Deconstruction Lens: “A Small, Good Thing”

Tim Stanton

“Family Dog” by Richard Elzey is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Original pic

Raymond Carver’s short story, “A Small, Good Thing,” starts with a mother ordering a space themed cake for her son’s earth birthday.  The story then goes through the heart ache of the child being hospitalized after a car accident and his eventual death from medical complications.  It ends with a heartfelt reconciliation between the mother and baker.  I believe that “A Small, Good Thing” can help remind us both to treasure the time we have with loved ones and the importance of other people (even strangers) to help us through times of sadness.

Carver pushes the point of treasuring time with family and loved ones when we read about the boy’s parents’ time at the hospital.  “… ‘Doctor, how is he?’ Howard said.  ‘What’s the matter with him exactly?’  ‘Why doesn’t he wake up?’ Ann said. … ‘My God, he feels so cold, though, Howard? Is he supposed to feel like this? …’” (Carver 67).  These lines of dialogue show that the boy’s parents care immensely for his safety and health.  We get an even stronger confirmation of the parents’ love for their son, and their wanting to spend time with him even when he is unconscious.  “They waited all day, but still the boy did not wake up.  Occasionally, one of them would leave the room to go downstairs to the cafeteria to drink coffee and then, as if suddenly remembering and feeling guilty, get up from the table and hurry back to the room,” (Carver 69).  This section perfectly shows the desire of both parents’ to stay with their son as much as possible especially when it says “feeling guilty,” even though the son would not know if they left for a little bit to get food or drink.

The doctor tries to make all of the procedures sound normal and under control even though they do not know why the boy is still asleep and eventually dies.  “‘We need to do some more pictures, and we want to do a scan.’ … ‘I’m afraid we need some more,’ he said. ‘Nothing to be alarmed about.  We just need some more pictures, and we want to do a brain scan on him.’ … ‘It’s perfectly normal procedure in cases like this,’” (Carver 68).  While saying this is a normal procedure, is an attempt to calm the parents down, it only proceeds to worry the mother and give her more distress.  “‘What’s that?’ Ann said. ‘a scan?’ … ‘I thought you’d already taken all your X-rays’” (Carver 68).  Carver brings the importance of spending time with loved ones to its greatest point when the father and mother remember the things that they need to do at home but can’t decide which of them should go first.  “‘… Alright,’ Howard said.  After a while, he said, ‘Honey, why don’t you do it?  Why don’t you go home and check on things, and then come back?  It’ll do you good.  I’ll be right here with him.  Seriously,’ he said. …  ‘Why don’t you go?’ she said.  “Feed Slug.  Feed yourself.’ …” (Carver 71-72).  This, like the “guilty feelings” earlier, helps to show the importance that the story is trying to put on spending time with loved ones and also treasuring that time.

In spite of his efforts, Carver fails to make his points in several ways.  At the end of the short story, the parents of the child go to the baker that they ordered the cake from because of continuous calls that they are receiving regarding the cake.  After some time talking about how the son is dead, the baker apologizes for his calls and asks for forgiveness.  The baker talks with the parents until the morning which helps the parents to “heal” from their loss. “‘… ‘Smell this,’ the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf.  … They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving” (Carver 87-89).  However, even with this heartwarming ending, the phone calls that the baker made while he did not know of the boy’s death or hospitalization were very harsh and unfriendly. “… ‘There’s a cake here that wasn’t picked up,’ the voice on the other end of the line said.  ‘What are you saying?’ Howard asked.  ‘A cake,’ the voice said.  ‘A sixteen-dollar cake.’  …  ‘I don’t know anything about a cake,’ he said.  …  ‘Don’t hand me that,’ the voice said” (Carver 63).  Even if the baker doesn’t know that that the boy is in the hospital at this time, the calls, like this one, give a very negative impression and might make a reader think that the baker only cares about money.  The harshness impedes on Carver’s main points.

Harold Schweizer, Mark Facknitz, and Christina Lake also have points and opinions on how Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” might fail to show how others can help comfort us it times of sadness.  “… the baker speaks in malicious metaphor when he says to the desperate woman, ‘Your Scotty, I got him ready for you.  Did you forget him?’ This is language of an extraordinary kind. …” (Facknitz 291).  Mark Facknitz also makes the point that the parents are not much better at the start of their interaction with the baker at the end of the story.  “… ‘My son’s dead,’ she said with a cold, even finality.  ‘He was hit by a car Monday morning. We’ve been waiting with him until he died.  But, of course, you couldn’t be expected to know that, could you? …  But he’s dead.  He’s dead, you bastard!’” (Facknitz 291).  While it is understandable that the parents would be extremely upset about the constant calls and the death of their son, one should also take into account the position of the baker, who has to bake food for hours every day to make ends meet and also knows nothing of what has transpired just days prior to this confrontation.

Harold Schweizer points out several other failings of Carver showing the importance of others comforting us when we are in pain.  Schweizer decides to show the failings by using what he calls “temporal markers” to add to his writing (Schwizer 9).  “Carver’s story is full of temporal markers, not only of time and hours but also of prepositions and temporal pronouns …” (Schweizer 9).  Schweizer continues to use the idea of temporal markers throughout his article.  “The measured, timed, and sequential succession of Carver’s sentences, as of the doctor’s actions, simulate a world of order and predictability.  Likewise the doctor’s appearance … are welcome visual distractions – messages as if from a world impervious to death – in the midst of deepening dread” (Schweizer 11).  Here Schweizer shows ways that Carver tries to reinforce the point of caring and supporting each other in times of hardship by a calm and trustworthy expert, the doctor, who tells the parents that the boy is okay and should wake up soon (Schweizer 11).  This is quickly defeated by the selected dialogue for the doctor.  “By contrast with such temporary markers of reassurance, the doctor’s subsequent interpretation of the boy’s condition reveals, however, his profounder sense of uncertainty and the disjuncture between  their and the boy’s temporal realms: ‘He’s all right… . he could be better…. I wish he’d  wake up. He should wake up pretty soon’ (Schweizer 11).

One of the best examples that Schweizer discusses is the fact that the doctors continually say that everything will be fine and that the parents should not worry.  “The doctor’s initial evasions and denials cannot conceal his forebodings.  … If the doctors’ assurances were once offered entirely within the dimensions of measurable time – it being just a matter of time until the child would wake up – his qualifications ‘not yet,’ ‘it is not a coma yet…,’ deny closure.  This “denial of closure” or saying that it is not a coma and the boy just needs to wake up is arguably worse than just saying that they do not know what is wrong yet and that it is possibly a coma.  As it stands, the boy dies and the parents are devastated, one reason being that they were told by the doctors that everything was fine and that there was no major or significant danger.  This attempt to keep the parents calm and in high spirits ultimately back fires and quite possibly leads to even worse heartache and sadness than if they had kept more possibilities open in their discussions.

Works Cited

Facknitz, Mark A. R. “‘The Calm,’ ‘A Small, Good Thing,’ and ‘Cathedral’: Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 23, no. 3, Summer 1986, p. 287. EBSCOhost,

Schweizer, Harold. “On Waiting and Hoping in Raymond Carver’s ‘A Small, Good Thing.’” At the Interface / Probing the Boundaries, vol. 55, Jan. 2009, pp. 7–20. EBSCOhost,


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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