Are You A Doctor by Raymond Carver

In Are You A Doctor? by Raymond Carver we have the theme of identity, temptation and trust. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and begins with the main protagonist, Arnold Breit, while at home, receiving a call from a stranger called Clara Holt. Rather than hang up the phone when he realises that it is a wrong number, he continues to talk to her leading him to eventually agreeing to meet her. There are several reasons as to why Arnold would agree to meet Clara, ranging from vanity (his), temptation (to have an affair) curiosity (simply find out who Clara Holt actually is) and charity (Clara mentions her desperate position and seeks Arnold’s help). Though we never discover the exact reasons as to why Arnold agrees to meet Clara we do discover, by the end of the story, that Arnold doesn’t really know who he is (identity).

The idea or theme of identity is explored several times in the story. There is the fact that Clara asks Arnold his name. At first she thinks his surname is Arnold but then discovers it is Breit. Then there is the fact that Arnold looks at himself (twice) in the mirror. This not only suggests the idea of identity (looking at who he is) but also vanity on Arnold’s behalf. Interestingly Arnold looks at himself in the mirror, on the first occasion, when he tells Clara to hold the line for a minute under the pretense that he has to check something and also on another occasion after Clara has rang him. On both occasions, Arnold’s usage of a mirror comes when Clara is involved.

The idea of identity is also explored when Arnold arrives at Clara’s apartment. Cheryl, Clara’s daughter answers the door and Arnold, having forgotten her name, asks her is her name Shirley. Also while Arnold is talking to Clara in her apartment, she asks him ‘Are you a doctor?’ Again highlighting the idea or theme of identity. Clara does not know anything about Arnold, just as Arnold knows very little, if anything about Clara. They remain strangers to each other, though Arnold does succumb to temptation and kiss her. There are several reasons as to why Arnold is tempted to kiss Clara. First she is a younger woman and secondly Arnold may be lonely and unhappy in his marriage to his wife. His wife does after all spend a lot of time away with work and tends to drink a lot. This may make Arnold uncomfortable. Whatever the reason it is obvious to the reader that Arnold upsets (or surprises himself). Though there are also symbols and signs in the story to suggest a marital fall.

Some of the signs include the fact that Arnold is prepared to meet Clara and continues to speak to her on the phone. He doesn’t know her, perhaps he is answering her request to meet her because of the urgency and sense of panic in Clara’s voice (being charitable) but it is more likely that he is enamored by the fact a younger, single lady wants to meet him. He is after all aware that Clara is unmarried. Also when he discovers that there is no urgency he is still hesitant to leave Clara’s apartment, preferring to stay talking to her and eventually kissing her. The fact that Arnold kisses Clara may be important as it suggests two things. The first being that he can no longer be trusted by his wife and secondly Arnold can not trust himself. No longer is he the individual he thinks himself to be or would like to think himself to be.

As for symbolism to suggest a marital fall this can be found as Arnold is walking up the stairs to Clara’s apartment. He pauses on the steps and remembers his honeymoon with his wife before he imagines a fall down the stairs. Carver using the trigger of his honeymoon and the imagining of a physical fall on the stairs to suggest to the reader Arnold’s eventual martial fall (through kissing Clara). Despite knowing that kissing Clara was wrong, there is no suggestion from either Clara or Arnold that they will not meet up again. If anything Clara feels assured that they will meet up again. Which suggests a further succumbing to temptation by Arnold. Again there is a sense that Arnold no longer knows who he is.

The end of the story is also interesting as it again suggests the idea or theme of identity. After he has left Clara’s apartment Arnold goes home to find the phone ringing. He doesn’t answer, which is also significant as it may suggest that either he regrets kissing Clara (feels guilty) and fears she may be calling him again or he is afraid that it is his wife and she will discover he has cheated on her. Either way Arnold is afraid. When it rings a second time Arnold answers saying ‘Arnold. Arnold Breit’. On discovering it is his wife on the phone, he remains silent ‘and considered her voice.’ Again this can suggest the idea of fear, Arnold wondering is his wife aware of what has happened. However the idea or theme of identity comes back into play when Arnold’s wife says ‘You don’t sound like yourself.’ At the end the reader is left guessing, as is Arnold, as to who exactly he is. It would appear that all we know about Arnold Breit is his name.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Are You A Doctor by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Quite liked this one, intriguingly set up and compelling to the end. Empathetic with the characters, even in their weaknesses which is a quality I love. Carver’s stories don’t really have an awful lot of plot (which one of his do you think, relatively, is the most plot driven?) but are evocative of a kind of mood or atmosphere, which I think this did quite well.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Hi Gunjan. I feel that this is one of the posts on the blog that still needs some work. I’ve never really fully came to grips with the story line and feel I have left out so much. One plot I do like is the one in So Much Water So Close To Home. It’s not so much a plot that is easy to follow and has an element of mystery to it.

      • Maybe you didn’t go into as much detail about some of the themes/moments as you have in other posts. Also in your post about the titular story What we talk about we talk about love, I guess. I see both of these were written a few years ago. Do you intend to add to or update these? Let me know if you do, enjoy reading your posts.

        That story does have a bit more plot compared to most of his other stories. It’s been adapted into films twice I think.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          It is my intention to go back over all of the Carver posts at some stage and update them. A lot of them I would see in a different light now and as such I feel that they may need to be updated.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          It is my intention to go back over all of the Carver posts at some stage and update them. A lot of them I would see in a different light now and as such I feel that they may need to be updated.

  • Can you please explain the part with the “large man in a sweatshirt”. Is he symbolized as his conscience? Above him, against the railing, conscious of Arnold’s decisions?

    He’s first mentioned, watching Arnold walking toward the door, going inside the building, to see the young woman. Curious of the following acts.

    Then, as Arnold looks around the apartment, he notices a narrow hallway leading to the back of it (perhaps leading to the bedroom), afterwards notices the pink (girl/woman color) bathrobe casually laying on the coutch. He might of thought of his bahaviour, his moral sence rang a bell so “a little chill went through Arnold as he recalled the large man in the sweatshirt”. Arnold’s sence of right awakes and remebered that large man.

    We see him again, above him, looking down, slightly against the railing. Arnold takes a long breath and pause to look back at the building.
    Had he felt guilty about his desires or cheating on his wife?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I hadn’t thought about it before but you may be correct. The ‘large man in the sweatshirt’ may be acting as Arnold’s conscience.

    • I too was intrigued by the large man in the sweatshirt. On a literal level, if anything had happened to Clara Holt after Arnold’s visit, the man would be a witness thus nullifying any hope Arnold had of conducting some clandestine affair.

      On a metaphorical level, I am more inclined to believe it was Arnold’s conscience or, if looking at this on a religious level, God – the archetypal higher power, which would explain the man being on a balcony and of a larger, presumably more powerful stature than Arnold.

      The same discussions are often made about Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley and there is a parallel between him and the large man.

      The fact that Arnold’s visit and the physical contact with Clara was brief, a deity or his conscience is now aware of his intentions which therefore lead to Arnold’s own identity crisis.

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