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.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • I really enjoy your interpretations and literary criticism. I’ve read about four of them so far from Carver’s work. I read the story and then come to your site. Great work!

  • I’ve started reading Carver again after maybe a decade of pause – and it’s been years since I’ve read critically. Your site has been wonderful at getting the cobwebbed cogs turning again. Thank you for providing such awesome discussion and critical analysis.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tim. It’s great knowing that you find the posts on Carver of some benefit. I haven’t read Carver’s stories myself in three or four years though I keep meaning to look at them again to see if I can glean something else out of them.

  • Hi Dermot,

    I’m reading this collection from Carver at the moment (my first experience with Carver) and your excellent analysis has really contributed to my enjoyment. I hope to read more of your analyses in my future reading!

    Best of luck,

  • Hi,
    Thanks very much for your interpretation of Carver’s short stories. Your comments are really helpful. The theme of acceptance seems to be present in many of Carver’s stories. Would you say any of his characters show real personal ambition in any of them? If so, which ones?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Dummy in The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off has ambition and chases his dream (pond). The narrator in Fat is hesitant to follow her instincts but I feel as though she may have ambitions to change.

  • Do you not see it as a socialist tract? Dummy has the most menial job and quietly does it for years, and when he sudedenly has issues the company is threatening to dump him. Thinning the bass is a metaphor for survival-of-the-fittest capitalism, which Del embraces and Dummy rejects. Also, Dummy’s downfall is when he wants to protect his private property rather than allowing everyone to fish it.

    It’s also an indcitment of women. Despite his willing to be a provider despite the bad job and his faithfulness, because he’s ugly and otherwise not impressive, she regularly cheats on him. It’s also revealed that she’s cold in the way she treated the two guys who stopped for water–giving them a meagre tin cupfil and then sending them on their ways…until she realized they might be a good screw—“If you had a car I might come with you.” Anything anti-woman could not be published today.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for that great insight Thinker.

    • I come from China and I will tell you the situation in a socialism country.

      Firstly, China is still a developing country that fairly poorer than USA, especially in rural and inland area. It’s hard to imagine someone like Dummy in China will earn a decent life possessing a house, a pickup and even a wife. Honestly speaking I know some simpleminded, impaired and not-good-educated person in my local, as a counterpart of Dummy in China. They will do some menial job like clean-up worker, cooly, junkman dispose-swill-worker and even tramp and beggar — a Dummy in China will bear a life far worse than a Dummy in USA, believe me. A house? A pickup? A wife? My ass.

      Secondly, in China, there will be a systematic Poverty Relief policy and a series of campaign conducted by the CCP, such as building council house, providing foodstuff, giving money, providing public welfare position, subsidizing children to go to school, etc. For Dummy’s case, I could imagine: He will live in a council house about 1500 sqft, has no car, or just has a lousy electromobile; He will has no wife, or just a wife deaf and dumb too; He will do a job like clean-up worker, or better he will be a worker if he is skilled or hard-working, but still escape from respect from local community.
      He will father no children too, like his American counterpart, if any, his children will follow a hopeless well-worn developing path like himself.

      A Dummy in China will not starve or freeze to death, yet his life is hopeless and defintely vulnerable to disease, natural hazard and other potential risks. Compare with his American counterpart, he will live in a worse off economic status
      and meanwhile face a same socialogical predicament, that is not be respected by local folks and lack humanistic concern from the society.

      I admit there are expressly left-wing color strain in this story, but it’s farfetched to consider this story as a socialism tract. In China all land nominally is possession of the state or collective, an individual has to rent the land under Contract Responsibility System, no free hold at all. Only someone with influence in local (you understand what I mean) will able to exploit the gravel pit as a fish farm, unfortunately, Dummy is apparently not like such one.

  • Although I enjoy Raymond Carver’s spare, often brutal prose, there is a misogynist undertone in a lot of his stories as well as in the above comment. I think instead of viewing the story an “indictment of women,” it may be said the the women, like Dummy himself, lack any real agency. For example, we don’t get any real insight into Dummy’s wife’s interior life. She doesn’t even warrant her own name and it seems unfair to “indict” all women based on their reduction to caricatures and stereotypes. I’ve just begun to re-read What WeTalk About When We Talk About Love and, for the most part, any non-white or non-male characters are relegated to the background in a hyper-masculine world in which they are nearly always positioned as the “other,” or at the worst, the downfall of the male protagonist who, instead of accepting responsibility for their own choices, blames those with the least autonomy for their tribulations. See Tell the Women We’re Going for another example.

  • A wonderful and really informative review. I am glad to find your blog. All the best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *