One Story, Two Visions

Raymond Carver

On his birthday, a young boy is struck by a car and is killed. Raymond Carver told this story. The first published version, “The Bath” appeared in Carver’s 1981 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor, had drastically cut Carver’s original story. Carver hated the edited version and published the original story, “A Small, Good Thing,” in his 1983 collection Cathedral.  The two versions are drastically different from one another and reflect an entirely different take on the human condition.

“The Bath,” like all the other stories in the earlier collection is a perfect example of the striking, groundbreaking, extremely minimalist style of Carver’s early work and for which he is best known. It concentrates our attention on the event of the story rather than the emotions associated with the event. The reader is actively prevented from becoming emotionally involved in the story. Most of the characters show no compassion and the sparseness of the writing does not allow us to even search for any compassion beneath the surface. They all remain emotionally detached from the beginning to the end of the story.

“A Small, Good Thing,” on the other hand, focuses less on action and more on emotion. In this version, the characters are more fleshed out, and we can see compassion and understanding have been obscured or blocked by circumstances.

The apparent edits that had been done to the story published as “The Bath” are significant and show an entirely different take on human nature. What’s been cut has devastating effects. In “A Small, Good Thing,” the description of the accident includes the reaction of the driver and the boy’s friend:

Without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb at an intersection and was immediately knocked down by a car. He fell on his side with his head in the gutter and his legs out in the road. His eyes were closed, but his legs moved back and forth as if he were trying to climb over something. His friend dropped the potato chips and started to cry. The car had gone a hundred feet or so and stopped in the middle of the road. The man in the driver’s seat looked back over his shoulder. He waited until the boy got unsteadily to his feet. The boy wobbled a little. He looked dazed, but okay. The driver put the car into gear and drove away.

The corresponding passage in “The Bath”:

At an intersection, without looking the birthday boy stepped off the curb, and was promptly knocked down by a car. He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall.

The other boy stood holding the potato chips. He was wondering if he should finish the rest or continue to school.

In the first version, the other boy’s reaction is emotional and sympathetic. In the second, he is cruelly detached and self-involved. In the first version, the driver at least stops to see if the birthday boy has been hurt before driving away. In the second, the driver’s reaction is omitted. We don’t know if he stopped or not, but his concern is deemed irrelevant by the narrator.

During the birthday boy’s time in the hospital, the actions portrayed by the doctors and staff and the interaction between the boy’s parents with the staff and with one another is also starkly different. In the second, edited version, the doctor and staff are emotionally detached and behave in a matter-of-fact, business-as-usual manner and make no attempt to reassure the boy’s parents. Similarly, the boy’s parents are rather passive and accepting of the staff’s indifference.

In the first version, the doctor and staff are more emotionally involved with the parents. For their part, the parents show more concern about their son’s condition and demand more answers from the medical staff. Significantly, the parents are referred to by their given names rather than just the pronouns “the mother” and “the father.”

The biggest difference between the two versions of the story is how the baker is portrayed and his role in the final part of the story. We first meet the baker in the nearly identical openings of the two versions, when the boy’s mother is ordering a birthday cake. In both versions, the appointment to pick up the cake is missed because of the accident the baker then makes harassing phone calls to the parents. There is a final confrontation, between the parents and the baker, but in the second version it is abruptly cut short, and the story ends ambiguously without even an implied resolution. In the first version, the couple meets with the baker, and there is a reconciliation. They sooth his loneliness with what they have left to offer—their company—and he comforts their grief with his offering of bread ending the story with a melancholy communion.

Given the same working parts, these two versions of the story couldn’t be more drastically different, in mood and in theme. What’s remarkable is that in where they match they are identical the difference is between them is what has been removed.

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© 2018, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.

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