“A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver and the 1980s AIDS Epidemic

Jasper Chappel

“Inauguración del Hospital Municipal de Chiconcuac” by Presidencia de la República Mexicana is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing” was published in 1983, in his collection Cathedral. In 1983 in the United States, the AIDS epidemic was barely beginning to be understood by the CDC and the general public. Under President Ronald Reagan since 1981, anti-communist and pro-capitalist sentiment was expected of Americans because of tense relations with the USSR. This political climate informed Carver’s writing of “A Small, Good Thing,” and the previous version of the same story published in 1981, titled “The Bath;” Carver’s personal life partially influenced the drastic changes between each story, and so did the emerging political tensions caused by the AIDS epidemic and relations with the USSR. “A Small, Good Thing,” despite being written in a turbulent time, encourages people to value each other, put less trust in institutions such as government and healthcare, and ultimately come together in times of hardship.

The baker is a criticism of capitalism and excessive labor with unfair pay. He has lost part of his humanity to his work, because maintaining financial security is a more immediate concern than forming relationships; he and other unnamed employees represent the proletariat. His behavior throughout the story shows his lack of feeling towards other people, and at the end, he admits as much, saying, “I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else… [M]aybe years ago I was a different kind of human being” (page 26). Industry has forced the characters to lose their individuality – none of the nurses are named or physically distinguishable from each other, and they do not offer Ann and Howard comfort or answers. When asked questions about Scotty’s condition, they simply say, “Doctor Francis will be here in a few minutes,” (page 6). Doctor Francis has reached a high enough class that he can retain some humanity while still doing his job, which is why he is afforded a name. However, he is nearing the status of the bourgeoisie, which is ultimately why he fails to give Scotty the correct diagnosis and treatment. He and Howard are somewhat similar in this regard; because Howard has the privilege to leave his job in the middle of a work day, and for an indefinite amount of time when Scotty is hospitalized, the audience can assume Howard is nearing a high-class position. He is not expendable, like a nurse or a baker would be.

Ann appears to be a full-time mom, and while this is unpaid labor, the reader is led to understand her emotions the most because she retains the most humanity in her job; she simply has the privilege to not work for a company. Her trade is motherhood, and when this is stripped from her, she feels more aimless than the others; just like if the nurse or the baker lost their positions, Ann forms her identity around the job of being a mom. The difference is that it is her job to empathize with others, to care for others, and she can find another niche to fill without sending in an application first. Her grief manifests in being unable to care for her son, despite her skills; she knows Scotty is in a coma and that something has gone horribly wrong, but because the bourgeoisie does not value self-employed, unpaid labor, her concerns are brushed aside.

From one perspective, Ann benefits from being a mother. From another, her characterization has reduced her to being only a mother. The only outside information we have for another main character is what Howard and the baker tell us about their lives. While Howard is driving home from the hospital, he reflects on his life and his good fortune, or his privilege. Ann does not do the same – the audience is unsure of whether Ann thinks the marriage is successful, if she went to college, or if she gave anything up to become a mother. She is only a mother and wife – a loving one, but a one-dimensional character. It seems that Ann is defined only by the fact she has a son. Ann’s designated role to help the men in the story remember their humanity is a stereotypically feminine role that is largely informed by Raymond Carver’s identity and life experiences, but is also in line with the idea that motherhood is a full-time job unrecognized by capitalism.

The bourgeoisie in this story are best represented by the hospital and doctor, and the situation with Scotty exposes the flawed system the proletariat have to live under. Scotty represents its most vulnerable victims, and the family Ann meets in the lobby of the hospital represents how tragedy can touch all our lives regardless of class or race. Ann and Howard learn through the events of the story, despite being middle-class and white, that certain tragedies touch all lives; this is a translation of the AIDS epidemic into literature. Disease does not discriminate based off class, sexuality, or race, but institutions and governments do.

Scotty has no speaking lines – the narrator only supplies information on what he saying, so the audience doesn’t have access to his exact words. All we know about him is that he probably likes aliens, has one friend he used to walk to school with, and “howls” before he dies, a very inhuman noise. Even though the story revolves around his injury, he only serves as a character who affects other characters. His injury allows the audience to see the contrast between employees who take care of people as a job, and people who take care of others free from industry interference. He also serves to bring the baker and Ann together; the baker needed to be reminded of his humanity and have a reason to turn his back on the capitalist system for a while. Ann is the most likely character to help him reconnect with his humanity, and in her grief she is more human than any other character. Although Howard also shows his humanity in his grief, it is Ann who helps him along, “’There, there,’ she said tenderly. ‘Howard, he’s gone. He’s gone now and we’ll have to get used to that. To being alone” (page 22). When Scotty’s death makes his parents feel alienated, just as capitalism alienates people from each other to prevent an uprising, they start to accept this; then the baker calls again, and Ann’s anger at his behavior pushes them into action, and eventually reconciliation and comfort.

When Ann encounters the black family in the waiting room, they serve as a mirror for her situation, and represent understanding each other’s humanity despite differences. There is a previous version of this short story called “The Bath,” which does not specify the race of the family, does not include the two dark-skinned orderlies, and lacks the reconciliation with the baker. Part of the fear around AIDS was due to the uncertainty about how it spread, but there was also an element of stigma around African-American populations and their inaccurate image in the media as drug users (therefore, re-use needles and spread AIDS). Early on, it became clear that AIDS was spreading through bodily fluids, but more information than that tended to be conflicting.

In 1985, according to the article “Save Our Kids, Keep AIDS Out” by Jennifer Brier, black and white families would unite in Queens to protest the CDC regulations stating that children diagnosed with AIDS should be allowed in public schools. We can see this sentiment represented before this occurrence in Ann’s desire to connect with the black family in the waiting room. Just like the mothers in the article fear their children being exposed to AIDS at school, a hospital must have been a nightmare for a mother in this time period. Seeing Scotty have his blood drawn, and other needles inserted into his veins, probably caused her panic each time; not only because his condition was not improving, but also for the risk of contracting AIDS the longer he stayed in the hospital. Scotty’s hospital stay can be considered a metaphor for how AIDS was considered during the time of publication. It comes out of nowhere, just like the car that hit Scotty, then disappeared without a trace. Those who are hit seem fine at first, but progressively, their condition declines. The doctors and nurses do not know enough about the disease, and sometimes, their intuition is wrong, causing tragic deaths. The message the audience is left with is this: a mother knows best for her child. This is echoed in the later movement in Queens, “Thus, parents and local communities, not a dishonest city bureaucracy or out-of-touch scientific establishment, were better able to make decisions about local children” (page 4, “Save Our Kids”).

In “A Small, Good Thing,” instead of exploiting the fear people had around the AIDS epidemic, Carver encourages people to find common ground and come together. Doctor Francis expresses his regrets in not being able to save Scotty, the family in the waiting room symbolizes connecting with each other despite differences, and the baker is able to acknowledge his loss of humanity over the years after witnessing Ann and Howard’s grief. This short story is a touching addition to the literary time period, and handles each political undertone with care and empathy.

Works Cited

Brier, Jennifer. “‘Save Our Kids, Keep AIDS out:” Anti-AIDS Activism and the Legacy of Community Control in Queens, New York.” Journal of Social History, vol. 39, no. 4, 2006, pp. 965–987. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3790237. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Carver, Raymond. “A Small, Good Thing.” Ploughshares, vol. 8, no. 2/3, 1982, pp. 213–240. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40348924. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Carver, Raymond. “The Bath.” Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, no. 6, 1981, pp. 32–41. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42744338. Accessed 14 May 2021.

McCaffery, Larry, et al. “An Interview with Raymond Carver.” Mississippi Review, vol. 14, no. 1/2, 1985, pp. 62–82. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20115387. Accessed 14 May 2021.


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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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