Serious Talk by Raymond Carver -- or, as Carver might have entitled this essay: "Although not much talking takes place, the story's theme certainly is serious."
From the beginning, Raymond Carver's short story, entitled, "A Serious Talk," engages in a play of inflated and deflated expectations from the reader's and the main characters' perspectives. There is a constant ironic tension between what the reader thinks will happen, and what is delivered by the tone and by the evolving plot of the story. The characters also have their expectations raised that something will happen to break the unhappy monotony of their lives, expectations that are quickly dashed. Irony may be defined "as a difference between the way something appears and what is actually true." Irony is created in the story "A Serious Talk" by the raising of the expectations of both the characters and the reader, followed by a subsequent deflation, by design, by the author through tone and plot structure.
The characters of the story may try to create a surface happiness of Americana over Christmas, but this is thwarted by their own actions. (Definition of "Irony," at (http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/irony_def.html) An attempt at a serious talk is made between the characters, but undermined. But this tension and inflation and deflation of expectations, through the author's use of sparse dialogue and minimal 'exciting' plot turns gives the story both a sense of truth and poignancy in the reader's estimation. This is true even if the story does not have a conventional structure or sense of change of character or action. Raymond Carver himself once stated of life, "you never start out life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar." (Phil Carson's Raymond Carver homepage, (http://world.std.com/~ptc/)This theme of the lack of ability to realize one's intentions in life, particularly in an alcoholic life, runs through "A Serious Talk."
The use of 'talking' in general is interesting, in terms of the story's title, because Carver as an author was so famous for his perceptive use of dialogue. "Raymond Carver has tremendous skill with dialogue, and his characters remain tangible in the most bizarre situations," noted David Koehne, because of that realistic use of dialogue. ("Echoes of Our Lives" Interview accessed on (http://world.std.com/~ptc/)However, at first, even the expectation of crackling, much less serious dialogue, is not met. The story begins prosaically, rather than through rapid-fire banter. Carver, in "A Serious Talk," is more concerned about showing how quietly the disappointment of expectations, for one's family and one's self, can unfold. Although the expectation of "A Serious Talk," of course, is that something serious is going to be said over the course of the tale's narrative, and the reader begins in the context of a place rather than in the middle of an argument of dialogue. The story begins instead with a trivial, almost frivolous setting. "It was the day after Christmas." (Carver 162)
The immediate setting of the day after Christmas confirms the theme and immediately creates a reader's sense of inflation and subsequent deflation of hope and promise. Christmas should be an exciting time, and getting Christmas presents should be wonderful. The day after Christmas seems sad because of this sense of deflation, of a holiday lost for a year. The reader also learns that Burt received "a gift certificate" from a men's store, and a comb and a ballpoint pen as his gifts. (Carver 163) The selection of the day after, rather than Christmas itself is an immediate hint that something good has passed, and disappointment is the word of the day after, and that Christmas itself was not particularly rewarding. The idea of 'the day after' also has connotations of being 'hung over,' of feeling the effects of a night poorly spent.
Carver's characters in the tale filled with disappointment, a sense that something has been lost between the two of them beyond Christmas presents and a happy holiday. They feel as though things should have been better than they were for Christmas, at least for the children's sake, and exhibit the physical and emotional scars of deflated expectations. Both Burt and Vera stare at the day-after Christmas tree rather than talk to one another, right away, as if they are remembering what Christmas ought to be, instead of how they actually experienced it. Ricardo Sobreia once observed of Carver, "His characters are antiheroic, emblematic and depressed people. They take part in quick and almost abrupt stories, in which a little conflict is 'fought.' (Soberia "Talking About the Procedures of Raymond Carver")
But the story's beginning with "a halo of pumpkin filling on the pavement" suggests that Burt has transgressed in some way, and is attempting to make amends. Conflict has been waged, even if no one has won.
As noted by Michael Wood in The New York Times in regards to the frequent silences and apparent lack of conflict in Carver, "a good deal of the unsayable gets said." (Wood, 1981) And, one might add, a good deal of anger is expressed, if not in words, then by physical suggestion and in the dialogue. Even the he fact that the pumpkin pie Burt threw outside on Christmas has not been removed suggests Vera's refusal to forget Burt's actions. The halo-like description of the pie also suggests a fall from grace, of a golden heaven that has become a splat on the sidewalk of the couple -- as if the family pie has expressed the anger of the family rather than the family itself. The halo also suggests what Christmas should mean, and the use of pumpkin pie the typical Norman Rockwell type Christmas that did not take place.
During the night previous to the day after, Burt watched his daughter "fold the linen napkins into the wine glasses" while a log burned. (Carver 164) Here was the vision of Christmas, the reader was suddenly assured and transported to. When narrator begins to focus the pies, the reader is told that Burt had stacked them up "in his arms, all six," and threw them. (Carver 163) The means of having a happy Christmas feast become the means of personal destruction. Burt says, to Vera "I want to apologize to you for last night. I want to apologize for the kids too." (Carver 164) But the past cannot be changed.
Constantly, the characters must over memories. "Do you remember Thanksgiving?" asks Vera. "I said then that was the last holiday you were going to wreck for us. Eating bacon and eggs instead of turkey at ten o'clock at night." (Carver 165) The stress upon how holidays are wrecked and ruined, despite all efforts to the contrary, returns again, now into memory rather than action. A sense of the character's pasts is given, as well as the fact that the children, who should be the character's hopes for the future, are constantly disappointed rather than were disappointed just this Christmas. (Carver 165)
Even the way Burt drinks is wrong, and contrary to social expectations and the surface expectations of politeness. He drinks it out of a cup. "Are you just going to drink it like that," asks Vera, in disbelief. (Carver 165) Burt's drinking is an asocial act -- yet so is the betrayal by Vera that provokes it. The couple cannot communicate, and the story ends with Burt sawing through the phone cord, "without any trouble at all," after Vera's presumed lover has called. This is how communication takes place between the couple, the action suggests, not though openly expressed emotion in words but through acts of violence and hatred with little purpose. (Carver 168)
Christmas has come and gone," Vera observes at the end of the story, much as the relationship between herself and Burt has come and gone. (Carver…