"What's to Say": Silence in Raymond Carver's "Feathers"

Article excerpt

Raymond Carver is well known for his sparse, pared-down style, a style that invites readers to contribute their own interpretations through connections that are not overtly communicated textually. Frequently, critics note that Carver's narrators leave questions pertaining to plots and characters unanswered, often leading to interpretations that consider concerns the text raises rather than issues the text resolves.(1) Some critics also point out that just as narrators leave surface details unspoken, characters frequently remain silent.(2) Often it is not direct discourse, words spoken between characters, but characters' inability to communicate that becomes important in developing characters' attitudes, motives, weaknesses, or hopelessness. Indeed, characters' silences, indicative of their inability to communicate with other characters, reflects a recurring theme in Carver's fiction. Often his stories are about discourse itself, ways people communicate or fail to communicate, demonstrating consequences of various modes of discourse.

Cathedral provides a good example of Carver's portrayal of modes of discourse as motif. Critics point out the therapeutic value of communicating with others that characters experience in stories such as "A Small, Good Thing," "Cathedral," "Where I'm Calling From," and "Fever."(3) In "A Small, Good Thing," Ann and Howard break bread with the baker and feel compelled to sit and talk with him, finding communion through both the discourse and the symbolic Eucharist. The narrator of "Cathedral" communicates verbally and non-verbally with Robert, resulting in a renewed sense of empathy and a remarkable, almost religious experience. Repeatedly, the narrator of "Where I'm Calling From" urges J. P. to continue his story. Listening to J. P. inspires the narrator to speak himself, for at the end of the story he gains a renewed identity and decides to call his wife or girlfriend. Similarly, in "Fever," after Carlyle listens and talks with Mrs. Webster, he feels purged of earlier insecurities and is able to accept that his marriage has ended.

While communicating with others helps heal feelings of desolation that Carver's characters experience, failing to communicate with others parallels or even penetrates his characters' feelings of despair. Frequently in Carver's fictional world, speech is therapeutic but silence is detrimental to characters. In terms of plot structure, silence or speech may be used to establish closure. Readers can examine discourse or lack of discourse as a means to determine the resolution of many of Carver's stories. The level of characters' willingness to communicate often determines the extent to which they will succeed in overcoming their personal misfortunes.

At least once--and, frequently, several times--in every story in Cathedral, narrators inform readers that characters cannot articulate speech. While silence is an important motif found in many of the stories in Cathedral, in "Feathers," understanding characters' silences is crucial for interpretation, especially for understanding the seemingly perplexed ending of the story. In "Feathers," the first story in the collection, direct references to characters' silences appear more frequently than in any other story in the collection. In addition to various implied silences such as references to characters' nods, nudges, shrugs, stares, grins, or blushes instead of oral responses that might seem more appropriate, explicit references to characters' inability to speak abound throughout the story. The narrator describes someone's silence seventeen times: "I hung up [the phone]" (4); "Fran didn't answer" (6); Fran "didn't say anything" (7); "[W]e didn't say the word out loud" (7); "There was nothing else to say" (8); Olla "Didn't seem to have any more to say" (14); "I didn't know what to say to this. Neither did Fran" (14); Fran "didn't say anything"(15); "We didn't say much ..." (17); "Nobody said anything. …