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In Hopelessville: A Reconsideration of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing”

Jordan Williamson

Jordan Williamson is a rising sophomore from Blowing Rock, North Carolina. He might declare an English major sometime this year and hopes to incorporate an interest in Russian literature into his studies. He likes reading and writing, and spent this summer making fudge at Kilwin’s Ice Cream and Chocolates in Blowing Rock. He wrote his essay for Professor Randy Nelson’s English 220: Literary Analysis.

According to William Stull, Raymond Carver’s 1983 short story, “The Bath,” takes place in “Hopelessville,” a thematic world where “speech and feeling, talk and love, run at odds.”1 A later version of the story,”A Small, Good Thing” (1986) moves to a more optimistic place which, according to Stull, focuses on the “subtle but pervasive pattern of religious symbols,” which he believes introduces “Christian love” into Carver’s previously bleak world.2 The pattern Stull perceives is valid, but evidence in the story, particularly motifs of miscommunication and randomness, indicates a purpose for the symbolism different from the affirmation of Christianity posited by Stull. “A Small, Good Thing” uses religious symbolism for secular, humanistic ends, ends not as far “beyond Hopelessville” as Stull believes.

“A Small, Good Thing” opens with a trip to a bakery, where Ann Weiss orders a cake for her son Scotty’s eighth birthday party. The day of the party, though, a car hits Scotty, who is taken to the hospital, where his parents watch over him as he slips into abstract1-300x201 In Hopelessville: A Reconsideration of Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing"a coma. Scotty’s accident begins his development into what Stull calls “a Christlike figure, to be sure.”3 His parents each go home from the hospital to bathe, which Stull reads as symbolic of baptism, and on each trip a strange man calls. Readers know the man to be the baker, wanting someone to pay for the cake, but neither parent realizes the caller’s identity. After receiving her call, Ann rushes back to the hospital, where her husband Howard explains that the doctors plan to operate on Scotty. Before they can, though, Scotty sits up, screams, and dies, in what Stull calls “a sacrifice that recalls…the crucifixion.”4

The Weisses return home to mourn and tell their loves ones. The baker calls again. This time, though, Ann realizes who the caller is; and she and Howard drive to the bakery for a confrontation. The baker recognizes that he has, according to Stull, “violated the most basic Judeo-Christian ethics” and aplogizes.5 The Weisses, exhausted from their ordeal, forgive him and they, in Stul’s words, “reenact the central rite of Christianity, the Lord’s supper,” by sharing his bread.6 The sun, rises, “a classic symbol of the Resurrection,” and the characters, in Stull’s reading, “rise from spiritual death.”7

Stull’s recognition of religious symbolism is astute, but his overarching thematic calculation is not. He ignores the context in which the symbolism occurs, one largely defined by chaos. A random driver hits Scotty, allowing, in Kirk Nesset’s reading of the story, “forces to insinuate themselves into the placid interior of [the family’s] life.8 Howard is well aware of his position at the mercy of these forces; driving home for his bath he realizes that

he had been, so far lucky—he knew that. His parents were still living, his brothers and sister were established, his friends from college had gone out to take their places in the world. So far, he had kept away from any real harm, from those forces he knew existed and that could cripple or bring down a man if the luck went bad. He pulled into the driveway and parked. His left leg began to tremble. ((Raymond Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” Cathedral (New York: Vintage, 1989), 62.))

Howard’s appreciation for the forces of randomness comes right before the bath Stull interprets as baptism. Ann, too, sees chaos at work directly before her bath when she asks a family in the hospital for directions to the elevator. The family’s father gives her direction, but also tells Ann about the son, Franklin, they are waiting on, saying: “Somebody cut him. Tried to kill him. There was a fight where he was at. At this party. They say he was just standing and watching. Not bothering anybody. But that doesn’t mean anything these days.”9 Like Scotty, Franklin is a victim of a world governed only by random occurrence. These forces of randomness Howard and Ann see at work, then, “manifest themselves in the ominous calls of the baker.”10

If Scotty’s death is random, it doesn’t carry the sacrificial meaning Stull attributes to it. His death might acquire meaning through Ann’s and Howard’s later connection with the baker, but the death itself has no salvific value because Scotty’s isn’t sacrificed; the chaos surrounding him kills him the same way it kills Franklin, in a “one-in-a-million” occurrence in a world governed by “forces…that [can] cripple a man.” Placed in the context of randomness the story creates, Scotty cannot function as the Christ-like figure Stull suggests.

The element of chaos undermines the story’s other potentially religious symbolism. Stull sees the bath each parent takes as symbolic baptism and points to the way “this seemingly incidental action…[is made] the title of the original story.” (Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 12.)) Randolph Paul Runyon points out, though, that Stull seems to forget “his argument that [the short story] is the Christianized version of the hopeless, secular [“The Bath”].”11 If the baths signify anything, it is a connection to the ominous first story that ironically undercuts the baptism image supposedly inherent in a bath. They become less a positive image of Christianity and more representative of an initiation into the chaotic world that killed Scotty.

The ironic use of religious symbolism, though, ultimately makes the “second sacramental symbol,” communion with the baker, more meaningful.12 Alongside the pattern of religious symbols, the story develops a motif of miscommunication corrected in the final scene between the Weisses and the baker. The story opens with Ann in an “uncomfortable” exchange with the baker, feeling that there must be some connection “between them,” but left with only “the minimum exchange of words.”13 The calls between the unrecognized baker and the Weisses are even less productive; Howard’s conversation ends in confusion and hanging up,14 and Ann’s ends with her mistaking the baker for someone from the hospital and frantically calling Howard.15

The story represents a shift in Carver, not a move to something Christian, but to the possibility of “a small, good thing,” of communication and connection, even within the city limits of Hopelessville.

Miscommunication also defines the Weiss’s time at the hospital. The doctor there “doesn’t want” to call Scotty’s condition a coma, but cannot explain what it actually is. Charles E. May notes that more information is offered in “A Small, Good Thing” than is provided in “The Bath,” with “a verbatim definition of a coma from Webster’s English Dictionary,” but the definition “does nothing to clarify the essential mystery of the boy’s inaccessibility.”16 Even with additional information, it remains difficult for characters to articulate anything meaningful in the story.

Ann, though, still wants to understand the doctor’s explanation of Scotty’s condition. She stands over her son’s bed “trying to recall the doctor’s exact words, looking for any nuances, any hint of something behind his words other than what he had 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 listened to his breathing.”17 On her way out of the hospital, Ann has another brief miscommunication with Franklin’s family. Franklin’s mother mistakes Ann for a hospital employee, telling Ann to “tell [her] now.”18

This motif of miscommunication and disconnect peaks with Scotty’s death. Ann returns to the hospital after her bath and another disturbing call, and Howard tells her that the doctors “think they’re going to operate.”19 Immediately, Howard revises his remark, telling her that “they are going to operate,” making his brief dip into euphemism another of the story’s miscommunications.20 Then, Scotty wakes up, and Ann and Howard no longer have to comfort themselves with the doctor’s vagaries or worry about inscrutable phone calls. They lean over their son and “pat and squeeze his hand…and kiss his forehead again and again,” but then Scotty “look[s] at them…without any sign of recognition,” screams, and dies.21 Their brief moment to connect with their son ends with a lack of recognition.

Scotty’s death leaves the Weisses unmoored, left “to get used to…being alone.”22 Their doctor wants to offer condolences but “can’t even tell” them how sorry he is.23 He can tell them, though, that the hospital needs an autopsy, something that Howard “[can’t] understand.”24 The doctor hugs Ann, “seem[ing] full of some goodness she didn’tabstract1-300x201 In Hopelessville: A Reconsideration of Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing" understand,” but she cannot connect with him; instead, she “[keeps] looking at the hospital.”25 Christina Bieber Lake observes that the story’s communication takes place in language “banal, functional, or merely imitative.”26 Indeed, Ann worries that she cannot speak in words “used on TV shows where people were stunned by violent or sudden deaths.”27 Just before the baker calls for the final time, communication and connection have broken down to the level of the “Hopelessville” Stull believes that story represents a departure from.

Alongside the miscommunication and isolation, though, a pattern of connection develops. For Stull’s purposes, the most significant connection before the final communion occurs when prayer “restores and reunites” Ann and Howard.28 He compares their prayers to the “acts of private desperation” he sees in “The Bath,” and treats them as examples of “communal faith.”29 The story, though, makes it clear that the connection Ann and Howard feel through praying is one between them: she “realize[s] with a start that…she hadn’t let Howard into” their crisis before they discuss prayer, and begins to feel “glad to be his wife.”30

Stull appropriates for his interpretation the other major connection prior to the purported final communion, finding Ann’s meeting with Franklin’s family to be “a minor epiphany” when compared to their “isolation” in “The Bath.”31 He claims that Ann “feels drawn to these characters whose plights mirror her own,” an accurate assessment, given that they have common fears.32 However, Stull ignores and important textual detail: Ann “would have like to have said something else about the accident, told them more about Scotty…[but] she didn’t know how to begin…and stood looking at them without saying anything more.”33 Stull’s “minor epiphany” actually represents persons connected only by their mutual fear, unable to describe those fears.

Still, the presence of any connection at all indicates something new in Hopelessville. Stull sees the final scene, where the Weisses first confront, then forgive the baker, and eat his bread, as a representation of the Last Supper. Like the interpretation of Scotty as a Christ figure, or the baths as baptismal, the religious symbol at first seems apt. Importantly, though, the Weisses eat the baker’s bread, not Scotty’s cake. This may seem incidental, but when he calls, the baker explicitly refers to the cake as “Scotty.”34 The story, then, sets up a symbolic relationship in which the cake is identified with Scotty in the flesh, the exact correspondence between communal break and Christ, but doesn’t follow to the natural end, with the Weisses and the baker sharing the cake. Instead, the baker offers them “some of [his] hot rolls,” “a small, good thing in a time like this,” before “breaking open a large, dark loaf.”35 Ann and Howard forgive him and “listen carefully” as he “speak[s] of loneliness…of doubt and limitation.”36 The Weisses and the baker, in the midst of chaos and disconnection, “talk on into early morning.” 37 The story represents a shift in Carver, not a move to something Christian, but to the possibility of “a small, good thing,” of communication and connection, even within the city limits of Hopelessville.

Bibliography 

Carver, Raymond. “A Small Good Thing.” Cathedral.  New York: Vintage, 1989: 59-89.

Lake, Christina Bieber. “Technology, Contingency, and Grace: Raymond Carver’s ‘A Small, Good Thing’.” Christianity and Literature 60 (2011): 289-305.

May, Charles. “‘Do You See What I’m Saying?’: The Inadequacy of Explanation and the Uses of Story in the Short Fiction of Raymond Carver.” Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 39-49.

Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Runyon, Randoph Paul. Reading Raymond Carver. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Stull, William L. “Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver.” Philological Quarterly 64 (1985): 1-15.

 

  1. William L. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side to Raymond Carver,” Philological Quarterly 64 (1985), 4. []
  2. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 11. []
  3. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 12. []
  4. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 12. []
  5. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 12. []
  6. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 13. []
  7. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 12-13. []
  8. Kirk Nesset, The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1995), 62. []
  9. Carver, A Small, Good Thing,” 74. []
  10. Nesset, The Stories of Raymond Carver, 62. []
  11. Randolph Runyon. Reading Raymond Carver (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 149. []
  12. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 12. []
  13. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 60. []
  14. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 62. []
  15. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 75. []
  16. Charles May, “Do You See What I’m Saying?: The Inadequacy of Explanation and the Uses of Story in the Short Fiction of Raymond Carver,” The Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001), 48. []
  17. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 72-73. []
  18. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing, 73. []
  19. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 79. []
  20. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 79. []
  21. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 80. []
  22. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 82. []
  23. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 80. []
  24. Carver, A Small, Good Thing, 81. []
  25. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 82. []
  26. Christina Bieber Lake, “Technology, Contingency, and Grace: Raymond Carver’s ‘A Small, Good Thing'” Christianity and Literature 60 (2011), 291. []
  27. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 81. []
  28. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 9. []
  29. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 9. []
  30. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 68. []
  31. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 9. []
  32. Stull, “Beyond Hopelessville,” 9. []
  33. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 74. []
  34. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 83. []
  35. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 88-89. []
  36. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 88. []
  37. Carver, “A Small, Good Thing,” 89. []
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