In Neighbors by Raymond Carver we have the theme of freedom, 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. Very early on in the story the reader gets some insight into one of the major 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 appear not 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.
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.
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.
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, on the Stones return, that the Stones will also get an insight into somebody else’s life, the lives of Bill and Arlene Miller.