A Small, Good Thing

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The short story A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver tells of two American parents dealing with their son's hospitalisation and death as the result of a hit-and-run car accident. The insensitive actions of their local baker add to their anger and confusion, yet by the end of the story, leave them with a sense of optimism and strength. With such content, Carver runs the risk of coming across as sentimental; however, this is not the case, and the anguish of the parents and their shock at the situation is expressed with dignity and understatement. It is a story with a broad appeal: the simple prose makes it accessible to a wide audience, while the complex themes and issues make it appealing to the educated reader. Written in Carver's characteristically minimalist style, the story poignantly evokes not only the trauma of the death of a child, but also the breakdown of communication and empathy in society. The plain and direct narrative style suits the content, conveying the lack of communication that is central to the narrative - between the parents, between the hospital staff, and with the baker. Critically, it is generally considered one of Carver's strongest short stories. It is a tale of isolation and of grief, but also of hope, and, with its fluid, pared-down style, clearly demonstrates why Carver is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the late 20th century.

On the surface, the story of A Small, Good Thing is simple and universal. Thirty-three-year-old Ann Weiss orders a cake for her son's Scotty's eighth birthday and is a little put off by the baker's cold attitude - "(he) was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information." However, she soon forgets all about both the baker and the cake when her son is hit by a car on the way to school and, though he initially seems fine, later collapses and is hospitalised. Although the doctors and hospital staff continue to reassure Ann and her husband that their son will be fine - "no coma, Dr. Francis had emphasized, no coma, when he saw the alarm in the parents‘ eyes" - Scotty still does not wake up, and the situation becomes increasingly serious. At the same time, the parents are tormented by late-night phone calls from the baker - "Your Scotty, I got him ready for you…Did you forget him?" - whose mysterious messages lead them to believe he is a psychopath, or the hit-and-run driver who put Scotty into a coma. Then, abruptly, Scotty dies - "the doctors called it a hidden occlusion and said it was a one-in-a-million circumstance." Numb and shaken, the parents return home - but after another taunting prank call, Ann realizes that it is the baker who has been calling, and confronts him in his store; he is instantly remorseful when he learns of the child's death, and offers Ann and Howard some cinnamon rolls - "a small, good thing in a time like this." His empathy helps the parents to deal with Scotty's death and to find some small measure of hope for the future.

On a deeper level, A Small, Good Thing is concerned with more complex themes and ideas. Central is the idea of communication, and lack of communication. Carver conveys the Weiss family as generally good people. They are a relatively close-knit, function well as a family, and are grateful for what they have - which we see, for example, in Ann choosing Scotty's favourite chocolate birthday cake, and in Howard reminiscing about his life - "He was happy and, so far, lucky - he knew that." They are, on the whole, a typical family; however, at the same time, the communication between the family members is lacking. Carver shows this in a subtle yet effective way. Firstly, Scotty has no direct dialogue in the story - literally, no communication. Secondly, early in the story, Scotty is not specifically referred to by name except indirectly; instead, he is called "the child," and "the birthday boy." It is not until later in the story, as the parents...
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