A Small, Good Thing
When pondering the daunting uncertainties of life, a man can only be sure that it will be filled with suffering. The tranquil and pleasant periods of life may give it the semblance of congeniality, but a person will always be forced to face the onerous trials of his journey. During these times of misfortune, he craves human affection and understanding. Devoutly evolved with their own lives, people find it difficult to combat their sense of self in order to empathize with others, especially when it comes to sharing in happiness. However, misery is so ubiquitous that that it fosters a sense of kinship with even the most adverse individuals. Raymond Carver captures the dichotomy between apathy and sympathy in her short story “A Small, Good Thing”. Through her juxtaposition of isolation and intimacy, Carver paints tragedy as a force for camaraderie and togetherness.
Although individuals set up defenses in order sustain themselves, they find themselves compassionate towards the afflictions of others. Through the evolution of her characters, Carver demonstrates hardship’s ability to bring people together. This concept is captured in the contrasting the demeanor of Dr. Francis and a patient’s family toward Ann, the protagonist, before and after they learn about her son’s the untimely death. Throughout the time he believed that Scotty’s the condition was stable, Dr. Francis was distant, albeit cordial, towards Ann. He reassures her and her husband without becoming emotionally invested in their situation, often brushing off Ann’s fear and calling her “little mother”. Carver even mentions on several occasions that Dr. Francis does not knowledge Ann and only offers handshakes to her husband. This subtle detail suggests that Dr. Francis can relate to her husband because they are both men but fails to connect with Ann because of their difference in gender. The dynamic of their relationship shifts after Scotty passes away. He becomes warm and offers his heartfelt condolences. His grief about their loss is so great he can only say “I’m sorry. God, how I’m sorry,”(8). This paradigm shift in his personality illustrates the struggle between feeling of confinement and connection, which persists throughout the piece. Ann’s encounter with the patient’s family also exemplifies this concept. Carver’s use of internal dialog and the use of the word “negro” suggest that the initial detachment stemmed from Ann’s and the patient’s family’s difference in race. At first the patient’s mother makes a fallacious assumption based on Ann’s ethnicity that Ann was a nurse. However, once she realizes her mistake she immediately “…let her head fall on her shoulder and looked away from Ann, no longer interested,” (5). However, they bond after sharing in their mutual suffering, thus the walls separating them began to crumble and they are able to relate to one another. Using these occurrences in the story Carver juxtaposes the emotions of isolation and understanding, thereby reflecting his belief that while individuals are alone in their experiences they can share in each other’s hardships and use their mutual misery to bring them together.
Carver utilizes the relationship between Ann and her husband throughout the process of coping with their child’s injury in order to further the idea of alienation vs. compassion. While Ann craved the company of others during such a fragile time, Howard, her husband, desires only the peace of his own company. Their opposite experiences when returning to their home supports this point. Although he worries constantly about the state of his child, Howard relishes in the time he spends free from having to speak to others and deal with his wife’s incessant inquires; moreover, he insists that she leave the hospital. Ann even notices that “…he wanted to be by himself for a while, not have to talk or share his worry for a time,” (4). In contrast, Ann yearns to gain some human connection and, as a result, feels compelled to communicate with another patient’s family because they were “people who were in the same kind of waiting she was,” (7). At one point she wants to connect with others so badly that “[s]he would have liked to tell them more about the accident, told them more about Scotty…” (7). Through internal as well as external dialog between and description of Ann and Howard, Carver pairs feelings of reclusiveness and loneliness.
Craver juxtaposes alienation and closeness in order to demonstrate tragedy’s ability to bring people closer and provide them with a medium in which they can relate to one another. The metamorphosis of the relationship between the baker and the protagonist particularly depicts the unifying power of catastrophe. Upon their initial meeting, Ann made the unsubstantiated assumption that the baker had children and questioned why he did not share in her enthusiasm for her son’s birthday. In the mist of her euphoria she failed to consider the circumstances of the baker and imposed impractical expectations upon him. Similarly, the baker concerns himself only with his work and views Ann as just another customer. As a result, he harasses her with phone calls about the abandonment of the cake she ordered. The baker’s lack of children hinders his connection with Ann. Consequentially, miscommunication plagues their relationship. However, when he finds out about the tragic death of her son he sympathizes with her. With the words “ …I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son and for my part in this,”(13), the baker mends the broken line of connection between him and Ann. Carver uses the development of the baker’s relationship with Ann to prove that happiness breeds complacency and self-absorption, but suffering fosters reflection and promotes the ability to put oneself in the place of another. Carver highlights the silver lining of hardship and portrays the positive side of suffering as a small, good thing.
Through her juxtaposition of solitude and sympathy Carver asserts that individuals are exponentially more willing to be empathetic towards others when they share in each other’s misfortune. Although people view themselves as entities that exist separated from others, they instantly identify with someone who has gone through the same hardships as they have. Through such vulnerability people create lasting bonds.