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.’