Neighbors by Raymond Carver
In Neighbors by Raymond Carver we have the theme of freedom, escape, curiosity, control and voyeurism. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on in the story the reader gets some insight into one of the main themes of the story, the idea of freedom. Bill and Arlene Miller, though the reader is told that they are a happy couple, live their lives in contrast to that of their neighbours, the Stones. Jim and Harriet Stone travel a lot, due to Jim’s job and appear to enjoy themselves more than the Millers. They don’t appear to be confined to living their lives around their job, as much as the Millers do. There is a sense of freedom in their lives, something that the Millers also wish for. It is also interesting that by exploring the Stones’ apartment that Bill and Arlene manage to get a little closer to the freedom that they are seeking. However the reader does discover by the end of the story that the Miller’s pursuit of freedom does come at a cost. Particularly when it comes to their peace of mind. Which in many ways is ironic as the Stones’ left the Millers in charge of their apartment in order that their own peace of mind was not affected.
Carver continues to explore the theme of freedom (and its consequences) in fuller detail throughout the story, particularly through Bill’s character. Though both Bill and Arlene get excited by answering their curiosity about the lives of the Stones, Bill appears to go further and also seems to be more deeply aroused as he searches the Stones apartment. Bill’s sexual drive increases the more he searches the Stones apartment. If anything Bill’s exploration into the lives of the Stones takes control of his life. This becomes obvious to the reader when Bill tells Arlene to ring his job and tell them that he is unwell. The reality is that Bill’s job does not give him the same satisfaction that he appears to be getting from going into and exploring the Stones apartment. By taking the day off work, it suggests that Bill has not got complete control of his life. His desire to explore further the lives of the Stones takes precedence over his employment. Also by taking the day of work, it provides Bill with the freedom needed to explore the Stones’ apartment.
How much Bill wishes to live like the Stones can be seen from his actions in their apartment. He takes some of their personal belongings that would be of no use to him, Harriet’s medication being an example. Also he makes himself comfortable in the Stones’ apartment. He drinks from their drinks cabinet and he begins to dress in both Jim and Harriet’s clothes. It is as if he believes that by changing his clothes, he will become or live the life of Jim and Harriet Stone. There are several incidents where Bill looks at himself in the mirror while he is wearing Jim’s clothes, the reader suspecting that Bill may possibly be imagining himself as Jim Stone. It is also possible that while Bill is standing, hiding behind the curtain in Harriet’s underwear, he is also imagining himself to be living Harriet’s life.
While some readers would suggest that Bill goes to extremes (taking irrelevant items and dressing in women’s clothes), Arlene too has a curiosity within her that she too appears to be unable to control. Though she only goes into the Stones apartment once, she spends over an hour in the apartment and also forgets her purpose for going into the apartment (to feed the cat). Not only does Arlene search the apartment like her husband but she also lies down on the Stones’ bed, just as Bill has. The reader aware of this through the white lint that Bill notices is clinging to the back of Arlene’s sweater. It has come from the Stones’ bed. It might also be worth noting that Arlene just like Bill feels the need to escape from her own boring life and attempt to relive her life through the Stones’ life. Just as there is a sense that Bill wishes he could live his life differently so too is there a sense that Arlene is the same. If anything the boredom that exists for Bill (in his life) also exists for Arlene.
What is also interesting about the story is that Carver neither condemns nor condones the Millers actions, he leaves judgement to the reader. He also appears to be using the narrator merely as a tool of observation, relaying the facts to the reader. It is left to the reader to decide what they think of the Millers actions. In some ways the story is an exploration into the character of human nature. The need to explore or answer our own curiosities. Though there will still be some critics who believe that what both Bill and Arlene are doing is an invasion of someone else’s privacy. That their actions are inappropriate.
While the Millers have been stimulated by their attempts to live the lives of their neighbours there is also a degree of distress involved that Carver explores at the end of the story. Both Bill and Arlene are standing in the hallway and Arlene realises that she has left the key for the Stones apartment, in the apartment. Realising that both her and Bill’s actions can now be discovered, she starts to worry. As she embraces Bill in the hallway the reader realises that it is quite possible that when the Stones return they will also get an insight into somebody else’s life, the lives of Bill and Arlene Miller. It is also possible that the Stones will no longer view Bill and Arlene as good neighbours or friends. With the reality being that the Stones never really knew Bill and Arlene and where only allowed an insight into what Bill and Arlene wanted to show them.