New Criticism

A Small, Good Thing: Critiques of Suffering & How We Respond to it

Elijah Nelson

“Baker” by Theodor Hensolt is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver uses heavy irony, imagery, and subversion to highlight both the unjustness and tragedy as well as the simple joys that seem to make life one huge contradiction. From birthday cake to the death of a child, the story takes both of these extremes and presents them in a real-life application, thus giving the reader an example or reference to look back on their own life and find similar themes emerging. One example of this is the very early contrast between the opening actions of the mother getting a cake for her son, then only 2 pages later having a child become the victim of a hit and run. This stylistic choice throws what had originally seemed like the intended theme entirely off the rails in potentially the most dramatic way possible, setting the stage for the rest of the story in contrast with the first two pages. This abrupt and early change in tone is meant to do more than just shock the reader, however. The associations with, say “Ordering a Birthday Bake for Your Child” and “Your Son Falls Victim to a Hit and Run” are directly opposed to each other and through those associations produce almost parallel universes that converge in an area of what may be interpreted as a cruelty or injustice of life. Let’s break those associations and expectations down.

The opening scene of the mother (Ann Weis) ordering a cake for her child’s birthday is, as previously mentioned, sets the first part of the three-act story structure with the intent to instantly end it a few pages later. The three-act story, as it’s come to be known, is most likely something you were taught in middle school. Stemming from Aristotle’s studies on storytelling, the theory that each story has a Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution (Acts I, II, and III respectively) is one of the most common ways of writing or analyzing a story. The first few pages of “A Small, Good Thing” appear to set a pace for that three-act template, introducing significant characters and setting, and through that sets expectations for an entirely different kind of story. This technique is known as “subverting reader expectations” and relies heavily on stereotypes and the three-part structure to catch the reader off guard, usually to the effect of emphasizing what breaks the flow of clichés. In this case, expectations are set with the first few lines of the first page: “After looking through a loose-leaf binder with photographs of cakes taped onto the pages, she ordered chocolate, the child’s favorite.” (Carver, 1) You will notice here that there’s hardly anything that stands out about this quote. The introduction of a birthday instantly puts on a front for the story as a simple slice-of-life, not only using cliched subject matter but also riding on the basic notion of a birthday or party. A birthday is a regular thing, coming around once a year in a time of (typically) vaguely pleasant celebration. It seems as though the unspecific imagery is meant to emulate in a reader their own experiences with birthdays, to drive home that classic “slice of life” theme. So summarizing the words one can tie to this, we have Routine, Nostalgia, and Contentment.

All of this falls out, of course, with the directly following hit and run. Not only using opposite associations for its shock factor, but this scene also uses different narrative techniques to communicate those associations. While the opening two pages seem to begin setting up Act I of the narrative structure, it’s harshly interrupted by the sudden cut to Act II, in which the conflict is introduced. The sudden shift of scene and character focus, rather than seeing it through one of the two characters already introduced, emphasizes the sudden change in the narrative tone. In this scene, much more direct language is used than the pages preceding it, not stopping to dive into what characters looked like or may have thought. Instead, the pages recording that moment are doing just that: recording. It’s very impersonally portrayed, fitting as the moment recorded is an entirely random and impersonal act. So, if one could take three descriptors or associations out of this, it would be; Random, Impersonal, and Shocking.

Notice how there isn’t even time to introduce all main characters before tragedy hits, (or in this case, a car, I suppose) destroying, or at least majorly shifting, the three-act structure. Not only was Act I not completely set up, but the early Act II also shifts the time spent on each act, making the first few pages more of an introduction to the resulting plotline that introduces characters, conflict, and resolution in a more traditional way. But why start with such a subversion? What is the work emphasizing? This circles back to the first point: highlighting our interactions with life and how we perceive injustices.

Looking back at the associations we had tied with each of the first two “Meta-Acts” we see opposing styles in both subject matter and narration style, creating a sharp contrast that highlights the unexpected and unfairness that Scotty’s (the child) parents must have felt in that moment and throughout the rest of the story. Comparing the associated words with each section, for Act I, there’s (Routine, Nostalgia, and Contentment) and Act II (Abnormal, Impersonal, and Shocking). These words are quite literally antonyms of each other, making up two sections that open the story for the reader seem somewhat incongruent. This subversion is used to catch the reader off guard in the same way Scotty’s parents were caught off guard by him getting hit by a car. Through this subversion and clash of two “Acts” is meant to lead the reader along with a wordless argument focused on one end: that the child didn’t deserve to be hit by the car on his birthday, a usually comforting and reliable day being put to a swift halt by a shocking, random, and (as the driver sees him and drives away) even cruel action. The narrative pulls one into the parents’ viewpoint and rationale using a pathos-centered argument. It translates their emotions onto the reader, helping them view how “unfair” life could be as if they’d experienced hardships such as that firsthand.

Another way this story puts the reader into the character’s shoes is through the design of the father and mother characters. Both are introduced without any physical description and from then on, the only adjectives given is their actions, or qualities about them, rather than focusing on any specific physical characteristics. Take, for example, the most in-depth description we ever get of Howard, the Father: “His eyes were bloodshot and small, as if he’d been drinking for a long time. His clothes were rumpled. His beard had come out again.” (Carver, 72) The most one can make out from this is the fact that he A) is tired, B) wears clothes, and C) has a beard sometimes. Ann, the mother, isn’t given a name until the second page, establishing her as a mother before an individual. Indeed, neither seem to be entirely fleshed out as unique characters, even at the end of the story, as though they may have changed it’s simply a change from a state that they were originally thrown into at the beginning of the story. The audience has no idea what they’ve changed from, or changed to. It’s through this intended vagueness that the reader projects themselves all the more easily into the parents, experiencing their trials and tribulations associated with the death of a child not just with them, but firsthand. No beginning or ending character establishment is given because the text functions in a way to put the reader’s own character at the beginning and end of the story. Working one through the same struggles and emotions as these rather empty focus characters, the reader is changed in a similar way as the parents are. Put through their suffering and life experiences, the reader adopts the same emotions as the parents and with that their response to life’s hardships, following and growing with them through the plot arc.

As the plot progresses and Scotty’s situation gets worse, the reader adopts similar emotions and reactions as the parents in response to the perceived injustices. The initial shock and frustration at the undeserving accident displayed in mock-acts I & II is heightened by the slow frustration and seeming indifference displayed by the hospital, before being turned into a directed rage toward the baker as his incessant calls and Scotty’s death unfortunately coincide. This tension intended to carry over to the reader reaches its height as both parents confront the baker, a seemingly justified action even given the threat of lethal force. The reason this rather irrational action seems much more rational is primarily that tension and buildup of “injustices” that Howard and Ann face throughout the building arc of the story, and the baker, whether intentionally frustrating them or not, became more of an outlet or a symbol for their injustices than anything else. Of course, with this way of thinking came the inevitable “snap back” to reality, in which the baker steps down from the position of demonized indifference and reveals himself to be just as much a human as the parents are. Mark Facknitz, when critically reviewing “A Small, Good Thing,” summarized this moment with the claim that “through imperceptible and trivial dishonesties we create large lies that can only be removed by superhuman acts of self-assertion” (293) Essentially, Ann and her husband had, in their blind mourning and regret, attached the misguided anger stemming off of their personal tragedy onto the baker, fabricating the assertion that the baker was in fact an evil man in an attempt to ease their suffering.

However, in this study of how people react to difficulties and hardships and life does not come with an ending that simply highlights the irrationality of it all. No, by having the baker step down and help them Carver showed the other, later response to grief that may come in time after a traumatic accident like the death of a child. In an analysis of this scene by Gabi Taub, the moment is broken down as “The baker helps to connect these people, in their shock, to the very need to eat, to the need to talk, to his own empathy for them, indeed-for he talks of his own loneliness-to their empathy for him. And it is, if it is small at all, a good thing. The best one can do then and there.” (Taub 8) Here we finally see the baker as someone who had experienced suffering as well, having come to terms with it a while ago but still dealing with the suffering that comes with it. Not only does this reveal him to be human, but it also serves as a reminder that there is hope in a life outside of suffering and injustice. By talking to the couple, the baker helps them see that hope, empathizing with them in their low and guiding them along to what it took him months to find: acceptance. As the couple cries over warm rolls, they cime to the realization that “unjust” or not, Scotty is dead and they have to live with that fact. It’s a sad truth, a grim truth, but the fact that they come to that conclusion produces a note of hope that the story ends on. It’s the reminder that we as a species are adaptable creatures, capable of processing and coming to terms with even the most tragic moments of our lives.

That’s really what the story attempts to foster in the reader: by putting them into the parents’ shoes, and leading them through the same arc of suffering and acceptance, Carver reminds them that they too have the strength to look at something in their own lives, whether that be “as tragic” as what the parents went through, and accept it as something that they never had any control over.

Works Cited

Taub, Gadi. “On Small, Good Things: Raymond Carver’s Modest Existentialism.” Raritan, vol. 22, no. 2, 2002, pp. 102–119. ProQuest Central, Accessed 7 May 2021.

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, 1986, pp. 287. ProQuest,


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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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