“Popular Mechanics,” by Raymond Carver, was written in order to make the audience imagine their own details. The descriptions in this story are very blunt, the man and woman in the story are nameless with no clue of physical description, and there is no mention of what city, state, or country the story takes place. This allows the reader to picture the surroundings and details of the story in their own way; maybe the reader has heard of or been in similar situations and they can put their own faces and locations into the story. The setting is given very specifically and is also the most detailed of any element in the story. The setting is a very important part of Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics” and is used to symbolize, foreshadow and relate with the events and characters.
The setting described in the first paragraph prepares the reader for a dark, uncomfortable story. “Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water.” All of the elements in the setting outside the house are used symbolically towards something inside the house. This shows that something good or pure (“snow” or relationship), is turning into something ugly (“dirty water” or separation), and it is happening fast (“early that day”).
The first paragraph gives very little detail of the house, but enough to get a mental picture. In the second sentence, “it” refers to the dirty water, which is a symbol for the breakdown of the relationship of the man and woman. The house is small, shown by the description of a “little shoulder-high window.” The story later gives another description that the house is small, when Carver showed the woman standing in “the little kitchen.” A little kitchen is most likely to be found inside a little house.
Even though the reader is never specifically told that the house is little, the audience gets small details that spark something in the reader to imagine a small house. The little house can tie in with the characters’ fight. The house may be too small for the woman to be comfortable raising a child there, or it may be too small for the man’s pride: both of these situations can lead to stressful situations or arguments in a relationship. A bigger house means more success, more pride, and more happiness. All of these elements can possibly lead to a happier relationship.
The fact that the window faces the backyard gives the events that go on inside the house a sense of privacy. The neighbors can see what is going on in the front yard; the backyard is used for privacy, when you do not really want everyone to know what you are doing. This description symbolizes the bad relationship that develops and “runs” through the small house when the doors are closed.
When Carver introduces the dark, bleak setting, he states that not only was it getting dark outside, but that “it was getting dark on the inside too.” The characters relate to the setting here because they are getting dark on the inside as well; the relationship of the couple is deteriorating. The fact that it is “getting dark” shows that things such as friendship, happiness, and love in the relationship are coming to an end and things such as anger, sadness, and hatred are beginning to manifest themselves in the relationship.
The setting is also used symbolically in the short story when the feuding couple “knocked down a flowerpot.” The flowerpot is used to symbolize the breaking up of the man and woman, and the breaking of the baby. Although the reader is not told if the baby was physically broken, the emotional and mental damage that a child goes through when their parents separate could be very tragic for the child in the story.
The picture that Carver painted in “Popular Mechanics” was vague, yet brilliant. He gave very specific details that affected the tone of the short story, but left most of the setting up to the imagination of the reader. In doing so, “Popular Mechanics” becomes very personal to the audience, but retains the dark and dreary atmosphere of conflict and pain that is set up by Carver.