The Compartment by Raymond Carver

In The Compartment by Raymond Carver we have the theme of regret, isolation, detachment and letting go or rather the inability to let go. Taken from his Cathedral collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and is set on a train travelling from Milan to Strasbourg. Something that is interesting in the story is Carver’s mentioning of the landscape. It is possible that Carver is using the landscape that Myers notices while he is travelling to Strasbourg as symbolism. There is the fact that when he first sets out from Milan, Myers imagines himself living behind a wall similar to the farmhouses he can see as the train is passing through the countryside. Carver may be using this image (of the wall) to symbolise that Myers longs to isolate or detach himself from others. Later in the story the reader also realises that very few people, apart from some work colleagues, actually know that Myers is on vacation. Again this would suggest that Myers isolates or detaches himself from others.

There are other instances in the story which suggest a sense of isolation or detachment for Myers. Notable is the fact that he is in a first class compartment on the train, with just one other person in the compartment. This is in contrast to the second class compartments which appear to be full with five or six people. The reader also learns that while Myers was in Milan, he spent his evening alone in his hotel room, watching a football match of TV. Again this would suggest an isolation or detachment from others. There is also the fact that Myers has not seen his son in eight years, only making contact with him after his son wrote him a letter.

There is also a noticeable sense of regret within Myers. This manifests itself through Myers’ reading of the travel guides. He regrets not reading them, prior to actually visiting the cities. There is also a feeling that Myers regrets the time he has missed out on with his son, hence him travelling to Europe. It is also possible that Myers regrets his last meeting or encounter with his son, when they fought each other. There is also a sense that, by his signing the letter to his son with Dad,that Myers longs to or is open to a reconciliation with his son.

The watch which is stolen from Myers’ coat is also significant as it may symbolize the idea of time lost. The fact that the watch is stolen, suggests symbolically that Myers for a second time, has or will lose time with his son. In some ways the watch also appears to act as a foreshadowing device. Its loss mirrors the fact that Myers does not meet his son or does not spend time with him when the train pulls into the station at Strasbourg.

The action that takes place at the station in Strasbourg may also be significant. It is possible, that by showing Myers looking out the compartment window at other people, Carver is highlighting to the reader the fact that Myers is also looking out at society, without being a participant. Again this would suggest the idea of isolation or detachment from others. Myers’ inability through language barriers to communicate with anybody on the train may also be significant as it also suggests that he is detached or isolated from others.

Myers eventual decision to not get off the train and meet his son also highlights his inability to let go of the past. He still blames his son for causing the break-up of his marriage. As far as Myers is concerned, if his son was never born, he would still be married. Though this appears to be a rather selfish assessment of his position it is possible that Myers may actually be afraid to embrace his past. The reader is aware that Myers thinks, before he arrives in Strasbourg, about how he will greet his son. Will he embrace him or more reservedly shake his hand. Myers is treating his son, just like he treats his past, he is avoiding both. It may be possible that Myers is not prepared to look at his own role in his marriage break-up. All the reader learns from Myers (and the narrator) is that his wife is an alcoholic. It would appear that all blame for the collapse of the marriage is being laid at her feet

The physical detachment of the carriage, while Myers is trying to figure out why the train has stopped also appears to be significant as it mirrors Myers’ final detachment from his son. It is also interesting that Myers, at the end of the story when the train is pulling out of the station, ends up in a second class compartment with men he cannot understand. The reader learning that ‘their voices came to him as if from a distance.’ Again this would suggest Myers’ continues to be isolated or detached from others.

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


  • Great work as always, Dermot.

    It’s interesting that this story, without Lish’s heavy editing, which tended towards the bleak, still somehow manages to be one of Carver’s most depressing.

    I found the ending particularly sad in the context of the more upbeat collection, ‘Cathedral’ — a man who can only get rest after leaving his possessions and family behind, with his back the front of a train that he has no idea where it’s going.

    I wonder if this story was written before some of the other stories in ‘Cathedral’, when Carver was struggling with alcohol.

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