Are These Actual Miles by Raymond Carver

In Are These Actual Miles by Raymond Carver we have the theme of appearance, infidelity, trust, consumerism, honesty and materialism. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet Please collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on in the story the reader realises that Carver may be exploring one of the main themes of the story, the theme of materialism. As Toni is dressing herself the reader realises that she has a ‘new white blouse,’ ‘new two piece suit,’ and ‘new heels.’ Though this may appear to be insignificant it is important considering that the reader at the beginning of the story is told how dire Leo and Toni’s finances are. As the reader reads the story a little further it becomes clear that Leo and Toni are living beyond their means and Toni in particular seems to be unable to curb her spending.

It is also at the beginning of the story that Carver explores the theme of appearance. The reader is aware that Leo and Toni are selling the car before it can be repossessed by the courts. Their lawyer has advised them that it will not look good in the judge’s eyes that they are able to keep a convertible yet are not able to pay their creditors. In essence Carver may be suggesting that how Toni and Leo appear financially to the judge is significant. Though at the same time there is a sense of dishonesty. Neither Leo nor Toni are prepared to be honest with the judge and the reader suspects neither are they prepared to be honest with themselves.

Leo’s sending of the children to his mother may also be significant as again it plays on the theme of appearance. It is more important to Leo that his children don’t know the truth, that in reality his marriage to Toni appears to be based solely on materialism. However the most noticeable incident with regard to appearance is when Toni tells Leo that the salesman would rather be ‘classified a robber or a rapist than a bankrupt.’ This view is later mirrored by Toni when she returns home drunk. Again this may highlight that the marriage, at least in Toni’s eyes, is based on financial means rather than on love. It doesn’t appear to register with Toni that the difficulties she and Leo are incurring are due to both their actions or consumerism.

Carver’s introduction of Ernest Williams may also be important. The reader is aware that Ernest has seen Leo bring a woman home to his house while Toni was away. In all probability Leo has cheated on Toni and in some ways Ernest acts as Leo’s conscience. The reader finding that Leo had ‘an urge to cry out a confession,’ when he saw Ernest. It is possible that Carver may also be suggesting that despite the over indulgence in consumerism by Leo (and Toni) neither has achieved happiness, either personally or in their marriage. It is also possible that Leo’s infidelities may be matched by Toni’s. Though Carver does not explicitly tell the reader that Toni has cheated on Leo with the salesman there is the possibility that she may have. This stems from the fact that despite New Jimmy’s being closed when Leo calls the restaurant Toni does not arrive home till near dawn. Also she was sober when she called Leo but arrives home drunk. There is also a suspicion within Leo that Toni may have cheated. Such is his concern that he, while undressing Toni, checks her underwear. The fact that Leo thinks Toni may have cheated is important as it also suggests that Leo may not trust Toni when it comes to their relationship. If anything it is possible that the relationship is based solely on materialism.

There is also a sense that neither Leo nor Toni are addressing the bigger issues or problems within their marriage. At the beginning of the story Leo tells Toni that ‘We start over Monday. I mean it.’ However Toni doesn’t hear Leo. Also he tells her that ‘This time next week. Ancient History,’ but again Toni doesn’t appear to hear Leo or at least doesn’t reply. The fact that Toni does not hear Leo may be important as Carver symbolically could be suggesting that nothing will change for Toni. It would also seem that Leo is putting all his faith in the outcome of the court hearing on Monday. This point seems to be mirrored when Leo is stuck for something to say to the salesman, he just mutters ‘Monday.’ It is as if on Monday Leo believes he can change his life immediately. The salesman asking Leo ‘are these actual miles?’ may also be important as it could suggest that though the car is no longer of any use to Leo somebody else will benefit from it and in turn have the opportunity to follow or chase the American dream, just as Leo and Toni have.

The ending of the story is also interesting. As Leo is rubbing his fingers along Toni’s stretch marks he thinks about when he first bought the car. Unlike Toni the car remains free of marks and it may be possible that by comparing Toni’s body to the car Carver could be highlighting the continued importance of appearance to Leo. Despite needing to change his life or curb his spending and reduce his materialism Leo seems to remain focused on what he considers to be the American dream, total consumerism. It might also be worth noting that at no stage in the story does it appear that Leo has put his family first or that he has made a paternal connection with his family. How Leo appears to others is more important than how he actually lives his life. Neither Leo nor Toni seem to be committed to each other with the only common bond between both being material wealth.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Are These Actual Miles by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • I agree with everything in your excellent critique of this story. One thing that I think should also be emphasized is the sense of desperation on the part of Leo. He is a man who is so depressed that he’s seriously considering suicide.

    I think Leo is also a man who unfortunately believes, deep within himself, and (in spite of his occasional upbeat comments) that even if he doesn’t commit suicide, because of his many deeply embedded faults, his life will never improve.

    I don’t think any American writer has ever portrayed the feelings of absolute despair and desperation that far too many people experience more skillfully than Carver.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I probably should have included the fact that Leo is desperate. Something that is more obvious to me now that I think about it. At no stage in the story is Leo really happy which would lend to your view that Leo is close to committing suicide. He is so wrapped up in his pursuit of happiness that he is not thinking logically.

  • Do you know why this story is also called “What Is It”?

    I read it once somwhere but I cannot seem to find the answer again.

  • According to this article in The New Yorker, the story was originally titled “What is It?” then changed to “Are These Actual Miles?”.

    You always have good insight, thanks for responding. I thought you might know.

    I am going to keep reading your text analysis of other stories.

    Thank you

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