Empathy in Raymond Carver

The radio silence of this blog might have represented to you that I have not been reading, but that is not the case. I have just not been thinking. At the moment, I have a backlog of finished and nearly finished books or pieces of media I want to review, but I simply haven’t been able to get a thought on the page. Hopefully, that ends here, with an all-time favourite that I beg you to read.

This summer, I read the stories of Raymond Carver. As you may have, I had heard Carver named in those lists of ‘must-read’ authors. He is occasionally named among those giants whose reputations precede them, whose genius is ‘undisputable’, but who until you’ve read them, it’s not possible to understand why. In fact, the only thing I really knew about Raymond Carver was that my father liked his stories, and that we had them on the shelf. The reason I went for him was simply practical. They were short, and I had very little time, since I was working full-time and studying for exams.

So, on a weekend in Melbourne, I nicked Dad’s copy, and as an attempt to stay reading with so few free minutes on my hands, I resolved to read one short story a day, until the book was done. A shining example emerged of a great decision made entirely by accident.

Waking up, setting the phone, our eternal but ever important distraction, aside, having a cup of coffee, and reading a story became the way I started each day, and it was excellent. I especially liked that each one was a slice of life, an exercise in empathy.

On the back of Dad’s early 90s Picador copy, there is a review that says ‘In terse, harsh, meat-and-potato words Carver writes about a world that is lethal in its ordinariness. We wouldn’t want to live there, but we do.’ Not to disparage this very well-expressed opinion, which I’m sure applies beautifully to its author, but I don’t live in that world. My life isn’t depressing or grim or out of my control, and that made Carver a different experience for me. Rather than being relatable or reflective of a world I knew, it was a chance for me to step out of my world and practice some empathy.

Empathy is going to be the key of where I go with this review, because I think it is so important to Carver’s work and to my experience of reading it, and I’m going to use an example of my favourite Carver story to show it. But first, I’ll provide an anecdote of the origin of this idea; that Carver was writing about empathy.

It took me many weeks after finishing the stories to decide on what this article would actually be about. I knew I’d loved them, but I found it exceedingly difficult to figure out why. Funnily enough, it was when I was reading The Brothers Karamazov, whose review will be next, that something deep in the back of my brain popped into existence and helped me understand why I loved it so much. When considering the book’s themes, I was deciding that there were two key ideas I was taking from it. The first is guilt, but more specifically, that malevolence creates trauma. The things that really hurt a person are not what has been done to them, but the terrible things they have done to others. This is present in Carver too, but it won’t be the specific focus of this article.

Raymond Carver, Ridge House, Port Angeles, Washington. 1987.

The second was the kicker, that empathy stands alone from kindness. While reading, I realised how Dostoevsky was showing how all characters, and therefore people, can be empathetic, but that empathy remains totally separate from whether or not their actions are virtuous.

Then, my mind suddenly leaped to Carver, and I finally understood why I love my favourite story of his so much. That story is Cathedral, the title story of Carver’s third collection. To cut a short story even shorter, a blind man visits the house of a woman he has been speaking to over the phone as a kind of ‘pen pal’ for some time, and the woman’s husband, initially unresponsive and cautious about the blind man, is forced to spend time with him, facing many curiosities and dilemmas about how to behave around someone who is blind.

After the characters get to smoking some marijuana, and making coffee, covering the crucial Carverism of mind-altering substances, the man turns on the television. After his wife reprimands him in light of the blindness of their acquaintance, the blind man actually says he himself owns two televisions, and enjoys watching them, so they continue.

All that’s on is a documentary about cathedrals, and it occurs to the husband that his blind acquaintance has never seen a cathedral before. He asks, ‘Something has occurred to me, do you have any idea what a cathedral is?’ – his wife is scandalized by the question, but the blind man concedes that although he knows lots of boring facts about cathedrals, such as those he’s just learned from the television, he couldn’t possibly imagine what they look like. Then he says, ‘maybe you could describe one to me? I wish you’d do it. I’d like that. If you want to know, I really don’t have a good idea’. After some time attempting to describe it, the other man suggests they draw one together.

By now, his wife has fallen asleep incidentally from the weed, the man puts his hand over the blind man’s, and together they draw a cathedral, with the blind man slowly beginning to understand what one looks like. The husband closes his eyes, and they experience the cathedral together, in mutual blindness. His wife comes back down from bed, and discovers them, asking something innocuous, but the man ignores her, totally absorbed in the task. He says to the blind man, who asks what he thinks of the cathedral, ‘It really is something’. Then, the story ends.

There is so much I loved about this story, and so I find it a great example for what I love about Carver. In style, the story is utterly characteristic of the rest of the collection, and the rest of his stories. All the themes of Carver overall, of economic mediocrity, marriages between characters that are by now so familiar that it feels invasive to read the dialogue between their members, the ingestion of mind-altering substances to take the edge off it all, the exploration of an interesting idea, and beautifully candid conversation between ordinary people, are present, allowing it to do something special and excellent without straying from Carver’s strengths – exploring empathy.

In so much other fiction, and in life in general, empathy is presented as a virtue, as inherently linked with kindness, sympathy, charity, and compassion. But, to Carver, empathy can create benevolence or malevolence, for any number of reasons. He tends to present empathy as its own beast, and above all, as a method of self-exploration.

Cathedral is a beautiful example of this. In the story, it is not the blind man who is benefiting most from the empathy of his friend’s husband, but it is the husband himself, who has taken but a moment to understand a stranger, who is having the most meaningful experience.

That is not to say that the blind man is not having one too. He is, but in this story it is the instigator of empathy that is central, because in considering the perspective of the blind man, often in a way so blunt it may seem rude, as his wife thought, he has allowed himself to step out of the bubble of his own life and learn something. I also loved that there was a touch of metafiction to this: while reading, this is exactly what I was doing with all of Carver’s characters.


Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’

Learning is intertwined with empathy in the story, just the way it is in life. In my own life, I have come to the opinion that empathy is a skill like any other. While, like other skills, some people are born with natural talent, and others struggle, it seems almost anyone can improve at empathy with practice.

People’s bahaviours are not set in stone, and they can become more open, and more empathetic, if they put the effort in to learn. Carver seems to agree, but he twists this in a way that beautifully reflects American individualism, arguing with Cathedral that empathy is actually good for you. Empathy helps you explore yourself, and your knowledge of the world around you. In a way, the blind man is incidental, he simply facilitated the experience of the narrating husband character, who is the one who has gained something meaningful. Cathedral explores the idea that by empathizing with others, you can understand your own realities more deeply, and that experiences with other people are an indispensable part of that.

That empathy can be a method of self-exploration and a source of meaning seems self-evident when said aloud, but Carver did that wonderful thing fiction can occasionally do and planted it in my mind through a story. Without Cathedral, these ideas may have never come together quite that way. While the scale of all of Carver’s work might be too big to fit in a short review like this, I hope this one example of the final short story in a collection I cherished for months can help explain why anyone should read him.

Usually, I would endeavour to end a review with a favourite quote, a nugget of wisdom from a writer who I loved, but I don’t think I will this time, because that’s not Carver. He isn’t a ‘nugget of wisdom’ kind of guy in my opinion. He’s a storyteller. He writes so simply so that none of his expression distracts the reader from the story, so that they can focus on the characters, the moment.

The Carver I saw in Cathedral wants the reader to feel the story, be in the room with the characters, forget the author, forget everything, just read, and think later. Who knows, maybe in a few months, you’ll be reading something else, and all of a sudden, he will leap to your mind.

You could be so gripped by a revelation about his writing that you will slam your book down, start scribbling in pencil, run to get your copy of Carver, open your computer, and tear through a review of why you loved with such intensity that when you look up from your computer and sip your coffee, it’s gone freezing cold, untouched since you started. Any book that can do that to me, that can get me to think, and feel, and write, is a gift. For this one, I can only say, thankyou Raymond. I really appreciated it.

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