The Calm by Raymond Carver

In The Calm by Raymond Carver we have the theme of identity, conflict, indecision, paralysis, acceptance and moving on. Taken from his What We Talk About When We Talk About Love collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and is written in the form of a frame narrative (story within a story). One of the advantages of using the frame narrative in the story is that rather than placing the focus on the narrator, which Carver only does at the end of the story, the reader instead is given an insight into why the narrator might want to leave his wife and Crescent City through Charles telling his story. It is also possible that Carver is exploring the theme of identity. The narrator doesn’t know who two of the three men are who are sitting by the wall waiting to get their hair cut. He doesn’t recognize Albert or the man who is reading the newspaper (who is never named at any stage of the story). However he is aware of who Charles is and can recall that he works in the bank.

The uncertainty that the narrator has about the identity of the other men in the barbershop in many ways mirrors the uncertainty that he feels about the decision he has to make. As to whether he should leave his newly married wife. Though it is never said in the story there may be an undercurrent of conflict within the narrator about his decision to leave her. Albert also plays an important role in the story even though it seems like he does very little apart from riling Charles. However his riling of Charles is important as it again highlights the idea of conflict (external) within the story and in many ways mirrors the conflict that narrator may feel (internally) over his decision to leave his wife.

Charles’ story though appearing to be somewhat meaningless is also important. Firstly how he introduces his story. There is an element of indecision or uncertainty. When Charles is asked by Bill did he get his deer he tells Bill that ‘I did and I didn’t.’ It is possible that by introducing this line into the story Carver is also contrasting Charles indecisiveness against the certainty or surety that the narrator feels about leaving Crescent City (at the end of the story). Which would suggest that the narrator is different than Charles (which plays on the theme of identity). The second reason that Charles’ story is important is because the reader learns that Charles only manages to hit the deer in the gut and didn’t succeed in killing the deer. The reason this is significant is because to other hunters (like Albert and the narrator) the fact that Charles wasn’t able to kill the deer suggests that not only is Charles a bad shot like his son but he is also a bad hunter. Something that is emphasized later on in the story when Albert scolds Charles for sitting in the barber shop rather than going and finishing off the deer.

Another reason that Charles’ story may be important is because it is through him telling the story that the reader learns that there are three generations of his family living in Crescent City. Which suggests that unlike the narrator who leaves Crescent City and moves on, Charles is rooted or stuck in Crescent City. The beginning of Albert’s and Charles’ argument also suggests that Charles is a mainstay (like Albert) in Crescent City. Though they don’t know each other personally they have seen each other around the city. It may also be a case that Carver by highlighting the fact that everybody in Crescent City knows each other (at least to see) is suggesting that there is a sense of paralysis among those who live in Crescent City. That nothing ever changes or that things are already known. There is no sense of fluidity or movement.

It is also interesting that the reader learns that the narrator ‘didn’t like the man’s (Charles) voice. For a guard, the voice didn’t fit. It wasn’t the voice you’d expect.’ There is a sense of irony in this statement as a person would expect a security guard to provide some sense of security but the narrator never feels this. It is possible that Carver is not only attempting to highlight how uncomfortable the narrator is with Charles but also how uncomfortable he is in Crescent City. Though minor, it also highlights the sense of conflict that the narrator feels with regards to Charles. If anything he may not only dislike Charles’ voice but he may also dislike Charles as a person too. Which could suggest that the narrator wishes to distance himself from Charles (and Crescent City). If anything it would appear that the narrator views Charles as a representation of what life in Crescent City is.

The end of the story is also interesting. By highlighting to the reader just how comfortable the narrator feels when he is looking at himself in the mirror as Bill is running his fingers through his head. It is possible that Carver is suggesting that the narrator has also become comfortable with (or has accepted) his decision to leave his wife and Crescent City. The fact that the reader is also aware that the narrator closes his eyes as he is looking at himself in the mirror also suggests that he may no longer feel the need to see who he is (his identity) or question whether or not he has made the right decision about leaving his wife. Something that becomes clearer to the reader when we discover that after the narrator closes his eyes he could feel ‘the hair already starting to grow.’

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


  • Oh, man — if you’re going to write about short stories and be taken seriously, you would really benefit from brushing up on punctuation! You use commas willy-nilly — I don’t think you ever remember to use one after a subordinate clause, and they are sprinkled throughout in places where they don’t make sense. You miss apostrophes all over the place as well.

    The thing is, your analysis of the story is interesting and (although I haven’t read it in a long time) seems perceptive. But the problems with grammar and punctuation are so distracting that it’s hard to keep reading. The first paragraph is almost perfect — only at the last sentence are there serious problems:

    “The narrator doesn’t recognize, Albert or the man who is reading the newspaper but does have some idea who Charles is, he works as a guard at the bank.” (why the comma after “recognize” and (AGHHH) the comma splice after “Charles is” — it needs either a semicolon or a period. The rest of the paragraphs are rife with errors, and I’m not counting what looked like typos to me.

    Again, I’d really enjoy this review if it was polished up. It’s got some interesting points.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Sandra. I would agree with you. The punctuation for this post (and many others on the blog) is below the standard that I aim for. As soon as I get a chance I’ll tidy it up. Not because I wish to be taken seriously (that’s not a driving factor) but because I would not want a visitor to the blog to be hindered unnecessarily when reading something I have written. Though there is also a good chance I might totally rewrite the post. Punctuation is not the only thing that could be improved.

      Thank you for also highlighting some typos. It would be great if more visitors to the blog highlighted them to me. Unfortunately I am my own editor and as such do not always have the fresh eyes required to catch all the mistakes (and there are quite a few in this post). On one occasion, over a year after I had written it. I discovered in another post that rather than typing the word physical as I had meant to do, I had typed the word psychical. Which totally changed the meaning of what I was attempting to suggest (the next word was presence).

      Thanks again for your comment Sandra. I consider it to be a good example of constructive criticism. Unfortunately not all comments I receive to the blog would be as progressive. If you don’t mind I’ve also added an alternative reply, as your comment got me thinking about something else.

      Thanks for the comment Sandra. I would agree with you. The punctuation is not up to the standard I set myself. If I was a school teacher and a student produced this work the first thing I would think is diabolical punctuation. The second thing that might happen is I might ask them are they sure that they want me to submit their homework for a Pulitzer.

      I would hope they would be confident and bold enough to say –

      Well Sir, I’ve written something else that I think is better it goes like this –

      Thanks for the comment Sandra. As feared the problem is worse than I thought. Only two days ago I was informed by another visitor to the blog of the errors that the individual responsible for reviewing Irish, British, American and Canadian literature was making. In the interest of transparency I’ve included my reply to them here. So that you might see just how serious I am taking matters.

      As soon as I read your correspondence I began the process of finding out where the wretch attended primary school. I can report that I have learnt he began his schooling in St. Jude’s. The principal of the school, a very nice man called Mr Mann, advised me that the degenerate was a student of the school in the 1990s and that he was taught by a lady called Miss Femme. Miss Femme retired from teaching twenty years ago and is now living at Our Lady’s Retirement Home for Really Nice Teachers. Thankfully Mr Mann was able to provide me with a contact number for Miss Femme.

      Despite being over eighty years old she can recall that the individual concerned was in school for grammar week. I asked her was she sure and she told me that she remembered it distinctly. On the day that she was teaching the class the importance of adding a comma after a subordinate clause, instead of listening to her, the scoundrel was looking at the girls in the class playing with their pig-tails. She also told me that he wasn’t the only one not paying attention. Bobby Donaldson was pulling his jumper over his head trying to figure out where his head had gone and Martha Vega was looking at the wall to see if the paint was talking to her.

      As you can see Sandra I employed a delinquent. I’ve also encountered a slight problem. I had hoped to have the post tidied up before the close of business today but the girl I had in mind to do the job (due to conditions in her contract) is allowed to eat ice cream and play video games on a Friday afternoon. Though as soon as Monday arrives I assure you matters will be rectified and the post will be brought up to the standards that I expect.

      I just hope Monday isn’t too late. Should the stock markets find out that The Sitting Bee is peppered with bad punctuation it is possible that there could be a sharp and sudden drop in the value of the company. That’s a major problem. Not only could the shareholders and the board withhold my performance bonus but it is also possible that we will no longer be seen as serious players in the world of literature.

      Is that better Sir?

      I think you’re in with a great chance. As soon as we’ve freed Kevin’s arm from the cupboard we’ll both cycle down to the post office.

  • I came here for a clarifying analysis, and found it. Didn’t expect to find a hilarious comment reply… But hey, I’m not complaining, that’s just double pleasure.

    Couldn’t really go many ways with this short story. Your thoughts on it sure sound plausible and shine a very interesting light on it. Thanks for that!
    Man, this Carver guy serves so many layers you can dig into in just a couple of pages…

    Concerning your punctuation, I don’t think I was bothered by it because your analysis came in just fine. But then again, maybe that’s because English is not my mother tongue and I’m just a dilettante when it comes to speculating the stock markets.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tom. There’s a lot in this story that I feel I may have missed and it takes me a couple of reads to really settle on what I think Carver’s intentions may be. I’m still not happy with my lack of explanation as to the importance of hunting in the story. It is something I need to have another look at. Glad you liked the alternative reply.

  • “Punctuation is not the only thing that could be improved.” Hahaha, you get Carver yourself. Can’t stop smiling! Once again congratulation for the analysis (you show me meanings I didn’t think of) and as Tom brilliantly put it – this “double pleasure” 🙂

  • The story seems to be at least in part about inter-generational conflict. Charles is pissed at his kid, whom he seems to view as a bit of good-for-nothing degenerate, “Drinking beer and chasing all night, then saying he can hunt deer.” But Albert (Charles’ elder) holds a similar view of Charles, finding it improper that he (Charles) is getting a haircut today rather than pursuing the wounded deer for as long as it takes. [Notably, it’s Charles’ father who made the successful kill yesterday, allowing them to have “venison on the table anyway,” despite the misdeeds of Charles’ kid and, arguably, Charles himself.]

    That seems to suggest a theme of progressive moral decay– or the perception thereof– and conveys a sense that Crescent City is a place in decline. The narrator, who seems perhaps pathological in his fetishization of newness, of freshness, decides therefore to leave, and senses from the person sheering away his “old growth” – even one as relentlessly unromantic as the story’s barber – a lover’s touch.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment and insight Rose. You make a very persuasive argument as to the theme of the story. You make reference to points I previously did not see. Particularly with regard to the the idea of inter-generational conflict. It is a really interesting point and one which I would agree with. Though unfortunately as I have stated I did not see it when I posted the review. I also like your idea of ‘old growth’. Again I did not see that but it makes perfect sense.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment and insight Rose. You make a very persuasive argument as to the theme of the story. You make reference to points I previously did not see. Particularly with regard to the the idea of inter-generational conflict. It is a really interesting point and one which I would agree with. Though unfortunately as I have stated I did not see it when I posted the review. I also like your idea of ‘old growth’. Again I did not see that but it makes perfect sense.

  • I think you missed the narrator and the barber being gay. The two men feeling their masculinity threaten by the guard, and the guard by the fact that he understands the sexuality of the narrator

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I hadn’t though about the sexuality of the characters but you make an interesting point.

    • I thought this might be posited, Dor, owing to Carvers characterization of the barber stroking the narrator’s hair “tenderly, as a lover would” and his recalling “the sweetness of those fingers.”

      That being said, the guard’s failure to track the deer and his placing of blame seem to paint him as less than masculine/intimidating.

      Another interesting dynamic was the barber holding the narrator in place as it became likely that a fight may occur in the shop. I really don’t know what to make of the barber character, but the last line of the story, quoted already by Dermot, was very beautiful and also made me feel calm by drawing my attention to a small detail occurring all the time which also symbolizes the omnipresence of change/becoming.

      • Dermot (Post Author)

        Thanks for that insight Ronnie. You link the story very well. I like your idea about the masculinity of the guard. I always felt as though he was not fit to be a guard. I got no sense of security from his character.

  • Came for the analysis, but stayed for the lessons in grammar and punctuation.

    My feelings pertaining to the hunting anecdote are that they contrast well with the intimacy of visiting the barber – the holding of the head etc. Something visceral and competitive vs. the soft nature of being groomed by another man.

    Charles’ disappointment and frustration with losing the buck, due to the excesses of his son during night before, only to be bettered by an older man (even if his game was less challenging)? Maybe I’m overanalyising, but to me that seems a metaphor if ever there was one!

    This seems a really progressive and lovely piece to me. The growth he refers to in how his hair is perhaps in relation to his own identity, acknowledging his fundamental differences from the other patrons, and also feeling a sense of acceptance and protection from the barber.

    Anyway, of all the shorts in this book, this one has definitely been my favourite. Thanks for your review – I enjoyed it very much.

  • Once again thanks for another enlightening analysis.

    I would also like to add that Albert’s annoyance with Charles at not finishing the deer off might also be because he objects to his nonchalant attitude towards the animal’s welfare; of course, his aim was to kill the deer but having failed to do that initially, should have pursued the it, if only to perform a coup de grace and do, what Albert regards as the humane thing, and spare the deer a long and agonising death.

    I would also echo the comments by Ronnie and Dor; there seems to be a sensual aspect to the barber placing hands on the shoulders of the customer (I initially thought this might be a form of protection from the altercation which has ensued amongst his other customers) but when placed in the context of fingers running through hair does seem to suggest a homoerotic aspect – which may or may not develop as the other customers have all now left the shop.

    Finally, I would pay little mind to Sandra’s act of pedantry. In the UK a literature analysis focuses on what is being said and at GCSE, punctuation accounts for 5% of the mark (obviously this would be much higher in English Language – a separate qualification over here altogether). I can assure you any perceived errors did not detract from the meaning. Her comment is itself worthy of analysis as it could contain many layers too; maybe jealousy or dissatisfaction at being unable to dissect Carver’s (or indeed any text) as perceptive and eloquently as yourself. Nicely done with the humorous reply.

    Keep up the good work and don’t for one minute be disheartened.

  • Your analysis helped me in understanding the story better. Yes, I also felt a layer of sexual tension between the narrator and the barber. His being gay as the reason for leaving his wife.
    The punctuation mishap did not distract me in any way. Enjoyed the comments here.
    This Carver guy is shrouded in layers and layers.

  • I think your analysis is very insightful, brings up a lot of points I didn’t think about when I first read this story. The punctation errors did not bother me, in fact I didn’t even notice them, and I think to dedicate an entire comment to criticizing them completely misses the spirit of this discourse.

    Anyway, I think there are a few things to consider you may have missed, for example the homoerotic subtext between the narrator and the barber and the theme of masculinity/dominance status.

    Even though the guard is a security guard, a symbol of protection and security, he seems to be pretty insecure as he is provoked almost to violence by the littlest threat to his status (i.e., Albert’s comment). I think this idea is related to how the narrator feels a sense of security in his barber, who puts his hands on his shoulders as if to protect him from what’s going on. And later, the sense of “calm” (it’s the title of the story, it must be important) that he feels as the barber is running his fingers through his hair. The narrator feels protected and secure with the barber.

    I am unsure what role the homoerotic subtext plays in this theme, but masculinity/security was the main takeaway that I got from it, and it may certainly play into all the other points you’ve made about it.

    Overall, interesting analysis, gave me some things to think about.

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