The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off by Raymond Carver
In The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off by Raymond Carver we have the theme of isolation, connection, conflict and guilt. Taken from his What We Talk About When We Talk About Love collection the story is narrated in the first person by a man called Jack Fraser and tells the tale of a local simpleminded man called Dummy and how his death affected Jack’s father Del. What is interesting from the beginning of the story is the fact that the reader is never told or does not know Dummy’s real name. This may be important as it suggests to the reader, that unlike all the other characters in the story who are given names, Dummy remains on the outside of society and we soon learn that he is viewed as an outcast by the other people not only in his job at the sawmill but in the town in general. Dummy works in the same sawmill with Del, as a clean-up man and it is through his father that Jack gets to know more about Dummy. The reader learns that there is a group of men in the mill who taunt and kid Dummy, though we do learn that Del never does. By not making Dummy part of a group it enables Carver to have the character on the outside, just as by not naming him also places him on the outside. To further emphasis that Dummy is an outsider Carver places him as living outside of town too. Again this is important as it separates Dummy from everyone else. Though we are aware that Dummy is married there is a sense of conflict within the marriage. It is rumoured that Dummy’s wife is flirting with other men behind his back. By introducing the possibility of Dummy’s wife flirting with other men Carver may be further highlighting the fact that Dummy is on the outside or alone.
It is also through Del that Dummy gets to find some solace and peace when Del recommends that he fill the pond on his land with some bass. It is Del’s plan to be able to fish there but things don’t work out as Del had hoped. Instead Dummy builds an electric fence around the pond to stop local people fishing and begins to isolate himself further from the locals. He has found some happiness now that he has his fish. Dummy’s new found happiness with his fish is important because for the first time in the story he connects with something (the fish). How important this connection is to Dummy can be seen by the fact that he won’t allow anyone fish in his pond. It is also possible that Dummy, by not allowing anyone fish from the pond, is attempting to stop the cruelties of society (by killing the fish) from affecting his fish just as the cruelties of his co-workers (making fun of him) affects him.
However Del is still keen to fish in Dummy’s pond and to overcome Dummy’s refusal to allow anyone fish he tells Dummy that they have to thin out the weaker fish to ensure that the stronger bass survive. It is while Jack and Del are attempting to catch some bass that the reader really gets an insight into just how important the fish are to Dummy. He only allows one fishing pole to be used and even then he is not happy. When Jack does catch one of the fish, Dummy is upset and when Dummy reaches for the line on Jack’s fishing pole the line breaks. The line breaking acts as symbolism for what happens next. Del grabs his own pole and tells Jack that they are going home, knowing that if he stays any longer he will only end up hitting Dummy (conflict). It is at this stage that the reader becomes aware that any friendship that Del had with Dummy is over or is broken just like the fishing pole. He cannot understand why Dummy is so protective of his fish although the reader has some understanding as to why they are so important to Dummy.
The story shifts to the following February and we find that the local river has flooded causing a new channel to be created between the river and Dummy’s pond. This leads to the bass moving from the pond and into the river. This is significant because Dummy has lost all his fish and is alone again. The connection he has made with the fish is severed by nature. Another reason the flood is important is because it highlights the powerlessness of man versus nature (conflict). How upset Dummy is, can be seen when Jack is on Dummy’s land with his friends. He sees a sad and broken man. Not only has Dummy been beaten by his neighbors in town but now nature has gotten the better of him. It is also after the flood that people start to notice a change in Dummy. His wife is seen in the Sportsman’s Club with another man and he starts to miss days from work. Even when he is in work he is not mixing with other people. Though it is not clear to the other characters in the story (including Jack) it is obvious to the reader that the loss of the fish has brought back the internal conflict that Dummy had previously felt, compounded by the fact that his wife is cheating on him.
Angered by his wife’s infidelities Dummy ends up not only killing his wife but also committing suicide by drowning himself in the pond. When Del finds out what has happened he is shocked and it may be a case that he is also beginning to feel guilty about Dummy and how he has been treated by others (and by Del who ended his friendship with Dummy). In a possible effort to deflect the guilt that Del feels he tells Jack, when they see Dummy’s body being dragged from the pond, ‘Women, that’s what the wrong kind of woman can do to you, Jack.’ Despite what his father is telling him Jack doesn’t believe Del really means it. If anything he suspects that his father is trying to appropriate blame to somebody rather than admit to himself that he may have made a contribution (as did others) to Dummy’s death. It is only years later that Del faces the reality that Dummy had been the victim of taunts from local people and that the loss of the one thing that had brought him happiness (the fish) followed by finding out his wife was cheating on him may have caused Dummy to kill himself. Dummy had been beaten by not only his wife and the locals in town but by the forces of nature too. And in some ways the conflict that Dummy felt when he was alive, had been passed to Del.