Sweet Poison: The Use of Intoxication in Carver’s Short Stories
In Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, humans are described as exhibiting three types of coping mechanisms in order to relieve themselves of the suffering that they experience. One of these mechanisms is intoxication: to intoxicate one’s self with various physical substances in order to become inebriated. In Raymond Carver’s short stories, intoxication (drinking, in this case) is used not only as a means to cope, but also as a social lubricant that tears down the inhibitions of the characters that use it. As Carver himself was an alcoholic, his stories reflect his perspective on such experience; there is no glamour or romance in the act of drinking in his short fiction. Although intoxication is used for similar purposes by both authors, Carver presents it in a more subtle way, using examples to demonstrate its causes and effects while Freud directly defines it. Carver also uses intoxication to reveal something hidden that would have otherwise remained hidden had the characters not been intoxicated.
In “Why Don’t You Dance”, the older man is first introduced pouring himself another drink. Although he doesn’t directly state it, Carver implies that the man is dealing with the emotional suffering resulting from his loss by drinking by associating the two closely with each other, as shown when the narrator says, “His side, her side. He considered this as he sipped the whiskey” (3). The man doesn’t seem to derive any happiness from it and seems to just become more uncaring of what people think of him as shown when he thinks, “Now and then a car slowed and people stared. But no one stopped. It occurred to him that he wouldn’t, either” (4). He is now indifferent to what ordinarily would be potentially embarrassing to him. This change from self-consciousness to indifference is also paralleled in the young couple that stop by to take a look at his display. Initially they are reserved and worry about what other people think of them. Compare this hesitation to when they have a few drinks and then dance: “Arms about each other, their bodies pressed together, the boy and the girl moved up and down the driveway. They were dancing. And when the record was over, they did it again, and when that one ended, the boy said. ‘I’m drunk'” (9). Compared to just lying on a man’s bed, drunk-dancing in a stranger’s front yard is much “weirder”, but the young couple no longer cares what people think of them. “Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said. ‘It’s okay,’ the man said. ‘It’s my place,’ he said. ‘Let them watch,’ the girl said” (9). Weeks later when she is sober again, she attempts to spin the story so that it seemed like he was the only uninhibited one. “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying” (10). Carver shows the effects of intoxication by displaying their inhibitions (or lack thereof) before, during, and after becoming drunk. He also reveals something hidden about the girl – her demeanor completely changes after becoming sober again; what does this reveal about her? She could be lonely, or somehow profoundly affected by the dance with the man.
In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, Carver uses the cheap gin to again reveal hidden emotions. At the beginning of the evening, Mel and Terri seem to have a strong relationship, albeit with some disagreements. As Mel begins to become drunk, the first major crack in Mel and Terri’s relationship is shown when he quietly tells her to “Just shut up for once in your life” (146). Mel speaks of how love is only a temporary memory, and “’…what real love is,’ Mel said… ‘And the terrible thing is, the terrible thing is, but the good thing too, the saving grace, you might say, is that if something happened to one of us–excuse me for saying this–but if something happened to one of us tomorrow, I think the other one, the other person, would grieve for awhile, you know, but then the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else soon enough. All this, all this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory.'” He continues by telling Laura and Nick of an old couple that he had to treat in the emergency room. He exasperatedly says, “‘Can you imagine? The man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.’ Mel looked around the table and shook his head at what he was going to say. ‘I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman'” (151). As he progressively becomes more intoxicated while telling the story of the old couple, his true insecurity is shown: Ed is the only person that ever loved Terri with the sort of permanent love that Mel wishes that he could have. This is why he is so unwilling to admit that Ed loved Terri, and why Terri thinks that Ed loved her so much and keeps mentioning him. By using alcohol to make Mel speak about other people, Carver reveals more about Mel’s character than if he had bluntly written that Mel was jealous of Ed.
Both Freud and Carver defines the concept of intoxication in a similar manner: that it is used to deal with suffering and as a social lubricant. However, Carver subtly uses it in order to reveal people’s hidden emotions and feelings instead of directly defining what they are in the manner that Freud does.
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