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Raymond Carver

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English Literature

Burdened by alcoholism for most of his life, when American short story writer and poet Raymond Carver was asked why he quit drinking, he said “I guess I just wanted to live."¹ Like many famous writers, alcohol was a constant force in both Carver's life and in his literature. His poems and short stories are dominated by middle-class, mundane characters who struggle with darkness in their every day lives. Drinking, failed relationships, and death are some of the prominent themes that plagued not only his characters, but Carver himself as well. After almost losing his career, watching his marriage dissolve, and being hospitalized countless times, Carver finally stopped drinking at the age of 39.

Raymond Carver biography

Raymond Clevie Carver Jr. (1938-1988) was born in a mill town in Oregon. The son of a sawmill worker, Carver experienced firsthand what life was like for the lower middle class. He married a year after finishing high school and had two children by the age of 20. In order to make ends meet, Carver worked as janitor, sawmill laborer, library assistant, and delivery man.

In 1958, he became extremely interested in writing after taking a creative writing class at Chico State College. In 1961, Carver published his first short story "The Furious Seasons". He continued to pursue his literary studies at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California, where he got his B.A. in 1963. During his time at Humboldt, Carver was the editor for Toyon, his college's literary magazine, and his short stories began to be published in various magazines.

Carver's first success as a writer came in 1967. His short story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" was included in Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories anthology, gaining him recognition in literary circles. He began work as a textbook editor in 1970, which was the first time he had a white-collar job.

Raymond Carver Workers cutting wood with a machinery saw StudySmarterCarver worked blue-collared jobs (like as a sawmill laborer) for much of his life, which influenced his writing pixabay

His father was an alcoholic, and Carver began drinking heavily in 1967 shortly following his father's death. Throughout the 1970s, Carver was repeatedly hospitalized for alcoholism. In 1971, his publication of "Neighbors" in the June issue of Esquire magazine earned him a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He took another teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley in 1972. The stress of the two positions coupled with his alcohol-related illnesses caused him to resign his position at Santa Cruz. He went to a treatment center the next year but didn't stop drinking until 1977 with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.

His drinking caused problems in his marriage. In 2006, his first wife released a memoir that detailed her relationship with Carver. In the book, she details how his drinking led to him cheating, which led to more drinking. While she was attempting to earn her Ph.D., she was constantly set back by her husband's illness:

"By fall of '74, he was more dead than alive. I had to drop out of the Ph.D. program so I could get him cleaned up and drive him to his classes"²

Alcohol is a force that has haunted many great writers throughout history. Edgar Allen Poe, along with some of America's best-loved authors were alcoholics, including Nobel Prize winners William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck—four of the six total Americans who had won a Novel Prize for Literature at the time.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “first you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."³ Many psychiatrists today speculate that famous writers drink to cure loneliness, increase their self-confidence, and stave off the burden placed on the creative mind. Some writers, like Hemingway, drank as a sign of their masculinity and capability, while actually masking their unaddressed mental health issues.

Although many writers used alcohol as a crutch, it was often detrimental to their health and even their careers. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Ring Lardner, and Jack Kerouac all died in their forties from alcohol-related issues. For Carver, drinking almost made him lose his teaching career because he was too sick and hungover to get to work. For most of the 70s, his writing took a massive hit as he stated he spent more time drinking than writing.

In 1978, Carver got a new teaching position at the University of Texas at El Paso after falling in love with the poet Tess Gallagher at a writer's conference in Dallas the previous year. In 1980 Carter and his mistress moved to Syracuse, where he worked as a professor in the English department at Syracuse University and was appointed the coordinator for the creative writing program.

Raymond Carver, A drawing of a book teaching a class of squares, StudySmarterIn addition to his poetry and short stories, Carver made a living teaching creative writing, pixabay.

Much of his most famous works were written in the 1980s. His short-story collections include What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), Cathedral (1983), and Where I’m Calling From (1988). His poetry collections include At Night the Salmon Move (1976), Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985), and Ultramarine (1986).

Carver and his first wife divorced in 1982. He married Tess Gallagher in 1988, six weeks before he died of lung cancer. He is buried in Port Angeles, Washington at Ocean View Cemetery.

Raymond Carver short stories

Carver published several collections of short stories during his lifetime. His most famous collections of short stories include: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (first published 1976), Furious Seasons and Other Stories (1977), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), and Cathedral (1983). "Cathedral" and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" are also the names of two of Carver's most popular short stories.

Raymond Carver: "Cathedral" (1983)

"Cathedral" is arguably one of Carver's most popular short stories. The short story starts when the narrator's wife tells her husband that her blind friend, Robert, will be spending the night with them. The narrator's wife used to work reading for Robert ten years before. The narrator is immediately jealous and judgmental, suggesting they should take him bowling. The narrator's wife chastises his insensitivity, reminding her husband that Robert's wife has just died.

The wife picks up Robert at the train station and brings him home. All throughout dinner the narrator is rude, barely engaging in the conversation. After dinner he turns on the TV while Robert and his wife are talking, annoying his wife. When she goes upstairs to get changed, Robert and the narrator listen to the TV program together.

When the program starts talking about cathedrals, Robert asks the narrator to explain a cathedral to him. The narrator does, and Robert asks him to draw a cathedral, putting his hand over the narrator's so he can feel the movements. The narrator gets lost in the drawing and has an existential experience.

Raymond Carver, A drawing of a Cathedral, StudySmarterThe narrator and his wife's blind guest bond over cathedrals, pixabay

Raymond Carver: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" (1981)

"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is another one of Carver's famous short stories. It deals with conflicts between ordinary people. In this short story, the narrator (Nick) and his new wife, Laura, are at their married friends' house drinking gin.

The four of them begin talking about love. Mel, who is a cardiologist, argues that love is spiritual, and he used to be in the seminary. Terry, his wife, says that before she married Mel she was in love with a man named Ed, who was so in love with her he tried to kill her and eventually killed himself. Mel argues that wasn't love, he was just crazy. Laura asserts that her and Nick know what love is. The group finishes the bottle of gin and starts in on a second one.

Mel says he's witnessed true love at the hospital, where an elderly couple got in a horrific accident and almost died. They survived, but the man was depressed because he couldn't see his wife in his cast. Mel and Terri bicker throughout the story and Mel asserts he wants to call his kids. Terri tells him he can't because then he'd have to talk to his ex wife, who Mel says he wishes he could kill. The group keeps drinking until its dark outside and Nick can hear everyone's heart beat.

Raymond Carver A glass of gin with a lemon garnish on top of a board StudySmarterThe narrator and his friends discuss the nature of love while getting drunk on gin, pixabay

Raymond Carver's poems

Carver's poetry reads a lot like his prose. His collections include Near Klamath (1968), Winter Insomnia (1970), At Night The Salmon Move (1976), Fires (1983), Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), Ultramarine (1986), and A New Path To The Waterfall (1989). One of Carver's most famous poetry collection was A Path To the Waterfall, published a year after his death.

Like his prose, Carver's poetry finds meaning in the every day lives of ordinary, middle-class people. "The Best Time of the Day" focuses on human connection in the midst of a demanding life. "Your Dog Dies" examines how art can take away the sting of loss and morality. 'What the Doctor Said' (1989) is about a man who just found out he has tumors on his lungs and will inevitably die from it. Carver's poetry examines the most mundane parts of everyday life and scrutinizes it until he discovers some truth about the human condition.

Raymond Carver: Quotes

Carver's works keenly reflect the human need for connection, while also focusing on how relationships collapse in on themselves. Carver's style is sometimes called dirty realism, where the mundane intersects with a dark reality. Carver writes about marriages dissolving, alcohol abuse, and loss in the working class. His quotes reflect the themes of his works:

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”

This quote consists of the last two sentences of Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." It describes the way humans are drawn to connect with one another, despite disagreements, misunderstandings, and poor circumstances. Though all four of the characters disagree about love on the surface level and all have inevitably faced some kind of trauma at the hands of love, their hearts beat in sync. There is an unspoken agreement between the characters that none of them truly grasp the concept of love except in how they relate to one another. Love connects them all, even though they don't understand it.

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth."

This quote is the entirety of Carver's poem "Late Fragment" included in his A New Path to the Waterfall (1989) collection. Again, it speaks to the human need for connection. Love is the one thing that has given the speaker any feeling of worth as it makes him feel known. The value of being alive comes down to feeling connected, loved, and understood.

Raymond Carver - Key takeaways

  • Raymond Carver is a 20th century American poet and short story writer who was born in Oregon in 1938 to a lower middle class family.
  • His first short story was published while he was in college, but it wasn't until 1967 that he found notable literary success with his short story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"
  • Carver is most famous for his short stories and revitalizing the genre of American short stories in the 1980s.
  • His most famous collections are Cathedral and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
  • His works reflects themes of human connection, relationship collapse, and the value of the mundane. Many of Carver's works center on the mundane lives of blue collar people.
(1) Armitage, Simon. 'Rough Crossing: the Cutting of Raymond Carver.' The New Yorker, 2007. (2) Carver, Maryann Burk. What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver.' St. Martin's Press. 2006, (3) O'Neill, Anne. 'Booze as muse: writers and alcohol, from Ernest Hemingway to Patricia Highsmith.' The Irish Times, 2015.

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver was a 20th century American poet and short-story writer. He is known for revitalizing the American short story genre in the 1970s and 80s.

'Cathedral' is centered on a sighted man meeting his wife's blind friend for the first time. The narrator, who can see, is jealous of his wife's friendship and hostile to the blind man until he asks the narrator to describe a cathedral to him. The narrator is at a loss for words and feels a connection to the blind man for the first time.  

Carver is known for his short stories and poetry. In the foreword to his 1988 Where I'm Calling From collection, Carver described himself as "inclined toward brevity and intensity." His prose is situated in the minimalism and dirty realism movements. 

Carver is known for his short story and poetry collections. 'Cathedral' is generally considered his most well-known short story.

Carver was a finalist for the National Book Awards in 1977. 

Final Raymond Carver Quiz

Question

Who was Raymond Carver?

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Answer

Raymond Carver was a 20th century American poet/short story writer. 

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What did Raymond Carver do? 

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Answer

Raymond Carver was known for revitalizing the genre of American short stories.

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What was Raymond Carver's childhood like? 

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Answer

He was born to a working class family, which largely influenced his work. Although he went to college, he worked blue collar jobs until 1970. 

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What kind of poetry/prose did Carver write? 

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He wrote what is called "dirty realism," which depicts darkness in mundane lives. He was also part of the minimalist movement.  

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What did Carver struggle with throughout his life? 

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Carver struggling with alcoholism the same way his father did. He was hospitalized for it throughout the 70s and wrote about it in much of his poetry. 

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What did Carver do besides writing poetry and prose? 

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Carver worked several blue collar jobs as a janitor, laborer, etc. He later worked as a textbook editor and then as a lecturer at several colleges. 

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What was Carver's first published short story? 

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His first published short story was  'The Furious Seasons' (1961).

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What was Carver's first successful short story? 

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Answer

His 'Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?' was the first successful short story of his career. It was published in 1967. 

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What were two of Carver's most famous short story collections? 

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and Cathedral (1983) are two of his most famous short story collections and are also the titles of two of his most known short stories. 

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How did Carver die? 

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He died of lung cancer in 1988. He wrote about the experience in his poetry, specifically 'What the Doctor Said.'

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What is "Cathedral"? 

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"Cathedral" is one of Raymond Carver's most popular short stories. It is included in his 1983 collection Cathedral

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Who was Raymond Carver? 

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Answer

Carver was an American short story writer and poet. He was known for his depiction of working class people living ordinary lives and dealing with every day darkness. 

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How is "Cathedral" an example of dirty realism? 

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Dirty realism attempts to uncover the darkness and grit hidden within ordinary lives and mundane people. "Cathedral" does this by its discussion on drinking, marijuana, relationship problems, isolation, and jealousy. 

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What is the central conflict in "Cathedral"? 

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The narrator is jealous of his wife's blind friend. He is suspicious of his blindness and doesn't want him to stay with them. He does his best to isolate himself from the man, but the two bond over cathedrals. 

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How did the narrator's wife met Robert? 

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She answered an ad in the paper and took a job reading aloud to him. They kept in touch via audio tapes over the years. He is a source of emotional intimacy for her and she details everything that's happening in her life in the audio tapes. 

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How does the narrator attempt to avoid conversation with Robert? 

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He is very abrupt when Robert asks him questions and turns the TV on when they go into the living room. His wife thinks he is rude, but the narrator is actually just scared of connection. He cares deeply and feels pity for Robert and his dead wife, but he hides his feelings behind his sarcasm and snark. 

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What point of view is the story told in and why is this important?

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The story is told in first person point of view. This is important because it gives readers an inside look inside the narrator's mind. Readers witness his transformation from a judgmental, sarcastic anti-hero into an enlightened, transformed man. 

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What does the cathedral symbolize? 

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The cathedral symbolizes a deeper meaning and enlightenment. It is only when the narrator looks deeper into the cathedral that he realizes truths about life, others, and himself. 

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What are the main themes in "Cathedral"? 

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The main themes are intimacy and isolation, art as a source of meaning, and perception vs. sight

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How does "Cathedral" use irony as a literary device? 

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At first, the narrator is biased against the blind man for his lack of sight. But the narrator himself lacks perceptiveness and emotional sight. At the end of the story, it is the blind man who helps the narrator to see the world more clearly.  

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What is "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"? 

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"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is one of Raymond Carver's most popular short stories. It was published in the collection by the same name in 1981. 

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What details help situate "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" historically? 

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The character's more liberal experiences and opinions on love help to situate the story around the 1970s or 80s. For example, Terri and Ed lived together outside of wedlock, which would have been taboo in the 1950s when marriage was still seen as the only situation in which a man and woman should live together. And Nick, Laura, and Mel were all married and divorced, which was not very common until the 1970s.  

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What biographical information about Raymond Carver influences the story? 

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Carver was an alcoholic for several years and the reliance on alcohol to form a connection is very apparent by the large amount of gin consumed. Carver's first wife, Maryann, also stayed with him despite him cheating on her and possibly abusing her. This is similar to Terri's relationship with Ed. 

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What is "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" about? 

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"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is about a group of 2 couples who are trying to define what love means to them. Their perception on love becomes increasingly unclear the more they talk about it. 

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Why is Mel's occupation as a cardiologist ironic? 

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Mel is a heart doctor, but he is the one who struggles to understand love the most. At first he says it's spiritual, then he says it's the depression that an elderly couple felt when they couldn't see each other. Towards the end he's confused as he says he once loved his ex wife and now he wants to kill her.  

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What is Terri's opinion on love and why is it problematic? 

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Terri argues that her abusive ex boyfriend Ed loved her. He physically abused her and threatened to kill her and Mel when they started dating. He ultimately killed himself when Terri left him, and she claims he died "for love." This is problematic because it romanticizes violence as a form of love. 

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What do Nick and Laura suggest about love? 

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Nick and Laura are newly married and suggest that love is physical intimacy, liking one another, and feeling that being together is easy. Terri says they don't know what love is because they're in the honeymoon phase. 

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What does the gin symbolize in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"? 

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The gin symbolizes a connection but also a loss of clarity. The more the friends drink, the more they connect but the less they understand love. 

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What does the light symbolize in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"? 

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The light also symbolizes clarity. At first, light is shining through the window when the friends begin debating the nature of love. By the end, the friends sit in darkness and no longer understand love at all. 

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What are the themes in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"? 

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The Nature of Love

Communication and Connection 

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