The Idea by Raymond Carver

The Idea - Raymond CarverIn The Idea by Raymond Carver we have the theme of secrecy, privacy, excitement and voyeurism. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed female narrator and immediately the reader is brought into the sense of secrecy in the story. The narrator is sitting in the dark in her kitchen, looking out the window. She is waiting for her neighbour to come out and start spying on his wife as she gets undressed. What is also interesting about the story is that despite the narrator not approving of her neighbours behaviour, she doesn’t seem to realise that she is guilty of doing the same thing (spying). This gives the story a sense of irony, something that Carver explores again at the end of the story. Another interesting thing about the story is that though the narrator is disgusted by her neighbour’s actions (spying on his wife), the narrator is also fascinated by it. So fascinated that it appears to take up a lot of her time.

From the beginning of the story the reader discovers that the narrator has been sitting, looking out her window for over an hour, waiting on her neighbour to come out. Also the narrator is able to tell the reader how many times her neighbour comes out to spy on his wife. She also tells the reader that her neighbour’s spying on his wife has been going on for over three months (since September 3rd). This again suggests that, with regularity, the narrator is spying on her neighbour. Vern too appears to be fascinated by his neighbour’s spying on his wife. There is the fact that he tells the narrator ‘Don’t let him see you. Don’t get too close to the window,’ when he comes out from the living room and kneels by the window. This line may be important as it not only suggests that Vern, like the narrator, is fascinated by his neighbour’s actions but there is also a sense that Vern is excited by his neighbour’s actions.

It may also be important that when the narrator tells Vern that she will say something to their neighbour’s wife, Vern tells her ‘I wouldn’t do that. What the hell would you do that for?’ It is possible that Carver is suggesting that Vern is afraid that the only excitement that he has in his life (spying on his neighbours) will stop should his wife say something to their neighbour’s wife. If anything Vern wishes to continue to look at his neighbour’s wife undressing herself. What further suggests that Vern is excited by his neighbour’s actions is the fact that he tells the narrator that his neighbour’s husband ‘Maybe he has something there. You don’t know.’ This statement may be important as Vern may be suggesting that both he and the narrator need to add some excitement to their own lives.

Carver also uses symbolism in the story. The ants that appear to be invading the house (not only by the garbage can) but in the narrator’s imagination too, mirror in some ways the invasion by the narrator and Vern of their neighbour’s privacy. The ants can also symbolise the invasion that the narrator would feel if someone was looking at her undressing. It is also possible the Carver is using the food that the narrator lays out on her kitchen table as symbolism. The colours of the food, olives (black), meat loaf (brown) pickles (pale green), potato chips (brown), crackers (brown) and peanut butter (brown) are all dull colours. They lack any type of brightness. Carver through the symbolism of the food may be suggesting that there is a dullness (or lack of excitement) in the narrator and Vern’s life. Carver continues to use symbolism (with food) when Vern says to the narrator ‘What about a bowl of cornflakes with brown sugar?’ Again the reader is aware of the dull colours. There is further symbolism in the story which may be important. The garbage can acts as symbolism for the neighbour’s wife. At the end of the story the narrator says ‘That trash,’ when she is referring to her neighbours wife undressing in her bedroom while her husband looks on.

Carver also appears to use the light bulbs in the narrator’s house as symbolism. At the end of the story the reader finds that the narrator has ‘turned on every light in the house until I had the house blazing.’ This is significant as it suggests that the narrator’s life too is now under observation (or people can see her just as she and Vern can see their neighbours). The fact that others may now be able to see the narrator is further emphasised when the reader discovers that the narrator also ‘raised the shade in the kitchen and looked out.’ It is now possible for others, should they wish, to see the narrator. Carver closing the story with a hint of irony. Just as the narrator’s neighbours have lost any sense of privacy (with the narrator and Vern spying on them), likewise the narrator also appears to have given up her privacy.

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


  • I didn’t quite get the last couple of lines in the story and what certain words alluded to (that trash, the idea, used even worse language). Maybe it’s meant to be somewhat ambiguous. What are your thoughts on the very ending?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The ending can be ambiguous but for me I think that the narrator is referring to her neighbour and her behaviour when she calls her trash. The fact that she could use other language (stronger) also suggests to me that the narrator is looking upon her neighbours actions with scorn. Scorning her behaviour and looking upon it as being improper.

      • So doesn’t it (referring to the neighbour as trash) in some way allude to the narrator’s dissatisfaction with her own life? The neighbour isn’t aware of the man spying on her, right?

        Also, which is your favourite story from What we talk about when we talk about love?

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          It could refer to the narrator’s feelings about her own life. How she may be unhappy with her life. As far as I can work out the neighbour is not aware of her husband spying on her. Though she might be and they could be playing a game with each other. My favourite story from What We Talk About is probably Popular Mechanics. It took me a while to work it out but I like it. Why Don’t You Dance is good too as is The Bath.

  • She’s feeling guilty because she realizes, deep down, that she is just another ant swarming toward the trash. She sprays the ants under blazing lights because she feels she could use a good spray herself. My $.02.

  • For some reason, I feel the narrator’s jealousy at some point. She is mad because of what the neighbour’s wife do, but not that much on the neighbour’s spying. It probably is one kind of jealousy among women. Also, at the end, she turns on all lights, and she doesn’t want to be in the dark anymore. Is that possible that maybe she is expecting someone may spy on her life some day, and she wonder what comments will be. She was disgusted by the neighbor, but she is changing into her neighbor.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      You could be right. The narrator may fear that she is becoming her neighbor. That her own life might be laid bare to public inspection.

    • In regards to the end and the whole voyeurism , it also interesting, that when she raises the blinds, she “hears branches snap”. I see it as Carver suggesting that someone IS watching her. With Minimalism, there are several genre markers leading back to Modernism, one of them being that texts are suggestive, but never reveal (showing rather than telling), and that casual remark just slightly opens the possibility that someone is watching her, and that she may appreciate it. But beautifully, it is never revealed or explored further.

      • Dermot (Post Author)

        Thanks for that insight Jeppe. I hadn’t noticed the branch snapping or the possibilities that could exist from such an incident.

  • I feel it’s all about envy, prudery and hypocrisy.

    What the neighbors do is a game among them, both know and seem to be ok with that; what Vern & Wife do is secret and only provides pleasure to them, the insane pleasure to be above others.

    It’s a lucid critic on how easy is to fall in double-dealing.

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