Careful by Raymond Carver

In Careful by Raymond Carver we have the theme of change, dependency, alcoholism, moving on, disaffection, communication and paralysis. Taken from his Cathedral collection, the story tells of a man called Lloyd who has recently separated from his wife Inez. Lloyd is now living in the attic room of Mrs Matthews’ house and very early on the reader finds that Lloyd has a drinking problem. He drinks from early in the morning, something that Carver highlights to the reader through the incident of Lloyd beginning the day by eating some doughnuts and drinking champagne. Though Lloyd once may have considered this to be unusual (drinking first thing in the morning) or something that you would do when you’re young it has now become a regular occurrence for him and he now sees nothing wrong with it. If anything Lloyd appears to be disaffected with his life and there is a sense that there is no urgency in his life to change how he interacts with the world.

It also interesting that it was Lloyd’s wife who decided that they needed to separate for a while (an assessment is how she described it) though the reader is aware that Lloyd is struggling with the separation. It may be a case that Inez is no longer able to live with Lloyd, his habits or his drinking. He spends his time in his new lodgings with the TV on and drinking champagne. The imagery of the TV is important because though Lloyd has it on, he rarely looks at anything and the volume always remains low. This idea of not listening is also important because it highlights the theme of communication or rather the lack of it. Just as Lloyd is not listening to the TV he likewise is not really listening (or doesn’t appear) to be listening to Inez.

There is also the strong symbolism of the wax in Lloyd’s ears; again this can be seen as symbolism for not listening. Inez comes over to visit Lloyd and while she is in his room she tries to help remove the wax from Lloyd’s ear. Lloyd has spent the morning pounding the side of his head, hoping to dislodge the wax but to no avail. Despite not having any Q-tips, Inez starts to use the file on her nail clippers to remove the wax but this makes Lloyd uncomfortable and he recalls a story one of his old school teachers told him about not putting anything smaller than an elbow into your ear. This story is important because it highlights to the reader that Lloyd can recall a time when life was simpler. He knows that Inez has come to talk about the relationship, but in essence Lloyd isn’t listening (or able to listen).

While Inez is down with Mrs Matthews, to see if she has some Q-tips or Wesson oil, Lloyd goes into the bathroom to drink some more champagne. He has hidden a bottle behind the stool and despite thinking that he is hiding his drinking from Inez, when she comes back from Mrs Matthews room she tells him that she knows about his stash in the bathroom but again there is the sense that Lloyd isn’t listening or able to listen to Inez (lack of communication and disaffection). By also hiding his alcohol from others Carver manages to highlight how dependent Lloyd is on alcohol. Though he knows he shouldn’t be drinking he still goes as far as hiding the alcohol from others.

Eventually Lloyd’s ear starts to clear up when Inez pours some warm baby oil she got from Mrs Matthews into his ear. Despite now being able to hear again, Lloyd and Inez don’t start to discuss the relationship. Instead Inez tells Lloyd that she has to go and that they can talk again another time, the reader suspecting that Inez has moved on from the relationship and has a date. An idea compounded by the fact that she is wearing new clothes, clothes that Lloyd previously did not recognise or remember seeing Inez wearing before. After Inez has left, Lloyd finishes dressing himself. At first this action looks as if it is the start of Lloyd getting his life back together again but the reader soon learns that nothing has changed with Lloyd and after he lies in bed for a while he gets up and goes to the refrigerator and opens up another bottle of champagne and pours himself a glass.

Carver ends Careful with Lloyd having put his pyjama’s back on and sitting on the sofa. He is drinking straight from the champagne bottle now, having realised that his glass had traces of oil on it. He starts to think to himself that there is nothing unusual about drinking straight from the bottle. Just as he thought previously in the story that there was nothing wrong with drinking first thing in the morning. The reader is now even more aware that Lloyd is unable to control his drinking and if anything is not prepared to admit he is dependent on alcohol. However Lloyd’s final action in the story is the most important. As he is sitting on the sofa drinking he lowers his head and looks out the window and imagines that it must be at least three in the afternoon. This is important because it is through this opinion that we realise how remote or lost Lloyd really is. Inez had arrived at eleven and has just gone, spending no more than an hour with Lloyd. Through his drinking Lloyd is totally oblivious as to what time it is and remains detached from reality. The reader aware of just how paralyzed Lloyd is by his alcoholism.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Careful by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 25 Mar. 2016. Web.


  • Hi there Dermot. I’m reading Raymond Carver’s short stories right now. Really enjoying your reviews, which I’m reading after each one.

    In Careful, there seem to be a idea of ‘wrong angles’ to suggest the off kilter, unsettling situation. It reminds me of HP Lovecraft’s use of ‘strange angles’. It’s all the way through:

    …’The roof slanted down sharply’
    …had to bend over… bending down… reaching down
    …Awkward head and body tilts throughout
    …Lowers head to observe angle of the sunlight as shadows enter…

    Looking forward to working through the rest. Thanks!

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