Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes by Raymond Carver
In Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes by Raymond Carver we have the theme of pride, conflict and connection. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Carver may be exploring not only the theme of pride but the theme of conflict too. Evan Hamilton is sitting at his kitchen table, talking to his wife Ann. Evan has just given up cigarettes and Ann is telling him how proud she is of him. However despite having had a bath, Evan can still smell the cigarettes on his hand. This is important as it is through the smell of the cigarettes (and Evan’s difficulty staying off them) that the reader becomes aware of an internal conflict within Evan. Carver will use the smell of cigarettes again at the end of the story to highlight further the idea of conflict (or rather the lack of it).
This is not the only occasion in the story in whereby Carver explores the theme of conflict. It is also explored briefly when Evan is outside his house talking to Gilbert’s brother. When Evan is told that Gilbert’s mother wants to speak to one of Roger’s (Evan’s son) parents, he goes back into the house and tells Ann that Roger, ‘he’s in some kind of jam.’ Though the reader is aware (as is Evan) that it appears to be nothing serious (minor conflict) later when Evan is in Gilbert’s house things escalate further. It is while Evan is at Gilbert’s house that Carver explores the theme of conflict in fuller detail. First, Mr Berman doesn’t appear to have any respect for either Evan or Gilbert’s mother (he takes Gary into the living room to speak to him in private, giving Gary the chance to create his version of what happened). Though it appears to be minor there is a sense that Mr Berman doesn’t like Evan. This apparent dislike manifests itself into actual physical conflict when Mr Berman pushes Evan to the side when he is on the porch outside Gilbert’s house. This results in both men fighting each other, with Evan pinning Mr Berman to the ground before he lets him up. Another obvious indication in the story in whereby conflict is a theme is the very fact that there are different versions of what happened Gilbert’s bicycle, with Kip and Gary saying different things.
What is also interesting about the story is that it is through conflict (with others) that Evan and Roger start to connect with each other. There are also hints or signs in the story, prior to Evan making a connection with Roger, which suggest that Evan doesn’t really know his son. First there is the fact that he doesn’t know who Gilbert’s brother is (Gilbert being Roger’s friend). Neither does he know who Gilbert is when he arrives at the house. It appears the only friend of Roger’s that Evan recognizes is Kip Hollister. Also when Evan and Gilbert’s brother are going to Gilbert’s house, Evan is on a street that he doesn’t recognize. This not only highlights Evan’s lack of connection with his environment, his unfamiliarity with the street (which is only two blocks away from his house) but it mirrors Evan’s unfamiliarity with his son’s life. The fact that Evan knows very little about his son can be seen when Carver tells the reader that Evan, ‘he was struck by the range of his son’s personal life.’ Again Evan’s surprise at his son’s social reach, though it impresses him leaves the reader suspecting that he doesn’t really know his son.
The first hint of connection between Evan and Roger comes as they are walking home after Evan and Mr Berman’s fight. Roger wants to feel his father’s muscles. Roger is not embarrassed by his father having fought with Mr Berman, rather he is proud of him. This pride is more noticeable later when Roger is in bed and he tells Evan that he wished he knew him when Evan was his (Roger’s) age. What is also interesting about Roger wishing he knew his father when he was his age is the fact that it further bonds or connects both father and son.
It is also significant that Caver connects three generations in the story. The fight with Mr Berman triggers a memory for Evan of a time he remembers his own father fighting (idea of conflict again). Even though Evan can remember other things about his father, it is while he is sitting outside the house that the only memory he appears to be able to remember is his father’s fight with the labourer. This is significant as Evan may fear that Roger will only remember one thing about him (his fight with Mr Berman) and in some ways Evan’s memory of his father’s fight acts as a further trigger for Evan to connect with Roger.
Carver ends the story with Roger and Evan talking while Roger is in bed. They talk about Evan’s father and again there is a sense of connection (by linking three generations together). Evan also asks Roger to smell his hand, expecting him to get the smell of cigarettes, however the smell is gone. This is important because the smell of cigarettes had previously symbolized an internal conflict within Evan, which is also now gone. What is also important at the end of the story is the fact that Roger asks his father to leave the door in his bedroom open and instead Evan only leaves it half-open. This is significant because Evan may realise (by having talked to his son) that Roger is growing up and may no longer need to have the door fully open.