They’re Not Your Husband by Raymond Carver

In They’re Not Your Husband by Raymond Carver we have the theme of embarrassment, appearance, acceptance, control, obsession, selfishness and insecurity. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story Carver appears to be exploring the theme of appearance, insecurity and embarrassment. There is a sense that Earl is somewhat embarrassed (for himself) by the reaction of the two men when they are discussing Doreen’s appearance as she is getting them ice cream. Though Earl doesn’t confront the men, to defend Doreen, it is later when he is at home that the reader notices that the men’s comments have had an effect on Earl. It is possible that Earl’s fear of what other’s think of Doreen is really an internal insecurity within Earl himself. He is allowing the men’s opinion of Doreen reflect on him. In many ways Doreen’s physical appearance is an extension of Earl himself, at least in Earl’s eyes. It is quite possible that Earl considers a negative opinion or appraisal of Doreen equals a negative view of him.

Earl also appears to be addressing his insecurity (about Doreen’s weight and how he thinks it reflects on him) by controlling Doreen. This is noticeable by the fact that he tells Doreen that she needs to lose weight. The reader already aware that the trigger for Earl’s suggestion to Doreen, is the comments that the men made in the coffee shop. Rather than accept Doreen for who she is, Earl is attempting to change her. It is through this change that the reader also senses that Earl may be somewhat obsessional. This obsession is noticeable by the continuous marking down of Doreen’s weight when Doreen is standing on the weighing scales.

Despite it being clear to the reader and to Doreen’s work colleagues that she is losing too much weight, too quickly, Earl continues to insist that Doreen follow his unqualified weight loss programme. Earl’s suggestion to Doreen that ‘they’re not your husband’ could also possibly suggest that Earl believes that Doreen is answerable to him, rather than being his equal. This may be significant as it could suggest the idea of control. That Earl has to control Doreen. It would also appear that it is more important to Earl that Doreen loses weight, rather than lives a healthy lifestyle.

Carver also appears to be exploring the theme of selfishness in the story. The reader is aware that Earl is out of work and that the family are relying on the money from Doreen’s job to try and stay afloat and despite Earl literally counting the pennies when it comes to Doreen’s tips, he still goes out drinking when it is clear that neither he nor his family can afford for him to do so. Also there is no necessity for Earl to dine at the coffee shop, particularly again when the family cannot afford it. Carver explores the theme of selfishness further by the very fact that Earl wants Doreen to change, not for her benefit but for his. Earl’s primary focus appears to be his concern about what others will think of him because of Doreen’s physical appearance.

Carver also further explores the theme of appearance when Earl is weighing Doreen. He notices the veins on her legs and frowns. This may be important as it suggests the discomfort that Earl feels over Doreen’s appearance. Again Earl appears to be unable to accept Doreen for who she is.  It may also be significant that at no stage does Earl ask Doreen how she is feeling. Either when she is sick in bed or when he arrives at the coffee shop (on both occasions). His primary focus appears to be on Doreen losing weight, whether it is healthy or not.

The ending of the story is also interesting. The reader realises, through the reaction of the man at the counter, that Earl is the only one concerned about Doreen’s appearance. There is also a sense that Earl needs the man at the counter to praise Doreen’s appearance, which in turn would again highlight Earl’s insecurity and his reliance on others to validate him. It may also be significant that Doreen, when asked by a colleague ‘who is this joker, anyway?’ replies by telling her colleague that ‘He’s a salesman. He’s my husband.’ It is through this statement that the reader senses Carver is introducing irony into the story. There is every possibility that Earl has viewed Doreen as a product to sell, rather than as a human being.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "They're Not Your Husband by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Appearance is Doreen’s own business, in other words, no one has the power to push her to make any change of her body. She follows her husband’s “suggestions” almost all the time without saying a No. It is not only Earl, a salesman, see her as a product, Doreen, who does not have her own opinion, see herself as a product. They are not your husband, means so those people will not tell their comments on Doreen, however, even her husband Earl, he only has the right to suggest, but not to control.

  • I feel it’s about not being able to be a man, to feel manly; not due to real aspects of his private life but because of not being capable to stand to what society demands.

    Two real men, with suits and everything, disqualify Doreen as suitable, so they disqualify Earl to be one of them.

    Earl fail in his attempts to become a real man landing a job.

    Earl begins to become a woman, becoming a housekeeper.

    The only way Earl is able to be a man is by controlling his wife’s body, using it (and not even in the traditional way).

    At the end the only person to acknowledge Earl´s manhood is his wife: “He’s a salesman, he’s my husband”.

    I do not subscribe to Earl’s ways, neither do the autor I think, but the world is full with such characters.

    I am loving this book.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for that insight Quique. You make some excellent pints.

    • Excellent commentary. Earl isn’t a provider, traditionally the man’s role (and certainly much more so at the time that this story was written), he’s (first, according to his wife) a “salesman”.

      So Doreen’s value to him appears to be solely superficial – her appearance and the first impression she makes on her customers.

      Why? As you say, he’s completely tied up in the value of his “product” as a reflection of himself. If his wife is attractive to others then it must mean he’s “worth” having an attractive wife.

  • I’m getting back into short stories and am really enjoying reading your reviews and breakdowns.

    I just read this story and feel that the theme is pride.

    Earl has been emasculated through his loss of work and his wife becoming the breadwinner.
    He attempts to achieve a sense of pride by trying to control or improve what he still has, that being his wife, Doreen.
    He tries to make her “saleable” as an attractive woman to other men, but ends up just making an ass of himself.

  • Do you think that when Doreen says — “He’s a salesman. He’s my husband” — she says it with a tone of disappointment or scorn? ‘Cause I thought so, and I felt like it was the final straw for Earl, that Doreen had had enough of him, and that while she said those words, she couldn’t believe that was her life. That Earl was her husband, that he was selfish and wasting their money and that he was inconsiderate and all that.

    Or, on the other hand, by outrightly saying that he’s her husband, Carver is trying to show that she esteems him and that she doesn’t care about other people’s opinions of him, because the other waitress had just called him a joker. This creates dramatic irony, ’cause he WAS embarrassed of her. And that is tragic and heartbreaking, that a person such as she got to end up with a person such as he.

    Those are two ways of viewing those words, and I think that they carry more weight than we think.

  • “There is every possibility that Earl has viewed Doreen as a product to sell, rather than as a human being.”

    Nice observation.

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