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.

10 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.

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