Sacks by Raymond Carver

Sacks - Raymond CarverIn Sacks by Raymond Carver we have the theme of infidelity, conflict, regret, separation, acceptance, moving on and letting go. Taken from his What We Talk About When We Talk About Love collection the story is narrated in the first person by a man called Les Palmer and very early on the reader realises that Carver may be exploring one of the main themes of the story, the theme of separation. Les hasn’t seen his father since his parents divorced three years previously. It is also while Les is talking to his father in the airport lounge that the reader realises that Les’ father hasn’t let go of either his ex-wife or Sally Wain. In essence he hasn’t moved on or separated himself from either woman (at least not mentally). What is also interesting is that Les’ father is unable to accept that his life now appears to be without any sort of direction. If anything Les’ father appears to be living his life in conflict.

Carver further explores the theme of acceptance while Les is listening to his father telling him about Sally Wain, Les tells his father that ‘Anybody can make a mistake.’ This is significant because it highlights to the reader that Les is no longer carrying any animosity (not openly at least) towards his father. He appears to have accepted his father’s actions, though it is also significant that he addresses Sally as ‘that woman’. Les might have accepted his father‘s actions, but may not necessarily approve of them. The theme of regret is a little more difficult to appraise in the story as the reader is unsure as to whether Les’ father regrets that he had the affair, or he regrets that Sally is no longer with him. Either way it does seem that Les’ father is unable to move on or let go of his past. His actions in the past still appear to haunt him.

The setting for the story is also interesting. The fact that Les and his father meet, not at his father’s home but rather in the airport lounge suggests a transience. This shortness or briefness in time also mirrors Les’ father’s time with Sally. The reader aware that the affair was cut short by Larry’s arrival back home. It may also be possible that Les prefers to see his father at the airport, rather than in his father’s home. Though he may have accepted his father’s actions (and does not display any open animosity towards his father) he may remain uncomfortable with being close to him. Another interesting thing worth noting about the story is the conversation that Sally and Les’ father have about the bank robbery. Les’ father had told Sally that ‘They got away clean.’ This may be important as Carver may be using irony to highlight to the reader the fact that unlike the bank robbers, Les’ father has never been able to escape from his actions and his affair with Sally. If anything he seems disoriented in life, possibly due to the fact that he may feel guilty about the affair or because it cost him his marriage to Les’ mother. Though the reader never knows for sure how Les’ father feels.

There is also further irony in the story. Les’ father tells him that Larry ‘…went all to pieces.’ This is ironic because the reader is aware that if anyone has gone to pieces (or been unable to move on) it is Les’ father. He still struggles with his previous actions (the affair with Sally). Carver explores irony again when after Les hears that his father had jumped out the picture window to avoid Larry, Les says to his father ‘’You got away.’ Again this is ironic because though Les’ father may have physically escaped from Larry, he has never escaped mentally from his affair with Sally. As the reader is aware his actions led to his divorce (separation) from Les’ mother. Carver also uses symbolism in the story to further suggest irony. Les notices that his father is wearing glasses. He has never seen his father wear them before. This is ironic because glasses as the reader would be aware are used to help a person not only see but to see clearer. Despite his glasses, Les’ father is no nearer understanding his actions and why he might have had an affair with Sally Wain.

Carver also uses symbolism at the end of the story to highlight to the reader the idea of moving on (for Les). Les forgets to take the sack of gifts that his father has given him for Mary. This may be important as the gifts from Les’ father are all that connects him to Les and Les’ family. The fact that Les forgets to take the gifts with him suggests that likewise Les has forgotten his father. Something that the reader realises when we discover that Les hasn’t seen his father since meeting him in the airport. Through the passing of time it would appear that Les not only accepts his father’s actions but is also sure that he does not need him in his wife or kid’s lives. By telling the reader (after he remembers that he has forgotten his father’s gifts) that Mary ‘didn’t need candy’ and that she ‘needs it even less now,’ there is a sense that Les has not only moved on but that he has also let go.

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


  • There is something missing. I gathered that Les and his wife are not together because Les is in a hotel room. Les also states that he and his family are not okay. At the end, Les says his wife didn’t need the sack and now needs it even less because she has moved on and he is alone in the same place as his father, which is why he was remembering the story in the hotel room. This is the theme of not moving on. The sack is left behind because Les has nobody to hand it to. He is also alone. Thoughts?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Wilson. I was able to copy your text and post it. Not sure as to why the comment wouldn’t log for you. We seem to be looking at the story from two different angles. When I read the story I interpreted Les as recalling the story while he is in another hotel room in an unnamed Midwestern city (his job is a travelling book salesman so he would be on the go a lot). By not taking the sack, rather than not having anybody to give it to (as you suggest) I suggested that Les, though he had forgiven his father for cheating on his mother also realized that he did not need his father in either his life or Mary’s life and as such he has no regrets about not taking the sack with him. Symbolically a sack would hold something and in this case the sack, representing a gift from his father for Mary, holds nothing for Les (or Mary). Who I’ve interpreted as having both (together) moved on with their lives leaving Les’ father behind.

    • I agree that Les doesn’t live with his wife Mary anymore. Les is similar to Nancy’s husband Larry, who also travelled because of his job, and that hurt Les and Larry’s marriages and their relationships with Mary and Nancy, respectively. Despite that Les doesn’t appear to have animosity with his father, which could be truly the case, he sympathizes with Larry. And that is not because Larry appears to be a victim but because Larry reminds Les of himself. In fact, it is very possible that Mary, similar to Nancy, had a relationship with another man, and that is why she and Les had moved on as well. It was an irony when the father told Les that he didn’t know anything except how to sell books, because in reality Les knew well everything because he had been through an experience similar to Larry’s.

  • I agree that he is a traveling salesman. The portion we are missing is that Les states things are okay but the narrator states that is not true.Why?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Sorry Wilson. I see the point you are making now. I had a quick look again at the story and noticed that Les tells his father ‘Everyone’s fine, which was not the truth.’ To be honest I’m not sure what Carver’s intentions were when he added that line into the story. Its inclusion does suggest that maybe Les and Mary are no longer together (as you previously suggested). It could be a case that Les, just like his father, is alone. Though it could also be a case that Les has no wish to explain to his father (because of his father’s actions) of any difficulties he is going through in his relationship with Mary. In essence keeping his distance from his father. It’s difficult to say for certain.

  • I feel like that is the theme of this entire book, ‘What We Talk Bout When We Talk About Love.’ “Difficult to say for certain.” The main theme is “you never truly know.” Interesting short stories with thought provoking endings. This was a great discussion and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Good day!

  • I read the story again after viewing these ideas. I believe that traveling is bad for any marriage. That’s why things between Les and Mary are less than perfect. Maybe Les needed closure with his Dad to help his marriage? When spouses travel the other spouse is insecure. Maybe Mary feels closer to Les after he closes with his father.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tom. I like your idea. You could be right. By having Les travel so much Carver may be suggesting that there is a strain on Les’ marriage to Mary. Mary may feel closer to Les now that he has closure with his father.

  • I feel as if there is symbolism being presented with the dancing woman and the bartender but I cannot put my finger on how. Will you try interpreting that for me?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Jodi. Some critics suggest that Les’ relationship with Mary is on the rocks so Carver may be using the woman and the bartender to symbolize the possibility that Mary may start her life with a new man.

      • I always felt that the woman laughing and dancing was in a way meant to represent les’ mother/his fathers ex-wife. Almost like a ghost of her. I always felt she just popped up in between les and his dad at the bar. Always felt eerie to me. And les’s dad saying “did you see that?” as one might say if they though they saw something weird like a ghost. I’m not saying that les’ mother is dead but the version of his mother when she was married to his father is dead but will always be someone between les and his dead. And the laughing is almost sinister to me – she’s laughing at her ex-husband suffering for what he’s done. That’s just the feeling I get. Not sure I articulated it perfectly but hopefully some of you understand what I’m getting at.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Thanks for the comment and insight Mike. I never did work out the relationship that the dancing woman might have to the story but your explanation makes sense.

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