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Disjunction vs. Communion in Raymond Carver's Short Stories

Oct 08, 1999 3900 Words
Disjunction vs. Communion in Raymond Carver's Short Stories

Raymond Carver, poet, essayist, and short story writer, was very different from some other writers in that he clipped his writing until only the essential remained. " Carver not only acknowledged the effect that fiction could have on readers, he proclaimed that it should affect readers."( Bonetti 58) Thus, when Carver writes about intimate relationships, the reader perceives the stories as more than entertainment or skillful language; the reader relates to the characters' situations and applies the knowledge to their own lives. It is within this realm of character affirmation that Carver draws a much more elaborate, and meaningful detail in his short stories. I propose that Carver's characters either connect or fail to connect on an intimate, spiritual level. It is this difference in his short stories which either draw the reader into or away from the meaning. These relations make certain writings in Carver's stories more interesting.

More directly, it is the communion in his later writings, and the disjunction in his earlier writings, that distinguish the two types of styles. Communion within the characters of Carver's later writings, as in his collections in Cathedral, create much more depth and interest in his stories. It is within this scope of communion that Carver's stories seem to become more fulfilling with character affirmation.

Communion occurs in Carver's stories when several conditions are satisfied. The difference in the two criteria; communion and disjunction, is simply defined. "Communion, n 1. A sharing of thoughts or feelings 2. a A religious or spiritual fellowship." (Websters, 141) It is a connection between characters which allows them to transcend the ordinary and redefine themselves. A moment in which words, actions, and objects take on exaggerated significance . Carver uses this bond between characters in his later writings more directly, such as in his anthology Cathedral. You must first initialize an intimate interaction between two or more characters who can communicate--- either verbally or physically. If an individual is still projecting his/her personality onto another, that individual has not experienced the loss of self- awareness which is necessary for communion. Another important element for this experience is touch. The characters who gain understanding of each other, touch on ano ther. It is within these guidelines that I find Carvers stories to be more interesting.

Disjointed on the other hand is near similarity in communion, in that it contains the seed of communion which failed to grow. The protagonist achieves some measure of success only to falter. Disjunction occurs when an opportunity exists for the characters to change their lives in a small, spiritual way, and they are unable to seize it. Even with the spiritual isolation that many of Carvers characters hold, disjunction blocks me from the stories in that it leaves me unfulfilled, distracts me from the main point. The transgression of characters within stories, gives reader a greater insight into a spiritual change of some sort, the lack thereof leaves something missing in the story. A more influential meaning is gained when a connection of some sort is maid between characters. As Carver said in a interview later in his life," In fiction that matters the signifigance of the action inside the story translates to the lives of the people out side the story" ( Davis 658)

Carver's life, or biography, bares a little insight into his phases, or different stages in which he wrote his different types of stories and poems. Carver lived most of his life in a world which could not provide the luxury of spiritual affirmation. He grew up in Clatskanie, Oregon to working class- parents in a alcoholic home where reading material was limited to Zane Gray novels, and the newspaper. Following high school, Carver married his pregnant high school sweet hart. His drinking became heavier. A list of meaningless jobs followed , in which writing only provided a emotional outlet. During this time, Carver's hard life may have instigated the disjunction he portrayed in his earlier writings. Poverty and family problems continually interrupted his work. Carver was constantly broke, filled for bankruptcy twice, and was fired from his white collar job as a result of alcoholism. In 1977 he received a National Book award nomination and had several stories published in various magazines and book presses.

After 1977, when he met his second wife, Carver stopped drinking. This is when his stories of disjunction become more developed. He published several collections including What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In May of 1983, Knopf published Cathedral, Carvers third major book of short stories. This is where communion is illustrated in its more explicate form. Unfortunately, due to poor health Carver could not further communion in his writings, he became to sick to write. In the fall of 1987 doctors diagnosed cancer and removed two-thirds of his left lung, later the cancer moved to his brain where he underwent chemotherapy treatments. In early June, the cancer reappeared. On August 2, 1988 Raymond Carver died in his new house in Port Angeles, Washington. In an interview with critic William Stull, he explains about a connection between fiction and reality.

I'm interested in the personal intimate relationships in life so why not deal with these relationships in literature?…little experiences are important underpinnings in our daily lives…They are, after all, something that we all share—as readers, writers, and human beings…I don't think there should be any barriers, artificial or otherwise, between life and it's written about. (Stull, " Matters" 180)

The major task of my argument is to explain the reasons I feel Communion is more significant. Similarly mentioned above, communion occurred later in Carvers life therefore most of my argument shall be identifying with such stories as " The Bridle " and " Cathedral" which seem to illustrate communion in its most explicit form. Carvers earlier writings cope with disjunction in various collections, such as in " Gazebo" and "Sacks", yet not all seem to exemplify disjunction totally. Disjunction personifies a empty shell in the characters, both spiritually and intimately.

Communion; oppositely, entices the reading, it shares a " communion " between reader and character.

Disjunction occurs only when an opportunity exists for a change in a character's life in a small, spiritual way, and they are unable to seize it. Many of the characters in earlier writings cannot seize spiritual affirmation because they cannot escape their isolation. This isolation creates a barrier against the readers interaction within the story. Thus, at the moment of disjunction they remain spiritually unchanged, provoking a loss in interaction between reader and story. The underlying reason for a character's failure is usually an inability to articulate the desire to change. The end result of this lack of intimacy is that the characters exist like shells, without any care into their own lives or relationships with others. This emptiness leaves the reader coming up empty handed when seeking the motivation to pursue the story. The story " Gazebo", from the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, contains a excellent example of disjunction. The story opens in a motel suite, where the two main characters Duane and Holly, are drinking alcohol and hashing out their marital problems. They end up generally stop caring for one another and realize their " days are numbered, " both as hotel managers and as a married couple. In the last few paragraphs, the couple decide the fate of their marriage. Disjunction occurs when Duane attempts to convince Holly that they have fond memories of the hotel. Holly does not respond because she has surrendered hope of changing their circumstances. " I pray for a sign from Holly. I pray for Holly to show me."(29) Paralyzed, Duane desperately wants to communicate with his wife. Although he prays, it is not a spiritual connection between God. Holly's desire to leave for Nevada comes full circle as the lack of communication between the two is dissolved.

The characters illustrate disjunction by creating a barrier to communicate their needs and feelings in a way which would results in a greater mutual understanding and true sympathy. The disjunction leaves the reader very distant from the story in that he/she cannot identify the exact problem in the verbal gap. This lack of connection between characters transcends a sense of frustration to interact within the story. A direct connection within characters personifies the attention and interest one may feel within a story. Disjunction leaves the story unfulfilled, so that when finished the reader feels cheated not knowing the exact fate. Carver's mastering writings skills treat this evidence of disjunction skillfully, yet the emptiness in the interaction between characters leaves something missing from his earlier stories using this method of theme.

Another example of disjunction lies between the characters in " Sacks", from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The disjunction in this story really creates a sense of frustration for the reader. The story deals with the relationship between a father and son following the fathers divorce. Les arranges to meet his father at a airport on his way to San Francisco, the two haven't " talked " in some time. Consumed by shame and guilt, the father tells his son about a affair he had years before.

I'll tell you, Les. I'll tell you what's the most important thing involved here. You see, there are things. More important things than your mother leaving me. Now, you listen to this…So there I am, almost naked with my clothes in my hand, and Larry is opening the front door" ( What We Talk About When We Talk About Love 44)

Les's father commands his son to listen, but Les cannot and will not. Les ignores his father's pleas for understanding and companionship. This lack of respect gives the story little felt sympathy for either character, especially for Les in his situation. This barrier between the two transcends to the reader's frustration he/she may place on either character, hence sheltering them from the stories context. The communication gap personifies the notion of a distance in the relationship. This distance between the two pushes the reader from the story, destroying the felt compassion the father character may be searching for. Les has rejected his fathers pleas both literally and figuratively. Thus, the opportunity for communication and communion is lost. The story ends, in my opinion, not with a bang but with a whimper, a hasty retreat, a failure to connect. The disjunction can be interpreted to play a major role in Carver's meaning within such a story. The contribution he gives to the story is to personify a very flat character relationship. This method to draw in the reader seems very ordinary and plain, it lacks the intermingling that touched characters project within a story.


Later in Carvers writings he began to explore with communion, a spiritual and emotional bond which results when individuals communicate and reach a conscious understanding of one another. Carvers characters reach communion as a spiritual reward for their suffering. Communion becomes more evident in the collection of short stories Cathedral. The characters in the communal stories achieve flow experiences as a result of one constant element: communication, verbal and nonverbal. Touch is important because it presents concrete evidence of a spiritual and emotional connection. It is within this scope, and demand in writing that Carvers stories really draw the reader within the world of the story. A much deeper emotional feeling is felt when a connection amongst the characters is reached.

The story, " The Bridle" uses touch to instigate verbal communication. The story unveils as a woman and her family rent a apartment from Marge, and her husband, Harley. Betty, the tenant pays with crisp bills, which Marge examines with great curiosity. The scene demonstrates Marge's hunger for change. The relationship expands as Betty arrives to make a hair appointment. The two entangle within a conversation as Marge takes Betty's hand for a manicure. Marge's touch release Betty's tongue. Betty needs the connection as much as Marge," I can see she wants to tell me about it. And that's fine with me" ( Cathedral 198) Verbalizing one's past and problem is crucial to communion. Marge changes the subject to Betty's nail beds, Betty withdrawals her hand. The connection seems to break without the physical bond. This observance of a spiritual bond draws the reader into the story with great curiosity. It is almost compelling to watch the bond between the two grow. When such a str ong relationship is portrayed in a story, the reader, gains much more felt compassion between the characters. This felt compassion sparks a much greater interest between the reader's understanding of the story.

When Marge begins to tell her life story , " I'm starting to tell how it was before we moved here, and how it's still like that"(201) , Harley comes out of the bathroom for a drink of water. The growing intensity expands as the intimacy between the two unfolds. This climax personifies a justifiable intimate interaction within the story. Only with such communion ties can one portray a story within this manner. An unfelt bond, or interaction between characters would leave this scene lacking in spiritual growth, portraying a empty meaning in the text.

I don't know much about them. But I know one part of it fits in the mouth…If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you'd know it was time. You'd know you were going somewhere ( Cathedral 209 )

Both Marge and Betty both feel the pull of the bit between their teeth. Through communion, however, the woman gain a type of fellowship which helps them temporarily endure their circumstances. It is within the parameters of this fellowship that communion reveals itself to be of its strong importance in Carvers writings.

Through communion, the characters in " Cathedral " also realize their connections to others. The story, nominated in 1984 for the Pulitzer Prize, is the best example of communion. Carver viewed this story unlike most he had written in the past. He discusses this in an interview in1985 with David Sexton:

DS: The story " Cathedral " really is the only where people make contact, isn't it ? …it's unusual in your stories isn't it?

RC: The fact that there's not much love and connection made between my characters?

DS: Yes. You really make a jump at the end of " Cathedral," when suddenly they move together instead of apart.

RC: Yes, and I like that a lot. When I wrote that story I knew the story was different in kind and degree than any other story I'd ever written. And that was the first story I wrote for the book Cathedral. I think the story signals something for me that is not present in all my earlier stories.

( Sexton 131).

The portrayal of communion in Carvers story " Cathedral " seems to personify this connection between characters better than others. The story presents itself as the narrator, referred to only as " Bub," anticipates the arrival of his wife's longtime friend, Robert, a blind man. Bud, is clearly intimidated by Robert, whom he refers to only as " the blind man." The expressed barrier in the relationship gives insight to a change that may occur between these characters at a later time. The spark of something to come gives the reader a much more felt compassion between the two. As a result of his fear, the narrator calls Robert " the blind man " instead of using his proper name, which tends to give a specific legitimate identity. As a result of Buds narrow mind, he cannot understand how his wife and Robert could be anything more than sexual. Carver foreshadows the possibility of enlightenment by characterizing Bud as not entirely hopeless. " It is beyond my understanding " (360). This self- evaluation, although minuscule, illustrates that Bud has the ability to change. It is this change that shall occur that defines the deeper meaning in this story personifying communion. Carver uses the simplistic qualities in his characters to motivate this theme of communion. Later in this story we find that Bud feels extremely left out the conversations between Robert and his wife. The reader is sparked to feel the distance these characters begin to show. By achieving this distance, and rejoining them in a later time, pulls the readers interest within the stories path. This communion between characters transcends the stories meaning to every day lives, thus making the fiction more applicable. Bud mistakenly believes that this visual form of entertainment will exclude Robert. However, Robert foils the narrator's attempt by saying that he has two TV's and can even determine that Bud's is in color. This is where the communion starts to unfold in the story. The characters begin to show a connection between their relationship which contrast the earlier felt barrier.

Bud begins to realize how isolated his life has become. He says to Robert that he is " glad for the company " and then recognizes that he is not saying it just to be polite. " And I guess I was. Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could…My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the same time"(368) This sincere admission of loneliness is important because it signifies the beginning of a genuine, sexual connection with another human being. Bud is then motivated to make Robert feel more comfortable by narrating a television program on cathedrals. After discussing cathedrals for some time, Bud is compelled to clarify what a cathedral is, and he gropes for the words words to convey it. " How could I even begin to describe it? But say to my life depended on it. Say my life was being threatened by an insane guy who said I had to do it or else" (371)

The two come together in communion when Robert and Bud, at Robert's suggestion, begin to draw a cathedral on a paper bag. Touch instigates the connection. Bud and Robert make a connection between the two which sparks Bud's describing of a cathedral to Robert. This is interesting because the position is normally reversed. A compassion is felt for the character of Bud. The reader associates with Bud's character more genuinely.. The second reason communion occurs is that the characters draw the cathedral together, " We're drawing a cathedral. Me and him are working on it" ( 374 ) Carver chose them to create new art together. We may not know enough about the characters situation to make judgments about them, but through communion we can feel a honest interaction. We know enough about ourselves and our own situations to perhaps bring a piece of ourselves to the story. That's what communion allows.


At the end of his life Raymond Carver wrote an essay entitled

" Meditation on a line from Saint Teresa." The line reads: " Words lead to deeds…They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness" (No Heroics, Please 223).

In the essay, Carver wonders about the words " soul " and " tenderness " and their marked absence in the world today. He speculates that one re-evaluates one's life after reading about the tenderness of others, fictional characters as well as factual ones. This tenderness is a direct result of what characters experience from communion. They are compelled to interact amongst each other in a spiritual way.

It is only logical, then, that Carver draws the conclusion that the words themselves and the interaction between them to the story, has as powerful an impact as the deeds performed. Thus, the words themselves are as important as how one perceives the characters interaction. Communion directly uses language and words to express its meaning of connection. Later in the essay Carver qualifies the relationship between words and deeds by saying, " the right and true words, can have the power of deeds" ( 225 ) But which words are right and true? To answer that question, one must examine Carver's beliefs, particularly those which signify a writers moral responsibility. According to Carver's mentor, John Gardner, " right and true words" would be those which inspire human beings toward life affirmation, creation, and the positive as opposed to destruction and apathy(Gardner 18 ).

As a artist matures, the work he or she produces usually matures as well. This maturing can take many forms, but among the most common are developed of voice, refinement of style or even change of style, and shift in theme. Carver's work displays all of these characteristics, but it is the development of his voice, and the subsequent shift in style which engenders, that figures most prominently in his shift from disjunction to communion.

Carver's short fiction can be chronologically divided into two types, with each type corresponding to a surprisingly distinct period in his life. The first period encompasses all of his work while he was an alcoholic, and it is notable for the development of the basic themes which mark carver's short fiction. He also began in this time to find his voice, the lean diction which eventually led him towards communion. The second type was the period after which he met his long time love, Tess Gallagher. This is the period in which Carver's development of character connection between touch and voice became most prominent. This stylistic switch in Carver's stories give the reader a greater interaction within his simplistic, yet strong language

If right and true words have the power of deeds, then the short stories in which Carver's characters achieve communion have such a power. As a result, those stories can be said to have an immense influence over the reader. The stories which achieve communion demonstrate how effectively this connection of verbal and nonverbal affirmation plays within his writings.

Carver's spiritual progression demonstrates how the transcendence from disjunction to communion played upon the reader. Raymond Carver used his short fiction, particularly those works I have classified as communal, to communicate the importance of life-affirming experiences to his readers and move them to action in their own lives.

Works Cited

Bonetti, Kay. " Ray Carver: Keeping." Conversations with Raymond Carver. Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull, eds. Jackson, Mississippi :University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 53-61.

Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

---. No Heroics Please. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

---. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Davis, Alan. " The Holiness of Ordinary. " Hudson Review. Vol.45 Winter 1993: 653-658

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1978.

Halpert, Sam. " Interviews" …when we talk about Raymond Carver. Peregrine Smith, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-publishing, 1991. 51-84

Sexton, David. " David Sexton talks to Raymond Carver." Conversations With Raymond Carver. Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L.Stull, eds. Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 1990. 120-132.

Stull, William L. " Matters of Life and Death. " Conversations with Raymond Carver. Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull eds. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 177-191.

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