Acceptance Of Death In Raymond Carver’S “A Small, Good Thing”
Death has been an unfathomable topic in literature as it is one of the greatest riddles in life, yet accepting death is the first step towards realizing our mortality and transience, a fact that would drastically lessen our existential angst. A child’s death, however, is considered to be among the most unfavorable and devastating events a parent could expect. This paper focuses on the acceptance of death in Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing”. It pinpoints the gradation of tension and agony that Scotty’s parents go through and dwells upon the narrative techniques that Carver uses to achieve this dramatic effect. The paper will discuss how Scotty’s parents deal with their son’s death and how Carver shows their grief and ire by simultaneously holding on his minimalistic style in writing. It will also delve into discussing food as something that brings us together and calms us down in turbulent times. Keywords: Raymond Carver, death, acceptance, literature, minimalism.
Summary: This paper revolves around the ways Raymond Carver treats death in one of his most successful short stories “A Small, Good Thing”. It deals with Carver’s minimalism as a literary device used to portray the communication (or lack of it) between characters. For that purpose, the paper may roughly be divided into three main parts that show the different stages of dealing with Scotty’s death that his parents go through. The first part talks of denial and grief, and it has to do with the different ways in which people react to the death of a loved one. The second part elaborates on miscommunication as a leitmotif in Carver’s stories, and through examples, it shows the complete breakage of communication between the characters; namely between Scotty’s parents and the doctor, the baker, and the nurses, to name a few. The final, third part, delves into the act of eating as a small, good gesture of kindness that brings people together and calms them down when a person dies. The end sums up the main theme of the story, of how we constantly try to understand one another and, unfortunately, often fail to do so because of the unreliable and multi-faceted nature of language. ‘Death, be not proud’ – John Donne, Holy Sonnets (Donne 1999:128)All great literature somewhat orbits around death. From 74 onstage deaths in Shakespeare’s complete works to the collection of Emily Dickinson’s 1800 poems which are all directly or indirectly connected with death, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick which constantly reminds us that death lurks around each and every corner.
The renowned German literary critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin, has said that what we look for in literature (i. e. in fiction) is the knowledge of death that is denied to us in the real life. The dilemma that naturally arises from such a statement is: can literature help us accept or confront this most definite of all endings? (Benjamin, Bullock, & Jennings 1996). Unfortunately, death is the greatest tragedy in life that often brings people together and has the potential to connect and to console. The idea of connectedness through suffering is elaborated by Nietzsche in one of his essays titled The Birth of Tragedy. The essay revolves around the reasons the Greeks are so curious about tragic plays – and the reason he states is that tragedy emphasizes the sense of community by reminding people of the unjustifiable ways the universe treats the individual. (Nietzsche and Tanner 1994). With time, the topics that each literary period explores change (just as the values of the readers change) – but death as a theme is still an unfathomable abyss and it seems that will continue to be. Even in recent times, modern and postmodern writers frequently present death as the ultimate dilemma that creates existential angst and dread because it offers an entrance to authentic self-discovery. In that sense, death is most often seen in a larger context, as a step of the natural cycle of decay and renewal; or sometimes even dealt with as a reason for laughter, co-opted for humorous ends by writers of black comedy or absurdist drama. Despite the amount of lightness in such works, their writers are fully aware of the seriousness of their subject. In an interview, Carver himself has said that “… to a degree, domestic conflicts can quickly escalate into existential conflicts. ” (Alton 1988:7).
In literature, the image of death carries a carries a wide spectrum of symbolic interpretations that continue to gain new implications and connotations over the years. This is especially the case when we parallel death with notions of solipsism, estrangement, escapism and, ultimately, with the essence of literature itself. The aim of this paper is to delve into the ways in which we accept death by focusing on Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing” and interpreting the nuances in his writing with which he approaches death. Yet first, a word or two about his minimalistic writing style is included, to get a clearer image of his narrative techniques. ‘Less is more’ – Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto (Browning 2009:97)
What Carver did in prose very much resembles what William Carlos Williams did in poetry. He revived the American short story and was known for his dirty realism; prone to brevity and intensity, he focuses on mundane aspects of the middle-class life in simple and plain language – very much like Charles Bukowski. He is commonly associated with Hemingway’s writing style, although it might be argued that such a conclusion is based solely on their demonstration of an economical and bare prose style and that they stand for different types of minimalism. The Hemingwayesque writing style was popular among Carver’s generation of writers such as Donald Barthelme and Flannery O’Connor who, together with Carver, are considered to be the main pillars of the postmodern short story.
Be it as it may, Carver’s short stories may be analyzed by using the Iceberg Theory (also known as ‘the Theory of Omission’) according to which the tip of the iceberg is the text, but the meaning, together with all the tensions and emotions, lies underneath. The term was first coined by Hemingway and has been tightly connected with his writing style ever since. According to the theory, needless repetitions and unnecessary information should be omitted while revising the text. Hemingway’s biographer, Carlos Baker, has said that “…the writing style of the iceberg theory suggests that a story’s narrative and nuanced complexities, complete with symbolism, operate under the surface of the story itself. ” (Baker 1972:117). Similarly, in Carver’s stories, there is not much text on display and that leaves much room for the reader to rebuild the emotions and create different shades of meanings – at least for the reader that wants to use their imagination. The endings are particularly prone to various interpretations, as he makes them enigmatic, sometimes even mildly surrealist, and most of his titles are dubious. The lack of location and time imply that such stories can happen to anyone, anywhere. One of the most important elements in Carver’s writing is his use of language. He himself has said that: It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earing – with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it spend a chill along the reader’s spine – the source or artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That is the kind of writing that most interests me. (Fires 28). His language, however, is also used to provoke misunderstandings and breakage of communication between his characters. He successfully achieves this by subtly mentioning details that are seemingly intuitive and natural yet delicate and emotionally charged. In A Small, Good Thing, there are numerous such instances like Ann biting her lips or clenching her fists out of inability and inarticulateness of her emotions while her son was at the hospital, to name a few. Such elements will be further elaborated – what follows now is a brief summary of the story and the main plot-lines that will help us better understand the nuances in Carver’s writing and his craftsmanship with language.
A Small, Good Thing revolves around Scotty, an 8-year-old boy who had a hit-and-run accident on the day of his birthday. That same afternoon he is hospitalized and from this point on the story turns into a gradational agony in which his parents’ only hope is that he will soon recover. However, after a series of medical examinations, it appears that he is in some kind of a coma – a medical condition that even the doctors seem to be unable to identify. Unfortunately, Scotty dies the minute after he wakes up (three days after his birthday) and leaves his parents shattered and devastated.
There is another plot line running in parallel to the main story and it is about the baker who made Scotty’s birthday cake. Scotty’s mother, Ann, was supposed to pick up the cake before his birthday party but due to the series of unfortunate events, she completely forgets about it. The baker continuously phones them during the days they were at the hospital with their son, and these phone calls only upset and distresses them even more because they cannot remember who keeps calling them. After Scotty’s death, his mother remembers about the cake and they hurry towards the bakery at midnight to ask the baker for an apology for his behavior. Nonetheless, after a short conversation with him they seem to show empathy for each other’s personal pain, and at the very end of the story, Scotty’s parents eat at the bakery – they slowly calm down and accept the death of their child.
The story is a perceptive and complex psychological drama when it comes to intensifying emotions connected with grief. Its elegance is hidden in what resides under the seemingly simple surface common for Carver’s prose: complex and universal emotions that even the most unobservant (or casual) reader could immediately identify and relate with. In his characters, Carver exposes numerous multi-faceted emotional nuances, tensions and ill fortunes of a distressed middle-class.
What is significant in the story is how Ann deals with her son’s medical condition and death. At certain points, she believes that she is the only one who is suffering or that her husband is not as affected by the situation as much as she is. Here is an excerpt that explains her inner thoughts: “For the first time, she felt they were together in it, this trouble. She realized with a start that, until now, it had only been happening to her and to Scotty. She hadn’t let Howard into it, though he was there and needed all along. She felt glad to be his wife. ” (Carver, Cathedral 54). It seems that she cannot perceive her husband’s way of grieving just because it is not the same as hers; which as a peculiar observation – it appears to be difficult to show empathy for emotions that we have not experienced ourselves. Howard’s fingers running through her hair and holding her shoulder has made Ann feel connected with him. This is again mentioned in the story when he tells her that he, too, has been praying for Scotty. “But they seemed to feel each other’s insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way. ” (Cathedral 57).
The silence between Scotty’s parents is another element that speaks louder than their words. They are not sure how to behave since they do not have enough information about Scotty’s condition, and they constantly have a feeling of guilt every time they leave the child’s hospital room. Their near-inarticulateness, when confronted with loss, is significant and has been subject to criticism. “Critics who have scolded Carver for his minimalist shortcomings have done so for the same reasons that in previous generations they criticized Poe, Chekov, and Sherwood Anderson. ” (May 2001:48). What is usually pointed out is that Carver’s characters are too ordinary, unperceptive, and hopeless when they are confronted with difficult situations.A counterargument is that they may stand as an example of how people living routine lives are closer to experiencing epiphanies when they are put under the pressure of unexpected situations – such as the death of a loved one. Perhaps the most impressive and effective element in the story is its mastery of poetic details. These details create an atmosphere of utter helplessness and weariness in which Ann and Howard are trapped. Time passes by linearly but slowly, one scene after another and each one of them is marked by a simple gesture of hope, but also of pain. There are many such examples, some of which are Ann biting her lips while looking at Scotty, or clenching her fists out of anger, or feeling pain just by having her husband’s fingers on her shoulder. Howard also experiences similar moments:Howard took the box out to the garage, where he saw the child’s bicycle. He dropped the box and sat down on the pavement beside the bicycle. He took hold of the bicycle awkwardly so that it leaned against his chest. He held it, the rubber pedal sticking into his chest. He gave the wheel a turn.(Cathedral 61). The passage is written in such details that we can almost hear the sound the wheel makes when turned without us moving the pedals. It is such an empty sound and yet it totally resonates with Howard’s pain and suffering (especially if we have in mind that no one would ride the bicycle anymore). All these examples speak of a parent trying to come to terms with their child’s death, but they also speak of Carver’s art of subtlety in writing. Last but not least, the story forms a beautiful unity of the paradoxical nature of being isolated in our own emotions and the connectedness in our loneliness. Although Ann and Howard deal with Scotty’s death in different ways, and they may not directly recognize each other’s manifestations of grief, their pain still connects and strengthens their relationship. And in times like that, there is nothing more peaceful than knowing that you are not alone in your pain and suffering.
The complete breakdown of communication and miscommunication is a common element in many of Carver’s stories. He delves into linguistic nuances and discourses that show how language becomes an obstacle on an everyday basis. It may sound contradictory at first, but although the purpose of language is to provide successful communication, it simultaneously limits our perception and thought. Carver’s stories orbit around the impossibility of communication and expressing our feelings with thoughts and A Small, Good Thing is a perfect example of such a story. The characters in the story, like in many Absurdist plays, lack a vocabulary that would mirror their emotions, so they try to express them through ambiguous (and at times even deranged) language. Ann, Howard and even the baker seem to be too tired to reach to each other, even with language. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. (Cathedral 49)You know what I mean, he [Howards] said. Juice, something. I don’t know. I don’t know anything, Ann. Jesus, I’m not hungry, either. Ann, it’s hard to talk now. (Cathedral 55)The quotes consist of short and simple sentences and the frequent use of repetitions and clean syntax are noticeable. The dialogues are usually interrupted and are filled with commonplace observations rather than with emotions. This is where Carver’s writing skill lies – he shows emotions by building up the atmosphere rather than by directly telling us how his characters feel. And he is very picky with words since the “fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing. ” (Pound 67:33). He has what could be termed a cinematographic writing style: it is as if we are only given the stage directions of the characters – and it is our job to build their emotions while reading their lines.
There are few more situations in the story that stand for miscommunication. One of them happens when Scotty is carried down by the lift for some tests and Ann is also in the lift together with two orderlies who talk in a foreign language. The fact that she cannot understand what they are saying shows her inability to understand what is happening to her son. The doctors are not helping her either since none of them can tell her what Scotty’s diagnosis exactly is: ‘No, I don’t want to call it a coma,” the doctor said […] He’s just in a very deep sleep. ’ (Cathedral 60). It looks like he is almost trying to get away with it by using a euphemism that would not reflect the true nature of the medical condition. The most obvious and important element of miscommunication in the story appears when the baker kept phoning the parents to remind them of Scotty’s cake. While Scotty is at the hospital, the phone rings five times and each one of them is more horror-like than the previous one – creating tension, suspense and disruption of the natural flow of events:[. . . ] the telephone rang. She [Ann] picked it up on the first ring. “Hello”, she said, and she heard something in the background, a humming noise. “Hello!” she said. “For God’s sake,” she said. “Who’s this? What is it you want?” (Cathedral 57)Much later just before midnight, […] the telephone rang again. “Hello,” he said. “Who’s this? Hello! Hello!” The line went dead. “He hung up,” Howards said. “Whoever it was. ” (Cathedral 63)
This is such a strong element and device in the story as it clearly shows the utter breakage of communication between Scotty’s parents and the baker. Foreshadowing is another technique that Carver uses to warn the reader that Scotty will eventually die. It has to do with the African American family whose son has been stabbed with a knife and dies soon after he is being hospitalized. Ann has a short conversation about their son’s condition but even in the brief communication between them, there is somewhat a lack of words to express both their anger and their grief towards their children. It seems that language has completely failed to communicate the emptiness each one of them feels – an emotion that continues till the very end. The ending of the story is almost surreally sentimental. Scotty’s parents confront the baker but they all end up sharing a similar stream of emotions. The epiphany, in the end, is an awakening for all three of them. The baker calmed them down and brought them comfort with his food and in the end, they all empathized with one another through their shared feelings of agony and disappointment. Yet Scotty’s parents do not have this epiphany and it is evident that they have not accepted their son’s death until they went to the bakery. “… Carver’s typical text offers hardly any obvious hints as to its aesthetics, epistemology or politics. ” (Leypoldt 2001:531). What his characters feel, and how they feel, can be described in this way:Conflict and anger, at times directly or indirectly blaming the spouse for the death; breakdown of communication, such as avoidance of all discussion of the death or misunderstandings about it; low intimacy in which the combination of incongruent grieving, discordant coping are thought to contribute to a low sense of intimacy between partners. (Field and Behram 287). Their epiphany, however, occurs once they start talking with the baker and hear his story. It seems that they all somewhat connect on an emotional level since they all share a similar feeling of disappointment with life. On the one hand, the baker has been baking cakes for birthdays, anniversaries and all happy occasions but he does not have children on his own for whom he could feel happy and share these festivities. It is not mentioned that he has a wife either – so what he basically does is preparing food for occasions when families come together and celebrate, but he has not taken part in such celebrations himself. He had, too, accepted the injustice and meaninglessness of life – his bakery appears to be the only constant in his life. Still, in the end, he connects with the grieving parents, for they have too lost their purpose in life after the death of their child. In a way, “A Small, Good Thing presents the reader with an enlightening communal epiphany or collective cleansing that turns tragedy into Generativity – … a stage that can only be achieved by intimately embracing individuals on a familial, marital, and social level. ” (Bittlingmaier 2005:14).
What Carver might suggest with the story is that we are all connected in our smallness and in lack of control over our lives. And even though it is impossible for us to ever truly understand one another, our efforts to be kind and understand are ‘a small, good thing’ that make our transient lives worthwhile. Food comforts us all in times of pain and suffering, and this is a global tradition and an unwritten rule. That is why people give food on funerals, or whenever someone dies – because it calms people down. In this way, the baker’s warm hot rolls connect and comforts the three of them. They [Ann and Howard] 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. […] They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving. (Cathedral 72).
Food has always been considered as the crucial part of funeral traditions; and although different cultures have different rituals connected with food – the underlying purpose has always been the same: to connect and to create a safe and warm atmosphere in which people will forget about death. In A Small, Good Thing, both Scotty’s parents and the baker find the comfort and peace in the cozy bakery and with this, Carver ends the story on a positive tone that promises slow, but steady reconciliation with life. It is easy to conclude that this is a perceptive and touching story, or as Wordsworth has said: “the soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering. ” (Wordsworth 1892:458). In it, Carver subtly shows a range of emotions – from anger to grief and helplessness (or meaningless) – and all of them are in relation to the death of a loved one. Regardless of how distant and blurred it may seem at times, the thought that we and our loved ones will die will always be distressing because it interrupts the natural flow of life.
Carver’s craftsmanship lies in his ability to capture emotions that each one of us has felt at a particular time, like denial, grief, meaninglessness (and absurdity) of life, (mis)communication and linguistic limitations, but also simple gestures of kindness that have drastically changed the course of actions for the better. The Irish literary critic, Edna Longley, said that “all his [Carver’s] writing tends towards dramatic monologue, present-tense soliloquy that wears the past like a hair shirt. ” (Longley and Miller 1990:23). And it is an understatement to say that A Small, Good Thing is close to perfection. Ultimately, it seems proper to end with Carver’s own principles on writing and the power of words: “That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. ” (Carver, Fires 58).
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