Reader Response

Connection Through Loss and the Comfort of Broken Bread

Kasey Johnson

“Baker” by AndyRobertsPhotos is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“A Small Good Thing” by Raymond Carver is a story of loss, grief, misunderstandings, and kindness. Revolving around the birthday of Scotty and his accident, it pulls the reader into a family’s experience as their child is hit by a car on his birthday and they can only wait until Scotty awakens, hoping their son is going to be alright. In the midst of this, much to the parents, Ann and Howard, irritation and anger, the baker who was commissioned a cake for Scotty keeps calling. These calls are only made all the more hateful after Scotty dies, as the caller, the baker, asks “Have you forgotten about Scotty?” Neither the parents nor the baker realizes how hurtful and enraging they are in these exchanges. The parents in not knowing that it is the baker calling, don’t realize it until three days after Scotty’s hit and run. For his part the baker has no knowledge of what’s happened to the boy whose name is on the cake, feels taken advantage of, and angry at being insulted when inquiring about said cake.

The story resolves with the grieving parents deducing the baker as the source of the calls and confronting him. The baker, understanding finally how he had unintentionally hurt them, invites them to sit in his kitchen and feeds them his baked goods, sharing his experiences and apologizing for his actions and contributions to their grief. He also shares that he is glad to be feeding people, and that his trade can bring comfort.

While this story is about fear, loss, and grief, what struck me most about this story is that the story’s main focus and theme is misunderstanding, particularly between the baker and the grieving parents, Ann, and Howard. But the theme is consistent with all the characters, with the Doctor and his interactions with them, as he tries to placate them, it seems as if he isn’t really listening to their concerns. Along the same lines, Ann is mistaken for a nurse after encountering another family waiting for news on their son, Franklin.

This family, as I see it, serves as a literary tool for the readers, not only brining us out of monolithic story and fleshing it out with parallels, but providing us with foreshadowing. To clarify, the family is also grieving, waiting, and mirrors Ann’s own state of mind, allowing her to see outside of her own pain briefly. At the same time the reader is given a wider view of the setting and “world”. They serve to remind the reader and Ann herself, that this is not Ann’s experience alone, that other’s experience these feelings, this pain. At the same time, Franklin’s family, and Franklin himself, act as foreshadowing for Ann and the reader. The moment she returns and inquires on his condition, Ann is saddened to hear that Franklin has died. I also wonder if Carver’s decision to make the family a black family wasn’t premeditated as well, to firmly fix them in our minds eye as mere paragraphs later, Scotty also dies, and Ann and Howard grieve.

The character of Scotty himself is one of great interest to me. Throughout the story, he is not given much by way of character development but is rather an emblematic device, used to further the plot and the development of the other characters, like his parents. Scotty himself isn’t given a character arc, nor is he given much for likes, dislikes, or even any dialogue, but he is the focus of Ann and Howard and the baker’s character arcs as his condition unfolds. His death is impactful, not because we as readers are invested in Scotty himself, but we are invested in Ann and Howard and how this impacts them and how it will affect the upcoming events and the eventual confrontation with the baker. To me what was a most impactful image in the depth of loss that was felt by Howard and Ann was not through any dialogue. What really illustrated the depth of the emotion beautifully was Howard hugging his son’s bike to his chest awkwardly, turning the wheel as he did. When I read this image, I couldn’t help but imagine the man crying as he did so, even though there was nothing written in regard to tears. And yet that sense of grief was so profound in the writing that it was almost an inevitable image to conjure.

I also find it interesting how the symbolic character becomes the connection force for all of the character interactions. This is what I think masterfully sets up the story and the subsequent events, particularly the baker and Ann’s connection when they first meet. In her article “Raymond Carver’s A Small Good Thing”, Wend Good says that Ann disliked the baker at first sight and speaks to Carver subverting this preconception by the end of the story by making the baker a source of comfort. While I agree but I would like to take this a bit further. The baker wasn’t simply disliked, but unimpressive and while Carver makes a point to go into great detail to describe him, making him important to the reader, the baker initially is not important to Ann herself. He is to her a perfect stranger, without any merit, but as the events unfold and Ann realizes the baker is the one calling the house, he becomes a source of profound rage and grief. What’s more the baker ceases to be arbitrary and continues evolving his character in Ann’s last encounter with the baker towards the end of the story. And this is entirely without any true knowledge of Scotty and who he was. Yet, as Doug Trevor points out in his article, “Carver decides to delimit initially the scope of loss that the story explores by very conspicuously placing characters in the story who do not know the central figure, the boy, at all. This would seem, potentially, to make the story less emotionally resonate, but of course the effect is the opposite.”(Trevor, Doug, Stories We Love). Carver was incredibly successful at weaving together character arcs with Scotty as the main thread, from the parents, to the baker, to the doctor, and even Franklin’s family. The intertwining of these characters, rather than detracting from the story, to me make the short story a far fuller and satisfying read.

Something I also noticed was how the preconceptions of both Doctor Francis and the baker are reversed, as Good also points out “In contrast, the doctor at the hospital is described as handsome, big shouldered and tanned. He is someone to trust in a crisis. By the end of the story, though, Carver switches these presuppositions of character. The doctor will disappoint. The baker will bring comfort.”(Good, Wendy, Thresholds). I had mentioned earlier that the doctor’s unsatisfactory answers and somewhat lacking approach in his attempts to comfort Ann and Howard. Yet the story doesn’t paint the two as complete opposites either, both, in their own way, are unsympathetic to the plight of Ann and Howard, whether it is through ignorance or apathy. I would also like to point out that the baker is not named and yet Doctor Francis is, making me wonder if Carver chose to do this for a reason. Was it to trick the reader into painting the baker as the villain? Was it to reinforce our possible conception about the doctor’s importance to the story? In a way it is as if the doctor and the baker are two sides of a coin, yet their outcomes are different for Ann and Howard, who find no comfort in the doctor’s words, but find it sitting in the baker’s kitchen eating the baked goods he offers.

In these last moments, as the baker starts to talk about his life and experiences, sharing his baking and talents, we the reader start to feel a sense of peace and tranquility. Ann and Howard are invited to sit down and are given cinnamon rolls, fresh from the oven, after a tense confrontation. While the baker apologizes, he offers no platitudes, or easy answers. He can only offer them these two things, his experiences, and his baking. In this way we do not get a tidy resolution to the story of “living happily ever after” but as we read, we feel that things are going to be okay. The reader understands fully that Ann and Howard are by no means finished in their grieving process, but are on their way, thanks to the baker.

It was during this scene of baking and eating between the baker and Scotty’s parents, that the baker offers a piece of a freshly baked bread loaf. “‘Smell this’ the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf” ( Carver, “A Small, Good Thing”). The use of the word “breaking” caught my attention. Carver could have used “cut”, “sliced”, or even “tore”, but he used “breaking”. Now it does bring to mind an image of a crust cracking and breaking apart, but it also, for me brings to mind the term “breaking bread”, which is religious in origin, the braking of bread done by Jesus as he sat with his disciples to share his meal, and the breaking of bread is symbolically used in the Last Supper. Typically, the term, “breaking bread” is used as an idiom to indicate sharing a meal. In his own criticism Mark Fracknitz also notices these more religious aspects, “They accept his life story as consolidation, and while eating and listening achieve communion. Carver ends the story at dawn, with hope, and pushes forward symbols of sanctified space and the eucharist.” (Fracknitz, Mark Wendy Good also states that food is used as a “cultural object” also noting the religious undertones of the breaking of bread but continuing on with her observation that “Carver also draws upon the social interactions behind food and nourishment to structure his story. He starts with the excitement of the child’s birthday cake, ‘a spaceship and launching pad under a sprinkling of white stars…’ and finishes at the other end of the spectrum, food to comfort the grieving, or as the baker describes it: ‘Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this’.” (Good, Wendy, Thresholds). Whether Carver was alluding to the biblical or simply using the term for the imagery it created, we can only speculate. However, as religious images and religion itself is used often for comfort, the idea of religion would potentially add to the sensation of comfort for the reader that Carver seems to have been going for.

Within “A Small, Good Thing,” Carver masterfully intertwines his characters together with misunderstanding after misunderstanding. Much like the baker he writes about, he has kneaded this story to the perfect consistency of character interaction, imagery, and dialogue, to create a beautifully balanced loaf of a soft hope, predicated by the gut-wrenching loss. The language that is used gives the reader insight, yet still leaves ambiguity to the end, which while hopeful, remains open for further thought. While a story of loss, grief,  and misunderstandings, “A Small, Good Thing” is also a story of connection, kindness, and comfort and should be forever treasured for its sheer elegance.

Works Cited

Facknitz, Mark A. R. Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 23, no. 3, Summer 1986, p. 287. EBSCOhost,

Good, Wendy. “Raymond Carver’s ‘A Small Good Thing’.” Thresholds,

Trevor, Douglas. “Stories We Love: ‘A Small, Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver.” Fiction Writers Review, 27 May 2013,


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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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