Professor B W Jorgensen
23 July 2012
Why I Prefer “A Small Good Thing” Over “The Bath”
After my first reading of Carver’s stories, I overwhelmingly preferred the effect “A Small Good Thing” had on me over that of the more concise “The Bath.” It is already such a tragic tale, and I embrace the closure and slight hope that the longer story provides. After some research, I learn that although Carver approved publication of both stories, he had originally written and subsequently published “A Small Good Thing.” I feel that it is the version he truly meant to be read and understood by the reader. The large truncation to the action in “The Bath,” has a lot to do with Carver’s relationship with his friend and editor Gordon Lish. Carver had a deep respect for Lish, even when he made drastic changes to Carver’s stories, sometimes cutting them in half and completely changing sentences. But, after much deliberation and compromise, due to Carver’s respect for his good friend, he approved the publication of his thoroughly edited stories. A.O. Scott explains that “the Lish versions” of Carver’s stories “are jarring and, briefly, horrifying: the stories, like the people who inhabit them, seem violently discombobulated. In ‘The Bath,’ events happen almost at random, and crucial information . . . is cruelly, capriciously, withheld” (1027). I prefer the more expansive, uplifting form of “A Small Good Thing” because I relate to its more human characters, gain closure, leave more understanding of the story and its context, instead of feeling rattled and horrified.
I do prefer the longer story; however, “The Bath” does a good job of allowing the reader to feel both Ann and her husband’s shock and distress as they deal with their son’s confinement to a hospital bed. Ann watches her son, “talking to herself like this. We’re into something now, something hard. She [is] afraid. . . She [makes] believe she [is] driving away from here to someplace else” (Carver 1020). The writing strips down to the barest of details, sharply relays one event after another, and uses jagged sentence rhythms, all of which reveal the raw emotions the characters feel. It is startling. The third person narrative flows in and out of Ann’s thoughts and allows the reader to feel the same. Carver shows that her core emotion is fear, and she succumbs to her natural, more child-like instincts with make-believe. This is different from the same moment in “A Small Good Thing” where instead she “wishe[s]” (140) that she was somewhere else. Instead of implying her vulnerability through greater detail and action, in “The Bath,” he states it in the simplest form.
So much of the action and detail in “The Bath” is removed, that it makes some of the characters who surround Howard, Ann, and Scotty appear more animalistic and unfeeling. It adds to our shock and to the parents feeling vulnerable to the situation and the people around them. Towards the beginning, Carver describes the baker in a beast-like manner with his “wet eyes examining [Ann’s] lips” (1017). In the longer story, Ann “stud[ies] his coarse features and wonder[s]” (134) about his past. She is not just focusing on his physical features defensively, but is attempting to relate to and understand the baker better. In “The Bath,” the boy who was with Scotty when he was hit, has no horrified or sympathetic reaction to the accident, which seems abnormal considering the circumstances. Instead, he “[is] wondering if he should finish the rest” of his potato chips “or continue on to school” (1017). These sort of descriptions make me feel uneasy and untrusting of the characters in the story, and so I distance myself. Although the writing allows me also to feel the parents’ shock and confusion, I cannot relate to the characters who seem to lack some human nature; it is conflicting.
Contrastingly, in “A Small Good Thing,” more of the characters actually have names, and...