Disjunction vs. Communion in Raymond Carver's Short Stories
Raymond Carver, poet, essayist, and short story writer, was very
different from some other writers in that he clipped his writing until only the
essential remained. " Carver not only acknowledged the effect that fiction
could have on readers, he proclaimed that it should affect readers."( Bonetti
58) Thus, when Carver writes about intimate relationships, the reader perceives
the stories as more than entertainment or skillful language; the reader relates
to the characters' situations and applies the knowledge to their own lives. It
is within this realm of character affirmation that Carver draws a much more
elaborate, and meaningful detail in his short stories. I propose that Carver's
characters either connect or fail to connect on an intimate, spiritual level.
It is this difference in his short stories which either draw the reader into or
away from the meaning. These relations make certain writings in Carver's stories
More directly, it is the communion in his later writings, and the
disjunction in his earlier writings, that distinguish the two types of styles.
Communion within the characters of Carver's later writings, as in his
collections in Cathedral, create much more depth and interest in his stories.
It is within this scope of communion that Carver's stories seem to become more
fulfilling with character affirmation.
Communion occurs in Carver's stories when several conditions are
satisfied. The difference in the two criteria; communion and disjunction, is
simply defined. "Communion, n 1. A sharing of thoughts or feelings 2. a A
religious or spiritual fellowship." (Websters, 141) It is a connection
between characters which allows them to transcend the ordinary and redefine
themselves. A moment in which words, actions, and objects take on exaggerated
significance . Carver uses this bond between characters in his later writings
more directly, such as in his anthology Cathedral. You must first initialize
an intimate interaction between two or more characters who can communicate---
either verbally or physically. If an individual is still projecting his/her
personality onto another, that individual has not experienced the loss of self-
awareness which is necessary for communion. Another important element for this
experience is touch. The characters who gain understanding of each other, touch
on ano ther. It is within these guidelines that I find Carvers stories to be
Disjointed on the other hand is near similarity in communion, in that it
contains the seed of communion which failed to grow. The protagonist achieves
some measure of success only to falter. Disjunction occurs when an opportunity
exists for the characters to change their lives in a small, spiritual way, and
they are unable to seize it. Even with the spiritual isolation that many of
Carvers characters hold, disjunction blocks me from the stories in that it
leaves me unfulfilled, distracts me from the main point. The transgression of
characters within stories, gives reader a greater insight into a spiritual
change of some sort, the lack thereof leaves something missing in the story. A
more influential meaning is gained when a connection of some sort is maid
between characters. As Carver said in a interview later in his life," In
fiction that matters the signifigance of the action inside the story translates
to the lives of the people out side the story" ( Davis 658)
Carver's life, or biography, bares a little insight into his phases, or
different stages in which he wrote his different types of stories and poems.
Carver lived most of his life in a world which could not provide the luxury of
spiritual affirmation. He grew up in Clatskanie, Oregon to working class-
parents in a alcoholic home where reading material was limited to Zane Gray
novels, and the newspaper. Following high school, Carver married his pregnant
high school sweet hart. His drinking became heavier. A list of meaningless
jobs followed , in which writing only provided a emotional outlet. During this
time, Carver's hard life may have instigated the disjunction he portrayed in
his earlier writings. Poverty and family problems continually interrupted his
work. Carver was constantly broke, filled for bankruptcy twice, and was fired
from his white collar job as a result of alcoholism. In 1977 he received a
National Book award nomination and had several stories published in various
magazines and book presses.
After 1977, when he met his second wife, Carver stopped drinking. This
is when his stories of disjunction become more developed. He published several
collections including What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In May of
1983, Knopf published Cathedral, Carvers third major book of short stories.
This is where communion is illustrated in its more explicate form.
Unfortunately, due to poor health Carver could not further communion in his
writings, he became to sick to write. In the fall of 1987 doctors diagnosed
cancer and removed two-thirds of his left lung, later the cancer moved to his
brain where he underwent chemotherapy treatments. In early June, the cancer
reappeared. On August 2, 1988 Raymond Carver died in his new house in Port
Angeles, Washington. In an interview with critic William Stull, he explains
about a connection between fiction and reality.
I'm interested in the personal intimate relationships in life so why not
deal with these relationships in literature?...little experiences are important
underpinnings in our daily lives...They are, after all, something that we all
share—as readers, writers, and human beings...I don't think there should be any
barriers, artificial or otherwise, between life and it's written about. (Stull,
" Matters" 180)
The major task of my argument is to explain the reasons I feel Communion
is more significant. Similarly mentioned above, communion occurred later in
Carvers life therefore most of my argument shall be identifying with such
stories as " The Bridle " and " Cathedral" which seem to illustrate communion
in its most explicit form. Carvers earlier writings cope with disjunction in
various collections, such as in " Gazebo" and "Sacks", yet not all seem to
exemplify disjunction totally. Disjunction personifies a empty shell in the
characters, both spiritually and intimately.
Communion; oppositely, entices the reading, it shares a " communion "
between reader and character.
Disjunction occurs only when an opportunity exists for a change in a
character's life in a small, spiritual way, and they are unable to seize it.
Many of the characters in earlier writings cannot seize spiritual affirmation
because they cannot escape their isolation. This isolation creates a barrier
against the readers interaction within the story. Thus, at the moment of
disjunction they remain spiritually unchanged, provoking a loss in interaction
between reader and story. The underlying reason for a character's failure is
usually an inability to articulate the desire to change. The end result of this
lack of intimacy is that the characters exist like shells, without any care into
their own lives or relationships with others. This emptiness leaves the reader
coming up empty handed when seeking the motivation to pursue the story.
The story " Gazebo", from the collection What We Talk About When We Talk
About Love, contains a excellent example of disjunction. The story opens in a
motel suite, where the two main characters Duane and Holly, are drinking alcohol
and hashing out their marital problems. They end up generally stop caring for
one another and realize their " days are numbered, " both as hotel managers and
as a married couple. In the last few paragraphs, the couple decide the fate of
their marriage. Disjunction occurs when Duane attempts to convince Holly that
they have fond memories of the hotel. Holly does not respond because she has
surrendered hope of changing their circumstances. " I pray for a sign from
Holly. I pray for Holly to show me."(29) Paralyzed, Duane desperately wants to
communicate with his wife. Although he prays, it is not a spiritual connection
between God. Holly's desire to leave for Nevada comes full circle as the lack
of communication between the two is dissolved.
The characters illustrate disjunction by creating a barrier to
communicate their needs and feelings in a way which would results in a greater
mutual understanding and true sympathy. The disjunction leaves the reader very
distant from the story in that he/she cannot identify the exact problem in the
verbal gap. This lack of connection between characters transcends a sense of
frustration to interact within the story. A direct connection within characters
personifies the attention and interest one may feel within a story.
Disjunction leaves the story unfulfilled, so that when finished the reader feels
cheated not knowing the exact fate. Carver's mastering writings skills treat
this evidence of disjunction skillfully, yet the emptiness in the interaction
between characters leaves something missing from his earlier stories using this
method of theme.
Another example of disjunction lies between the characters in " Sacks",
from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The disjunction in this story
really creates a sense of frustration for the reader. The story deals with the
relationship between a father and son following the fathers divorce. Les
arranges to meet his father at a airport on his way to San Francisco, the two
haven't " talked " in some time. Consumed by shame and guilt, the father tells
his son about a affair he had years before.
I'll tell you, Les. I'll tell you what's the most important thing
involved here. You see, there are things. More important things than your mother
leaving me. Now, you listen to this...So there I am, almost naked with my clothes
in my hand, and Larry is opening the front door" ( What We Talk About When We
Talk About Love 44)
Les's father commands his son to listen, but Les cannot and will not.
Les ignores his father's pleas for understanding and companionship. This lack
of respect gives the story little felt sympathy for either character, especially
for Les in his situation. This barrier between the two transcends to the
reader's frustration he/she may place on either character, hence sheltering them
from the stories context. The communication gap personifies the notion of a
distance in the relationship. This distance between the two pushes the reader
from the story, destroying the felt compassion the father character may be
searching for. Les has rejected his fathers pleas both literally and
figuratively. Thus, the opportunity for communication and communion is lost.
The story ends, in my opinion, not with a bang but with a whimper, a hasty
retreat, a failure to connect. The disjunction can be interpreted to play a
major role in Carver's meaning within such a story. The contribution he gives
to the story is to personify a very flat character relationship. This method
to draw in the reader seems very ordinary and plain, it lacks the intermingling
that touched characters project within a story.
Later in Carvers writings he began to explore with communion, a
spiritual and emotional bond which results when individuals communicate and
reach a conscious understanding of one another. Carvers characters reach
communion as a spiritual reward for their suffering. Communion becomes more
evident in the collection of short stories Cathedral. The characters in the
communal stories achieve flow experiences as a result of one constant element:
communication, verbal and nonverbal. Touch is important because it presents
concrete evidence of a spiritual and emotional connection. It is within this
scope, and demand in writing that Carvers stories really draw the reader within
the world of the story. A much deeper emotional feeling is felt when a
connection amongst the characters is reached.
The story, " The Bridle" uses touch to instigate verbal communication.
The story unveils as a woman and her family rent a apartment from Marge, and her
husband, Harley. Betty, the tenant pays with crisp bills, which Marge
examines with great curiosity. The scene demonstrates Marge's hunger for change.
The relationship expands as Betty arrives to make a hair appointment. The two
entangle within a conversation as Marge takes Betty's hand for a manicure.
Marge's touch release Betty's tongue. Betty needs the connection as much as
Marge," I can see she wants to tell me about it. And that's fine with me" (
Cathedral 198) Verbalizing one's past and problem is crucial to communion.
Marge changes the subject to Betty's nail beds, Betty withdrawals her hand.
The connection seems to break without the physical bond. This observance of a
spiritual bond draws the reader into the story with great curiosity. It is
almost compelling to watch the bond between the two grow. When such a str ong
relationship is portrayed in a story, the reader, gains much more felt
compassion between the characters. This felt compassion sparks a much greater
interest between the reader's understanding of the story.
When Marge begins to tell her life story , " I'm starting to tell how it
was before we moved here, and how it's still like that"(201) , Harley comes out
of the bathroom for a drink of water. The growing intensity expands as the
intimacy between the two unfolds. This climax personifies a justifiable
intimate interaction within the story. Only with such communion ties can one
portray a story within this manner. An unfelt bond, or interaction between
characters would leave this scene lacking in spiritual growth, portraying a
empty meaning in the text.
I don't know much about them. But I know one part of it fits in the
mouth...If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on
in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you'd know it was time. You'd know you
were going somewhere ( Cathedral 209 )
Both Marge and Betty both feel the pull of the bit between their teeth.
Through communion, however, the woman gain a type of fellowship which helps them
temporarily endure their circumstances. It is within the parameters of this
fellowship that communion reveals itself to be of its strong importance in
Through communion, the characters in " Cathedral " also realize their
connections to others. The story, nominated in 1984 for the Pulitzer Prize, is
the best example of communion. Carver viewed this story unlike most he had
written in the past. He discusses this in an interview in1985 with David
DS: The story " Cathedral " really is the only where people make contact, isn't
it ? ...it's unusual in your stories isn't it?
RC: The fact that there's not much love and connection made between my
DS: Yes. You really make a jump at the end of " Cathedral," when suddenly they
move together instead of apart.
RC: Yes, and I like that a lot. When I wrote that story I knew the story was
different in kind and degree than any other story I'd ever written. And that
was the first story I wrote for the book Cathedral. I think the story signals
something for me that is not present in all my earlier stories.
( Sexton 131).
The portrayal of communion in Carvers story " Cathedral " seems to personify
this connection between characters better than others. The story presents
itself as the narrator, referred to only as " Bub," anticipates the arrival of
his wife's longtime friend, Robert, a blind man. Bud, is clearly intimidated
by Robert, whom he refers to only as " the blind man." The expressed barrier
in the relationship gives insight to a change that may occur between these
characters at a later time. The spark of something to come gives the reader a
much more felt compassion between the two. As a result of his fear, the
narrator calls Robert " the blind man " instead of using his proper name, which
tends to give a specific legitimate identity. As a result of Buds narrow mind,
he cannot understand how his wife and Robert could be anything more than sexual.
Carver foreshadows the possibility of enlightenment by characterizing Bud as not
entirely hopeless. " It is beyond my understanding " (360). This self-
evaluation, although minuscule, illustrates that Bud has the ability to change.
It is this change that shall occur that defines the deeper meaning in
this story personifying communion. Carver uses the simplistic qualities in his
characters to motivate this theme of communion. Later in this story we find
that Bud feels extremely left out the conversations between Robert and his wife.
The reader is sparked to feel the distance these characters begin to show. By
achieving this distance, and rejoining them in a later time, pulls the readers
interest within the stories path. This communion between characters transcends
the stories meaning to every day lives, thus making the fiction more applicable.
Bud mistakenly believes that this visual form of entertainment will exclude
Robert. However, Robert foils the narrator's attempt by saying that he has two
TV's and can even determine that Bud's is in color. This is where the communion
starts to unfold in the story. The characters begin to show a connection
between their relationship which contrast the earlier felt barrier.
Bud begins to realize how isolated his life has become. He says to
Robert that he is " glad for the company " and then recognizes that he is not
saying it just to be polite. " And I guess I was. Every night I smoked dope
and stayed up as long as I could...My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the
same time"(368) This sincere admission of loneliness is important because it
signifies the beginning of a genuine, sexual connection with another human being.
Bud is then motivated to make Robert feel more comfortable by narrating a
television program on cathedrals. After discussing cathedrals for some time,
Bud is compelled to clarify what a cathedral is, and he gropes for the words
words to convey it. " How could I even begin to describe it? But say to my
life depended on it. Say my life was being threatened by an insane guy who said
I had to do it or else" (371)
The two come together in communion when Robert and Bud, at Robert's
suggestion, begin to draw a cathedral on a paper bag. Touch instigates the
connection. Bud and Robert make a connection between the two which sparks Bud's
describing of a cathedral to Robert. This is interesting because the position is
normally reversed. A compassion is felt for the character of Bud. The reader
associates with Bud's character more genuinely.. The second reason communion
occurs is that the characters draw the cathedral together, " We're drawing a
cathedral. Me and him are working on it" ( 374 ) Carver chose them to create
new art together. We may not know enough about the characters situation to make
judgments about them, but through communion we can feel a honest interaction.
We know enough about ourselves and our own situations to perhaps bring a piece
of ourselves to the story. That's what communion allows.
At the end of his life Raymond Carver wrote an essay entitled
" Meditation on a line from Saint Teresa." The line reads: " Words lead to
deeds...They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness" (No
Heroics, Please 223).
In the essay, Carver wonders about the words " soul " and " tenderness " and
their marked absence in the world today. He speculates that one re-evaluates
one's life after reading about the tenderness of others, fictional characters as
well as factual ones. This tenderness is a direct result of what characters
experience from communion. They are compelled to interact amongst each other
in a spiritual way.
It is only logical, then, that Carver draws the conclusion that the
words themselves and the interaction between them to the story, has as powerful
an impact as the deeds performed. Thus, the words themselves are as important
as how one perceives the characters interaction. Communion directly uses
language and words to express its meaning of connection. Later in the essay
Carver qualifies the relationship between words and deeds by saying, " the right
and true words, can have the power of deeds" ( 225 ) But which words are right
and true? To answer that question, one must examine Carver's beliefs,
particularly those which signify a writers moral responsibility. According to
Carver's mentor, John Gardner, " right and true words" would be those which
inspire human beings toward life affirmation, creation, and the positive as
opposed to destruction and apathy(Gardner 18 ).
As a artist matures, the work he or she produces usually matures as well.
This maturing can take many forms, but among the most common are developed of
voice, refinement of style or even change of style, and shift in theme.
Carver's work displays all of these characteristics, but it is the development
of his voice, and the subsequent shift in style which engenders, that figures
most prominently in his shift from disjunction to communion.
Carver's short fiction can be chronologically divided into two types,
with each type corresponding to a surprisingly distinct period in his life. The
first period encompasses all of his work while he was an alcoholic, and it is
notable for the development of the basic themes which mark carver's short
fiction. He also began in this time to find his voice, the lean diction which
eventually led him towards communion. The second type was the period after
which he met his long time love, Tess Gallagher. This is the period in which
Carver's development of character connection between touch and voice became most
prominent. This stylistic switch in Carver's stories give the reader a greater
interaction within his simplistic, yet strong language
If right and true words have the power of deeds, then the short stories
in which Carver's characters achieve communion have such a power. As a result,
those stories can be said to have an immense influence over the reader. The
stories which achieve communion demonstrate how effectively this connection of
verbal and nonverbal affirmation plays within his writings.
Carver's spiritual progression demonstrates how the transcendence from
disjunction to communion played upon the reader. Raymond Carver used his short
fiction, particularly those works I have classified as communal, to communicate
the importance of life-affirming experiences to his readers and move them to
action in their own lives.
Bonetti, Kay. " Ray Carver: Keeping." Conversations with Raymond Carver.
Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull, eds. Jackson, Mississippi
:University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 53-61.
Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
---. No Heroics Please. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
---. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Davis, Alan. " The Holiness of Ordinary. " Hudson Review. Vol.45 Winter 1993:
Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1978.
Halpert, Sam. " Interviews" ...when we talk about Raymond Carver. Peregrine
Smith, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-publishing, 1991. 51-84
Sexton, David. " David Sexton talks to Raymond Carver." Conversations With
Raymond Carver. Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L.Stull, eds. Jackson,
Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 1990. 120-132.
Stull, William L. " Matters of Life and Death. " Conversations with Raymond
Carver. Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull eds. Jackson, Mississippi:
University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 177-191.