A Critical Analysis of
Raymond Carver’s Short Story
Why Don’t You Dance?
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
The first time I read this short story I thought “whatever,” and moved on to the next story in the book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.. I came back later and re-read the story. I found a much deeper meaning on my second reading than I did on my first. I should learn. This is not the first time this has happened to me with Raymond Carver’s work. It takes me a while but I catch on eventually.
This short story is about a man whose life has fallen apart. He’s alone, clearing out the remnants of his home. His wife is absent, although her presence is hinted at throughout the early part of the story. The reader see touches of her in the candy-striped sheets on the bed, designer pillows, the chiffonier. I’m a man. I actually studied furniture design for a couple of years. I didn’t know what a “chiffonier” was. I think this is an indication of what type of woman this man lived with.
For some reason, the man has taken the furniture out of the house into the front yard. He’s run an extension cord to the TV, record player and lamps. His neighbors think he’s crazy, but the reader gets the impression that this is not the first time they’ve thought that.
He goes out to the store (although we are not told this directly). While he’s gone a young couple stops, thinking there is a yard sale. They are just beginning their life together. The girl, and Carver consistently calls them the “boy” and the “girl”, is more forceful than the boy. She first says “Let’s see what they want for the bed,” before they turn in off the street. She seems more free-spirited, bossy. The boy fiddles with a blender and switches on the TV. She tells him to come and lie down on the bed next to her. He does so, but after a while he feels uncomfortable and gets up to see if anyone is at home. He wants to ask someone how much the various items cost.
The man returns from the store to find the girl on the bed and the boy on the porch. The girl, always controlling, had previously told the boy to always ask for ten dollars less than the seller initially asks for. The boy asks how much the man wants for the bed. He says fifty dollars, she offers forty. The man accepts. He wants twenty-five dollars for the TV, she offers fifteen, again he agrees.
The end of the story is ambiguous. The man opens a bottle of whiskey and offers the couple a drink. They accept and after a few drinks start to get a little drunk. The man says he wants to play a record, which he does. He suggests that the young couple starts to dance. In character, the boy is hesitant, but, also in character, the girl convinces him to dance. They dance in the driveway.
The first side of the record ends. The man flips it over. The girl wants to dance some more but the boy is drunk and doesn’t seem to want to. She asks the man to dance and approaches him with her arms wide open. Then there is a scene break. An extra blank line and no leading tab to the beginning of the next paragraph. It’s a subtle clue that something has change.
When the narrative reconvenes in the very next paragraph, she is saying “Those people over there, they’re watching.” The man says “It’s OK. It’s my place.” The reader is not exactly sure what’s going on. In fact, I was wondering what exactly is going on. The girls says “Let them watch.” She’s drunk. Carver writes “He felt her breath on his neck.” The very next sentence Carver has the man saying “I hope you like your bed.” She pushes her face into the man’s shoulder and pulls him closer.
One interpretation of this passage, obviously, is that they are dancing, however I think it is equally possible that they are doing something that may be called dancing but that is a decidedly different thing altogether. The last few paragraphs of the story hint at this second interpretation when Carver writes “A few weeks later….She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out.” What more is he referring to?
I also detected a symbolic layer to the story on my second read that I did not see on my first read. I think it is possible that the young couple in this story represents that man and his wife when they were first starting out. There are numerous clues to this. The way the young woman lies on the bed initially, the way she’s the one always suggesting what the boy should do, the fact that it is her idea to do something more than just lie on the bed when she says “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” All of these things could represent what the man’s wife was like when they first met. He mentions the candy-striped sheets, the designer pillows, and so on, which to me indicate a woman that likes to arrange things in her life, just like the girl.
The “boy” may also be interpreted as a representation of the man. The boy is hesitant, fooling around with the TV and the blender, sort of doing whatever the “girl” says, not because he wants to just because that’s the way things roll in their relationship. I think this could easily be interpreted as a representation of the older couple’s dynamics.
When the girl says “”I want the desk…[h]ow much money is the desk?” I read this as symbolizing the narrator’s work; perhaps he was a writer. The desk is where his livelihood came from, perhaps. The man says “Name a figure,” as an exasperated man might say to his soon to be divorced wife when they are haggling over the divorce settlement. The title may even be interpreted as a question from the man to his missing wife. “Why Don’t You Dance?” And by this I think he means the latter of the two interpretations of the word “dance” mentioned above.
There is a lot to this story that will be rewarded with a careful reading. I recommend it highly.