Night School by Raymond Carver
In Night School by Raymond Carver we have the theme of desperation, loneliness, letting go, paralysis and escape. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story Carver appears to be exploring the theme of desperation and escape. While the narrator is talking to the two women at the bar it is noticeable that he is running out of money and is hoping that one of the women will buy him a drink. There is also a sense that when the narrator leaves the bar with the two women to go to Patterson’s he is doing so for several reasons. Firstly he wants to get some free beer which would further suggest or highlight a level of desperation within the narrator. Carver possibly using the alcohol in the story as a tool for the narrator to be able to forget about how uncomfortable he is in his life. Secondly he also wants to continue drinking, which would suggest the narrator’s continued desire to escape from the world around him. The third reason the narrator might want to leave the bar with the women and go to Patterson’s home is because of the sense of loneliness he feels. Which may be caused by the fact that the narrator’s girlfriend is out of town. Though it is difficult to say for certain because as the story progresses the reader is never sure as to whether the narrator is missing his girlfriend or it is his wife that he is missing.
Carver also visits the idea of loneliness again through memory. While in the bar the narrator hears a song on the juke box which reminds him of his wife. This may be important as though the reader is aware that the narrator has a girlfriend he still appears to be unable to let go of his wife. What is also interesting is that the reader is aware that the narrator is not divorced from his wife, he is separated, and that his ‘marriage had just fallen apart.’ It is possible (and some critics have suggested) that the narrator is guilty of cheating on his wife and regrets having done so. This suggestion that the narrator cheated on his wife stems from the fact that, after the narrator tells his wife about the story he has read, she tells him ‘That’s only writing. Being betrayed by somebody in your own family, there’s a real nightmare.’ It is also significant that on the two occasions that the narrator remembers things his wife is involved in some way. Subconsciously the narrator may still be clinging onto the hope of a reconciliation with his wife which would further suggest that the narrator is unable to let go of his wife.
The reader is also aware that the narrator does not think positively about his life rather throughout the story there is a sense that he views his life negatively. He is separated from his wife, his girlfriend is out of town and he doesn’t have a job (though he does appear to be a substitute teacher). This lack of positivity in the narrator’s life is important as it appears to be the driving factor behind the narrator’s need to escape. Which he does by either sitting in the bar talking to strangers (the two women) or by spending his time standing at Kirby’s newsstand reading magazines. In reality the narrator is uncomfortable with his life. It appears to be going nowhere (paralysis) and everything he does seems to be an attempt to escape from the position he finds himself in.
Carver also appears to be using the narrator’s car (or the lack of one) and his father’s car to further explore the paralysis that exists in the narrator’s life. By telling the reader that the narrator’s wife has his car, symbolically Carver may be highlighting to the reader just how stuck the narrator is. The only movement that the narrator makes in the story, is repetitive. He either goes to the bar on a regular basis or he walks to Kirby’s newsstand. This sense of repetition may be important as it suggests that things or how the narrator lives is life is unchanging, which in turn may suggest a state of paralysis in the narrator’s life. The fact that the narrator’s mother has his father’s car keys and that even if the car was available his father wouldn’t give it to him may also be important as it too suggests that the narrator is going nowhere or at least is unable to go anywhere. What is also interesting about the narrator’s conversation with his father is that the narrator says ‘That’s okay. I don’t need the car. I’m not going anywhere.’ This line may be important as it suggests that the narrator is aware (at least subconsciously) or is beginning to realise just how paralysed he may be. The narrator’s memory of a story he has read and which he told his wife about may also be important as it further highlights the idea of paralysis. The narrator tells the reader about the narrator in William Styron’s ‘Set This House on Fire.’ In Styron’s story the narrator has a nightmare in which he dreams that he’s dreaming and during the dream he can’t move. In many ways Styron’s narrator mirrors the narrator in Night School. Just as Styron’s narrator is unable to move neither is the narrator in Night School.
There is also a sense at the end of the story that things will not change for the narrator. The reader is already aware that the narrator ‘usually went to bed at midnight and read until the lines of print went fuzzy and I fell asleep…’ This line may be important as by using the word ‘fuzzy’ Carver may be suggesting that that just as the lines of print in the books that the narrator is reading are fuzzy (or unclear) likewise so too is any direction that the narrator may take in his life. Something that becomes a little clearer when the narrator also tells the reader (after reading magazines at Kirby’s nightstand) ‘I could go to the apartment to bed and read the books until I read enough and I slept.’ If anything the narrator is ending his day as he does every day, doing the same thing which would suggest that the narrator’s life will not change. If anything he is to remain paralysed.