The Ducks by Raymond Carver

In The Ducks by Raymond Carver we have the theme of connection, mortality, detachment, doubt, fear and conflict. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Carver is using the landscape and the flight of the ducks (black explosion) to set the mood for the story. Another interesting thing about the opening passage of the story is that Carver is also using symbolism (and foreshadowing) to suggest to the reader the idea of detachment. The main protagonist, an unnamed man is chopping (or splitting) wood. This is significant as it suggests a separation or detachment, Carver mirroring the splitting of the wood to the sense of detachment that the main protagonist feels when he reflects on his own life.

Carver uses symbolism again in the opening passages of the story to further suggest the idea of detachment (from self) and which also serves as another foreshadowing device. There is the blanket that has fallen from the clothes line. Again this is significant as it is not only separated from the other blankets on the clothes line but it is also detached from the clothes line. This mirrors again how the main protagonist feels later in the story when the reader suspects that he is questioning his own mortality. While there is a sense of detachment (from self) in the story there are also several signs that highlight to the reader the idea of connection. There are the physical actions of the main protagonist’s wife. On several occasion she touches him affectionately and when he leaves for work, she asks him to kiss her. There is also the fact that they share the beer together, Carver using alcohol as a symbol of connection (or something in common) between the main protagonist and his wife.

Carver’s inclusion of Jack Granger’s death in the story acts as a trigger for the main protagonist to reflect on his own mortality.  There is also one obvious example of Carver using symbolism in the story to project to the reader the idea of life or its meaning. The main protagonist is reading the biographies (life stories) at the back of one of his wife’s mail club books. Also the main protagonist’s wife is menstruating, which again Carver could be using as symbolism for life’s cycle. It is also interesting that when the main protagonist is making love to his wife there is a maternal feeling to their love-making (noticeable through the wife’s actions). This is important as Carver may be associating the maternal with the idea of life or living.

There is further symbolism to suggest that the main protagonist is reflecting on his life (or reassessing his own mortality). As he is looking out the window he sees his wife’s reflection and tells her to go ahead and have her bath. It is through the reflection that the reader gets the sense that the main protagonist is starting to view his wife or his relationship with her differently. The sense that the main protagonist is reflecting on his life is again further suggested while he is in bed with his wife. He first thinks about how much her loves his wife and then starts to think does he really love her at all. This not only suggests both connection and detachment but also suggests the idea of doubt or conflict within the main protagonist.

It is also while he is in bed that the main protagonist decides that he will start to live a fuller life. He wants to reconnect with his family and suggests to his wife that they should move back to his home town. He also thinks about moving to Oregon. This further uncertainty about where he should live is also significant as it again suggests confusion or conflict (internal) within the main protagonist. He knows he wants to move, but is unsure of which direction to take

The end of the story is also interesting because it further highlights not only the idea of fear but that of doubt too. After he has looked out the window the main protagonist gets back into bed. He thinks that he has heard something outside in the dark. Though he tries to wake his wife, she remains sleeping. The fact that his wife remains sleeping may be important as it could suggest that at the end of the story, the main protagonist is left with his own fears and doubts as he sits staring out into the darkness. There is also a suspicion that things will remain uncertain for the main protagonist (again the idea of doubt), but what is certain is that his fears and doubts (about life and its meaning) have been triggered by the death of Jack Granger.

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


  • Thank you for the analysis, Dermot. You referenced that the protagonist and his wife made love, however I interpreted it that they did not (she says “you don’t have to if you don’t want to” and he says “no, it’s not that”). I guess if they did not make love it is another example of detachment. Also, the ducks may be a symbol of migration or moving to a new environment. This mirrors the protagonist’s wish to see his parents or move to Oregon. Interesting story. Thank you again.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the insightful analysis Brian. This particular story is one in which I found it hard to analysis. You could be right about the characters not making love. I also find the symbolism you associate with the ducks to be interesting.

    • In Carver’s short stories, the negative space is often huge and is always important. Carver isn’t afraid of sex. At the section break where the ambiguity lies, it is written that way precisely because it doesn’t matter. Whether the characters had sex certainly doesn’t matter to the man. Whether they did or did not has no bearing on the man’s feelings, and so the reader is left with the Schrödinger’s cat question where the characters both did and did not connect, and the story is the exact same regardless. I think you’re spot on in the analysis that this story is about a widening disconnect, the character’s vague apprehension of that disconnect, and about his powerlessness to address it meaningfully.

      I actually came to this page to see what others read into the second to last paragraph—the drool on the window. It’s either a very unusual and unsettling say to describe the water on the window, or it’s some symbolic manifestation of the man’s fears. I know it sounds like a crazy interpretation, but I think something was watching the two of them from the window. At least he seemed to feel that way. The way the water is described on the house, that he could “hear it all over the house,” gives the storm an almost animal quality. It leaves me with the question: did the man really hear something, did he only think he heard something, or did he just wish he had heard something? I tend to lean toward the last one. I think he was going to let this growing fear drive him to reconnect (although in classic Carver fashion, is destined to fail). It is the first moment that he initiates any intimacy at all, as he touches her hip.

      • Dermot (Post Author)

        Thanks for the insight Evan.

      • I’m new to Raymond Carver, so I’ve found this page and it’s helped a lot. I’m not very schooled in literary symbolism, either. While I don’t necessarily hit on every possible symbol, I think Carver always manages to convey the mood or feeling of the story, the undercurrent, even if I can’t always put words to it.

        The last line of this story hit me like a ton of bricks, if only because it’s such an abrupt ending. But as I’ve read the opinions on this page and thought about it more, I think that last line of “Wake up, I think I heard something outside” (or thereabouts) fits in with the man’s ambivalence.

        He loves his wife, but questions if he loves her. She clearly senses his distance and tries repeatedly to suggest ways to bring them together, even for the next morning.

        After she falls asleep he is alone with his thoughts and his doubts and feelings. He hears something outside – of course he does, he hears the storm. Is he trying to wake his wife up as a comfort? So he’ll have someone to share with? She can be his security blanket, give him some comfort and support, perhaps?

        What I love about Carver is that he gives you these disjointed pieces of a scenario – you don’t have much context or backstory, if any. But he presents you with a mood and some murky details, thoughts, feelings, etc. and you’re left to figure it out.

  • I have noticed that the characters in this story are often looking out of a window. It is emphasized the first time: “She went back into the kitchen and shut the door and looked at him through the window. ‘I just hate to have you gone all the time. It seems like you’re gone all the time,’ she said to the window. Her breath produced itself on the glass, then went away.”

    Later the woman “went to the kitchen window and watched him running, jumping over the puddles” and ran to the back door “when she saw the pickup lights turn into the drive.

    Whereas the woman watches her husband through the window on every occasion, he always looks at something else. He sees dark woods, rain beating against the window, and ultimately “nothing, not even the rain”. He does mention seeing his wife, however, but merely as a reflection against the trees outside.

    My guess is that the window represents the characters’ different perspectives: the woman yearns to be more intimate, both physically and emotionally; her main concern seems to be her husband’s absence. However, the man seems unhappy and depressed, questions his own feelings, and feels the need to escape whatever is “all over the house” by the end of the story by going on hunting trips, dreaming of Reno, and moving to Oregon.

    Do you believe the windows could symbolize something, if not something entirely different from my guess?

  • Thanx for the wonderful analysis.
    I think the biggest fear of the protagonist is to get destroyed afar from his hometown, Oregon. The death of Granger is a sure trigger for that. He is not happy with his wife or perhaps not with his own life. He tries to be happy by pursuing hunting occasionally but that does not pay him anything valuable. His chopping wood may suggest the destruction of his life brought by his own wrong decisions. He may have come to this place for money but also the death of Granger destroyed his illusion of a wealthy lifestyle he wanted for himself.

    Throughout the story, his wife seems upset and in need of him though, in the end, he needs his wife but she is sleeping. Maybe his life has won over her internal battle as soon as the story ends but he failed. He is still a fearful creature and his battle is yet to be fought.

    I believe, the lack of trust plays an important role here. He shares nothing with his wife despite his wife being lovely and caring for him. He hides his fears and feelings throughout the story. In Hemingway’s style, he is the one who could not stand things ( change or mortality )

  • ……. symbolization apart… the death of Jack Granger triggers a new chain of thoughts in his mind… the sudden-ness of the death… the unceasing, relentless storm/rain accentuate the yearning to move away … he fears death… the impending death is what hears at the end…Carver had had his share of insecurities in his life which gets reflected here… devoid of Sherwood Anderson’s humour and Hemingway’s approach (insightful influences-I believe)-Carver has also achieved the brevity of life…with his minimalism… the frightful flight of ducks is possible/but such an escape seems not so easy for him… he is fearing his own death in the end…..

  • Hi,
    I’ve been referring to your site for a further understanding of Carver’s work. This particular short story is probably one of my favourite pieces of written work.

    Thank you for your insightful interpretations, do you mind me asking about how you have come to writing these analyses.

  • Great analysis Dermot, as always.
    It appears that the relationship between the male protagonist and his partner is doomed as they both remain unnamed throughout the story. Pathetic fallacy is used at the end of the story as the storm can be heard but not seen as it is pitch black outside suggesting that a future for the couple is not visible.

    As the female is having her period may also suggest that he has doubts about having children together. Furthermore the imagery of gambling and Reno could possibly suggest that the male is not yet ready to settle down and is still prepared to gamble with his future rather than commit fully to this relationship.

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