"Minimalism" in Raymond Carver’s "Collectors"

Seminar Paper, 2006

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Setting and Point of View

III. Characterization of the Protagonists
A. The I-Narrator
B. Aubrey Bell
C. The Development of their Relation

IV. Unfamiliar Actions and Events

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography
A. Primary Sources
B. Secondary Sources

I. Introduction

Raymond Carver’s "Collectors"[1] is part of the often underrated trend[2] in contemporary American short fiction which is called "Minimalism" or "New Realism". Its most significant characteristic, in contrast to "Postmodernism", is that it returns to the realistic depiction of everyday life (mimesis) in the American society. Raymond Carver can be labelled as one dominant representative of this movement and he writes in most cases about the trivialities of everyday life. Very frequently he constructs stories with a depressive and hopeless mood due to the failure of personal relationships between the protagonists. Then, alcoholism is their last refuge. Furthermore, Carver admired Hemingway and adopted some very interesting techniques from his literary idol. Indeed, the most prevailing one was Carver’s imitation of the "Iceberg-Theory"[3] in his stories. Hemingway states that in a story only about 1/8, like the top of an iceberg, should be told and 7/8, the part underneath the water, should be discovered by the reader. The latter represents for Hemingway as well as for Carver the most important part of a short story. Wolfgang Iser wrote in his books on the aesthetics of reception about the analogous technique of blanks/omission.[4] He states, that the main issues lie underneath the plain and fragmentary surface of narration. Accordingly, the story depends on speculations by the reader, which are intended by the author, and often a high level of previous knowledge is required to understand all circumstances and motivations of the characters. Due to the variety of speculations it can be doubted that a coherent interpretation of a text with a lot of blanks is possible. However, they certainly do create an enormous effect.

In the seemingly simple low-rent tragedy "Collectors", "Carver’s most minimalistic [story],"[5] a salesman for vacuum cleaners enters the house and life of the I-narrator. A multitude of blanks and, moreover, unfamiliar events and actions contribute to a large extend to the high potential of anxiety of the story. In the following, I will first reveal the most significant blanks concerning the setting, the point of view and the two protagonists. By doing so, I will also attempt to fill them. Secondly, I will analyze what is unfamiliar in the story and how events and actions of the two characters amplify the, on the whole, uncanny situation. Finally, I will sum up the main findings of my analysis and evaluate them.

II. Setting and Point of View

In the beginning of the story, the unemployed I –narrator wastes his time by lying on the sofa and waiting for the postman on a rainy day. However, not the anticipated postman with a hopeful letter approaches, instead, it is the ominous vacuum cleaner salesman Aubrey Bell who draws nearer. He is supposed to present some cleaning tools for Mrs. Slater, who is said to be the wife of the I-narrator. As Aubrey Bell states it, her card was drawn in a lottery and "[she] is a winner" (C 114). According to the I-narrator "Mrs. Slater doesn’t live [there]" (Ibid.). Nevertheless, Aubrey Bell forces his way into the house and takes off his hat, coat and galoshes.

In this initial part of the story, the exact place and time of action is not clear. First, it can only be assumed that the action takes place in the middle or south of the USA since the I-narrator wants to "hear from up north" (C 113). No exact reference to a town or state is mentioned, so the reader gets the impression that this individual tragedy could happen everywhere. Furthermore, that place very likely represents the "suburban America"[6] and, as in Craver’s stories very frequently, personal areas[7] are the place of action. In detail, it is the "[protagonist’s] home […] [t]he space in which their loneliness is their only refuge."[8] This refuge represents their loneliness in that the rooms are empty[9] and, as in "Collectors", without concrete personal belongings. As Clarke correctly states it, this barrenness depicts "a world in its essence."[10]

Secondly, the point and span of time are vague. Due to the past tense in the narration one gets to know that this event is recalled by the I-narrator. The fact that the he is waiting for the postman furthermore indicates that it must be around noon. Later on, as Aubrey Bell leaves the house, it is getting dark and so the span of time of the story could be up to five or six hours, which is very long for a presentation of vacuum cleaning tools. Accordingly, due to the virtually indefinite place and time of action the reader gets a glimpse that something must be strange about the story.

Moreover, the manner of narration in relation to the point of view is uncommon. A first-person narration by the protagonist generally tends to be unreliable and he/she evaluates the events with utterances such as "I think," "I believe," or "it might be." In "Collectors", the I-narrator also has a limited perspective; however, he gives plain and, very frequently, apparently true facts without evaluations. This narrative technique is according to Jäggle "sparse [and] straightforward"[11] with a simple vocabulary and little use of rhetorical means.[12] Accordingly, it is wrong to state that it is a "vague [and] aimless language"[13] as in other Carver stories.[14] Another critic describes the narration as significant with its "matter-of–factness [and] [its] detached observation of events."[15] As already stated, due to the I-narrator’s denial of an analysis of himself or his interlocutor his "unreliability is least noticeable."[16] Interestingly, this unique narrative technique, according to Jäggle, is a result of the American society (at that time) in which no constants exist and, hence, an omniscient and guiding narrator is nearly impossible.[17]

To sum up, concerning the setting there are several important pieces of information omitted. For instance, the reader does not exactly get to know neither when nor where this story takes place. As it was attempted, the readership is invited to assume possibilities; however, they need not to be true. Furthermore, the narration is exceptional since the I-narrator does not take on the role of a regular unreliable and evaluating figure. In contrast, he describes the events very detailed without any evaluations. These two points indicate the reader that something is mysterious about "Collectors”. This holds true to the protagonists of the story. In the following, the I-narrator, his milieu and the salesman Aubrey Bell will be analyzed and the detected blanks will be filled reasonably.

III. Characterization of the Protagonists

A. The I-Narrator

There are many "indeterminate spots" concerning the I-narrator constructed within the story. Strangely enough, he does not give his name in the conversation with Aubrey Bell. For instance, when Aubrey Bell provokes him with the utterances "Mr. Slater …" (C 114) or "Mr. …" (C 116) he wants to find out his name, however, the I-narrator refuses to state it. Even in the last part when a letter for "Mr. Slater" (C 120) falls through the door he does not acknowledge that he is Mr. Slater. As a result, the term "I-narrator" must be used in the course of this analysis for this character. This missing piece of information forecasts one main issue of the story - the I-narrator wants to hide his identity; respectively he does not have one.[18]

The protagonist’s situation is described in the initial part of the story as

I was out of work. But any day I expected to hear from up north. I lay on the sofa and listened to the rain. Now and then I’d lift up and look through the curtain for the mailman. There was no one on the street, nothing. (C 113)

In this excerpt one intensively senses that this person is either in a state of "lonely voyeurism"[19] or "frustrated expectancy and paranoia."[20] I would prefer a combination of the two arguments since the I-narrator, on the one hand, is lonely, pities himself and covertly tries to look at other persons. On the other hand, he is frustrated due to his job problem and has paranoiac tendencies, for instance, he tries to hide from the strange person approaching (C 113). Clarke typifies Carver’s characters as


[1] Raymond Carver, "Collectors,"Where I’m Calling From. New and Selected Stories (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) 113-120. All page references within the text refer to this edition. [Siglum C]

[2] Uta Jäggle, Raymond Carvers Kurzprosa: Untersuchungen zu Formen narrativer Reduktion (Aachen: Shaker, 1999) 17. Henceforth, all quotes from secondary sources in German are translated into English.

[3] Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (New York: 1964).

[4] Wolfgang Iser, Die Appellstruktur der Texte: Unbestimmtheit als Wirkungsbedingung literarischer Prosa (Konstanz: Universitätsverlag, 1970). Also: Wolfgang Iser, Der Akt des Lesens: Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung (München: Fink, 1976). Arthur F. Bethea calls them in his book Technique and Sensibility in the Fiction and Poetry of Raymond Carver (New York; London: Routledge, 2002) on page 36 "indeterminate spots," which denote the same as Iser’s "Leerstellen".

[5] G. P. Lainsbury, The Carver Chronotope: Inside the Life-World of Raymond Carver’s Fiction (New York: Routledge, 2004) 88.

[6] Graham Clarke, "Investigating the Glimpse: Raymond Carver and the Syntax of Silence," in: Ed. Graham Clarke, The New American Writing: Essays on American Literature since 1970 (London: 1990) 99-122, here: 114.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Clarke, 117.

[9] Cf. Ibid.

[10] Clarke, 120.

[11] Jäggle, 29.

[12] Cf. Jäggle, 30 ff.

[13] Marc Chénetier, "Living On/Off the ‘Reserve’: Performance, Interrogation, and the Negativity in the Works of Raymond Carver," in: Ed. Marc Chénetier, Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986) 164-190, here: 167.

[14] That characterization would rather hold true for the short story "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love", for instance.

[15] Anne Beattie, "Carver’s Furious Seasons,"Canto. 2:2, 1978, 178-182, here: 178. See also: Clarke, 108.

[16] Bethea, 8.

[17] Jäggle, 66. That there are neither constants nor guiding elements also holds true to the fact that there is only the most necessary punctuation in the text. For instance, there are no inverted commas and so a clear differentiation between the two interlocutors seems to be impossible on the first glance. Accordingly, the dominant uncertainty-theme is emphasized.

[18] Cf. Bethea, 38.

[19] David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?: Voyeurism, Dissociation, and the Art of Raymond Carver,"Iowa Review, 10:3. 1979, 75-90, here: 86.

[20] Lainsbury, 88.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


"Minimalism" in Raymond Carver’s "Collectors"
http://www.uni-jena.de/  (Institute for English/ Amererican Studies)
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Extensive Analysis of blanks (Leerstellen) and their function in R. Carver's short story "Collectors" .
Minimalism, Raymond, Carver’s, Collectors, Hauptseminar
Quote paper
Mathias Keller (Author), 2006, "Minimalism" in Raymond Carver’s "Collectors", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/67509


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