To say and to speak are not identical. A man may speak endlessly, and all the time say nothing. Another man may remain silent, not speak at all and yet, without speaking, say a great deal.
— Martin Heidegger
If you haven’t seen the movie “Ratatouille,” stop reading this post. Because, one, you won’t appreciate the delicious reference I’m about to serve you. Two, you’re less inclined to believe that a Disney movie is the appropriate way to introduce a principle of literary theory. And three, there’s a gaping hole in your childhood that needs addressing—immediately.
If you’re still here, fly away with me.
The city is Paris, the restaurant Gusteau’s. Linguini, after a night of culinary success, joins Head Chef Skinner in his office to split a bottle of wine. What seems to be a toast to Linguini’s achievements is, in fact, an interrogation. Skinner, having grown suspicious that Linguini is engaged in a strange pact with an extraordinary rat, tries to get the young chef drunk. He wants Linguini to slip up, to admit something he’s been hiding. He wants to hear the truth.
What I want you to believe is that this is what good readers are doing all the time—they are interrogators. They look beyond arguments and examine language more closely. And, by the end of their inspection, they’ve uncovered the rat in the chef’s proverbial hat.
Whereas a gin and tonic loosens someone’s tongue, literary analysis tunes the ear. That is, like drinking, paying attention to language is a path to revelation, a tool for exposing that which a speaker wishes to keep from you.
You’ve probably noticed how writers can sometimes have suspect intentions—read it in the underlying sexism of a Victorian novel, heard it in the hateful rhetoric of a Trump speech. But is even our most mundane language subject to the scrutiny of literary analysis? Sure, we can find the racism in Kipling’s poems, but could we hear it in the way he said “hello?” What can we learn from interpreting the language of our ordinary lives?
A work that’s going to help us explore this question is Raymond Carver’s short story, “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off.” To this you might want to say, “Paul, you just said we were going to look at everyday language. Why are we looking at literature?” And that’s a good question. Carver, though, is obsessed with the quotidian. One critic has called his work “hyperrealism,” another, “superrealism,” and a third “post-Vietnam, post-literary, post-modernist blue collar neo-early-hemingwayism” (Nesset, 30). Carver’s work is meant to resemble real-life and “The Third Thing” is a great example of this: it is set in a rural community in the Pacific North West, has three farm-type, main characters (Jack, Jack’s father, and Dummy—a mentally disabled neighbor), and centers its action around nothing more than an unusual fishing trip.
It is a story about the everyday lives of working class people, people like Jack, the narrator, who are often tragically inarticulate, who “[don’t] know… what to say (Carver, 103). If we can find literary meaning in what we might call the least literary of language—language that is colloquial, terse, and simplistic—then Carver has shown us something interesting: that we can find often unseen truth in not only intellectualized, polished work but in the language all around us as well.
But first, a fundamental question: where is the line between what language states and what it hides? The simplest answer is in the difference between connotation and denotation. In short, every word has baggage—alongside definitional meaning (denotation) is the feeling that a word invokes, the associations it ascribes (connotation). “The Third Thing” is a clear example of this distinction in the split narrative that it offers. In a denotative sense, “The Third Thing” is an American bildungsroman. A boy learns to drive, goes fishing with his father, and experiences death for the first time. But if we look closer at the language, if we analyze the packaging of this home grown, American narrative, we find something darker, something unexpected, a murky spot in the middle of our literary lake. Take, for example, the way in which other men “kid” (90) Dummy because of his appearance, his disability, and, most notably, the infidelity of his wife. The language is important here: the other men don’t poke fun at Dummy, they “kid” him. That is, they infantilize him. Dummy is considered sexually immature because he can’t control his wife. In this way, we begin to see the connotative argument the story is making—growing up means becoming a man and becoming a man means controlling women. Not quite as apple pie-picket-fence-American as it seemed before.
Carver’s writing exemplifies the way in which metonymic meaning permeates our everyday language. Metonym, alongside metaphor, is a fundamental figure of speech. Whereas metaphor communicates meaning by comparing two things, metonym presents one word and allows meaning to pass through the connotative qualities of that word. It is the way in which the men are only “kidding,” not telling Dummy explicitly that he is like a child; the meaning is hidden in the association.
On top of this, Carver’s subscription to the “Theory of Omission” (a philosophy of fiction writing that demands the omission of all unnecessary narrative elements) further reveals the ways in which meaning is hidden in our everyday language. The laconic writing of “The Third Thing” leaves most of the narrative unsaid; the work is “silent” on many of the issues that it raises. It is never expressed, for instance, why Dummy is so obsessed with the fish that he breeds in his pond. Jack, the narrator, doesn’t explain why his father insists that he fish in Dummy’s pond and why that act is so devastating to Dummy.
Silence, though, is at the center of fiction. A work can’t recreate the world, it can only appeal to our metonymic understanding of language, appeal to the associations we readily make, to fill in the gaps of a story (Nakjavani, 49). Carver takes this idea a step further. By writing about characters that struggle to express themselves, he draws special attention not to the words his characters say, but to how those words are an avenue into the unutterable—an unutterable realm that we, as readers and listeners, have access to. We hear the unsaid when Jack’s dad remarks of Dummy, “You’d reckon the fool was married to them fish, the way he acts” (94). We realize that, to Dummy, the fish are a substitute for femininity. We see how the fish are the foundation of Dummy’s masculinity: he can control them and keep them from other men—unlike his wife. We, again, discover meaning below the surface when Jack goes to fish on Dummy’s pond. He notes that the “[fish] were asking for it,” invoking the language of rape, turning the simple act of fishing into sexual assault. an ultra-masculine rite of passage. And our subterranean suspicions are confirmed when Jack, fishing “pole” (97) in hand, describes himself as “shaky with excitement” (97)—evoking thoughts of virginity and sexual conquest. Literary analysis lets us see this scene for what it truly is: an ultra-masculine rite of passage. The silence of language makes ideas that are too taboo for Carver’s characters to mention available to us as readers.
Moreover, when people have the least to say, it is the literary qualities of their words that carry the most meaning. What little language we can hear in the story and the silence it guides us to (that is, the unsaid meaning that it guides us to) reveal the values of Carver’s characters: to be a man is to dominate woman; in order to become a man, Jack rapes Dummy’s symbol of femininity and, in the process of doing so, emasculates Dummy.
What we learn from reading Carver is that there is literary language all around us, even if we’re not aware of it. When Jack looks back on the story he’s told us, he isn’t quite sure what to make of it. He can’t pin down what eventually caused Dummy to murder his wife and commit suicide, he isn’t sure what really caused his dad’s life to say “so long to good times and hello to bad” (103). All he knows is that for some reason that day fishing on the pond changed them all. But we, the readers, see what really happened. We know that it was Dummy’s failing masculinity that led him to end his life, that is, his inability to control femininity. And we see that it was Dummy’s death and the realization of his own corrosive, hyper-masculinity that shook Jack’s father’s identity. Carver shows us the brutal reality hidden in the silence of our everyday actions; the cultural forces (sexism, hyper-masculinity) that are at play in our lives and alive in our language. It is metonym—that pair-less association—that allows us to say things without saying them, to quietly further our own causes, to hide our true intentions, most often from ourselves.
Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Nakjavani, Erik G. The Aesthetics of Meiosis: Hemingway’s “Theory of Omission” Diss. 1985.
Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio UP, 1995.