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.

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


  • That was pretty good but very repetitive.

  • This is pretty good!It helps me a lot. Also, I noticed that in the story the two women mentioned Patterson a lot. They made a joke and also said the narrator had something in common with Patterson. Could you tell me how do you think about it? Did they just say that to borrow the car or Carver was suggesting something? Thanks a lot!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Hikari. Carver might be suggesting that the narrator is as lonely as Patterson. Though I can’t say for certain.

  • Maybe the fact that the dreamer recognizes his best friend in his nightmare, then the narrator’s wife mentions betrayal as the real nightmare, can be viewd as a tragic irony? Because the narrator could have been betrayed by his wife with his best friend, the actual nightmare in action in his real life.

    He finds the random man in his room, he’d like to scream but he can’t breath, he’s in shock, then only realizing is his best friend.

    Let me know what you think 🙂

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Interesting idea and one that I think is possible.

    • I think this is an outstanding take. I also took it to be that the narrator cheated on his wife, but your interpretation makes much more sense with the dream, particularly considering the man at the window is ‘no one the man having the nightmare knows’ as they would have lost their friendship.

  • A really good analysis. I have some points to add. The two girls are maybe suggesting that the narrator had been stuck between two women earlier, one being his wife and the other one, his girlfriend. As he leaves them and didn’t go back, he also wants separation from his wife and girlfriend too. One more thing I found worth sharing is that may be the two girls were prostitutes and the narrator is afraid of cheating on her wife or girlfriend, he didn’t go back to them. I think it is also possible that the dreaming narrator had seen himself. The narrator once considered himself his best friend but he was scared of himself now. His father is watching TV and his mother is at work. And the father said she has the keys. Maybe here Carver is exploring the theme of control. Even if his wife is not with him he is somehow controlling his life. He had lost his confidence in life bcoz of whatsoever happened with him in last and this is why he is living such a life and he wants to continue like this.

  • The narrator’s relationship with his father is also important and seems close; the father’s invitation to his son to join him watching a John Wayne film shows that he is providing comfort in the form of paternal male company after his son is clearly having a complicated time with his relationships with women; it is significant that one of the women in the bar is named Edith but the other is nameless and referred to throughout the story as “the first woman”. Presumably Edith is one that the narrator feels most attracted to but her unnamed friend could complicate any advance the narrator maybe hoping to make.

    The father fears his son is not learning from his marriage breakdown and could be doomed to make the same mistakes so imparts advice “Somebody’ll come along. You don’t want to get mixed up in that”.

    Meaning that his son should not try too hard to find a replacement for his wife and that a new meaningful relationship will present itself in due course.

    Both men feel emasculated by a lack of money and that both of their wives have control of their respective cars but at least the father has been able to resurrect his role in giving guidance to his son, even though he is now a grown man.

    When the son finds that the two women have left, it is clear that the decision to take them to Patterson’s has been taken out of his hands – probably for the better – suggesting that these two women were ephemeral and involvement would have only presented the narrator with further complications (as his Dad suggested). This, in some way, presents hope for the future in that paralysis may be an ally here – rather than making (another) wrong move.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *