The Idea by Raymond Carver
In 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.