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Marriage is defined by dictionaries as ‘a formal union of a man and a woman, by which they become husband and wife’. However, books containing a list of words adjacent to their definitions do not fully define the concept of marriage. Some argue that marriage is about love and trust; others think of it as a permanent commitment between two people. In the stories with which Carver presents us in his book, Will You Please Be Quite, Please? marriage is about love, where love is not an experience of high excitement but a form of available reassurance, security and comfort. In Carver’s view, love involves alleviating fear and providing the feeling of security that one is not alone. In the late stages of a marriage, mature couples tend to pay attention to the fear of loneliness, the fear that all human beings, such as their partners, are mortal which makes them feel vulnerable.
In The Student’s Wife, Carver presents us with his first view of marriage through a couple, Mike and Nan. Mike and Nan live in an urban area with their children. Mike and Nan are in a late stage of marriage and have grown apart from each other. In the story, Carver emphasizes the lost affection of a person towards their partner. In this case, Mike has become unresponsive towards Nan. Mike and Nan have been married for a long period of time; In The Student’s Wife, Carver describes Mike’s fading affection towards his wife. Mike enjoys reading poetry, but Nan is indifferent to it. This is evident when she fell asleep while Mike was reading poetry aloud to her (‘she closed her eyes and drifted off’). From Carver’s description of the bedroom scene, we can conclude that the couple do not share common interests. The story continues with Mike constantly implying his feelings
towards Nan (‘He groaned extravagantly’); and, when he was asked for help, he ‘gets out of bed’ reluctantly. Mike finds Nan unalluring, (‘He thought she looked like a hospital patient in her white night gown’) and feels that his wife does not arouse him with desire. When Nan tries to engage him in a conversation, Mike accuses her of living in memories of the past (‘that was a long time ago, Nan’). With Mike’s accusation and gestures, Nan feels that she has lost her identity as a wife and as a woman (‘I’d like to be touched when I’m not expecting it’); she has become humiliated by having to initiate physical contact in her marriage.
As the story progresses, Mike falls asleep while Nan lays awake. Her growing desperation to lose consciousness (‘Please, God, let me go to sleep’) has failed her (‘she tried to sleep’); her frustration kept her awake all throughout the story. She seeks comfort from her husband (“Mike,” she whispered’) because she couldn’t bear the sound of silence (‘There was no answer’). Nan felt alone when her husband did not respond to her need. When the night was over and the morning became visible, Nan walked towards the window to welcome the sun. As the sun rises, it dawns on her that there is no longer love in her marriage (‘she learned a sunrise was as terrible as this’). She undergoes a traumatic shock. Her marriage has failed. In this relationship, love was once present, but as the couple have grown apart, it is no longer an issue.
In The Ducks, Carver presents us with his second view of marriage. In The Ducks, Carver’s ideas are interpreted to us by a couple whose names are not mentioned. The couple live in a remote area and are in the later stages of marriage. Carver sets the mood by using a meteorological soundtrack: rain falling, which is repeated frequently in the story to remind us of the situation. The rain is used to symbolize time passing. In this marriage, Carver suggests that a change of scenery can make a difference.
At the beginning of the story, Carver gives us a description of the meteorological conditions: ‘a wind came’ and ‘bringing gust and rain’. He sets a gloomy scene. The setting of the story is set in the house of the main characters, ‘he’ and ‘she’. The dialogue starts with a conversation between the couple about the ‘trip to Reno’. As the story develops, the husband expresses his feelings towards his wife (‘don’t you feel good?’); this shows that he is highly aware of his wife’s feelings. Unlike the husband in The Student’s Wife, this husband is very responsive and tactile towards his wife (‘he touched her hips, pinched her dress’). In this relationship, the couple have no problem with communication.
The wife seeks reassurance from her husband (‘kiss me bye’); she initiates physical contact without the fear of humiliation because she knows that her husband will respond to her needs. This marriage shows that time does not weaken love. The husband comes home early from work owing to the death of his work-mate (‘he shook his head’); he becomes aware of how quickly a life can end. On that night, the death of Jack Granger brought him and his wife closer together (‘held hands’); this action specifies that physical reassurance is present in their marriage. The couple decide to alleviate their fear by having a sex, (‘we’ll sleep in late’); they are making the most of the simple pleasures in life.
The husband’s growing awareness of the rain leads him to think of time passing. As the night carries on, the couple reflect on the past, (‘remember when you got me this?’); distant memories give them the pleasure of remembering how they used to live. The husband has been living in the same house for a long period of time and believes that a change of scenery (‘someplace else’) will change his spirits – a place where is it not raining. In the process of making love to his wife, his mind was not devoted to the physical activity. He could not bring himself to focus on her needs (‘How much he loved her or if he loved her’).
He is frustrated and his thoughts drift to his fears (‘he could hear it all over the house’). The sound of rain is introduced again, which disturbed him. After making love to his wife, he lies awake. His attempt to prevent the rain from falling and the time from passing keeps him alert most of the night. He begins to feel frightened (‘I hear something outside’); he realizes that he needs his wife’s reassurance. He needs her to tell him everything is going to be all right.
In How About This?, Carver presents us with another view of marriage. He writes about a couple, Harry and Emily, who have travelled from San Francisco to the isolated farm houses of western Washington in search of a new place to live. Harry had always lived in cities and felt that leaving the city would grant him more happiness (‘a simpler life was what he had in mind’); he feels that moving into a rural area will suit his needs (‘just the essentials’) and would like a change from urban living. As they approach the house, where Emily spent most of her childhood, Harry feels disappointed (‘nothing he really wanted’); rustic living did not level up to his expectations.
Sensing Harry’s disappointment, Emily reminds him of what she said before they reached the house (‘I told you not to expect too much’); she tries to ease his dissatisfaction but finds that she cannot relieve his frustration. After touring the house, Emily feels Harry’s discontentment and comforts him (‘Harry, we just have to love each other’). She signifies that, wherever they may end up, all they have to do is to love each other in order for them to be truly happy. This marriage shows us that location is not relevant when it comes to loving a person. When Harry found that rural living was not what he wanted, Emily was there to face the consequences with him.
To Carver, marriage is about a couple who are willing to be together till death parts them. He presents us with three unconventional stories suggesting different outcomes of a long-term marriage. The simplicity of Carver’s semi-autobiographical stories gives us an insight into the reality of modern couples. Based on contemporary marriages, his stories are ironic compared to the stories we once read. In conclusion, marriage can be a comfort in knowing that when a person is going through pain and suffering or joy and happiness, that person is not alone.