After the Denim by Raymond Carver
In After the Denim by Raymond Carver we have the theme of acceptance, escape, powerlessness, displacement and conflict. Taken from his What We Talk About When We Talk About Love collection the story begins with Edith and James Packer getting ready to go to bingo. What is interesting about the opening scene of the story is the fact that so many things are ‘unheard’ or ‘silent’. The volume of the TV is turned down and we learn that unlike Edith, James doesn’t like to listen to music when he is working, again there is a sense of silence. This sense of silence may be important as later in the story the reader realizes the Edith is chronically ill, but the reader never learns or is never told as to what the illness actually is (the narrator remains silent). It is possible that by introducing the silence into the story Carver is (at least symbolically) suggesting that James is finding it difficult to come to terms with or accept that Edith is ill. Something that is a little clearer later in the story. What is also interesting about the opening scene is the fact that Edith is multi-tasking. She is smoking, listening to a tape cassette and turning the pages of a magazine, while the TV is on mute. There is a lot of distraction and this may highlight the need for Edith to escape. Again this makes more sense when we realize that Edith has a chronic illness. It may be a case that by multi-tasking, Edith is attempting to forget that she is ill.
There are also several instances in the story which highlight the idea of displacement. First when Edith and James are driving in the car park of the community centre, James notices that someone else has parked in his usual spot (the young couple in denim). Also when James and Edith go to sit down, James notices that someone has taken his and Edith’s usual seat (again the young couple in denim). It is possible that by having the young couple in denim take both James’ parking spot and his usual seat in the community centre Carver is suggesting that in many ways James and Edith are being replaced by a new generation. That time moves on for everybody. There is also a sense (at least for James) that there is a clash between generations or rather between James and the young couple wearing denim. James doesn’t like the look of them and later in the story when he sees the young man cheating at bingo, he challenges him (idea of conflict). It is possible that just as James has difficulty accepting Edith’s illness, likewise he has difficulty accepting the young couple wearing denim.
The memory that James recalls (of Jack and the Beanstalk) may also be important as Carver may be linking the lucky Jack to the unlucky James. A fact that is more possible or noticeable when the reader discovers that the young couple win at the bingo, while sitting in the seats that the Packers would usually occupy. By introducing the memory it is also possible that Carver is suggesting that in the past James may have been lucky but in the present things are not going as James would have liked (dealing with Edith’s illness and losing at bingo). In many ways James no longer resembles the young Jack in the story, rather he is defeated, just like the giant was. This may be important as it again suggests the idea of displacement. A younger generation (the couple in denim) have taken over or are luckier than James.
Despite the obvious differences in age between the Packers and the young couple, there are similarities between both. Both Edith and the young woman are affectionate towards their partners. The young woman having her hand on the young man’s knee while playing bingo and Edith touching James’ arm in the car park when they are looking for a car park space. Also despite the young man being somewhat effeminate (at least in description by Carver and for the time the story was written), James is also feminized in some ways. Near the end of the story James is sitting down, embroidering, which would generally be considered something that a woman would do. Despite James considering himself to be different to the young man in denim there are nonetheless similarities between both men.
It may also be significant that when the Packers return home from the community centre, James turns on the TV. Similar to Edith at the beginning of the story, James may be looking for an escape, however it soon becomes clear to him that there is no escaping from the fact that Edith is chronically ill. It is also while James is sitting at home (with the TV turned off) that he begins to think about the young couple again. He wishes that Edith’s illness affected them and not Edith (again the idea of displacement). He also wishes that the young couple could sit in Dr. Crawford’s waiting room, just like him and Edith. This may be significant as it would appear that James wishes not only that it was the young couple who had to deal with illness (and accept it) but there is also a sense that James wishes he could teach the younger couple a lesson. In many ways this mirrors the idea of an older generation wishing they could teach a younger generation something.
The conflict that James feels, not only over Edith’s illness but also about the young couple is not resolved at the end of the story. If anything it is compounded. This can be seen as James is threading the needle. James is using blue silk thread (mirroring the denim of the young couple) and he is stabbing at the eye of the needle with the thread. This may be significant as James’ stabbing motion in many ways mirrors how he feels about the young couple in denim. It may also be significant that James remembers the photograph in the hall of the community centre of the man standing on the keel of a boat. It is possible that Carver is using the photograph as symbolism, suggesting that James too has had his life overturned by Edith’s illness and like the man standing on the boat waving or calling out for help, James too may be in need of help, particularly when it comes to him accepting that Edith is ill. If anything, James remains powerless at the end of the story and unable to accept that Edith is chronically ill.