Jack: Character Analysis

Jack: Character Analysis
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    Dec 29, 2020
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Raymond Carver’s short story collection “Cathedral” utilizes complex characterization to underline consistent interrelated themes of unemployment, alcoholism, separation, relationship breakdown, and despair. The focus of this paper is to critically evaluate Carver’s use of Jack’s narration in “Feathers” in the context of Jack’s relationship with other characters and consider what Jack’s narration demonstrates to the reader about his character and perception of events around him.

It is submitted as a central proposition in this paper that it is the use of Carver’s characteristic sparse narration style and repeated use of silence through Jack that not only highlights the futility of Jack’s marriage but reveals significant characteristic traits.  Moreover, Jack’s narration not only presents the discourse itself; it is arguable that the role of Jack’s narrative highlights the consequences of different methods of communication or lack thereof.  For example, this is reinforced by the often criticized ending of Feathers as lacking a complete resolution, thereby suffering from an absence of closure.

Indeed Jack’s inability to communicate the cause of his marriage breakdown underlines his naïve resignation to the fact that whilst Fran has changed, their marriage will continue. As such, Bugeja argues that:

 “Although Carver prepares us throughout the story for the newfound desire of Jack and Fran to conceive a child, he does not ready the reader for his flash-forward commentary…. confusion about the moment of narration generates surprise in the ending and makes us wonder why Carver employed such a strategy in the first place” (Bugeja, 77-78).

This criticism of Carver’s use of Jack as the narrator is supported by Lehman’s contention that whilst Jack’s silence and complexity remain compelling; the use of the peacock, on the one hand, symbolizes desire, which is absent from Jack’s marriage. However, Lehman argues that the use of the peacock’s symbolism remains a symbol as Jack’s narration fails to provide satisfactory answers (Lehman 54).

However, it is submitted that it is precisely Jack’s continued use of silence and lack of resolution in Feathers that underlines the inherent complexity of Jack’s character. This in turn simultaneously fuels the mystery surrounding Jack’s motivation along with reader curiosity surrounding his feelings particularly about the cause of marital breakdown to which the reader never receives answers. As a result, Jack’s characterization in such a manner represents Carver’s continuous focus on the effect of different communication modes or lack of in the context of familial relationships throughout the Cathedral collection.

On the other hand, it is evident that Jack’s narration fails to address the why factor in his marriage breakdown notwithstanding the repeated references to silence, which mirrors the void in their marriage. This silence highlights Jack’s inability to communicate with Fran, however, it would appear that Jack fails to realize that this silence actually reinforces how far apart he is from Fran. As a result, the simultaneous silence and lack of awareness suggest that Jack is resigned to this state of inertia in his relationship whilst not completely wanting to separate from Fran; which reinforces the underlying hopelessness of their relationship.

Indeed, arguably it is Jack’s lack of recognition regarding the void between him and Fran that reinforces the tension in their marriage to the readers. This is evidenced through the tense dialogue when they go to Bud and Olla’s house. For example, Fran remains sarcastic throughout when Jack notices that Fran thinks “the day was shot”. On the other hand, Jack remains hopeful: “He laughed. We all laughed. Fran laughed along with the rest of us”.  This telling observation not only highlights how Fran has changed but it also implies a degree of hope from Jack’s perspective. This in turn underlines the bleak reality of their relationship as Jack’s silence in the narrative reflects his inability to take action to save the marriage he still harbors hope for saving.

Moreover, whilst Jack convinces himself that Fran’s “change came later”; the interaction between Jack and Fran highlights the underlying tension in their marriage and the fractious nature of their relationship. These signs remain apparent to the reader and therefore Jack’s oblivion highlights his optimistic nature, which reinforces the impending doom pertaining to the precarious nature of his marriage particularly when compared with Bud and Olla whose discourse throughout the evening provides a stark contrast to Fran and Jack’s lack of communication.

For example, Fran’s bitterness is revealed in her comment “Goddam those people and their ugly baby…and that smelly bird… Christ, who needs it!”  This bitterness at the heart of their relationship breakdown is further underpinned by Jack’s revelation to Bud regarding the shifting dynamic in their marriage when Jack states it has changed and that “we don’t talk about it. What’s to say?”  Additionally, Jack reveals that “she and I talk less and less as it is” this insightful comment reveals not only Jack’s final acknowledgment of the change in his relationship with Fran but also how he remains convinced it is a change and buries his head as to why it has changed and what he can do to help work on their problems. Jack’s inaction highlights his belief that this is just what happens in relationships.

To this end, Champion highlights the point that:

“Examining feathers in terms of the narrator’s unspoken discourse helps further illuminate the story’s ending. Silence plays a role in the breakdown of Jack and Fran’s marriage, for it depicts their inability to communicate, a lack of communication that occurs between two characters in the story. Silence also operates in Jack’s unspoken discourse as narrator” (Champion 2). Moreover, as a narrator, Jack’s silence not only comprises what he leaves unsaid but in turn fuels the questions he leaves unanswered (Champion 2).

Therefore, this forces the reader to find clues at the end when Jack reiterates that “the change came later- and when it came it was like something that happened to other people, not something that could have happened to us. Fran doesn’t work at the creamery anymore, and she cut her hair a long time ago. She’s gotten fat on me, to”

As such, Jack raises the recurring question with regard to why in their relationship. Whilst on the one hand this continues to leave unanswered questions for the reader; it reinforces the sadness in Jack’s narrative and his futile hope for his marriage.

Bugeja, M. Tarnish, and Silver: An Analysis of Carver’s Cathedral. South Dakota Review, 24.3. (1986) 73-87

 Carver, R. Cathedral. Vintage Press, 1989

Champion, L. What to Say: Silence in Raymond Carver’s Feathers. Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1997.

Lehman, D. W. Raymond Carver’s Management of Symbol. Journal of the Short Story in English 17 (1991): 59-74.