Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

In Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver we have the theme of identity, control, disaffection, denial, escape, paralysis and alcoholism. Taken from his Cathedral collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed man who is a resident in Frank Martin’s drying out facility. There are several story’s being told within the story (frame narrative) which in some ways deflects the reader from ever getting a true sense of the identity of the narrator and it is this confusion which leads the reader to believe that Carver is playing with the theme of escapism. The narrator in reality is escaping from who he is. We are never given his name, even when J.P. introduces Roxy to him; the narrator’s name is never mentioned. This is important because it not only highlights the theme of escapism but also serves to highlights the idea of disaffection. The reality being that the narrator wants to escape from who he is and the course of action he may have to take.

It is the narrator’s second time in Frank Martin’s clinic and at first the reader could be forgiven if they thought that the story was about J.P. or Tiny rather than about the narrator. While J.P. is talking he stops every now and then and it is left to the narrator to urge him on and complete his story, again this may be important as the narrator in many ways is deflecting from himself by allowing J.P continue his story. We also learn that the narrator would have listened to J.P. regardless of the story he was telling, ‘I was interested. But I would have listened if he’d been going on about how one day he’d decided to start pitching horseshoes.’ In essence the narrator is doing everything possible to escape from his own thoughts, though later in the story he realises that he has to take some action.

The narrator is not the only one who wishes to escape. J.P. wishes that he was called Jack London rather than J.P. and another man (traveller), despite showing signs of being an alcoholic (blackouts) tells the narrator that he’s not an alcoholic and should really be in Europe working. Again this may be important as neither man is facing their reality. There is also the sense of a lack of control in the story. Tiny has his alcoholic fits, something that the narrator knows can happen to any of them. Also at the beginning of the story when J.P. and the narrator are sitting on the porch, J.P. is shaking and the narrator starts to get twitches (uncontrollable) in his neck. Another example is the nicks that all the residents have on their faces from shaving, having no control over the shaver due to trembling. And when Frank Martin is discussing Jack London’s drinking he tells the narrator and J.P. that ‘He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn’t handle the stuff, either,’ Again there is a sense of a lack of control for all the men in Frank Martin’s. However the most notable incident is when the narrator tells the reader how his wife brought him to Frank Martin’s for the first time and part of him wanted to stay in Frank’s but another part of him didn’t. Not only does this highlight to the reader the narrator’s lack of control over alcohol but also the sense of paralysis that the narrator (action versus inaction) feels.

This sense of action versus inaction is a point that is further seen when the narrator starts to tell the reader about his relationship with his wife and his girlfriend. His wife has thrown him out and the last time they spoke she hung up the phone and told him that he had a ‘wet brain.’ Despite this the narrator knows that he has to contact her again (which he does), he has clothes and personal belongings still in her house and he needs to collect them (action). Also the narrator knows that he really should be contacting his girlfriend and talking to her, though notably he is not prepared to discuss her health with her (pap smear results), again the idea of inaction on an important matter. It is as if the narrator fears the truth.

The most important thing about the narrator’s relationship with both women is that they both make him think about things. He suspects that his wife will be angry with him and he doesn’t really want to listen to her giving out to him (sense of denial). Similarly with his girlfriend the narrator knows that she has had a health scare but he doesn’t want to discuss it (sense of fear and irresponsibility). In reality there is a sense of fear or paralysis within the narrator but nonetheless he knows he must do something. To bring about some change in his life (apart from quitting alcohol). He is aware that he needs to do something and that he can’t remain as he is.

The ending of the story is also interesting as Carver tells the reader two stories. The narrator remembers a house that he used to live in with his wife and how the landlord came one morning to paint the outside. The narrator on hearing the noise stood naked in the bedroom looking out at the landlord (inaction). The narrator then remembers a Jack London story he read in high school about a man building a fire (action) to keep himself warm but how snow fell on the flames and put the fire out. These two stories are important because they lead the narrator to the point where he knows he has to ring his wife and girlfriend (again action), but more importantly the reader senses at the end of the story that the narrator knows who he is and is taking responsibility for himself. No matter how painful the course of action may be.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 24 Mar. 2016. Web.


  • Thanks for this summary. I enjoyed your thoughts on the action/inaction conflicy. I had some ideas about the story’s symbolism. Firstly the well that JP had fallen down, can be seen as the inescapability of alcohol. While JP can see freedom, represented by the flock of birds flying over the distant well’s mouth, he’s perilously trapped at the bottom by gravity. That JP is saved by a chimney sweep is no coincidence. The chimney metaphor continues the dark tunnel metaphor of alcoholism that began in the well. Roxy’s almost supernatural power (further represtend by the top hat and good luck kisses) rescues JP from the darkness, and give hope to the narrator.

    This is primarily a story of love and redemption, represented in the merciful love shown by Roxy as she returns for JP, in spite of the terrible blight of alcohol that has torn apart their lives. In some ways it’s the ultimate Carver story, starting out like so many of his other stories, placing us in the helpless catastrophe of severe alcohol addiction, but this time seeing us through to what happens afterwards, seeking help, redemption, and possibly the miracle of recovery.

    The house painter serves as a contrast to the chimney sweep figure. This figure, who, similarly to the sweep, climbs a ladder, evokes rare emotion out of the otherwise benumbed narrator, who experiences a ‘wave of happiness comes over me–that I’m inside with my wife’ — this is the only moment in the story when the narrator expresses belief in something. In some ways, the painter is the narrator’s analog to JP’s chimney sweep.

    Two important moments – 1 when the narrator says “..I think I’d better go back to Jack Martin’s” — this is the rare Carver character who takes action against the disease. JP has the strength that Carver wishes he had. This is later confirmed when Roxy asks JP to leave for lunch and JP insists on staying the course of the program, passing a test that narrator likely would have failed.

    2 – ‘who knows why we do what we do? — his drinking picks up’ — this quote underlines the insidious nature of the disease, that needs no reason to invade lives, but just like cancer (another metaphor in the pap smear) comes unbidden and unpreventable, rendering us completely vulnerable to its clutches. This underlines Carver’s powerlessness to the disease.

    But on the other side, the story’s presence of Jack London, whom Carver idolized, represents the Icarus-like toxic path of the artist unreservedly given to self-sacrifice, something that has plagued artists for all time, in pursuit of art, drawing him ever further down the well. London’s story of life or death reminds us of the dire reality of Carver’s disease, and delicate nature of the fire in it relates to the chimney metaphor, being the spark of hope that Roxy has kindled with JP, and that may or may not be extinguished in the narrator’s (Carver’s) future.

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