"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, February 8, 2013

Short Story Review: "Feathers" by Raymond Carver

This is a fascinating short story.  The structure is as simple as can be.  A tiny exposition, the drama of the story, which in this case is a dinner between two couples, and then an epilogue which puts the drama into perspective and provides a glimpse into the future lives of the characters.

Jack and Bud are work friends.  Bud and his wife Olla have recently had a baby and invite Jack and his wife Fran over to dinner.  Bud lives far into the country.  When Jack and Fran get there they find that Bud and Olla have a full grown male peacock for a pet, and it’s rather intrusive into the family events.  Bud kicks the bird outside while they have dinner.  Olla has cooked a wonderful home dinner.  After dinner the baby, Harold, is restless.  Olla brings him out to meet the company.  He turns out to be one of the ugliest babies ever, and while everyone’s attention is with the baby, the peacock, Joey, makes a horrendous noise outside, an expression of wanting to come in.  Olla convinces Bud to let him in. and when inside Joey affectionately plays with the baby as if they are siblings.  The dinner ends, and Jack and Fran are so touched by the dinner events that when at home that night they conceive their only child.  In the short glimpse into the future (the story is being told in first person by Jack with the perspective of many years after the dinner) we learn that Harold has grown to be a youth to be proud of while Jack’s kid has not.  At the end there is an inference that Jack and Fran’s marriage is not happy and there is bitterness toward Bud and Olla.

So what is going on here?  On the surface that’s just a really good story, something one would tell a neighbor while drinking beers in the backyard on a summer day while barbequing dinner.  To be a great story, however, there has to be a unifying theme to the whacky events.  There is most definitely a unifying theme, and that theme emerges based on the contrast between the two families.

Even besides these two families, there are other families that appear through reference into the story.  There’s Bud’s parent’s family.  We learn that his father had abandoned the family when Bud was a kid.  Still another family is Olla’s first marriage, where despite her efforts her husband “didn’t care about anything except where his next drink was coming from.”  The phrasing “didn’t care” is very important to the theme.  Caring about the spouse is what’s at issue in the story.  The families in the story are divided into dysfunctional families where one spouse doesn’t care about their mate and those that do.  A third off stage family is that of Olla’s parents.  We don’t learn much about them but we see that her father was studious, worked for his family, but was tragically killed.  Olla has the sense of what it means to be in a functional family and a dysfunctional family but also with a sense of the challenges that families face.  It is through Olla’s engrossing, mothering power that makes her family functional, and strangely the peacock is a symbol for that power, a power which I think is spiritual.

Let’s look at one of the key scenes.  Jack and Fran have arrived and are sitting in the living room watching a car race on TV while Olla is finishing cooking dinner.



Fran nudged me and nodded in the direction of the TV. “Look up on top,” she whispered. “Do you see what I see?” I looked at where she was looking. There was a slender red vase into which somebody had stuck a few garden daisies. Next to the vase, on the doily, sat an old plaster-of-Paris cast of the most crooked, jaggedy teeth in the world. There were no lips to the awful-looking thing, and no jaw either, just these old plaster teeth packed into something that resembled thick yellow gums.

Just then Olla came back with a can of mixed nuts and a bottle of root beer. She had her apron off now. She put the can of nuts onto the coffee table next to the swan. She said, Help yourselves. Bud’s getting the drinks.” Olla’s face came on red again as she said this. She sat down in an old cane rocking chair and set it in motion. She drank from her root beer and looked at the TV. Bud came back carrying a little wooden tray with Fran’s whiskey and water and my bottle of ale. He had a bottle of ale on the tray for himself.  

“You want a glass?” he asked.

I shook my head. He tapped me on the knee and turned to Fran.

She took her glass from Bud and said, “Thanks.” Her eyes were to the teeth again. Bud saw where she was looking. The cars screamed around the track. I took the ale and gave my attention to the screen. The teeth were none of my business. “Them’s what Olla’s teeth looked like before she had her braces put on,” Bud said to Fran. “I’ve got used to them. But I guess they look funny up there. For the life of me, I don’t know why she keeps them around.” He looked over to Olla. Then he looked at me and winked. He sat down in his La-Z-Boy and crossed one leg over the other. He drank from his ale and gazed at Olla.

Olla turned red once more. She was holding her bottle of root beer. She took a drink of it. Then she said, “They’re to remind me how much I owe Bud.”

“What was that?” Fran said. She was picking through her can of nuts, helping herself to the cashews. Fran stopped what she was doing and looked at Olla. “Sorry, but I missed that.” Fran stared at the woman and waited for whatever thing it was she’d say next.

Olla’s face turned red again. “I’ve got lots of things to be grateful for,” she said. “That’s one of the things I’m thankful for. I keep them around to remind me how much I owe Bud.” She drank from her root beer. Then she lowered the bottle and said, “You’ve got pretty teeth, Fran. I noticed right away. But these teeth of mine, they came in crooked when I was a kid.” With her fingernail, she tapped a couple of her front teeth. She said, “My folks couldn’t afford to fix teeth. These teeth of mine came in just any which way. My first husband didn’t care what I looked like. No, he didn’t! He didn’t care about anything except where his next drink was coming from. He had one friend only in this world, and that was his bottle.” She shook her head. “Then Bud came along and got me out of that mess. After we were together, the first thing Bud said was, ‘We’re going to have those teeth fixed.’ That mold was made right after Bud and I met, on the occasion of my second visit to the orthodontist. Right before the braces went on.”

Olla’s face stayed red. She looked at the picture on the screen. She drank from her root beer and didn’t seem to have any more to say.

[Excerpts taken from Cathedral: Stories by Raymond Carver, Vintage Books, New York, 1981, Vintage Contemporaries Edition, June 1989.]
 
What we see is reciprocal caring between Bud and Olla.  Bud cared enough to treat Olla to correct a painful defect; Olla cared enough to be excessively thankful.  What Olla and Bud do for each other is accommodate for the other person, accept difficulties and annoyances on their spouse’s behalf.  Elsewhere we see other acts of accommodation.  Bud didn’t want the peacock but it was a wish Olla had from her youth.  Olla’s mother is a widow and short on money; Bud “sends her something every month” Olla tells.  And we see Olla taking care of the household, accommodating Bud with good meals and domesticity.  She’s referred to as “the only mother around,” the one wearing an apron, the one who sets the table, takes care of the baby, attentive to everyone’s needs, and the one who provides sustenance.

In contrast, Jack and Fran seem to always take the least accommodating path.  Should they take wine or desert over to not come empty handed?  They don’t care, so ultimately they take a loaf of bread.  Jack loves Fran’s long hair, but Fran hates the fuss it gives her, especially at her job at the creamery where she has to pin it up, and so she threatens to cut it short.  They live in the city and couldn’t imagine working a garden.  They’ve lived in the city for three years and never have gone out for a drive in the country.  On that drive, Jack enjoys the beauty of the scenery and says, “I wish we had us a place out here.”  But there is no response.  “It was just an idle thought,” Jack thought, “another wish that wouldn’t amount to anything.  Fran didn’t answer.  She was busy looking at Bud’s map.”  How many wishes are implied there that have gone unanswered?  Olla wished for a peacock and despite limited means Bud provided it for her. 

Then there is a subtle distinction of religiosity that comes through the story.  It is not an accident that Jack and Fran repeatedly swear by taking God’s name in vain.  In contrast we see Bud say grace before dinner.
We sat with our hands on our laps and waited. I thought about those plaster teeth. Olla came back with napkins, big glasses of milk for Bud and me, and a glass of ice water for Fran. Fran said, Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Olla said. Then she seated herself. Bud cleared his throat. He bowed his head and said a few words of grace. He talked in a voice so low I could hardly make out the words. But I got the drift of things—he was thanking the Higher Power for the food we were about to put away.

“Amen,” Olla said when he finished.

 

We never see Olla take God’s name in vain in the story.   But Bud is not immune from taking God’s name in vain.  He says it when he’s struggling to push the peacock out of the house.  He says it later in the evening when Olla wants to let the bird in the house, calling the bird “dirty.” 
“He’s not dirty, Bud,” Olla said. “What’s gotten into you? You like Joey. Since when did you start calling him dirty?’


What is suggested I think is that Olla has transformed Bud.  It’s Olla’s influence that makes Bud say grace, albeit now self-consciously with guests at the table.  It’s Olla that has Bud drinking milk and no longer swearing.  At work Bud and Jack are friends, birds of a feather flocking together.  Given his family history Bud could easily slip into a dysfunctional family life.  Except that Olla holds the family together.  And she has held it together partly with presence of the peacock.  Here’s the scene with the peacock in the house playing with the baby.

By this time, the peacock had gathered its courage and was beginning to move slowly, with little swaying and jerking motions, into the kitchen. Its head was erect but at an angle, its red eyes fixed on us. Its crest, a little sprig of feathers, stood a few inches over its head. Plumes rose from its tail. The bird stopped a few feet away from the table and looked us over.

 “They don’t call them birds of paradise for nothing,” Bud said.

Fran didn’t look up. She was giving all her attention to the baby. She’d begun to patty-cake with it, which pleased the baby somewhat. I mean, at least the thing had stopped fussing. She brought it up to her neck and whispered something into its ear.  

“Now,” she said, “don’t tell anyone what I said.

The baby stared at her with its pop eyes. Then it reached and got itself a baby handful of Fran’s blond hair. The peacock stepped closer to the table. None of us said anything. We just sat still. Baby Harold saw the bird. It let go of Fran’s hair and stood up on her lap. It pointed its fat fingers at the bird. It jumped up and down and made noises.  

The peacock walked quickly around the table and went for the baby. It ran its long neck across the baby’s legs. It pushed its beak under the baby’s pajama top and its head back and forth. The baby laughed and kicked its feet. Scooting onto its back the baby worked its way over Fran’s knees and down to the floor. The peacock kept pushing against the baby, as if it were a game they were playing. Fran held the baby against her legs while the baby strained forward.

“I just don’t believe this,” she said.

“The peacock is crazy, that’s what,” Bud said. “Damn bird doesn’t know it’s a bird, that’s its major trouble.”

Olla grinned and showed her teeth again. She looked over at Bud. Bud pushed his chair away from the table and nodded.

We see the motifs coming together in that scene: Olla’s teeth, her influence on Bud’s life, and the peacock as a transcendent symbol of family love.  It should be pointed out that Bud’s reference to the peacock as a “bird of paradise” is the second time in the story.  It’s not a coincidence.  Raymond Carver is not a religious writer, nor was he known to be religious in his personal life.  However there is a spiritual streak that runs through several of his stories.  The peacock as bird of paradise is representative for the Holy Spirit that holds the family together.

When Jack and Fran get home from the dinner, as a result of the benediction from the evening’s events, they make love and conceive their only child.  But ultimately, they reject that benediction, especially Fran who stands in contrast to Olla.
Later, after things had changed for us, and the kid had come along, all of that, Fran would look back on that evening at Bud’s place as the beginning of the change. But she’s wrong. The change came later—and when it came, it was like something that happened to other people, not something that could have happened to us.

“Goddamn those people and their ugly baby,” Fran will say, for no apparent reason, while watching TV late at night. “And that smelly bird,” she’ll say. “Christ, who needs it!” Fran will say. She says this kind of stuff a lot, even though she hasn’t seen Bud and Olla since that one time.

Fran doesn’t work at the creamery any more, and she cut her hair a long time ago. She’s gotten fat on me, too. We don’t talk about it. What’s to say?

Fran is wrong about when their family went dysfunctional.  It wasn’t after the benediction from that bird as she claims, but after she rejected the benediction, in effect rejecting God’s love.  A child requires quite an accommodation, and it’s not a stretch to assume that Fran and Jack are not up to accepting the little annoyances of family life.  She even has cut her hair, the hair that Jack loved so much. 

This is a fine story. 
 

8 comments:

  1. Great story and very adept analysis!

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  2. I read this story today. There really is so much more going on under the surface that the writer beautifully conveys without having to spell it all out.

    I felt right away that Fran was insecure, threatened and jealous about Jack's relationship with Bud. She wanted to keep everything in her comfort zone, baking things and watching TV. That somehow what Bud and Olla had was something Jack was interested in. Vera eventually did see a little of what he saw, albeit grudgingly.

    I agree that what you identified as accommodation, was the difference in Bud and Olla's and Jack and Vera's relationships. I think that Bud and Vera embody real love, the kind that does not only love in comfort, but meets the other their need as well. So that when the accommodations are made, there is no resentment, but it is done in joy. When Bud says critical things about the peacock, it is done in fun, which Olla understands. They have a deep understanding and acceptance of one another, flaws, hurts, and all.
    Jack and Vera unconsciously are attracted to this, but don't understand what it is that draws them. They remind me of people that want the prize without the work. They don't want to make the necessary sacrifices that lead to that better relationship.
    I know that the power to persevere in trials comes from God alone. In my own strength, I will never make it. So the presence of the peacock and how Jack and Vera were made uncomfortable by it, even saying God's name several times upon their first encounter, was quite poignant. Like some part of them recognized the presence of God, but were not ready to welcome him.

    Thank you for sharing this story!

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    1. I agree with everything you said, but who is Vera? In some places you wrote Vera for Olla and others for Fran. LOL, someone on your mind?

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  3. whoops--I meant "meets the other in their need" :)

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  4. Oh Brother! I am still not completely out of the sickness fog. Sorry! I have NO IDEA who Vera is! LOL I was so tired while writing this! Hopefully the general gist is apparent.

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  5. Thanks for the review. I read the story today and your review provided a number of perspectives I hadn't considered.

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    1. Well, I'm glad you got something out of it. You should have left your first name. If you don't have a Blogger account you can reply with anonymous as you did and sign your name inside the comment box. Thanks for your comment and feel free to stop back.

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