What Do You Do In San Francisco by Raymond Carver

What Do You Do In San Francisco - Raymond CarverIn What Do You Do in San Francisco by Raymond Carver we have the theme of connection, escape, loss, vulnerability and denial. Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the first person by a man called Henry Robinson and the very first sentence of the story is interesting. Henry tells the reader that ‘This has nothing to do with me,’ however by the second paragraph he provides the reader with information about himself (when it would seem there is no need to). We know his occupation, the fact he has been divorced for twenty years, that he has children he hasn’t seen in just as long and that he believes ‘in the value of work, the harder the better.’ All this information is significant as later in the story the reader becomes aware of how much like Lee Marston, Henry actually is, even though Henry may not be prepared to admit it.

Henry’s assessment of the Marstons as beatniks is also interesting. He formulated this opinion not from any facts but from the knowledge that the Marstons didn’t work, Mrs Marston was a painter and Lee had a beard. It is because of this that there is a strong possibility that Henry may not be a reliable narrator. It is true that he chronicles the Marstons stay in Arcata and their subsequent marriage breakdown but Henry’s view point appears to be based on his belief system, rather than on fact.

Despite this there is definitely a sense of identification (for Henry) when it comes to Lee Marston, particularly when the marriage breaks down. There is one obvious example in whereby Henry identifies with Lee. After he has handed Lee the flyer and Lee walks back towards his house, Henry calls out to him ‘She’s no good boy. I could tell that the minute I saw her. Why don’t you forget her? Why don’t you go to work and forget her, what have you got against work? It was work, day and night, work that gave me oblivion when I was in your shoes and there was a war on where I was…’ There is a lot in this statement but for the purpose of identification it is clear that Henry identifies with Lee when he says ‘…I was in your shoes…’ Henry is directly linking his own marriage breakdown to Lee’s and it is also significant that we find that Henry’s wife left him too (previously we just knew that he was divorced). This may explain as to why Henry hasn’t seen her in over twenty years. It may also explain Henry’s negative opinion of Mrs Marston. Something the reader is aware of when he said ‘But put me down for saying she wasn’t a good wife and mother.’The statement is also important for another reason (and also tells the reader more about Henry). Henry may not have gotten over his own divorce. Just as some people would escape into alcohol or drugs, Henry has escaped into work, ‘It was work, day and night, work that gave me oblivion…’ Henry has used work to deaden the pain of his wife leaving him, rather than deal with the emotional upheaval that comes with a marriage breakdown.

The ending of the story is also interesting as it not only highlights the loss that Lee is feeling over the marriage breakdown but it also highlights that Henry again identifies with Lee. Henry tells the reader about the last time he saw Lee. ‘He was starting past me, over me, you might say, over the rooftops and the trees, south. He just kept staring even after I’d come even with the house and moved on down the sidewalk. It is obvious to the reader that Lee feels lost without his wife. We have previously been told by Henry that Lee would scan letters he delivered to Henry to see who sent them. This may be a sign (or hint) that Lee is waiting for (or wishes for) a letter from his wife (contact).

It is also just after he looks at Lee staring out of his window that Henry tells the reader ‘I had to turn around and look myself in the same direction. But, as you might guess, I didn’t see anything except the same old timber, mountains sky.’ There are two important things to note in this statement. First is that we have to remember that Henry is an unreliable narrator (he may not be telling the truth about how he felt) and second thing to note is that Henry is deflecting from himself when he tells the reader ‘But, as you might guess.’ By looking closer the reader will not only see that Henry is remembering his own separation from his ex-wife but is also hiding the pain as it would leave him as vulnerable as Lee. Something that Henry has tried to hide (through work) for twenty years. Despite having thrown himself into his job when his wife left him, Henry has never forgotten her and in some ways Henry is a mirror of Lee. Not only has his wife left him, but he too is vulnerable and feeling a loss, though Henry isn’t prepared to admit it.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "What Do You Do In San Francisco by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • You have done a good job there, explaining the narrative and subtleties. I was wondering all about this story and now it seems all connected. Keep it up.

  • Very helpful. I couldn’t really understand the connections but you’ve opened my eyes.

  • It was helpful. I could make out the bias in the narrator but the part that Marston is very much like the narrator himself is something I couldn’t see straightaway but can see now.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Harry. I think this is one of Carver’s more difficult stories. It took me a while to figure it out and I still don’t think I’ve gotten everything.

  • Thanks a lot for this article. Helped me with my understanding of this rather difficult story. I didn’t like the narrator from the beginning btw!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Mohamad. It’s great to know that you found the post helpful. I think it’s difficult to like the narrator because he is unreliable. We never really know if we can trust him or not. Which doesn’t help when trying to get to grips with the story.

  • Wonderful, you have done a really great job. Thank you for your contribution. I read this story 3-4 times but still can’t grasp the core idea. Of course, with your deep analysis, it just shows how great Raymond Carver is. Thanks again.

  • The narrator states that he is reminded of the family because of the newspaper article about a man who murders his unfaithful wife and her boyfriend but there is no reason to believe Marston would do anything violent. It’s the narrator who was filled with rage at his own wife’s infidelity and saved himself from doing something heinous by seeking oblivion through work. He projects this on to Marston because he is going through a similar situation. Great use of Irony by starting the story with, “This has nothing to do with me”.

  • Awesome insight! I think one of the broader themes is how communities or societies tend to marginalize people who don’t fit in. If Lee would shave his beard, get a job, act as the other community members, he wouldn’t face the calumnies of his peers. Yet, through human interaction and observation, we learn to empathize due universal human emotion and struggle.

    The title, What do you do in San Francisco? Suggests that Lee, his wife, and San Francisco are a foreign culture or civilization from that of Arcata. Lee from San Francisco, moving to Arcata, could be replaced by any person of any demographic moving to any small town , and the subsequent story of how they are first judged and rejected or accepted.

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