Raymond Carver:  Critical Perspectives feature image

Raymond Carver: Critical Perspectives




Raymond Carver (May 25, 1938 - August 2, 1988)


April King

ENGL6923: Working-Class Literature

Spring 2010



When Raymond Carver told his father that he was going to be a writer, his father said, "Write about what you know."  According to biographer Carol Sklenicka's Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, Raymond Carver "paid a high price for the experiences that served his art" (ix).  Carver wrote "sometimes transcendent stories about the lives of the working poor" (Sklenicka ix).  His characters struggle with money problems, alcoholism, and embittered marriages - all issues Carver himself dealt with at one time during his life.

Generations of Carver's family struggled to survive.  Though they were poor, the Carvers were proud farmers and laborers.  Every economic downturn, it seemed, hit the Carver family hard.  During the 1950's, although "much of the country thrived economically, the Carvers fell behind" (Sklenicka 41).  Carver's father, CR, a sawmill worker, allowed alcoholism to consume him and keep the family living paycheck to paycheck. 

Growing up, Raymond Carver's father's lack of education caused him grief over being able to speak clearly and find the right words - something his characters never seem able to do.  Like many children of alcoholics, Carver followed in his father's footsteps.  Although he was touted as one of the most influential American writers since Ernest Hemingway, his personal life suffered.  He struggled with multiple bankruptcies, the burden of caring for children, a struggling marriage which ultimately ended in divorce, and alcoholism - all prevalent themes in his stories. 

Because of the struggles he dealt with growing up in a working-class family, Carver was able to honestly and respectfully depict the lives of the working class.  He definitely followed his father's advice and wrote what he knew.  His characters struggle with the same issues Carver had to deal with.  Writing short stories and poems, Raymond Carver relates to readers the struggles of being a member of the working class.


Critical Conversation

The only clear consensus among critics of Carver's work is that there isn't one.  Critics examine Carver's work focusing closely on common themes, or what Carver referred to as obsessions.  To understand Carver country and the characters that inhabit it, critics focus on several of Carver's obsessions, such as: love, specifically marital love, silence, epiphany, minimalism, and the struggle and beauty of being a member of the working class.   

Arthur Saltzman calls Carver the "Connoisseur of the Commonplace."  He claims that Carver depicts the cramped conditions of working-class existence with genuine sympathy and authority.  He also points out that Carver's work is characterized by an avoidance of extensive rumination.  He uses short sentences and sparse dialogue to effectively highlight the silencing of the working class.  There's no question for critics that Carver leaves a lot out of his stories.  The debate, however, is over whether this is the strength or weakness of Carver's work.  

Early critics of Carver's work argue that his minimalist style and uncomplicated sentence structure are signs of an inept writer.  These critics argue that Carver left too much to be imagined.  Some claim that Carver takes the minimalist approach too far:  "James Atlas, for example, claims that Carver's stories are severe to the point of anorexia" (qtd. in Saltzman 6).  Like Ernest Hemingway's before him, Carver's stories are, according to William Stull, "shaped like an iceberg...with the true conflict seven-eighths submerged" (qtd. in Powell 647).  Readers see just enough to know that the real problem is lying dormant.  This, recent critics argue, is the power of Carver's work.  The characters in Carver's short stories are struggling with finding a way to articulate their problems.  Words are inadequate.  Carver's suspicion of language reflects his social outlook.  His stories might appear to a casual reader to be pointless, but critics argue that Carver appropriately depicts the lives of his characters.  In order to create an honest portrayal of working-class characters, Carver says little but implies much.  It would be inappropriate, one critic argues, for Carver to let readers see too much.  Bill Mullen claims that Carver's dialogue seems to be transcribed from an audio cassette.  All that readers are given is the little that the characters say, not their innermost thoughts and feelings.   

Another aspect of Carver's stories that many critics examine is their sense of ambiguity.  Carver's stories are regionally anonymous.  They could have taken place anywhere at any time. Carver uses ambiguous statements, like "I was telling her about it." Carver doesn't feel that it would be appropriate to tell readers what it refers to.  Critics agree. The climaxes of the stories are often understated and the conclusions are, well, inconclusive.  Readers have to work hard to figure out the point of the stories.   

One last theme that many critics examine is the moment when characters have a sudden realization or epiphany.  Some critics say that Carver's stories lack epiphanies, while others say they are nothing but epiphanies.  The best explanation, and the most relevant for the working-class environment depicted in Carver's work, is that the epiphanic moments are there, but the menace, as Gunter Leypoldt calls it, is created because the characters are either unable to give voice to the epiphany or are incapable of comprehending it.  Therefore, the question is not whether they have a moment of epiphany, but rather whether or not they are able to learn from it. 

Through Carver's resilient and silent characters, readers are given a window into working-class life. 


Biographical Sources 

Carroll, Maureen and Stull, William L. Remembering Ray. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1993. 

A chronological biography compiled from 40 authors who "chart the torturous course of Carver's two lives: the first all but destroyed by poverty and alcoholism, the second redeemed by love and growing fame." This biography shows all sides of Carver's character. 


Gentry, Marshall Bruce and William L. Stull. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

A collection of Carver's interviews including craft interviews, biographical portraits, self-analyses, and wide-ranging reflections.
Halpert, Sam. Raymond Carver An Oral Biography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995. 
Halpert presents a chronological narrative based on conversations with Carver's closest friends and family. This book focuses on Carver's shift from "bad Raymond" to his rebirth after he stops drinking.
Sklenicka, Carol. Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life. New York: Scribner, 2009. 
Sklenicka's text focuses more on biographical information than his work, but gives readers a definite window into Carver's life. Interesting and thorough, this is a must read for any Carver fan.


Critical Sources

Clark, Miriam Marty. "After Epiphany: American Stories in the Postmodern Age - The Short Story: Theory and Practice." Style (Fall 1993): n. pag. Web. 2 Mar. 2010.    

Clark examines the use of epiphany in short stories including Carver's collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

Leypoldt, Gunter. "Raymond Carver's Epiphanic Moments." Style 35.3 (2001): 531-547. 
Leypoldt examines the way Carver breaks the rules of traditional aesthetics.  He provides an interesting examination of different types of epiphany used in Carver's short stories.  
Nessett, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1995. 
Nessett explores all of Carver's major volumes of stories, discussing in careful detail selected stories in each. For example, he carefully examines the use of silence as a literary device in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
Powell, Jon. "The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty." Studies in Short Fiction 31 (1994): 647-56. 
Powell examines the sense of menace that is created by using silence in Carver's short stories.  He argues that Carver created this sense of menace by providing only clues to crucial aspects of his stories.               
Runyon, Randolph Paul. Reading Raymond Carver. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992. 
Runyon argues that Carver's minimalist style is really a very crafty and intricate indirection.  He also finds connections between Carver's stories and examines the tension between fathers and sons in Carver's work.
Saltzman, Arthur. Understanding Raymond Carver.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. 
Saltzman guides readers through Carver's work providing instruction on identifying common themes, purposeful use of language, point of view, and symbolism.


Works by Raymond Carver


Collected Stories. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

A nice anthology of Carver's work. Includes What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral, along with stories from Furious Seasons, Fires, Where I'm Calling From, Beginners, and Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1983. 
A revealing look at Carver's work and writing process.  Also included are several essays in which Carver discusses his literary influences.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1970. 
Carver's first collection of short stories. Carver depicts the beauty of the ordinary and the tragedy of the working class. 

Useful websites


Carver Site - An excellent collection of biographical information, pictures, quotes both about and from Carver, and audio and video clips.  This site includes a very detailed list of links to other useful carver sites.


Prose as Architecture - This site provides two interviews with Carver where he answers questions about his work.  Carver discusses his influences and his minimalist style.


Raymond Carver: Books and Writers - This site gives readers a nice introduction to Carver's life and work, as well as a thorough bibliography of Carver's work.


Today in Literature - Raymond Carver - This site contains biographical information, information about stories about Raymond Carver, links to information about selected works by Carver.


Literary Criticism - A nice list of literary criticism related to Carver's work.  Contains links to full text of critical articles.


The International Raymond Carver Society - This site is dedicated to promoting "activities that lead to the exchange of ideas and information about Carver, such as sponsoring sessions at conferences, organizing international meetings, and publishing an updated bibliography relevant to the study of Raymond Carver."  This site has a very thorough bibliography of works by and about Raymond Carver.