous than he would like to believe. Influences and philosophies like humanism were popular during the Renaissance period (1485- 1660), espoused by theorists such as Pico and Erasmus. In ‘The Tempest’, this links to the notion of forgiveness over vengeance, but also to Prospero acknowledging that he cannot control other people and needs to allow them to make their own choices about themselves, their lives and values. As the play concludes and Prospero has discovered the negative effects of his power, he expresses his renewed virtues through his anaphoric declaration, “I’ll break my staff… I’ll drown my book.” Prospero’s staff and book are symbolic of his dark perspective towards life, by surrendering his props, Prospero can no longer ‘conceal’ himself behind his magic and evidently has managed to restore his sense of humanity. Shakespeare’s characterization of Prospero particularly allows the audience to appreciate the value of being able to self-reflect. Thus, by acknowledging Prospero’s improved morals, the audience can learn to appreciate the good and bad in the world and recognize that ultimately it is more important to focus on self-improvement.

Discoveries can portray the repercussions of traumatizing situations and the fluctuating emotions that individuals experience at delicate times. This is emphasized in the text, ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ a short story was written by Raymond Carver, depicting various aspects of discoveries as it explores the complications and repercussions involved after a group of men find a corpse whilst on a fishing trip and fail to report the incident immediately. Claire, the wife of one of those men, undergoes a journey of questioning and disbelief as she is informed of her husband’s actions. As the emotions begin to have a significant impact on Claire there is an incident at the sink where she narrates, ‘I rake my arm across the drainboard and send the dishes to the floor.’ The setting of the incident, (near water) is the introduction of the leitmotif of water. The reader is also informed that the men discovered the body in water, this is symbolic of the violent incidents and turbulent emotions that occur during the story. The author suggests that this violent act is provoked by the water nearby, not by Claire’s nature. As she begins to isolate and dehumanize herself due to the disbelief and suspicion she has in her husband, the reader begins to view a real lack of communication in their relationship. This is especially depicted through the sexual connotations ‘I turned and opened my legs.’ This blatant act shows just how detached she has become from her husband, due to his immoral behavior. Similarly, later in the text, Claire reads a newspaper clipping explaining that ‘The body has been identified, claimed. But it took some examining, some putting things into, some cutting, some weighing, some measuring, some putting things back again and sewing them in.’ The use of a depersonalizing pronoun ‘it’ mirrors the previous technique, further exemplifying that Claire has been reduced to simply a body, relative to her husband and that all of her emotional feelings have moved away from him. As well as this, the identifying of the body is symbolic of Claire, who identifies her emotions and concerns and ultimately comes to the terms that she is disgusted with her husband. It is also apparent, from this discovery and the actions of her husband, that Claire questions as to whether she can live with a man who possesses such behaviors. Furthermore, this psychological discovery is ultimately transformative as it causes her to isolate herself when she begins to feel disconnected due to a lack of communication in her marriage. Hence, the reader can appreciate the importance of not becoming isolated and maintain communication in these desperate situations in order to reflect on oneself and acquire a better understanding and thus moral enlightenment.

Individuals may be lead to new perspectives of the world through the careful construction of reality through another individual. This perception of discovery is conveyed in ‘The Tempest’ as Shakespeare details the profound effects and ramifications that Miranda encounters as she is enlightened upon her discovery of Prince Ferdinand. Coming from a background of minimal interaction with men other than her father, her individual perceptions are altered as she embarks on a love-driven journey and concludes that mankind is, ‘A thing divine’. This religious imagery conveys how deeply Miranda is overwhelmed by her own desire. In addition, her acquaintance is further depicted in the metaphor, ‘There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple’, where a coupling religious reference, expresses how in awe she is of mankind itself. However, contrasting to Miranda’s admiration, Prospero warns her that looks may be deceiving and lessens her ignorant perception of mankind by creating a lexical chain of primitive behaviors. He exclaims, “It eats; it sleeps and hath such senses as we have”. By deriding Miranda’s celestial impression, Shakespeare mocks his Jacobean society, which held high patriarchal values and assumed that you attained power, wealth and beauty through social class. His ridicule, therefore, implies that new discoveries can prompt a change in values, such as social class equality, and lead to new and profound understandings of society and the world. Miranda is enlightened as she acquires the discovery of mankind and is allowed to develop a further understanding upon considering her Father’s admonition. As the Jacobean time was an age of exploration, Shakespeare promotes that in particular, new discoveries can lead to a greater comprehension of our surroundings.

Throughout William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ it is emphasized that discoveries can challenge our understanding of personal beliefs and force us to see ourselves accurately and specifically and that this process can be confronting and unsettling. Furthermore, the transformative nature of discoveries from both, oneself and an individual’s surrounding environment is established and from these two texts, the reader is confronted with the profound significance of self-reflection. Ultimately, it is evident that in order to acquire a sense of moral improvement in the future, we must first consider and celebrate instances from both past and present situations.

Carver and Hopper: The Parallels of their Pieces

Raymond Carver and Edward Hopper are renowned influencers in their respective expressions of the arts. Carver’s literary work and Hopper’s paintings are devoted to human interaction. Although their avenues of expressing such genres are different, they draw extensive parallels. Over time, literary scholars have presented a case for the relationship between Carver’s paintings and Hopper’s stories, igniting a phenomena of works that are inspired by Hopper’s medium to portray scenes from Carver’s stories. In fact, professors have challenged their students to identify a Carver story and relate it to a painting by Hopper. “Room in New York” by Edward Hopper extensively correlates to Raymond Carver’s piece, titled “Why Don’t You Dance?” through musical symbolism and setting.

Raymond Carver and Edward Hopper are renowned influencers in their respective expressions of the arts. Carver’s literary work and Hopper’s paintings are devoted to human interaction. Although their avenues of expressing such genres are different, they draw extensive parallels. Over time, literary scholars have presented a case for the relationship between Carver’s paintings and Hopper’s stories, igniting a phenomena of works that are inspired by Hopper’s medium to portray scenes from Carver’s stories. In fact, professors have challenged their students to identify a Carver story and relate it to a painting by Hopper. “Room in New York” by Edward Hopper extensively correlates to Raymond Carver’s piece, titled “Why Don’t You Dance?” through musical symbolism and setting.

Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” portrays a corresponding model of musical symbolism. In “Why Don’t You Dance?” the girl uses the music from the record player to spark a romantic interaction between her and her partner. The record player’s musical accompaniment does little to sway the boy’s attention, as he is transfixed on his checkbook and the cost of furniture. The girl’s partner is similar to the man in Hopper’s painting, as they have lost the capacity to accept romantic gestures because they are lost in menial tasks. Carver writes, “‘Dance with me,’ the girls said to the boy and then to the man, and when the man stood up, she came to him with her arms wide open” (Carver 9). In this scene, the girl attempts to win the attention of the boy in order to initiate a tender moment of dancing. However, the boy rejects her advances and she is left toying with the music, much like the woman in Hopper’s painting. It is clear that both Carver and Hopper understand the dynamic of a failing relationship that even music, which symbolizes romance, cannot change. In that respect, Carver and Hopper have mastered the interpretations behind this genre of human interaction and have utilized music as a tool to symbolize the last attempts of romance in the process of saving a relationship. It is through this thought process that “Why Don’t You Dance?” and “Room in New York” are closely related.

Setting is a large factor in both Raymond Carver’s and Edward Hopper’s pieces that play into the relationship between “Why Don’t You Dance?” and “Room in New York.” In Hopper’s painting, “Room in New York,” the setting is ordinary, and is intentionally designed in that manner. The furniture is arranged in such a way that it is inviting in the eyes of the audience. There is a dim light with a comfortable yellow as the wallpaper. Additionally, there is a framed picture of a scenic setting along with a relaxing red couch that the man has taken to. It is clear that the woman is trying to make a house into a home, very much like she is trying to turn the mechanics of a relationship into love. Her desperation is clear to the audience, enough to assume that she will continue turning the house into a home for the man in order to ignite his love. In that respect, the relationship between the man and the woman in Hopper’s painting will continue, but not in that manner the woman desires.

In Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” setting is influential to the storyline. The old man in Carver’s story has furniture spread out on the lawn exactly as if it was laid out in the house’s interior. When the girl and the boy in the story come across this scene, they begin to create their own house with comfortable furniture. Carver writes, “The girl and the boy were furnishing a little apartment” (Carver 4). As they look through what the yard sale was offering, the audience realizes that the girl wants to make a house into a home, and the boy has not reached that sense of understanding. Carver communicates through the girl’s reaction to the setting that she believes that if she can turn a house into a home through the furniture of an old man, – who was once in a loving relationship – it acts as an omen that she interprets as a blessing; despite the fact that the old man has lost in love. Similar to the female character in Hopper’s painting, the woman portrayed in Carver’s story uses the furniture as a means to create a home in the hopes that it will revive her partner’s desires, as she wants beyond romance: love. Both Carver and Hopper visibly indicate through the setting of their pieces that a house with furniture does not make a home with love. Much like Hopper’s case, Carver’s female character continues to wade in her relationship, despite her desires not being met. Although each female character in Carver’s and Hopper’s work has their own ambiguous reasons for remaining in their relationships, the significance is that the audience understands that the women have not yet realized, or choose not to realize, that their cause is hopeless. By applying setting to present the undercurrents in the women’s methodologies, Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” and Edward Hopper’s “Room in New York” are analogous.

The psychology behind human interaction is vehemently explored by Raymond Carver and Edward Hopper, despite their differences in presentation. Both masterfully reference to the blurred lines of what is and what is desired. Their influence is widespread, as the dynamics they discuss are honest to the experiences of their audience. They portray reality’s relationship with love in a powerful, and austere light – outside the façade of Hollywood’s famed plotlines. Carver and Hopper are not simply alternatives to popular modern romance, but intellectuals in their own right when artfully defining the union between a man and a woman, exemplified in the parallels between “Why Don’t You Dance?” and “Room in New York.”

Works Cited

Carver, Raymond. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. New York, NY: Vintage, 1989. Print.

Hopper, Edward. Room In New York. 1932. Oil Painting. N.p.