In The Student’s Wife by Raymond Carver we have the theme of longing, confinement, desperation, paralysis and powerlessness. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator, however it does appear that the point of view of the narrator matches that of the main protagonist, a woman called Nan. Carver immediately brings the reader into one of the major themes of the story, that of paralysis, from the very beginning of the story. Nan is asleep (not moving) and her husband Mike is besides her, reading. What is also interesting about the story is the fact that the setting for the story is in Nan and Mike’s apartment, that being indoors. Apart from Nan standing on the porch near the end of the story, all the action is confined to the inside of the apartment. The benefit of this is that it heightens the sense of confinement within the story.
There are also further instances in the story where the reader gets the sense of confinement. Both Nan and Mike stretch themselves while in bed. The main point to try and understand regards this action is that they are in some ways restricted (they are in bed after all). Nan’s dream, of her sitting in the back of the boat, the space ‘so narrow it hurt my legs’, also suggests the idea or theme of confinement or being restricted. Another incident in whereby there is sense of confinement (and which also brings in the theme of longing) is when Nan goes through a list of things she likes and would like. This list is also significant for another reason as it highlights that Nan is in some ways confined to living how she does due to Mike’s job. It is also significant that Carver mentions that Nan wishes that Mike had a new suit. This is possible symbolism for another way of living for Mike. Nan longs for a change from her present life (or way of living).
There is a further example of longing when Nan asks Mike does he remember the time they stayed overnight on the Tilton River. They’d just got out of high school and Mike had caught a big trout. Though Mike remembers the time, he wishes that he didn’t because it reminds him of his half-baked ideas about life and art, but for Nan it is important because it is a time of hopes and aspirations, none of which have materialised. She still (as does Mike) longs for a different way of life, with the same hopes and aspirations and not the realities of the position she and Mike find themselves in, of moving every year because of Mike’s job.
The symbolism of Nan’s ‘Growing pains’ as Mike calls them is also significant because Carver through their introduction is affording the reader the opportunity to realise that very little has changed for Nan since she was a child. Carver is using Nan’s physical size to suggest (through symbolism) a sense of continued paralysis in Nan’s life. Carver uses symbolism again near the end of the story. He uses the sunrise that Nan is standing, looking at on the porch as symbolism for a new beginning, something that the reader already knows Nan longs for. The reader is also aware that Nan hasn’t seen many sunrises. This is significant because if the sunrise symbolises a new beginning, the fact that Nan has not seen many suggests that she has not had many new beginnings. In essence her life has not changed. Again this suggests the idea or paralysis.
The end of the story is interesting because the reader by Ann’s actions realises how desperate she is. After she comes in from the porch she goes back into the bedroom and kneels down to pray. ‘God, will you help us, God?’ Such is Nana’s longing for a different kind of life she has resorted to praying, or relying on God to help her. She knows she is powerless herself to change her and Mike’s life. What is also interesting at the end of the story is that Carver highlights the continued sense of confinement in Nana and Mike’s life. Just before Nan prays she looks at Mike and can see ‘He was knotted up in the center of the bed’.
It is significant that Carver ends the story where it began. In Nan and Mike’s bedroom. It is also significant that Mike (apart from briefly going to the kitchen) remains in the same place (in bed) throughout the story. Despite Nan’s desperation for a new life, there will be no change. Life for Nan and Mike is to remain the same. They will continue to move from school to school and apartment to apartment, Nan’s goal for a different, better life will not be achieved.