How About This by Raymond Carver

In How About This? by Raymond Carver we have the theme of hopelessness, struggle, acceptance, change and separation. 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 opening sentence of the story the reader realises that Carver is exploring one of the main themes of the story, the idea of hopelessness. Harry is driving through the country and Carver tells the reader that, ‘All the optimism that had colored his flight from the city was gone now.’ It is also significant that at the end of the first paragraph Carver tells the reader that Harry feels ‘a rising sense of hopelessness and outrage.’ Before the story fully begins the reader realises that Harry feels hopeless. As the story unfolds the reader also realises that Harry has to make a decision, not only about moving to the country but also about his relationship with Emily

Carver also uses symbolism in the story to suggest the idea or theme of change. As Harry is driving the reader is told that ‘The land began to change.’ The change in the landscape as Harry is driving mirrors the change that is occurring within Harry himself and in some ways Carver may be using this statement as foreshadowing. Carver also uses the landscape again, this time cities that Harry has lived in, to suggest the idea of struggle. We are aware that Harry has lived in San Francisco (for the last three years), Los Angeles, Chicago and New York and that he has been trying to write a novel since the time he lived in New York. Despite it being over three years, the novel remains unfinished.

Symbolism is again used in the story to suggest the idea of separation (or the possibility of it). As Emily is looking at Harry in the car she imagines ‘a shadowy half-finished portrait of a man and woman…’  This is significant as the incompleteness of the portrait suggests an incompleteness or imperfection in Harry and Emily’s relationship. Carver may be suggesting to the reader that Harry and Emily will not stay together. It is also noticeable that when Harry lights Emily’s cigarette for her, she expects their eyes to meet, but they never do. Again Carver could be suggesting that the relationship is coming to an end. There may no longer be a connection between Harry and Emily.

The house itself also acts as symbolism for Harry and Emily’s relationship.  Despite, when Harry raps his knuckles against the wall inside the house and tells Emily ‘Solid, A solid foundation,’ the reader notices that Harry does not look Emily in the eyes. Also the more Harry explores the house the more he realises the work that is needed in fixing the house. He tells Emily that the house ‘Needs a little work, that’s all.’ Again Carver may be likening the house to Harry and Emily’s relationship with each other. It too may need some work if it is to succeed.

The fact that there are difficulties in Harry and Emily’s relationship is noticeable when Emily tells Harry that ‘Jesus. I guess we are in kind of a spot, aren’t we.’ Though it is possible that Emily is commenting on whether she and Harry should move to the country, it is more likely that she is aware that the relationship is in difficulty. It is also quite possible that Emily is aware of a change within Harry. There is the fact it was him who decided (or is thinking about) whether they should move to the country. Regardless of Harry’s decision, it seems that Emily will accept it. She doesn’t want to make his mind up for him, about moving to the country and also the reader senses that she also doesn’t want to be the one who makes the decision on their relationship either.

The ending of the story is ambiguous, though Carver does appear to be again using symbolism to highlight some of the themes of the story. Emily is doing cartwheels and the reader is already aware that when she was child she wanted to be an acrobat. The reader is also aware that while Harry was in the woods that he tried to imagine Emily ‘walking the big rafter in the barn. But that made him afraid too.’ Carver may be suggesting, through symbolism, that regardless of Harry’s decision Emily will accept it. Though she has unresolved memories of her father, there remains a sense that Emily is comfortable in her life. That she can accept what Harry’s decision will be. Though she is shaky and hesitant as she walks to Harry on her hands, Carver does tell the reader she was balanced. It is also significant that when Emily, rolls to the ground, she remains in control of her body. It is also possible, again through symbolism that the relationship between Harry and Emily is over. As Harry tries to light his cigarette with his last match, the flame goes out. Carver may be suggesting at the end of the story that the flame has also gone out of Harry and Emily’s relationship.

There is also a sense of struggle again at the end of the story, not only are Harry’s hands trembling but he doesn’t say anything to Emily. Though he has made his mind up about not only the move to the country but more importantly about his relationship with Emily, he still struggles to tell her. It is left to Emily to close the story and tell Harry that ‘we have to love each other. We’ll just have to love each other.’

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


  • Hello. Awesome post. Do you think that the acrobat stuff could possibly, somehow, symbolize the fact that Emily is really trying to keep them together? Like she is making her moves and doing all that she can, which at the last line of the story is kinda confirmed.

    what do you think?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lucas. You make a valid point. It is possible that Emily by doing an acrobatic display is attempting to keep the relationship going.

  • Thank you for the great analysis. This story really has a lot to sift through. Without going into any specific analysis of symbolism it’s clear from the start that Harry is uncomfortable with Emily because he won’t look at her. Is this emphasized because he’s being presented as unreliable, as in – he won’t look her in the eye because he’s lying?

    The line about the mattress in the kitchen scaring him is interesting. Is it because if they sleep on the mattress it will force him into a position of intimacy he doesn’t feel? Or because he’s a city boy and the mattress is just another sign of the rough life without amenities that living in the country would require?

    And then the thought of her on the beam – does that scare him because he sees her as “above” him somehow? She’s shown bravery – the flashback to her painting the portrait of the couple – unfinished, but she’s working. All we know about Harry is that his novel is incomplete years after he started it.

    One last thing: it’s mentioned at least once (and maybe more than once) “how quiet it is”. There are clearly a whole raft of issues between them that remain unspoken. Emily is willing to go with the flow and acquiesce to Harry’s wants and wishes. Harry seems incapable of honesty.

    But even how he walks off into the woods for no apparent reason is odd. He’s isolating himself at a time when they’ve just arrived at this place of great change and need for a decision. Alone he is able to decide (admit?) that he’s not interested in living in this abandoned house.

    There is no follow up to Emily’s last lines about just needing to love each other. Yes, of course that’s what’s needed, but Carver doesn’t provide a response from Harry because in my mind there wasn’t one. Harry wouldn’t commit to anything like that – a “foundation that solid”, if you will.

  • Frank R. Chappell

    The story has me wondering if each character has made up their minds that this house is what they have/need, but each is reacting in different ways at the end. She has hesitated living there the whole time but, through connecting with the memories of her youth, regresses at the end to that prior stage of infantilism (doing cartwheels) and joyfully offering the solution to what they need to make it there together despite the shape of the property (needing to love each other) while he, having fallen in love with the natural beauty of the place (the trees, the meadow, the path, etc—he literally finds a path through this scenario), is terrified of the change.

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