Chef’s House by Raymond Carver
In Chef’s House by Raymond Carver we have the theme of isolation, connection, separation, hope, recovery, identity and memories. Taken from his Cathedral collection the story is narrated in the first person by a middle aged woman called Edna and very early on the reader realises that Carver is delving into the theme of separation. First there is Wes, Edna’s estranged husband. Not only is he separated from Edna but his girlfriend has left him too. Similarly Edna leaves her friend (boyfriend) to stay with Wes in Chef’s house. It is also interesting that Edna doesn’t call her friend, her boyfriend. This may suggest that in some ways Edna is still (at least emotionally) attached to Wes. There also appears to be a fractured relationship between Wes and his two children (Cheryl and Bobby). Neither visit Edna or Wes while they are in Chef’s house, something which upsets Wes. The idea of separation is further explored by the fact that Carver also mentions that Linda’s (Chef’s daughter) husband has also disappeared. In all likelihood he has left Linda.
The theme of identity is also noticeable in the story. There is the fact that Edna starts to wear her wedding ring again, this can suggest that she is identifying herself as a married woman again. There is also the fact that Edna never names her boyfriend. Again it is possible that Edna still, despite her separation from Wes, identities herself as a married woman. Carver hints at the idea of identity again when Edna asks Wes to imagine if things hadn’t turned out as they had. Wes’ response is interesting as he tells Edna that ‘I suppose we’d have to be somebody else if that was the case.’ Again this plays on or suggests the idea of identity. Also the fact that Wes is in recovery and rediscovering himself also suggests the idea of identity.
Carver also explores the theme of isolation. There is the obvious fact that Wes was living on his own in Chef’s house before he called and asked Edna to join him. Also there is a sense that due to the separation between Wes and his children that he in some ways feels isolated from their lives. How detached or isolated from his children’s lives is noticeable by the fact that Wes wishes he could live life over again with his family (minus the drinking). This is also significant as it plays on not only the theme of isolation but on the theme of memories too.
As for memories as a theme, the story itself is a memory piece and there are instances in the story in whereby Edna also recalls the past, before she went to stay with Wes in Chef’s house. She remembers when Wes threw his wedding ring into the peach orchard. Also she can recall when she brought Cheryl and Bobby to see Wes’ father. This incident may be significant as just like Wes wishes he could do it all over again, there is similarly a sense that Edna too longs to return to the past and possibly do it over again.
In many ways both Wes and Edna’s longing to change their lives is significant as it suggests the idea of hope. Wes, hopes to reignite his life with Edna, hence him calling her asking her to spend time with him in Chef’s house. Also there is a sense that by re-imagining her life with Wes, Edna is also hoping for a different type of life. Symbolically Carver also appears to be using Chef’s house as a symbol of recovery for Wes or at least Wes attaches or links his recovery from alcoholism to Chef’s house. Also the ocean view that Wes can see from the front room of Chef’s house appears to act as symbolism for hope. It is interesting that at the end of the story, Wes pulls the curtains closed, shutting out the view of the ocean. In many ways this action mirrors the sense of loss that Wes feels. He had placed all his hopes in bringing Edna to Chef’s house and rekindling his relationship with her. The very fact that Wes asks Edna to stay with him in Chef’s house also suggests that he longs to reconnect with her. Similarly the reader finds that he also longs to reconnect with his children. In many ways Wes does not have the same connection with his own family that Chef has. Chef after all is looking after Linda by allowing her move into the house.
In many ways Wes is also living an illusion. He is living in somebody else’s house, he is attaching his recovery and his hopes to the house and he is living on borrowed time. The reader is aware that neither Wes nor Edna need to work while they are in Chef’s house. However the reality is that the money will run out and one suspects so too will the idyllic feeling that Wes attaches to his circumstances. Whether Wes is prepared for the realities of the world is never said, though the ending of the story if viewed symbolically suggests that at least Edna is aware that things have come to an end. Neither Wes nor Edna can reclaim their past, despite both longing too.