What’s in Alaska by Raymond Carver

What's In Alaska - Raymond CarverIn What’s in Alaska? by Raymond Carver we have the theme of awareness, infidelity, trust, acceptance, freedom and paralysis (or inaction). Taken from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator, however it does appear that the view-point of the narrator matches that of one of the main protagonists in the story, Jack. It is also after reading the story that the reader realises that Carver may be exploring the theme of infidelity. Jack and his wife Mary spend the evening at their friends, Carl and Helen’s house smoking marijuana and it is while they are getting high that Jack begins to suspect that Mary might be having an affair with Carl. Carver also appears to be using a lot of phallic symbolism in the story and by doing so may be further highlighting the possibility that Mary is cheating on Jack. There is the hookah that Helen has bought Carl. The bottles of cream soda and popsicles that Jack and Mary have brought with them to Helen and Carl’s house and the U-No bars. The U-No bars are important because they not only act as phallic symbolism but their name (you know) also suggests that Jack is aware that Mary is cheating on him

Jack’s realization that Mary and Carl may be having an affair is seen more clearly (and not just symbolically) when he sees Mary, in the kitchen ‘move against Carl from behind and put her arms around his waist.’ Suspicion about Mary and Carl’s relationship is also raised when Mary calls Carl honey by mistake. Despite Mary laughing it off and neither Jack nor Helen commenting, this incident is significant and acts as a further example of the possibility of Mary cheating on Jack. The idea that Carl (even though it is Mary who puts her arms around him) has taken another man’s wife (and is acting as a predator) is also explored through symbolism. Helen and Carl’s cat, Cindy, is seen walking through the house with a dead mouse in her mouth. Some critics would suggest that the cat is symbolic of Carl and the dead mouse may represent a defeated Jack.

Carver also uses the symbolism of Jack’s shoes to further suggest that Jack has been defeated or beaten. The story opens with the reader finding out that Jack has bought a new pair of shoes and that he felt his feet ‘free and springy’ and when he walked ‘his foot moved freely from pedal to pedal.’ This is significant as Carver is highlighting to the reader the idea of freedom or at least Jack’s ability to move freely (without hindrance). However, after the cream soda is spilt on the shoe, Jack says ‘It’s done for.’ This line is important as Carver is not only suggesting that Jack’s shoes are ruined but he may also be symbolically suggesting that the freedom that Jack had felt previously, is no longer. Where previously Jack may have been free of any worry, when it came to trusting Mary, this is no longer the case. If anything Jack may realise that he can no longer trust Mary now that he is aware that Mary is cheating on him.

Jack’s change of attitude towards going to Alaska may also suggest that he is aware that Mary is cheating on him. When he first heard that Mary may be offered a job in Alaska, he was excited telling Mary ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska.’ However when Carl asks Jack and Mary ‘What about Alaska, you guys?’ Jack says ‘There’s nothing in Alaska.’ This response is important as it suggests that Jack is not only no longer excited about going to Alaska but he may also realise that the dynamic of his relationship with Mary has changed. Just as Jack feels that there is nothing in Alaska, likewise he may be suggesting that there is nothing (left) in his relationship with Mary.

Despite Jack’s awareness of what has happened between Mary and Carl the reader is left suspecting that he will do nothing about it. He had the opportunity in Helen and Carl’s house to say something and he didn’t. Also when he gets home to his own house, he never confronts Mary. However there are signs of his discomfort in knowing that Mary is cheating on him. While they are both in bed, when Mary puts her fingers on Jack’s chest the reader learns that Jack ‘turned on his stomach and eased all the way to his side of the bed.’ Though this action is important and suggests that Jack is distancing himself from Mary the fact that he remains in the bed also suggests that likewise Jack will stay in the relationship and not question Mary about why she has cheated on him. If anything there is a sense that Jack will accept (without doing anything) that Mary has cheated on him.

Another significant sign of Jack’s discomfort is right at the end of the story when he turns off the lamp. He imagines that he can see ‘a pair of small eyes’ in the dark. At this point Jack is remembering Cindy (eyes are only mentioned in the story when referring to Cindy) and again Carver may be highlighting the idea of a predator. However despite holding a shoe and being ready to throw it, Carver ends the story with Jack waiting, ‘He waited. He waited for it to move once more, to make the slightest move.’ This line is important as there is no action (like the throwing of the shoe) from Jack and the reader is left suspecting that this lack of action will mirror what Jack will do about Mary and Carl’s affair. He will do nothing.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "What's in Alaska by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.

35 comments

  • Carl is with Mary, Helen is with Jack.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Alex. I’m reading from the Vintage (2009) publication of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please. In the story its Carl and Helen, Jack and Mary. Though I have come across versions of the story in which Carl is with Mary and Helen is with Jack.

  • This is pretty good. Though, the book I was reading Carl is with Mary. But, you are very good at it. Your review really helped me to understand it.Thank you!

  • Hi. I think you messed up with their names in the story. Because Mary and Carl are a couple and Helen and Jack another couple. You said that Jack bought new shoes. It’s not him but Carl who did.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for visiting the blog and leaving a comment Lindsy. When I read the story I was reading from the Vintage (2009) edition of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please which has Mary with Jack (and Jack buying the shoes) and Helen with Carl. However I do know that there are other versions of the story, including the original which appeared in the Iowa Review in 1972, that has as you suggest, Mary with Carl (and Carl buying the shoes) and Helen with Jack.

  • Amazing job mate. I am reading Will You Please Be Quiet, Please and I am amazed of your help/explanation which is really helpful!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment George. I’m not sure I get everything Carver may have intended on first reading. I usually have to update a post after a second or third read. Enjoy the collection.

  • Hi! I’ve been reading lots of your posts. I found them very interesting and helpful to rethink the stories. In this case it has occurred to me that the main character is waiting for the perfect moment to strike back. Could it be because its difficult to confront his wife but I think in the end he starts to make up his mind about his relationship with her.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment LeonWolf. You could be right. The main character may be about to get even with his wife. He could be re-evaluating his position in the marriage and may be thinking about leaving his wife due to her adultery. He is in a contemplative mood when he is walking home.

  • In my opinion, when jack keeps repeating about there is nothing to do in Alaska and he also mentioned that he will grow huge cabbages, jack is locating himself at a lower level compared to his wife, who is working at bank( making more money than he does). A feeling of inferiority from Jack. I also think that when Jack intend to wait for it move once more, make a slightest noise, he is waiting for the right moment to end it? Anyway, so many thanks to your wonderful work and forgive my english ^^

  • Thanks for the helpful analysis. To me, the cat represents Mary’s infidelity, and the mouse represents Mary and Jack’s relationship. Cats have been traditionally associated with femininity, and Mary is the one who is cheating. And perhaps Jack feels like the dead mouse – being toyed with by Mary’s infidelity. Their relationship is certainly like the mouse – being killed by infidelity. At one point they all watch the cat eat the mouse when the cat takes it into the room they’re in, which I think is meant to suggest that the secret is out, and now they all kind of know that infidelity is occurring, but they don’t take action or speak of it.

  • Thank yo very much. I found the explanation very revealing, I hope it will give me a better ability to have insights in the other stories, (though, sadly I seriously doubt it). But, I can look them up. Thank you.

  • Thank you very much for the helpful analysis. I’m struggling a bit with the ending. Jack and Mary lie in bed, where Mary asks “What’s in Alaska?”. What would you say it indicates? Does she want him to confront him? Or does she ask because she wants to save the relationship or to push him away? I would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lærke. It could be either as far as I can work out. If it is to confront Jack she may have made a decision not to go to Alaska and if it is to console him she may still be having doubts as to whether or not to go to Alaska.

  • Hi, thanks for the help with the analysis. What do you think the message of the short story is?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      There may be several messages. One of which may be that those close to you, or those you think are close to you. Might not necessarily be trustworthy.

  • I think the fact that Mary wanted to be fucked or spoken to cause she needed to be distracted as she tells Jack while walking back home sort of shows that she was more upset about having to leave Carl, which is a sign that she was more invested in her affair with Carl than in her marital relationship with Jack. I felt it suddenly hit her that she might not get to see Carl again, in a long time.

  • Hi everyone, in my Spanish translated version, edited in Spain in 1989, the name of the two male characters are interchanged (the guy who bought the shoes is Carl, and the other is Jack). I don’t know why.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’ve come across that too.

      • You mean the same thing happens in English editions as well?

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Yes. I think Carver’s editor Gordon Lish changed the names around.

          • I’ve got ‘Will you please be quiet, please?’ (in English). In it, Jack is the shoes’ guy. Maybe in ‘Collected Stories’ is where the change is done, isn’t it?

            I’m not an English native speaker, and I don’t really know how sound the names. I guess ‘Jack’ sounds more masculine or determined than ‘Carl’, maybe you can explain it to me ‍♂️

  • I think you can’t really know if there is an actual cheating situation. All of them are high, and quite young, it can be expected that some flirting happens.

    I think Mary thinks that Jack doesn’t give to her all the things that she would consider enough, and she is so immature that she demands lots of things that she doesn’t need at the moment (the I want to be spoiled, fucked, etc scene and then just fall asleep). Jack is as immature/beginner as Mary, of course, because of that he is so moody and swayed by everything that Mary would say.

    Sorry for my broken but smartass English, of course XD

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