Carver Little Things - Title Your Way to Meaning

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					Title Your Way to Meaning

Raymond Carver's shortest story, the one featuring parents yanking on a baby's
arm as if it were a wishbone, has been published under three different titles
although it is most commonly anthologized, discussed, and known by it's second
title "Popular Mechanics." The story was first published with the title of "Mine"
and collected in Furious Seasons, Carver's second story collection, which has long
been out of print and difficult, but not impossible, to find (I recently acquired a
like-new and unread first edition for about a hundred bucks). The story re-
appeared with slight—but not insignificant edits (a subject I'll take up in the next
post)—as "Popular Mechanics" in What We Talk About When We Talk About
Love. When Carver put together what turned out to be his final story collection—
Where I'm Calling From—he again included the story, without edits this time,
except for a title change: "Little Things." Although Carver changed the titles of
several of his stories after they were published, I find it fascinating that this
particular story has three titles. If this piece were an essay in literary criticism I'd
argue under this thesis: Carver considered the story to be core to his oeuvre and
each time he published it he gave it a title which reflected his concerns for that
particular collection. Thus "Mine" reflects the battleground of
marriage/relationships that is so prevalent in Furious Seasons as well as Will You
Please be Quiet, Please?, which came out the year before. "Popular Mechanics"
reflects the stripped down menace that pervades What We Talk About When We
Talk About Love. And "Little Things" is a metafictional rejoinder to the critics
who've labeled him a minimalist, which reflects a major concern of Carver's when
he published Where I'm Calling From: He wanted to present his work in a
broader perspective, illustrate that theminimalism—a label which he rejected—
was just a technique used in some stories, not the defining characteristic of his

In this piece, however, my focus is less on the literary criticism aspects of the
titles, but on titles as an element of short story craft, how they help shape the
meanings of stories. From this angle, "Mine" is the title that most reflects what
the dramatic action of the story is about. It also reflects a common way that
stories find their titles: What Henry James referred to as the donne, the given,
the controlling idea that makes the writer write the story. For instance, "Mine"
reflects the dynamics between the parents. In an adult version of the familiar
battle—"It's mine." "No, it's mine." "Mine." "Mine." And so on—the parents
selfishly argue over the baby as if it were a toy and they children. In this case the
title focuses on the notion, dramatized in the story, that possession is more
important than anything—except, of course, making sure that the other person
doesn't get it. So "Mine" is an example of a title that makes its statement by
analogy as you read the story: The way the parents fight over the baby reminds of
how children fight over their possessions. On the negative side, the title is so
explicit in interpreting the action that it undercuts the story's irony: The parents
are acting like that which they fight over— babies. They reveal themselves to be
children still, despite being adults and parents. That's one of the points the
dramatic action of the story makes. And the title "Mine" reinforces that
interpretation, even leads one to make that interpretation.

The title "Popular Mechanics" on the other hand puts a different interpretation in
mind from the start. First, the title is play on the magazine of the same
name. Popular Mechanics emphasized science, as well as technology-based home
improvement projects, many of which were do-it-yourself. Several interpretations
are suggested: The couple treat the dissolution of their marriage as a do-it-
yourself home improvement project, and that such dissolutions are "popular"; in
the sense that they are common, the norm; and the baby is treated as a
toy/mechanical device rather than as a living breathing child. The title also gets
the imagination working on the physics—the mechanics—of two adults pulling
with all their might on the baby's arms. And to return to the theme of menace so
prominent in the lean stories of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,
the title has a chilling tone to it once you realize what the dramatic action of the
story depicts.

Carver's final title, and thus his last word on the subject, was "Little Things." I
mentioned that one way to read this title is as a metafictional rejoiner to the
critics of minimalism: With this story and its new title Carver is saying bunk to
those who claim that only a maximalist approach can yield meaning or cause an
emotional response in readers. The littlest things, even the minimalist things—in
the hands of a master—can have great power. The key is to focus on
the right little things.

Another interpretation, one focused on the action of the story itself, is that the
littlest things—in this case the wife taking the baby's picture—can precipitate the
worst events, witness the baby being literally pulled apart.

Textually, the word "little" is used twice in the story: "Streaks of it [melting snow]
ran down the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard." And, "She
stood in the doorway of the littlekitchen, holding the baby." These uses of "little"
lend to reading them as the diminished frames (window, doorway) of their
diminished marriage and life. This is a less intuitive reading, but keep in mind
that readers frequently notice, even search out, the words in the story that match
the title, and then latch onto those passages as a clue to meaning.

An even darker interpretation of the "Little Things" title is that it is a commentary
on the parents themselves, as in, "Look at them, such little things." Which is a
commentary on the size of their character for putting such selfish needs (winning
possession) ahead of the baby's welfare.

My point in discussing these three titles is to illustrate how a story that is
essentially unchanged from collection to collection can lend itself to completely a
different range of interpretations because of it's title. (And this is without even
touching upon the most commonly discussed interpretation in the critical studies
of Carver: That this story is an allegory updating the Old Testament passage
where King Solomon threatens to divide a baby in two with a sword as a means to
settle a dispute between two women claiming to be the baby's mother.) The title
you choose has consequences for how the reader interprets the story, so give it as
much attention as any other aspect of your craft.

Taken from the website

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