The Student’s Wife by Raymond Carver

The Student's Wife - Raymond CarverIn 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 in the story, a woman called Nan. From the beginning of the story the reader also realises that Carver may be exploring the theme of paralysis (at least symbolically). 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 (or paralysis) within the story. There is very little movement.

There are further instances in the story in whereby Carver may be exploring the idea or theme of confinement. Both Nan and Mike stretch themselves while in bed. The main point to try to 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 of confinement or being restricted. Another incident in whereby there is a 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 important 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 important because Carver through their introduction may be highlighting that very little has changed for Nan since she was a child. Carver appears to be 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 also 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 both 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 may also be significant that Carver ends the story where it began. In Nan and Mike’s bedroom. It is also interesting 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.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Student's Wife by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • This short story contains nothing but lazy thoughts of a far more lazy mind. If you sleep during the day, you won’t sleep at night and these type of feelings you will generally get if you are lazy.

    Nan sounds like someone who never had any dreams to achieve, just illusions. Carver made a big fuss about it, that’s all.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Vivian. You could be right. One of the great things about Carver’s stories is that they are open to interpretation. Each individual reader will see something different from the next reader. Which makes Carver’s stories all the more interesting.

  • After reading a story by Raymond Carver I always read your comment. Thank you very much for your wonderful reviews. In this story I think the last paragraph in your review will not be necessary for the open conclusion.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lim and thank you for visiting the blog. I would agree with you. Should the reader seek an open conclusion to the story there is no need for the last paragraph of the review. My reason for including the last paragraph is that I felt the story had reached a conclusion and that Nan remained stuck or paralyzed by her circumstances.

    • Why, in the review, everything, I mean from the start, is taken as symbolist if, what about the thing-in-itself, the reality as it is? It looks a typical method of all (non-creative) critcism, being symbolistic.

  • All interesting comments. Thanks for letting me read. I think her age is somewhat significant too, as she says, ”We’d just got out of high school. *You* hadn’t started to college,” as if she’s already been to college, and was his high school teacher. And of course, the title, The Student’s Wife. The focus on his half-baked ideas about life, where she seemed to admire them as perhaps she was older and saw a lot more life in him giving her a new lease, but clearly, both of them have never materialized any of these plans as you said. Also the feet rubbing and joint aches. I love this story, it’s depressingly beautiful. I wish I could pick Carver’s mind.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment and insight Connor. It is a depressingly beautiful story. Like many of Carver’s stories. It really would be interesting to pick Carver’s mind. He had a wealth of ideas.

  • Man, this sounds so disturbing.

    Poor Nan…

  • Why is the story titled ‘the student’s wife’ ?

  • Hi Dermot! I was inspired by your interpretation, and I’ve recently adapted this short story into a short film. Check it out here if you have time! Thanks!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Hi Desmond. I really liked your film. It draws out the confusion that Nan feels better than I could have managed to do.

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