Viewfinder by Raymond Carver

Viewfinder - Raymond CarverIn Viewfinder by Raymond Carver we have the theme of loss, suffering, connection, loneliness, acceptance, letting go and moving on. Taken from his What We Talk About When We Talk About Love collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Carver may be exploring one of the main themes of the story, the theme of loss. The reader is aware that the photographer has hook hands. He has lost both his hands. It is also significant that when the narrator asks the photographer how he lost his hands that the photographer tells him ‘That’s another story…’ This line is important as without the narrator being aware of it, this line also connects the narrator to the photographer. Like the photographer, the narrator also has a story to tell, that of the loss of his wife and children. Despite the narrator also telling the reader that he asked the photographer into his home (for coffee) just to see ‘how he would hold a cup’, it is also possible that he has done so because he is lonely. Something that becomes clearer to the reader as the photographer begins to talk to the narrator.

The photograph that the photographer gives to the narrator just before the photographer goes to the toilet may also be important as it is from the narrator looking at the photograph that the reader gets a sense that the narrator is uncomfortable within himself. Not only does he view the details (his house) in the photograph to be a tragedy but he also focuses on his head in the photograph. By doing so Carver may be suggesting that the narrator is not only uncomfortable with his life (the details of his house) but it is also possible that Carver is suggesting (and by putting the word head in italics) that the narrator is uncomfortable with the position (or head space) he finds himself in. The reader aware that the trigger for this discomfort may be the fact that the narrator’s family have left him. If anything there is  a sense that the narrator has or is suffering.

Carver continues to explore the discomfort that the narrator may feel when the photographer, as he is sitting down drinking coffee, asks the narrator ‘You’re alone, right?’ The narrator never answers rather he just tells the photographer ‘Drink your coffee.’ The fact that the narrator never answers the photographer is important as it suggests that the narrator doesn’t want to talk about the fact that he is alone and that his family have left him. By also having the narrator attempt to change the subject of the conversation, Carver may also be suggesting that the narrator has yet to accept that his family have left him. However there is also a sense later in the story that the narrator does start to accept and let go of his past (and his family leaving him). This is noticeable when the photographer tells the narrator ‘Hey. I had kids once. Just like you.’ It is through this line that Carver appears to be connecting both the photographer and the narrator to each other, highlighting a common bond between both men. For the first time in the story the narrator is no longer alone he is able to connect with somebody. The fact that the photographer also tells the narrator that he moves from one downtown to another may also be important as it is possible that the narrator, through the photographer’s actions, may also realise that he too has the ability to move on.

This sense that the narrator has moved on (or at least is beginning to move on) is more noticeable when both the narrator and the photographer go outside. As the photographer begins to take photographs of the narrator, the reader is told that the narrator would ‘look sideways’ and sometimes he would ‘look straight ahead.’ Symbolically it is possible that Carver, by having the narrator looking in every direction apart from behind him, is suggesting that the narrator is no longer focused on the past (and the fact that his family have left him). Also as the narrator is standing outside his house he tells the photographer ‘The whole kit and caboodle. They cleared right out.’ This line is important as for the first time in the story the narrator appears to be able to talk about the fact that his family have left him which would suggest he is beginning to accept his loss. Where previously he had ignored the photographer when he made inquiries about his family, now the narrator is freely talking about the fact that his family have left him. No longer does he seem to be focused on his loss rather he appears to be moving on.

The rocks on the narrator’s roof may also be symbolically important. Though the reader is aware that they were thrown there by some of the kids in the neighbourhood it is possible that Carver is using them to suggest an attack on the narrator (the fact his family have left him). By having the narrator also throw the rocks (away from his house) it is possible that Carver is also symbolically suggesting that the narrator is beginning to fight back from the position he finds himself in (being alone). If anything it is possible that the narrator is beginning to reclaim his life which would further suggest that the narrator has begun to accept that his family have left him and that he is not only letting go of the past but moving on too.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Viewfinder by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Nice review!
    I’m just getting started with Carver and I must say until now he’s surprised me. I thought it was going to be kind of like Yates and/or Bukowski, but it’s much more a symbolic and allegorical style.

    This one, being just the second Carver short story I’ve read, could certainly use some clearance; thanks for this.

    Keep it up!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tom. I’ve yet to get around to reading Bukowski. Though he is on my ever growing list of writers to read.

      • Let me put my vote in for Bukowski. He has a large ouvre of poetry, so it will be a deep well. His novels are excellent.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Thanks for the comment Robert. I’ve been checking out some of Bukowski’s short story collections and may end up going for Tales of Ordinary Madness or The Most Beautiful Woman in Town.

  • Is it possible that the narrator is passive aggressive towards the photographer when he begins to throw the stones? I mean, he is exhibiting the things he can do with his arm “”I laid back my arm and …” Or another alternative could be the narrator wants to give the photographer a vicarious experience.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Veronica. You make some interesting points. Points I had not previously thought of. It could be a case that the narrator is being passively aggressive when he throws the stones. Taunting if you like the photographer. With regard to the narrator providing the photographer with a vicarious experience. Showing him or helping him just as the photographer has helped the narrator in some ways. I’m not sure but it is a possibility.

  • I just started analyzing short stories. Thanks to the book Nine Stories by JD Salinger. I love your take on “viewfinder” and other stories. It taught me to look much deeper and write my own views into stories. Great work. Thank you

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tom. It’s nice to know that you like some of the reviews on the blog and that you found them helpful. Nine Stories is a great collection. I’ve read it myself. What I liked about Salinger is that he had an ability to take me into the story. I could visualize each of the stories in the collection. Which for me makes analyzing them that little bit easier.

  • Francisco Torres

    Hi ,

    This story reminded me a lot of Cathedral, by Raymond Carver. On this regard, the narrator at first seems to feel superior to the photographer because of his handicap but at the end the narrator has created a bond with the photographer, mainly because both do not have a family anymore. I still don’t get the symbolism of throwing rocks at the end.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Francisco. The rock throwing may symbolism an attempt by Slater to be acting freely and retaliating against the youth of the area.

  • Hi, I’m writing an English paper analyzing some of Carvers short stories. Your post helped me gain some useful insight on some of the deeper meaning in this story. But I’m trying to wrap my head around this part of the story:

    “Thanks for the coffee and the use of the toilet. I
    He raised and lowered his hooks.
    “Show me,” I said. “Show me how much. Take more
    pictures of me and my house.”
    “It won’t work,” the man
    said. “They’re not coming back.”

    What was the photographer trying to imply when he responded to the narrator with that? Was he trying to say that the narrator’s family won’t return to him by taking more pictures? I’m sure there’s a much deeper explanation than that.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I think the photographer was being literal and telling the narrator his wife wouldn’t be back.

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