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Research Paper on “Neighbors” (1988)

Raymond Carver’s short stories pens down a world where people constantly struggle for their self-respect and meaning for existence. This rustic feel about his short fictions exemplifies his life. Born in 1938, Raymond grew up in Pacific Northwest in a rustic environment, which had an inevitable effect on his writing (Raymond Carver; Hemmingson, Bukowski and Carver 17). Carver married at nineteen, and had two children before he was twenty. His innate desire to become a writer was curbed by the inevitableness of parental responsibilities. Further, his limited education forced him to take up menial jobs for which he did not have any liking or inclinations. He wrote short stories and sold them to little magazines, but they paid little and so he was always pressed by financial problems. He was addicted to alcoholism and his drinking problem caused serious financial as well as domestic problems. His stories are reflective of his life and gain an idea as to what ideas and influences of his life influenced his writings. In the 1970s, Carver separated from his first wife. Not before 1981, he had attained critical and popular fame after the publication of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (Raymond Carver) and started contributing regularly to high-paying slick magazines. His financial problems were somewhat solved due to the academic grants and teaching assignments. In 1988, Craver died of lung cancer.

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Craver’s life had a profound influence on his writings, style, and technique. Born in rural central Washington, Carver was “the belated child of Great Depression” (Stull 461). Married at nineteen, and fathered two children by twenty, Craver considered himself to be a true part of the working poor. The early part of his adulthood moved through menial jobs, financial impoverishment, and alcoholism (Bethea 2). Therefore, most of his writings are resonant of the class he belonged to, the people he associated with in a greater part of his life. Craver has received critical acclaim for his mastery to glimpse into the lives of the “everyday” people has made him the master of the genre. That is why his subjects are resonant of “an inability to articulate their frustrations in words which causes their social, moral, and spiritual paralysis” (Gearhart 439). That is why each character in his fiction often finds them in a situation wherein bouts of bewilderment and freeze into confusion, and in this confusion, they confront or fail to confront their existence (Gearhart 439). Craver was a survivor and this search for survival through different means evident in his work (Bethea 2). His life through financial constraints and chaotic personal life brought about characters and themes in his writing, which were close to his life. His atmosphere, neighbors, peers were the main content for his writing. He wrote the world as he saw it and it constantly exploded with elements of realism. Carver’s stories constantly show the socio-economic disempowerment of the blue-collar people and the reduced class-consciousness of the people, a feeling that he went through most of his life (Harker 715). In an interview, Craver identifies that his personal life and the aspect that his association with the “very populous substratum of American life” i.e. the “lower middle-class” having a great influence on his writing and the reason that he suggests for the influence is:

My father and all my father’s friends and family were working-class people. Their dreams were very circumscribed. They were people in a different social situation than the people you and I hang out with today, and they didn’t seem to have the same sets of problems. Problems and worries, yes, but they were different. For the most part they worked their jobs and took care of their property and their families.” (Alton 161-2)

Clearly, the influence of his life and his association with the lower middle class society is his writing is inevitable. Therefore, class, socio-economic backdrop, and his early life, played a significant role in shaping Carver as the writer he grew to be.

Literacy figures, who had influence on Carver, as accounted by Carver himself, were Ernest Hemmingway, Anton Chevok, Leo Tolstoy, Frank O’Conor, and Isaac Babel (Applefield 213). The elements that Carver adopted from Hemmingway were the “virtue of endurance” and the simple “staying alive in the world” (Bethea, Raymond Carver’s Inheritance From Ernest Hemingway’s Literary Technique 90). Carver’s inadvertent subjects who sought to deal with marital relationships under stress and domestic characters were the elements we find common in Carver’s works:

Yet, although Hemingway is best-known for his own larger-than-life adventures, as well as for his death-defying protagonists, another Hemingway, the domestic Hemingway, the writer who subtly captured moments of marital relationships under stress—this Hemingway was much more useful to Carver. And this is the Hemingway whom Carver followed technically and echoed without derision.” (Bethea, Raymond Carver’s Inheritance From Ernest Hemingway’s Literary Technique 90)

However, in his later life i.e. after 1987, Hemmingway had reportedly said that Hemmingway was not of an influence on him, but his works were resonant of Hemmingway’s sensibilities (Bethea, Raymond Carver’s Inheritance From Ernest Hemingway’s Literary Technique 99).

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Alcohol has had an immense effect on Carver’s writing (Raymond Carver). Alcoholism occurred repeatedly in Carver’s stories and assumed a significant position. In “Where I’m Calling From” alcoholism helps in defining the narrator’s self identity as well as an attempt to break the parallel cycles of alcoholism (Champion 236). This is a definitive resonance of the cycle of alcoholism that carver went through and his repeated drinking problem. Thus in most of his writings Carver have presented alcoholism and sequences of disrupted life due to alcohol, an aspect that is a definite adaptation from his life. This recurrent reference to alcoholism and problem in personal relationships recurrent in Carver’s stories has been termed as the “dirty realism” (Hemmingson, Bukowski and Carver 76).

Realism in Carver’s work was accentuated by his minimalistic style and had made him one of the most controversial writers. He has often been associated with the “stereotypical image of minimalism” (Arai 319). Minimalism is a stylistic rendition that peaked in the 1970s during the American short story renaissance (Runyon 2). Craver’s works were resonant of this post modernist style, which talked of the “Post-Alcoholic Blue-Collar Minimalist Hyperrealism” (Runyon 2). Carver’s works are resonant of dysfunctional marriages, and banality of daily life of working class people, and the way he describes the events in his story add to their trivialness: “Carver’s style of his stories … centered on the depiction of narrow lives starved of context and inhabiting a bland featureless landscape, to the style of his earlier, more fully developed stories.” (Just 306). Critics have often stated that carver’s stories were minimalistic in style implying their content was not “more” than mere recounting of material, but that in it was the style of writing for the post-modern American short stories, especially that of Carver’s (Just 306). The essence is to deliver to the reader that is bare minimum of the human existence without any superfluousness. This closeness to realism through a minimalistic style has often been dubbed as the essence of existentialism and post-modern humanism in Carver’s writing (Taub 103).

Carver’s sense of realism and existentialist ideas are continuously resounding through his short story “Neighbors”. It is the story of two ordinary lower middle class, Arlene and Bill Miller, who had been given the responsibility to look after the house of their neighbors, the Stones, while they were away on a vacation. In this story, Carver simply explores how uncontained desire of “average” and unsatisfied people can be transformed and how they are transcended from their ordinary life. Neighbors, therefore, is a story of otherness and desire to transcend.

In Neighbors, Carver clearly demarcates the social hierarchy between the lives of Millers and Stones’ through a description of their apartments. As bill moves slowly through the rooms of the Stones’ apartment, it appears as if he is looking for the secret of their success in their home. Arlene, similarly conducts a search of her own. Thus, is expressed their desire to look through the “other” in order to find a way to transcend.

Transcendence is brought to the “average” once happy, married life of the Millers, as they vacation into their neighbor’s apartment:

Contact with the apartment arouses a tired sex life – both Millers masturbate in the Stones’ apartment. Bill truants from work to enjoy the apartment; like a relaxed holidaymaker, he forgets what day it is when he enters the place. And like the ideal holiday destination, the apartment provides an opportunity to explore different identities – Bill sheds his own clothes and dresses up in Jim Stone’s holiday clothes (Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts) before trying on Harriet’s outfits.” (Harker 722)

Carver’s real life has a significant influence on this story. Carver had been depressed due to his lower middle class mundane life and its marital problems. This is resonant through Neighbors. Carver shows how elevation from the class structure that the Miller belonged to, forged an intimacy in their lives, which was otherwise lost in the mundane real life. However, the story stops at the point when the communication between the Millers – physical and emotional – was rejuvenating, leaving the readers to only imagine if it was permanent or was it lost. That is the existentialist question that Carver puts forth through the story, i.e. if transcendence into a different life capable of making life complete and happy.

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The story reverberates with mere descriptions of the Millers and what they do. Minimalistic in style, Neighbors, recounts the life of the Millers and their innate desires. The desire of the couple to have a life as their neighbors, who though lived in the same neighborhood, and mixed in the same social circle, had been elevated from the class of the Millers as they were taking a “vacation” and the others could not. The simple action of going on a “vacation” had successfully created the otherness in the story, and showed Carver’s theme of middle class sufferings and desires.

Realism is the essence of the plot of Neighbors. Carver first allows the story’s protagonists to indulge in a utopian dream and the luxury of living the life of the neighbors. However, the anticlimax arrives, when the key is locked inside the apartment, that the Millers are caught in a web of realism. Their dream of living their neighbor’s life is shattered and they are brought back to their own existence and reality. Thus, they are caught in a limbo of their dream world and their reality. Thus, Carver relates through Neighbors, and through many of his other works, that there is no outlet or escape from reality of class beyond the hegemonic discourse of the society.

References

Alton, John. “What We talk About When We Talk About Literature: An Interview with Raymond Carver.” Carver, Raymond, Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 151-168.

Applefield, David. “Fiction and America: Raymond Carver.” Carver, Raymond, Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 204-213.

Arai, Keiko. “Who Controls the Narrative?: A Stylistic Comparison of Different Versions of Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home”.” Style Vol. 41 No. 3 (2007 ): 319-342.

Bethea, Arthur F. “Raymond Carver’s Inheritance From Ernest Hemingway’s Literary Technique.” The Hemingway Review Vol. 26 No. 2 (2007): 89-104.—. Technique and sensibility in the fiction and poetry of Raymond Carver. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Champion, Laurie. “So Much Whisk(e)y So Far From Home: Misogyny, Violence, and Alcoholism in Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From.” Studies in Short Fiction Vol. 36 (1999): 235-249.

Gearhart, Michael Wm. “Breaking The Ties That Bind:Inarticulation In The Fiction Of Raymond Carver.” Studies In Short Fiction Vol. 26 No. 4 (1989): 439-447.

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Harker, Ben. “‘To be there, inside, and not be there’: Raymond Carver and class.” Textual Practice Vol. 21 No. 4 (2007): 715–736.

Hemmingson, Michael, Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. The Dirty Realism Duo: Charles Bukowski & Raymond Carver. New York: Wildside Press LLC, 2008.

Just, Daniel. “Is Less More? A Reinvention of Realism in Raymond Carver’s Minimalist Short Story.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction Vol. 49, No. 3 (2008): 303-319.

“Raymond Carver.” 001. Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition. 2010. Web.

Runyon, Randolph. Reading Raymond Carver. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Stull, William L. “Raymond Carver Remembered: Three Early Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction Vol. 25 No. 4 (1988): 461-469.

Taub, Gadi. “On Small Good Things: Raymond Carver’s Modest Existentialism.” Raritan Vol.22 No.2 (2002): 102-19.

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