Collectors by Raymond Carver

In Collectors by Raymond Carver we have the theme of paralysis, identity and privacy. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the first person by a man called (at least the reader believes it to be) Mr Slater. From the beginning of the story, Carver explores the theme of paralysis. The reader finds that Slater is lying on his sofa. This is significant as it would suggest very little movement, something that is mirrored throughout the story. The setting of the story is also important. All the action takes place indoors, in Slater’s home. Again there is a sense of confinement which may further suggest the idea of paralysis or a sense of not going anywhere. It is also interesting that Slater tells the reader that he is waiting on news, so that he can start a job up north. Later the reader realises that Slater doesn’t get any news and is to remain in the same place (stuck at home). Again this suggests the idea or theme of paralysis, of going nowhere.

Carver explores the theme of paralysis to a fuller detail while Aubrey Bell is in the house, vacuuming and shampooing the carpets. There is the instance when Slater sits in the hallway on the chair, he has nowhere else to go. Also when he goes to the kitchen to make coffee, he is also confined to a small space. These confinements are significant as they again suggest a sense of paralysis (not being able to freely move about). In essence there is a lack of movement. Another incident which suggests paralysis in the story is when Bell asks Slater does he have a car. Slater tells him he doesn’t. This is significant as it again suggests that Slater isn’t going anywhere. That he remains stuck. In essence he remains paralyzed.

The idea of identity is also seen several times in the story. First when Aubrey Bell knocks on the door and Slater is talking to him. Slater never tells Bell his name, despite Bell asking on several occasions. It is not only Bell but the reader too is left to assume that the narrator is Mr Slater. We suspect it is, but are never 100% certain. Though minor there is also the fact that when Bell knocks on the door, Slater knows (by the sound of the footsteps) that it is not the mailman. Again, though it’s minor, this incident also plays on the theme of identity. What also makes it interesting for the reader is that by never fully knowing if Slater is really Slater, Carver manages to heighten the suspense in the story.

The sense of privacy or rather the lack of it can be also seen several times in the story. Slater is uncomfortable with Bell’s presence in the house. He doesn’t want Bell in the house. After he hands Bell the aspirin, he tells him that ‘…I think you ought to leave.’ It is clear that Slater doesn’t want Bell in the house, if anything he feels as if his own privacy in some ways is being invaded. Bell’s actions, by going into Slater’s bedroom also suggest an invasion of privacy. A bedroom, to some people, would be a personal sanctuary. What is also interesting about Bell going into the bedroom is that Slater tells Bell, ‘It’s not my mattress.’ As Slater may not be a reliable narrator, it is difficult to believe him when he says the mattress is not his. But if we take him at face value (and believe what he is saying), the fact that the mattress is not his leaves the question, who’s mattress it? Again this plays on the idea or theme of identity. It may also further suggest (again if we believe Slater) that he is not only spending his day on the sofa but he is sleeping on the sofa too. Which would bring in (again) the idea of paralysis. Slater isn’t going anywhere.

The most significant symbol in the story is the letter. Not only does it suggest identity (when Bell tells Slater ‘It’s for a Mr Slater’) but it also suggests a further invasion of privacy. Slater has been stopped on several occasions in the story from retrieving the letter, the reader learning that when he does try and reach the letter he was cut by Bell’s actions, ‘with his hose and his pipes and his sweeping and his sweeping…’ What Slater tells the reader at the end of the story is also significant. He tells Bell (after Bell takes the letter) that ‘I’m going to be leaving here soon.’ This is significant because in all probability Slater won’t be going anywhere (paralysis again). We are aware that he is waiting for news (letter) about a job up north, however it would appear that the news has arrived and Bell has ‘picked up the letter…and put it in his hip pocket.’ This action is important as Carver may be suggesting that Bell has ‘collected’ the letter. From the beginning of the story the reader knows that Slater is afraid of bill collectors coming to the house. In some ways by allowing Bell into the house he has unwittingly allowed a ‘collector’ in.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Collectors by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • I feel this interpretation, or review, is rather vague. The author first states that Carver deals with three major themes in the story. Then, he continues to show various instances in the story where these themes are present, but that is as far as he goes. Rather than a list that showcases places in the story where the themes are present, I would like to see an argument that attempts to follow Carver’s development of these themes into the ultimate meaning that lies at the center of the story. What is Carver trying to say by using these themes, other than the fact that Mr. Slater is indeed paralyzed.

    Also, some statements in the review need more support. Sentences like, “Again, though it’s minor, this incident also plays on the theme of identity,” only leave the reader wondering as to how, exactly, does the incident relate to the theme of identity besides the general and obvious way.

    In conclusion, I feel that this review needs to explore the themes of the story, and Carver’s use of them, to a deeper degree. It also needs more support from the text so as to avoid that feeling of vagueness that it has.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Daniel. By suggesting some relevant themes in the story, rather than exploring a central meaning, I am hoping that the reader will formulate their own opinion as to exactly what Carver may be suggesting. Such is Carver’s ability as a writer, he allows for several different interpretations of any given story. It is because of this that I would make suggestions (by themes), that might assist the reader to formulate an opinion as to what the central meaning of the story may be, rather than clearly stating my own interpretation. Which may not necessarily be an interpretation that caters for the individual readers assessment of the story. By suggesting themes, I would also hope that I am in some way guiding the reader in a more specific direction, rather than in a more general one. However I may need to, as you suggest, clarify (or support) my review a little better by providing more text from the story itself.

      • Okay, I see what you were trying to do, and I do think is a good way to help the reader. I guess I just have always been against that kind of thing. When I started taking literature classes in college, I would hate to see the broad, general questions that the editors would put after a piece of work to “guide” the reader, you know? For me, nothing gets my brain working better than reading a solid interpretation from someone else because I start trying to find flaws and strengths in it, and I start trying to come up with my own.
        And the reason why I made such criticizing comments on your post was because I really liked where you were going with the theme of paralysis in this story. I would have loved to see where you would take that, that’s all.

        So I understand If you mean to make this posts more as guides than as interpretations, but you should consider doing some in-depth essays as well because some of your ideas are very interesting.

        Either way, I love your site. It’s very helpful. I hope you keep posting reviews because I do enjoy them, even if I sounded overly-critical in my last comment.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Glad that you find the blog helpful in some way. I didn’t find your comment overly critical at all. I think it’s a good thing that people express their opinion.

    • I personally find it rather, openly critical

  • Can you explain why the salesman picked up the letter and put it in his pocket? The letter wasn’t for the salesman, right?

    What did you mean he was a collector? What kind of collectors has the right to take other people’s personal letter?

    Thank you:)

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Hi Shuo. You’re right the letter wasn’t for the salesman. It was for Slater, however the salesman ended up taking the letter because Slater (or who the reader thinks is Slater) doesn’t tell the salesman that he actually is Slater. It would be unusual for someone to do this (take a letter that is not for them). Slater is trying to hide his identity (from the reader, from bill collectors and from the salesman) because he doesn’t want people to know who he is (as he owes money for his bills). By hiding his identity Slater hopes that others will not be able to pursue him for these bills. Slater doesn’t trust the salesman (and may think he is a bill collector). Just as the reader is never sure if the narrator of the story is Slater, likewise Slater (or who we assume is Slater) is never sure of the identity of the salesman. A bill collector wouldn’t have a right to take someone’s personal letters, however should Slater admit to who he is (and tell the salesman, who he doesn’t trust, that he is Slater) then he knows that the salesman (or any bill collector) could pursue him for the bills that he owes. I called the salesman a ‘collector’ because not only has he been ‘collecting’ the dirt from the house into the vacuum cleaner but he has also collected (or picked up) the letter that was for Slater.

  • Thank you for the infinitely helpful and stimulating analyses.

  • What do you make of the absence of quotations marks? this is very rare, I feel like it adds to the confusion and the non identity of both men, and to the unreliabilty of the narrator.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Manon. I hadn’t noticed the lack of quotation marks in the story. It is possible that Carver is doing as you suggest and adding to the confusion (with identity) in the story by leaving out the quotation marks. Well-spotted.

  • Hello. I love this blog. So, as reading this story, I guess the object used to clean the stuff inside the house could suggest something when the salesman talks about the particles from the body that are left behind. It got me thinking. What do you think?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lucas. Interesting point. Carver may be suggesting that Slater no matter how hard he tries to hide his identity or past still leaves something behind.

  • I just read this story over the weekend and it has been on my mind and left me with a lot of questions. This blog has provided clarity but also gave me a chilling eureka moment. That Mr. Slater is the vaccum salesman, returned to his home in disguise to collect significant mail and with the vaccum metaphorically clean his tracks. The narrator is after Slater, staked out in the former Slater residence to discover evidence of his whereabouts. However, no luck so far and waiting for notice to move on to the next job/case up north.

    A sure sign the salesman is actually Mr. Slater is the slippers he has on after removing the goulashes. In the case that Mr. Slater is being persued by a bill collector, he must be in some sort of poverty. His footwear and overall disheveld appearance having come in from the rain indicates that.

    There is also the details about how the salesman can’t stop looking at the carpet. Seeing this carpet must have some significance; flooding back memories.

    For some reason I picture the house with very little left in it. No pictures on the wall, books to read, tv to watch, or personal belongings. Certainly nothing that would identify who Mr. Slater is, except skin flakes in the mattress, eww.

    This scenario reminds me of Vincent Vega waiting around for Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction. Bruce should have showed up as a vaccum salesman.

    Really enjoyed the tension in this story. The anticipation of the other shoe to drop, then it never quite occurrs.

    Further questions:

    Are we sure Mr. Slater is dodging bill collection? Or is the crime way more severe?

    Where is Mrs. Slater? What might have happened to her?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for that insight Matt. You’ve engaged with the story in a manner that most readers would not. Which is great to see and refreshing. The problem with the story for me is that there are more questions left to be answered than questions answered. Mr Slater I’m assuming is dodging bill collector’s based on the information provided in the story (and the title). I’m also not sure where Mrs Slater is. If that was known and she was given a voice I think a lot of questions would be answered.

    • This is almost exactly along the lines of how I felt upon the story’s conclusion. I just got the feeling that the narrator was squatting in the flat, hence its bare and quite unkempt and dirty state. I didn’t go so far as to think that the vacuum cleaner salesman could be Slater, however, but upon reading your comment I have to agree.

      At first I thought he might just be a man who suspected that the narrator was a squatter and took pity on him by cleaning the flat anyway, and I thought that by taking the mail he was trying to communicate to the narrator that he knew he wasn’t Slater, to hint that the narrator should probably move on to another place before he gets in trouble. But now I think it makes a lot more sense that the salesman was himself Mr Slater.

      This theory is bolstered, I think, by his mention of parts of ourselves being left behind in mattresses and carpets, and might be why he was so intent upon cleaning. For some reason, he didn’t want traces of himself in that flat any longer. Perhaps something happened there, he moved out and the narrator began squatting. If something untoward happened in the flat, that would also explain why Slater/the salesman wouldn’t kick up too much of a stink about a squatter and involve authorities.

  • I would agree that major themes are identity and paralysis

    1. Mr Slater

    I think Mr. Slater is a broken man, a man who has lost his wife, his job, and who does absolutely nothing to change this condition, except hoping a change and a new life would come knocking on his door (the letter)
    The fact that he avoids using his name represents this identity crisis. He simpy doesn’t know who he is anymore, without his wife, without his job.

    “You’ll be surprised to see what can collect in a matress over the months, over the years… We’re leaving little bits of ourselves, flakes of this and that behind. Where do they go, these bits and pieces of ourselves? Right through the sheets and into the mattress.”

    Mrs. Slater took a large part of himself when she left.

    But she obviouly left him because of his inability to change, and confront his habits, and there is the theme of paraysis you mention.

    “She has won a free vacuuming and carpet shampoo. Mrs Slater is a winner.”

    Hence Mr Slater is a loser.

    2. Salesman

    Therefore I think this fat, rude salesman is a personification of all Mr. Slater’s sins, vices, bad choices and habits, that eventually led him to this low point in life.
    He is fat, he is rude, he comes uninvited, first in his living room, than eventually even to their bedroom (the part with the pillow has a clear sexual reference; adultery), and Mr Slater’s half-hearted attempts to get rid of him or stop him are without any succes.

    When the letter (a chance for a new beginning) finally arrives Mr. Slater once again fails to confront the salesman, who, as a personification of his sins and bad habits, stood in Mr. Slater’s way every time he tried to pick it up.

    “Twice I started for the letter. But he seemed to anticipate me, cut me off, so to speak, with his hose and his pipes and his sweeping…”

    I think Carver is telling us that as long as Mr. Slater is unable and unwilling to change, as long as he lets his habits and sins to push him around, that every opportunity for potential change will be wasted.

    The title reffers not to the bill collectors he mentions at the beginning, nor to the vacuum cleaner, but rather to his unscrupulous way of life, that has left him, not just without money, but without more important things in life.

  • Your blog is the best! I used it in high-school for analyzing Carver stories, and years later, I’m still using it to analysize Carver stories.

    What do you think about the headache the Salesman has? I believe that he is a collector, but seeing the state of the filthy, grimy house, he actually decides to use his tool to clean up. At first, he hopes he can find anything of value in the house, but then he realizes there’s nothing in the house he can collect. Nothing of value anyways. But at the end when the mail arrives, it becomes the only thing that belongs to Mr.Slater. The Salesman is compelled to take it.

    I also think there is a thing of leaving things behind. As in passing down things or memorandum. The salesman says how people leave behind bits of themselves behind. Even on the carpet. But for Mr.Slater, that is the only thing he has left behind. Dirt and grime. No photos. Nothing of value. This man is a walking ghost. I’m far away from my book right now, but I remember a sentence about a man moving from castle to castle. When I read it, I wasn’t too sure what it was about. But thinking about it with this theme gives it depth.

    I really enjoyed this story due to the implications. Nothing is really cleared up. This entire post I’ve typed in could be wrong. Maybe Mr. Slater isn’t Mr. Slater at all. The man is simply squatting at that house. And the real Mr. Slater is the salesman who’s come in, explaining his headache at seeing his unkempt house.

    All I know for sure is, that the salesman has collected everything. The dirt, the flakes of skin, everything that belonged to “Mr. Slater”. And even his newly arrived letter. Truly, the salesman is a collector.

    What do you think the symbolism of the last line is? Whether “Mr.Slater” wants to buy the vacuum cleaner or not?

    Great post, thanks!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I like your thinking which I think is very accurate. It is possible that the Salesman could be a collector and collects everything. I’m not sure about the symbolism at the end of the story. Perhaps the salesman is poking fun at Slater. Knowing he has nothing left to give.

  • The collector is a messenger from the otherworld (heaven/hell) and the bill/letter for Mr. Slater is a signal that it is his time. The narrator, having alluded to both Voltaire and Auden, is stuck in a purgatory state. The collector is picking up pieces of his body that has turned to dust and is now going to take his soul to rest.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for that insight Georgia.

    • I also thought something similar. To begin with, look a tthe particular name “Slater” = “Is Later” (maybe?) The paralysis does feel indeed like a purgatory. Maybe Aubrey Bell is some sort of grim reaper. He’s the ‘bells’ anouncing time has come, or is late. Bell comes and cleans all the dust that remains, all the particles that we leave in our path. At the end, Slater does not pick the letter cause Aubrey Bell gets in his way. And he understands, he’s moving out soon.

  • ”Bell” somehow reminds me of ”bill”.

  • I believe the salesman and the man on the couch are the same person. The man on the couch falls asleep while waiting for the mail and the salesman is his dream. The salesman comes in and cleans debris off the carpet, pillow, mattress, and offers to clean the car but the man doesn’t have a car. Why would he offer to clean the car but not the couch. The man on the couch doesn’t move from the couch at all during the whole story (only in his dream). The debris that is vacuumed up and shampooed appears to be the cleansing of something other than just the physical debris.

    Who ends up with the mail. Why does the salesman pick it up and put it in his pocket. Why doesn’t the man on the couch try harder to get his mail. Maybe he’s disabled. Maybe it’s an identity struggle. He doesn’t seem to want or need his mail anymore.

    There are still many unanswered questions. Maybe I need to read the story again.

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