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It doesn’t take a Tolstoy: Raymond Carver’s “Put Yourself in my Shoes”

Vasiliki Fachard
p. 43-62


During a visit to his house by a writer (Myers), Morgan tells a story intended as “raw material” for his guest. Met with the writer’s silence and laughter rather than the acknowledgement he is seeking, Morgan will tell two more stories, unconsciously modifying their realist premises with each telling, as he appropriates bits and pieces of a new discourse hidden in the subconscious forces of Myers’s silence: his own other. At the end, Myers walks away with a story of both men’s appropriation of the discourse of the other: Morgan’s now, but also Myers’s assimilation of the “old masters” then, when he rented Morgan’s house while the academic was paying “homage” to the “old masters” in Europe. Morgan’s house, which he guards with the help of Buzzy the dog, is in fact a petrified monument to the “masters” of realism. By breaking the “lease” that bound him to the house, Myers was freeing himself from their influence and breaking new ground. The whole story, finally, belongs to both men, and the reader must piece together the moving parts of both men’s appropriation of new and old matter in order to know the whole - writer and story.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Raymond Carver

Texte intégral

In the everyday rounds of our consciousness, the internally persuasive word is half-ours and half-somenone else’s.
Mikhail M. Bakhtin

Don’t you people understand that there is a key to this comedy?
Luigi Pirandello

1 “I insist on knowing,” vociferates Morgan as Myers, the writer to whom he has played host throughout the evening, is leaving his premises. “I am waiting, sir.” Precisely what the professor of literature in the story “Put Yourself in My Shoes” (Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?) would like to know is whether the writer has stolen his “two-volume record of ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic,’” walked away with it at the end of his sojourn in the house Morgan had rented to the Myerses while he and his wife were on sabbatical in Germany. By the end of a story which dovetails with the end of the visit, however, the reader suspects that the record is an alibi or an object on which Morgan displaces his fear or gnawing intimation of a much more serious and menacing theft: that the writer has usurped him of his once authoritative discourse on realism, subverted the very premises which Morgan sees as his function to defend. In a story about the writing process, those premises were made manifest throughout the evening in a series of stories Morgan told, initially aimed at providing Myers with “raw material” for his. Far from acknowledging those narratives, the latter will repudiate them through silence, laughter and other non-verbal signs of insolence in which his angry host feels a menace for all that he upholds. His fear that a new writer has been invading his territory, chipping away at the old Tolstoyan monument he guards and seeking out in the fossilized matter of the “old masters” material for a new story will ultimately be confirmed after Myers has ended his visit and he and his wife are leaving Morgan’s grounds: “He was silent and watched the road. He was at the very end of a story.”

2In diametrical opposition to the above closing lines, the opening shows Myers going through a writer’s block: “He was between stories and felt despicable.” Polarized thus between a story emerging at the end and the lack of one in the beginning, the story-in-between has been about its own making, a story-as-process which, as the name Myers (My/yours) suggests, must be shared by both men. For paradoxically, if Myers is the explicit writer in the story, he has done no telling whatsoever, leaving that task entirely to Morgan. On the other hand, by not acknowledging Morgan’s first story, Myers provokes his host into telling two other stories, each time hoping to obtain the writer’s endorsement. The sequence of the three framed stories told throughout the visit will thus provide the warp for the whole narrative, whose discourse is spun invisibly by Myers’s insolent behavior. In the end, Myers will have piloted Morgan’s voci-feration in silence, supplying him with “raw material” of a different kind and which Morgan does not acknowledge any more than Myers does his. It is raw “matter” from unconscious forces which, by virtue of being unarticulated, Morgan (whose function is to verbalize) can never know or recognize as part of himself – his own Other.

3With each successive story, therefore, Morgan will be unconsciously yielding to new imperatives he simultaneously resists, holding on to old tenets while moving into new grounds. As the writer invades his premises in silence, Morgan is being jostled out of his former fixity and the realistic discourse of each story he tells is “rattled,” but only to redress itself after each jolt with particles from the debris of matter resulting from his collision with Myers. His third and last narrative, consequently, will have come to meet the demands of an altogether new writer and no longer of an “old master” like Tolstoy. To know the change Morgan’s narrative vision has undergone from the first to the last, the reader must shift focus from their content to their structuration, not neglecting the inter-space between them. The modulation his discourse undergoes as each story is rebuffed by the writer’s silence points as much to the interstices between the tryad of stories as to what the actual events are about; less to the stories themselves than to the dialogic space resulting from the agonistic “match” between realism’s custodian (Morgan) and its saboteur (Myers).

4The above story of Morgan’s assimilation of new matter, however, is only half of the diptych of a story the writer leaves with at the end of the visit. To be whole, it must be matched with its opposite, or Myers’s appropriation of old matter during the year he inhabited Morgan’s house. Re-visiting that same house now, Myers can begin to reject the premises of realism he had thoroughly assimilated then, distancing himself from the “old masters” Morgan guards in order to find his own voice. In so far as that appropriation was dynamic rather than static, transformative rather than imitative, it permitted him to break into new narrative territory. As the two men move in time (past/present, present/past) appropriating old and new material, they are simultaneously polarized between the forces each half embodies: conscious/unconscious, reaction­ary/subversive, silent/articulated. The opposi­tion in their functions transforms the visit into a “match,” with each contestant defending his part of a larger narrative territory on which Carver fictionally projects his own need to know the equally divided or binary structure that “creates tension” in his narratives: “It is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things” (Fires 17).

  • 1  Anagrammatic “tinker[ing]” (Carver’s word for Jakobson’s bricolage) with Morgan’s first name, E-D- (...)

5As two parts of a self-reflexive story, the two men are functions of each other, at once sharing and colliding in a house which, having been inhabited by both at different time periods, emerges as their “common literary residence” (Skenazy 79) or Jamesian house of fiction. Having turned it into a sanctuary or pantheon to the “old masters,” Edgar Morgan guards its premises ferociously with the help of his dog1. By extension, the “lease” he also accuses Myers of breaking is the mimetic contract which once bound both men to the referential illusions of realism, a copula that fused them into a single couple or perfect “match.” To break away from the above univocal “match,” the writer need only lay bare or unveil the conventions through which Morgan is masking rather than penetrating into what he claims to be the real. He best achieves such unveiling of realism’s artefices by leaving his host’s stories telles quelles, unacknowledged and unwrought rather than put through the realist “mill” for which Morgan proposes his “material” as “grist.”

6Serving as the story’s matrix, unveiling is first suggested in the name of the bar the wife chooses in which to meet Myers for a drink: “He found Voyles, a small bar on a corner next to a men’s clothing store.” An old French spelling for voiles ‘veils’ whose etymological root designated the canvas-like material used to cover a statue or a work of art before its inauguration, the word also means sails, thus evoking what Myers’s process lacks: the wind needed to “puff” (“Fat”) those sails into narrative activity. Functioning also as a muse in the story, Paula achieves yet another objective by inviting her husband to Voyles: she has brought him out of the house, where he was vacuuming rather than writing. It is also at Voyles that the inspiration to visit the Morgans, in whose house Myers will be rid of his writer’s block, comes to her: “Why don’t we stop and visit the Morgans for a few minutes?” Helping him overcome his resistance to the visit when he recalls “that insulting letter they sent telling us they heard we were keeping a cat in the house,” she assures him that “they’ve forgotten about that by now.”

  • 2  Carver also saw himself as an “instinctual writer” (Conversations 199).

7Although not the only infraction the writer committed then, it is on the cat – forbidden on his grounds by the lease – that Morgan displaces his fear of the writer’s process of “knowing” the other’s territory: cat-like in its silent and intuitive penetration of the space which houses the literary traditions of the past2. In contrast, Morgan’s need to defend unquestioningly the old premises compels him to have a dog, the animal that functions oppositionally to the cat and which will go after the writer couple as they approach his grounds:

They got out of the car…. They had gone a few steps when a large bushy dog hurtled around the corner of the garage and headed straight for Myers.
“Oh, God,” he said, hunching, stepping back, bringing his hands up. He slipped on the walk, his coat flapped, and he fell onto the frozen grass with the dread certainty that the dog would go for his throat. The dog growled once and then began to sniff Meyers’ coat.

8Morgan has apparently not forgotten the incident of the cat, for they have been received as tresspassers to his property by the Cerberus-like Buzzy. Yet more hostility lies in store for them the moment they reach the professor’s door:

“We’re the Myerses,” Paula said. “We came to wish you a Merry Christmas.”
“The Myerses?” the man in the doorway said. “Get out! Get in the garage, Buzzy.”

9The equivocal position of “get out,” directed at Buzzy yet immediately following the interrogative “The Myerses?” blurs the addressee, as does the order that immediately follows: “‘Get, Get! It’s the Myerses,’ the man said to the woman who stood behind him trying to look past his shoulder.” Is Morgan, we wonder, telling Buzzy to get away (“get”) or inciting him to “get” (go after) the Myerses, the name that is in the same direct clause? The doubt will be dispelled later when Morgan inadvertently admits he did nothing to stop Buzzy from going after Myers: “I saw it. I was looking out the window when it happened.” For the present, the above intersecting signals point to Morgan’s effort to suppress the hostility he still fosters against one who violated the “lease.” Mixed with the anger, however, is also a curiosity to know the writer couple: “We’ve been very curious about the Myerses. You’ll have a hot drink, sir?” The curiosity is shared by the wife: “Stay…. We haven’t gotten acquainted yet. You don’t know how we have…speculated about you.” Her use of “speculated” signals the mirror-like (specular) effect each couple is to have on the other through the refraction of parts belonging to the whole but atomised writer.

  • 3  Similar “matches” are uncannily found in other Carver stories such as “The Train,” one of his most (...)

10Unable to displace his repressed anger on Buzzy once inside the house, Morgan will now “muffle” it in the kitchen, where he goes to prepare his guests’ drinks: “Myers heard the cupboard door bang and heard a muffled word that sounded like a curse.” Transposed to writing, an analogous muffling or veiling of his real feelings through literary conventions will be manifest from the first story Morgan begins to tell once back in the living room: “‘I heard something the other day that might interest you.… It’s a horrible story, really. But maybe you could use it, Mr. Myers .… Grist for the mill, you know and all that,’ Morgan said and laughed and shook the match” (emphasis added). The reader’s eye could glide over the “match” were it not for its repetition in Myers’s manner of disposing of his: “Myers lighted a cigaret and looked around for an ashtray, then dropped the match behind the couch” (emphasis added)3. Cohering with Myers’s provocative function in the story – his disregard for social (literary) conventions and violation of Morgan’s grounds – the polysemic “match” “dropped” by Myers constitutes his first act of insolence, just as Morgan’s shaking of the “match” initiates a series of fissures he will inflict on the perfect (realistic) “match” he once formed with his other half. The first tremor was felt when Morgan “laughed” at a “horrible story” he nevertheless urges Myers to “use.”

  • 4  “Literary parody of dominant novel-types” according to Bakhtin, “plays a large role in the history (...)

11Disengaging himself from the plight of his characters before he has even begun, Morgan will alienate Myers even more with his parodic4 telling of the “torrid affair” the fellow colleague had “with one of his students.” After asking for divorce, the man was hit on the head with “a can of tomato soup” by the son, causing a “concussion that sent the man to the hospital. His condition is quite serious.” While touching an emotional chord in the two wives, the story elicited a mere grin from Myers rather than involvement. “Catching the grin and narrowing his eyes,” Morgan, who is after the writer’s acknowledgement of his story rather than that of the credulous readers the two wives represent, will propose a point of view or identification with a character who will have the reader’s sympathy: “Now there’s a tale for you, Mr. Myers.... Think of the story you’d have if you could get inside that man’s head.” No sooner, however, had Morgan suggested Myers put himself in the “man’s head” than Mrs. Morgan come to the defense of the wife (“Or her head.…The wife’s”), while Paula’s sympathy goes out to “the poor boy.” Seeing that Myers is losing interest in his story (“Mr. Myers, are you listening?”) Morgan decides to shift his focus from the man to the coed: “Think about this for a moment. Mr. Myers, are you listening?.... Put yourself in the shoes of that eighteen-year old coed who fell in love with a married man. Think about her for a moment, and then you see the possibilities for your story.”

12“Lean[ing] back in his chair with a satisfied expression,” Morgan has little doubt that his “raw material” as well as suggestions for the narrator’s perspective are worthy of a Tolstoy: “It would take a Tolstoy to tell it and tell it right…. No less than a Tolstoy. Mr. Myers, the water is still hot.” Rejecting the premise of a realist author’s omniscience, his ability to “get inside” a character’s head, Myers declines to share the “hot drink” with his host and brusquely answers, “Time to go.” By refusing to endorse any one of the four characters as most deserving of his sympathy, the writer has also repudiated the very postulate of deciding the above for the reader; in hushing his own voice, he has implicitly acknowledged the voice of all the other three persons in the living room who, in differing, have sympathized alternately with all four characters of Morgan’s story:  man, wife, boy, coed. He has thus undermined the once single voice of the author who led the reader by the nose, arbitrarily deciding where his/her sympathy should go. Through a silence, finally, that prompted Morgan’s shift from the “man” to the “coed,” a move that was motivated not by moral considerations but by the greater “possibilities” offered by the latter, Myers has exposed a non-involvement Carver equates with a lack of “honesty” in Conversations:

“Honesty in writing is one of the things that has remained with me....
If I were to write a story about the lady next door, say, who’s over there starving to death and I don’t really care about her dying, then the reader feels my non-involvement on the very first page of the story; my feelings and my apathy are expressed by my choice of words.” (78)

  • 5  A cryptogram for r-a-y-ders, a-r-d-r-e-y-s can be ray-mond Carver’s way of inscribing himself in h (...)

13Defeated after his first story’s attempts to draw the writer back into the “shoes” of a realist, Morgan will utter his second “curse” as he returns to the kitchen to prepare a second round of drinks before venturing on a second story: “He went to the kitchen and this time Myers distinctly heard Morgan curse as he slammed the kettle onto a burner.” As the embarrassed Mrs. Morgan tries in her turn to “muffle” his “curse” with a “hum,” a chorus of carolers heard in the distance makes her raise her head in an attempt to listen: “Mrs. Morgan rose from her chair and went to the front window. ‘It is singing. Edgar!’ she called.” The Myerses also proceed to the window followed by Morgan, all four characters holding their cup. At still another window “Myers could see the faces across the way – the Ardreys…”5 A metaphor of the writer’s self-reflection, the double window functions much as in other narratives by Carver, and more precisely in “Viewfinder,” whose narrator (and presumed writer monitoring his work through a series of photographs) examines the picture his other half has taken of him standing at the window of his (fictional) house:  

I looked a little closer and saw my head, in there inside the kitchen window.
It made me think, seeing myself like that. I can tell you, it makes a man think.

14Whatever thinking our four characters have done on this house of fiction as they stand by the window, Mrs. Morgan alone will give voice to her thoughts: “‘They won’t come here,’ Mrs. Morgan said after a time.” Astonishing everyone, the innuendo of her remark stings Morgan most of all, who will retort by saying: “What? Why won’t they come here…. What a goddamned silly thing to say!”  Her answer, “I just know they won’t,” propels the husband to uncannily turn to the other wife in the story, thus reinforcing the reader’s suspicion that she is part of the foursome that is, in reality, a single, fractured writer: “Mrs. Myers, are those carolers going to come here or not? What do you think? Will they return to bless this house? We’ll leave it up to you.” Although Paula did not answer, what Mrs. Morgan must know about “this house” is apparently grave enough to make her “put the cup down and…weep” – as the carolers pass her house by.

15The word “bless” strikes the reader as semantically wrong for carolers – since when are carolers endowed with a clergyman’s canonical authority, according to the Scriptures, to “bless” a house? Its resonance, however, infuses the window scene with religious connotations as it also recasts it in a double mise en scène or stage-within-a-stage. As the four people at the window (proscenium) are watching a religious process-ion, we too are watching them (through the window of the Ardreys/Read[y]rs), holding their cup (chalice) and quest-ioning (“they won’t come”/“will they come?”) or beseeching the (holy) figures for a moral assessment of a story just told. Such an assessment is effectuated through a masterful glissando from Morgan’s real house to the fictional house of which his story is metonymic. Beginning with the former, Mrs. Morgan’s remark and weeping suggest a murkiness that Morgan is reluctant to probe into, thereby dismissing the episode as mere “excitement”: “‘Well, now that all the excitement is over,’ Morgan said and went over to his chair. He sat down, frowned, and began to fill his pipe.” No more willing to share the house secret with their guests is Mrs. Morgan, who escapes from the malaise through melodramatic tactics from which neither the weeping nor the “handkerchief” with which to dab her tears is missing: “Morgan gave his handkerchief to his wife.… Mrs. Morgan…dabbed at her eyes. She used the handkerchief on her nose.” In dodging the issue of the carolers’ veering away from their house, the couple acts antithetically to Carver, who writes in Fires: “You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself. You’re told time and again when you’re young to write about what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets?” (201) The contiguity between the secrets of a real house and those of a story that does not inscribe them into its discourse deprives both houses of a blessing. For the synecdoche house/fiction, in other words,“bless” has acted as an unlocked valve: lack of honesty in one cannot but conflue with and contaminate the other as well. Resisting the above permeability, the Morgans persist in closing the valve, or withholding their secret while continuing to think themselves authorized to “talk about honesty” in their stories. It is precisely what Mrs. Morgan will urge her husband to do in the next story after intimating, through the allegory dramatized by the carolers, that “honesty” was the missing ingredient in her husband’s first story and what deprived it from their benediction:

“We’ll let Mrs. Morgan tell this one.”
“You tell it, dear. And Mr. Myers, you listen closely,”  Mrs. Morgan said.
“We have to go,”  Myers said. “ Paula, let’s go.”
“Talk about honesty, ”  Mrs. Morgan said.
“Let’s talk about it,” Myers said. Then he said, “Paula, are you coming?” (emphasis added)

16Incoherent is the writer’s consent to “talk about it” as he simultaneously prepares to leave. Has Myers, we wonder, even heard what Mrs. Morgan said? Or is the discrepant answer his way of telling Morgan that he too has been saying one thing and doing another, soliciting the reader’s sympathy for the “horrible story” that happened to a “friend” while he “laughed” at it himself. Failing to engage Myers with his words, the didactic Morgan can only empower them by “raising his voice” in the manner of an angry pedagogue: “‘Iwant you to hear this story,’ Morgan said, raising his voice. ‘You will insult Mrs. Morgan, you will insult us both, if you don’t listen to this story.’ Morgan clenched his pipe.” Little did the professorial Morgan know that the writer’s “grin” at his own previous “tale” about the coed would turn into even more insolent laughter after hearing his wife’s story about a stranger named Mrs. Attenborough who died in the Morgans’ house soon after returning to Mrs. Morgan the purse she had lost:

“Fate sent her to die on the couch in our living room in Germany,” Mrs. Morgan said.
Myers began to laugh. “Fate . . . sent . . . her . . . to . . . die . . . in . . . your . . . living . . . room?” he said between gasps.
“Is that funny, sir?” Morgan said. “Do you find that amusing?”
Myers nodded. He kept laughing. He wiped his eyes on his shirt sleeve. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “I can’t help it. That line ‘Fate sent her to die on the couch in our living room in Germany.’ I’m sorry. Then what happened?” he managed to say. “I’d like to know what happened then.”

  • 6  According to Roland Barthes, for whom “Il n’y a pas de fait divers sans étonnement” ‘there is no f (...)

17Parodic once again of “literary” or “pseudo-poetic” rather than “common language, the language of normal discourse, the language we speak to each other in” (Fires 29, 28) sounds Mrs. Morgan’s use of “fate” for a fait divers of a story, an absurd accident void of the transcendence the narrator wishes to give – force upon – it. Oblivious to the writer’s mockery, however, Mrs. Morgan resumes the story which ends with the discovery of her own “hundred twenty dollars” in the dead woman’s purse. The revelation of the stranger’s dishonesty leaves Mrs. Morgan “astonished,”6 but the didactic Morgan, for whom literature must also have a moralizing function, cannot resist expressing his “keen disappointment” at the theft, thus causing Myers to giggle once again. The giggling will so inflame Morgan that he will accuse Myers of not being a “real writer,” or what we know by now the academic equates with realist: “If you were a real writer, as you say you are, Mr. Myers…you would not dare laugh! You would try to understand. You would plumb the depths of that poor soul’s heart and try to understand. But you are no writer, sir!”  

18Can the “poor soul” Morgan is referring to be the same Mrs. Attenborough who had removed the money from his wife’s wallet? If so, he has forgotten the “keen disappointment” he expressed at the woman’s deceit in the preceding sentence. Wishing to merely “talk about honesty,” Morgan has ended up defending a dishonest stranger, and exposing his own insincerity as a narrator in the process. The glaring contradiction must have seeped into Morgan’s unconscious as well, for in his next tirade against a Myers who is “shaking with laughter” he unwittingly implies that for all their realism, his two previous stories were not “real,” as the third one he is menacing to tell presumably will be:

“The real story lies right here, in this house, this very living room, and it’s time it was told!  The real story is here, Mr. Myers,” Morgan said. He walked up and down over the brilliant wrapping paper that had unrolled and now lay spread across the carpet. He stopped to glare at Myers, who was holding his forehead and shaking with laughter.

  • 7  A similar reflexion on “paper” as eponymic of a certain kind of writing is also seen in “Cathedral (...)

19Comic indeed is the sight of Morgan walking on the “brilliant paper” that his wife has been wrapping the Christmas gifts with throughout the visit. There is more than humor, however, in the doggedness with which he walks “up and down” the presumably narrow width of the gift-wrapping “paper that had unrolled,” his feet clinging to it as to a magnetic field until the end of his story: “Morgan’s lips were white. He continued to walk up and down on the paper, stopping every now and then to look at Myers and emit little puffing noises from his lips.” Even taking into consideration his paroxysm of anger at the sight of a laughing Myers, his seeming oblivion to the rustling and tearing his feet are doing to the paper is so excessive by any mimetic standards as to draw the reader’s regard on the paper itself: the “brilliant” side being ruffled and “broken” by Morgan’s feet is clearly evocative of Carver’s own “smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface” (Fires 17) of a story,7 whereas Morgan’s inability to extricate his feet from the paper endows it with an uncanny power that is new for Morgan. In the fiction Myers represents and which Morgan is about to appropriate, paper exercises a magnetic ocular pull on the writer as it draws to its white surface forces lying, unsuspected, within him. As such, it is no longer the inert material on which the events of a story pre-existing in his head are trans-[s]cribed but the first truly “raw material” on which those forces will be in-scribed. Escaping the auctor’s control and turning him into a scriptor, paper functions much as it did for the symbolist Mallarmé remembered by Valéry in his Cahiers: “I have often heard Mallarmé talk of the power of the white page – generating power. One sits in front of the empty paper. And something writes itself, creates (makes) itself – etc. The power of the void…” (II 1035). A similar passage can be found in J. M. Coetzee’s Foe: “Writing is not doomed to be the shadow of speech. Be attentive to yourself as you write and you will mark there are times when the words form themselves on the paper de novo, as the Romans used to say, out of the deepest of inner silences” (142-143). Not much different from the above is Carver’s own rhetorical question in Conversations: “How do I know what I want to say until I see what I’ve said?” (171).  

20Coming out of Myers’s “deepest…silence” and given utterance – voci-ferated – by Morgan in a new crescendo of anger is a new story that will now write Morgan as much as he will write it. Clinging to his diegetic linearity and coupling with it, it will unveil his embryonic appropriation of new tenets resulting from his collision with Myers. In yielding with reluctance to Myers’s new imperatives, Morgan’s third and last story will also be honest in so far as it is – unlike the ones before – referential to his own life rather than to the lives of others: it is about the infractions Myers committed when he was lodging in Morgan’s house. As such, it meets Carver’s definition as well: “The fiction I’m most interested in…strikes me as autobiographical to some extent…. At the very least it’s referential” (Fires 200).


21Contrary to what we might expect from his insistence on “here,” however, his “real story” does not unfold in the hic et nunc but in the past. Yet Morgan is not all wrong when he says that his story is “here.” Underneath the seeming contradiction, he is beginning to intimate an uncanny connection between the writer’s behavior now and his sojourn then: it connects oppositionally to what he appropriated (with the help of the cat) when he inhabited (and was inhabited by) the realist’s grounds. Without a thorough assimilation of the message of the “masters” then, “this story,” as Morgan will soon tell us, “would not exist.” Both acts – the writer’s appropriation of matter in the past and its ultimate subversion now – are two phases in his dialogic appropriation of realism’s tenets, two parts of a single transformational process that is simultaneously “here” and “there,” or temporally double.

22Overlapping, furthermore, with Myers’s appropriation of the ancients then is Morgan’s embryonic assimilation of a new narrative technique now; as one (Myers’s) is about to come to an end “here”in the form of a story, the other merely begins to coalesce in Morgan’s consciousness. Still clinging to the past while yielding to the impact of new forces, Morgan can be seen as putting on the new writer’s shoes without having taken off his own. Similarly fusing past and present is the “brilliant…paper” the “shoes” rumple and dent: it has “unrolled” like a scroll on which new material or in-scriptions will be engraved alongside Morgan’s old discourse, turning the scroll into a palimpsest. To read both the visible and invisible script of the palimpsest – the two men’s separate (ex)(in)cursions into and out of the space of “this” house at different time intervals – Morgan has well intuited his need of a reader who is “friends with” both men. Such is the mutual “friend” who found Morgan a tenant while he was in Germany:

Consider this for a possibility, Mr. Myers! Morgan screamed. Consider! A friend – let’s call him Mr. X – is friends with…with Mr. and Mrs. Y, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Z.

23Still mindful of social codes and convenances, Morgan most likely uses letters to veil the identity of his guests. What he may not be conscious of, however, is that the same letters (typographical characters) are simultaneously doing away with one of realism’s illusions: names for real-life characters. Moving away from an old psychology through which a writer had the illusion to “plumb the depths” of a human “soul,” Morgan’s use of the algebraic-sounding XYZ points instead to “human presences defined only by a system of relationships, by a function….” (Calvino 34). It appears that Morgan, the old realist whose use of XYZ now smacks of Jacobson’s theory of functions, is about to appropriate a new…narratological discourse. As functions of each other, Y and Z are two parts of a single writer for whom division is a pre-requisite to “know[ing] each other,” to seeing more clearly the incessant shuttle of different “raw material” each brings to the other.

Mr. and Mrs. Y and Mr. and Mrs. Z do not know each other unfortunately. I say unfortunately because if they had known each other this story would not exist because it would not have taken place. (emphasis in the text)

24Coming from a man who could barely “muffle a curse” when serving Myers a drink and whose hostility toward him we have been witnessing all along, Morgan’s use of “unfortunately” first strikes us as semantically dissonant for two men who hate each other in real life. Most likely, what Morgan wants to say is that he would not have taken Myers as a tenant if he had known the transgressions he would commit. When Morgan repeats and underscores “unfortunately” in the second sentence, however, it becomes clearer that he has glided once again (as with “bless”) from life to fiction: the word is no longer contiguous to the two men as real-life characters but to their function in the story (“…if they had known each other this story …”). In a self-reflexive reading of “unfortunately,” in other words, Morgan has intuited that this new story owes its existence to their inherently divided narrative vision. The convoluted temporality of the second sentence, from which we can extract the following premises, as of a syllogism, shows Morgan’s attempt to fuse or reconcile the two:
- 1. this story exists because it has already taken place.
- 2. this story exists because the two men did not know each other.

25In the first premise Morgan is conforming to realism’s demands that a story take place before a writer can do with it what Morgan urges Myers to do with his: “put that story into words and not pussyfoot around with it….” Writing, then, becomes “the shadow of speech.” In the second premise, however, Morgan is acknowledging the existence of a story that came into being because of their other-ness to, or not knowing each other. While one man verbalizes the order of events, the other pilots the silent process that brings ever new matter to the threshhold of Morgan’s utterance. In their vision of realism, moreover, the two men are also at odds with each other. Divided in time, they are also separated by two continents as well as two different concepts of a literary house. Morgan, for whom writing is imitative of the “old masters,” pays “homage” to them in a European museum which houses a “Bauhaus exhibit”:

One afternoon in Munich, Edgar and I went to the Dortmunder Museum. There was a Bauhaus exhibit that fall, and Edgar said the heck with it…let’s take a day off. We caught a tram and rode across Munich to the museum. We spent several hours viewing the exhibit and revisiting some of the galleries to pay homage to a few of our favorites amongst the old masters.

26To this day I have found no existence of a “Dortmunder Museum” in Munich (Dortmund being in Westphalia and Munich in Bavaria, at the other end of Germany). Although Carver may have known of such a museum when he published the story in the Iowa Review in 1972…, it is more likely that he engages in scriptural play with the names Dortmund[er] and Bauhaus – and possibly poking fun at the professor’s geographical and cultural lacunae. Interestingly, the composition of Bau-haus points to the construction, or building (bauen) of a (literary) haus. The underscoring of “Bauhaus,” however, may serve to recall to the reader what Morgan may ignore: that it was an avant garde movement which radically broke with the past and was thus subversive of “old masters.” Morgan, whose house is as full of “clutter” as his discourse full of verbiage, could not have paid homage to Gropius nor adhered to his motto of “less is more” if the work of the new master were not innocuously exhibited in a museum, petrified or fixed in time. Equally significant is the composition of the name Dort-munder in its evocation of a speech (mund ‘mouth’) that is distant (dort ‘over there’) or far-away from where Myers is while the academic is groping to find his bearings in Europe. Rejecting the canonical trip expected of an American writer and that Morgan urges Myers to also take (“I should think a trip to Europe would be very beneficial to a writer”), Myers was able to dialog with the ancients right here in his native soil and in Morgan’s (his own other’s) house. It was here, in a living house, that he also brought what one cannot bring to a museum: a cat; here that he was able to turn their “influences [into] forces” (Fires 19) through an intuitive act Morgan will never know so long as Mrs. Morgan, an extension of himself, can never have any living animal in the house:

Now, Mr. and Mrs … Z move into the house and bring a cat with them that Mr. and Mrs. Y hear about in a letter from Mr. X. Mr. and Mrs Z bring a cat into the house even though the terms of the lease have expressly forbidden cats or other animals in the house because of Mrs. Y’s asthma.

27Menacing for Morgan was the cat-like intimacy Myers was to acquire of every nook and cranny in his “house.” It marked the writer’s first violation of the “spirit and the letter” of the “lease” that bound him to the order of the ancients. The disruptive act of bringing the animal that will leave nothing unturned provokes Morgan into sending “that insulting letter” which signaled the first fracture in a couple whose prior one-ness Morgan will unveil in his confusion of Y and Z in the following lines, a lapsus in which the two men are shown to be as permutable as algebraic symbols:

The real story, Mr. Myers, lies in the situation I’ve just described. Mr. and Mrs. Z – I mean Mr. and Mrs. Y’s moving into the Z’s house, invading the Zs’ house, if the truth is to be told. Sleeping in the Zs’ bed is one thing, but unlocking the Zs’ private closet and using their linen, vandalizing the things found there, that was against the spirit and letter of the lease. (emphasis in the text)

28What Morgan has ended up saying after his own correction (“Mrs. Z – I mean Mr. and Mrs. Y’s…”) is that the Morgans (previously designated by the letter Y) have moved into the house of the Myerses (previously designated by the letter Z)  rather than the opposite. Is the error due to inattention on the part of Carver? Although not to be excluded, that possibility is made remote by the fact that the shuffle was done following a hesitation and “correction,” both presuming a brief moment of awareness on his part. If intentional, Carver may have chosen to ridicule Morgan’s inadequate assimilation of the language of functions, part of a narratological discourse that plays tricks on him for not yet being entirely his. A trick, however, may also be played on the old reader, for such an error can ultimately not say any of the above if it goes undetected, as it risks to be by the passive reader of a realistic story who would never suspect an author of not getting his characters straight. For the reader who questions the authorial voice, however, who does not glide over the graphic material of a scriptor, the permutation of letters comes to strengthen the intuition that the two men are one divided writer or “this same couple” that Morgan tells us about immediately following the confusion that momentarily blurred their identity:

And this same couple, the Zs, opened boxes of kitchen utensils marked ‘Don’t Open.’ And broke dishes when it was spelled out, spelled out in that same lease, that they were not to use the owners,’ the Zs’ personal, I emphasize personal, possessions.” (emphasis in text)

29As two parts of a writer’s severed self, oscillating between a narrator of process and of a “fixed position,” the two men are as inextricable as the two parts of the story, a splintered new narrative characterized by a flux toward a fixity that must never be reached, for that would spell the end of “tension,” “menace,” or the “sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story” (Fires 17). Thus, Myers can circulate and pry into all that Morgan’s house contains – it is his function to do so – but when he invades the “attic” or uppermost layer of Morgan’s mimetic territory, where silence breaks into speech, “a line has to be drawn,” as Mrs. Morgan protests:

“And the bathroom things, dear – don’t  forget  the bathroom things.... It’s bad enough using the Zs’ blankets and sheets, but when they also get into their bathroom things and go through the little private things stored in the attic, a line has to be drawn.”

30In the topography of the literary house, the “line” that must not be crossed if tension is to be maintained is that which splits the story/writer into conscious and unconscious forces, the membrane that generates the dynamics of process. For such a story’s new brand of realism, the wife is first to intuit, Tolstoy is no longer the model, as he was for the first story (“It would take a Tolstoy to tell it…”).

“And it doesn’t need Tolstoy to tell it,” Mrs. Morgan  said.
“It doesn’t need Tolstoy,” Morgan said.

31Sensing the above as the couple’s surrender to the imperatives of his own narrative vision, Myers now knows that his function has come to an end: “Myers laughed [and] he and Paula got up from the couch at the same time and moved toward the door. ‘Goodnight,’  Myers said merrily” (emphasis added). Unsurprisingly, it is the only time Paula will not try to hold him back. His merry disposition contrasts with Morgan’s sense of defeat, the intimation that he served merely as mouthpiece of a process masterfully steered by the silent Myers. Sensing the departure to be definitive this time and having run out of tactics with which to hold the writer back, Morgan, who has hosted his guest’s story, turns vicious and makes the following accusation: “I didn’t intend to bring this up, but in light of your behavior here tonight, I want to tell you that I’m missing my two-volume set of ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic.’ Those records are of great sentimental value. I bought them in 1955. And now I insist you tell me what happened to them!” In a move that surprises the reader, Mrs. Morgan will now come to the defense of the other husband in the story:

“In all fairness, Edgar,” Mrs. Morgan said…“after you took inventory of the records, you admitted you couldn’t recall the last time you had seen those records.”
“But I am sure of it now,” Morgan said. “I am positive I saw those records just before we left, and now, now I’d like this writer to tell me of their whereabouts. Mr. Myers?”

32Left with two versions, the reader who has by now learned to doubt Morgan’s sincerity, who knows that his stories contain contradictions (“poor soul” for Mrs. Attenborough), errors (X for Y), discrepancies (“unfortunately”), as well as untold secrets, cannot but suspect a gap in his memory now as well. Turning, therefore, not to what Morgan says but to signs of what he does not, more reliable for such a reader is the title and date of the record, the inherent opposition of “Jazz” and “Philharmonic” (literally, love of harmony, the opposite of jazz). The “sentimental value” Morgan attaches to the moment the higher institution opened its doors to the one which had contested its laws of composition may tell us something about the only kind of appropriation Morgan considers legitimate: that which has been canonized – blessed – by a venerable institution such as the Philharmonic. Morgan, we presume, could not have recognized jazz before 1955, a landmark date that commemorates an event: the harnessing, after a lapse of time, of the menacing forces once inherent in its movement. Such commemorations, as we know, tend to touch a sentimental chord.

33Evocative of a similar process for the academic was the Bauhaus, a modernist movement which waged its war on the “old masters” of architecture before finally gaining admittance into the (imaginary) “Dortmunder.” Morgan could not have accepted their heretical ideas before such recognition or “canonization” any more than he could have accepted jazz before 1955, the year it was instituted within a larger musical tradition. By analogy, deprived of the canonical blessing of a higher authority, what Myers did in Morgan’s house remains in his eyes an act of usurpation rather than a contractual appropriation respectful of the “lease.” Antipodal to a professor of literature who needs an external authority to “bless” or acknowledge the phenomenon that has taken place in his living room is the writer: he has participated in the creation rather than commemoration of an event. For Myers, appropriation is “self-wrought” and the result of an “inaugural act [which] has an implicit teleology. It creates history” (Miller 29).

34As they leave the Morgans behind, the Myerses “surprised Buzzy. The dog yelped in what seemed fear and then jumped to the side.” Having earlier “growled” and “gone for his throat,” has Buzzy, we wonder, now come to recognize a new “master”? Has his function, that is, also undergone permutation: from Cerberus (guardian of the dead) to Argos (Odysseus’s dog who recognized his real master despite the clothes veiling his identity)? Or has he been deprived of his function altogether, as the following statement from Roland Barthes’ inaugural speech at the Collège de France may suggest: Ce n’est pas, si l’on veut, que la littérature soit détruite; c’est qu’elle n’est plus gardée: c’est donc le moment d’y aller” ‘It is not, so to speak, that literature has been destroyed; it is that it is no longer being guarded: it is therefore the moment to go in’ (27).

  • 8  Buzzy’s status is raised to that of a character by Mrs. Morgan, who “announced” him to the Myerses (...)
  • 9  In this issue, see Charles May’s note on döppelganger figures p. 38.

35Sounding like a license to loot, Barthes’ “moment to go in” would be alarming to Morgan, as would all new “fictions without authority” (Bonnefoy 10) that proclaim the death of the author. Such anarchy would be devastating for the hierarchical order Morgan maintains in his house, beginning with the place he assigns to Buzzy: “‘He sleeps in the garage,’ Edgar Morgan said. ‘He begs to come in the house, but we can’t allow it, you know.’ Morgan chuckled.”8 Gloating over his control of Buzzy’s living quarters, Morgan shows that the first condition in his rapport with his own dog is one of distance rather than affection, a rapport of “master” to “servant” reflecting his own submission to the unquestioned authority of the “old masters.” His relation to Buzzy thus illuminates the broader hegemonic discourse we have seen him hold on literature, a body of works he cannot know when deprived of the authoritative voice of a master or an “official line” (Bakhtin 345) to which he will passively submit. He thus remains he on whom new knowledge is forced  rather than embraced by. At the end of a narrative which has unveiled its own process, the portrait of the “real” Morgan is also being unveiled: that of a reactionary academic whose “authoritative discourse demands our unconditional allegiance” rather than our “free appropriation and assimilation” (Bakhtin 343). The disturbing implication of the above does not escape Paula as she leaves his house: “Those people are crazy…. They were scary.” “Scary” indeed is a dogmatic professor in his defense of calcified “material” and petrified monuments to dead writers who remains deaf and blind to the work of the living. In contrast to Morgan, Carver has no “sympathy for guardians, so-called, of sacred flames” (Conversations 181). Alarming also is one who knows all about the manipulatory “power of the pen and all that” and urges the writer to “use” it. Ever threatened by the invisible unconscious forces he muffles within him, Morgan is “scary” by virtue of being scared of his own…double. Too busy venerating the masters, Morgan, finally, did not see that doubleness transcended boundaries of literary schools and that it was far from unknown to realists like Henry James9 or even to his own model, Tolstoy, who wrote: “In a writer there must always be two people – the writer and the critic” (cit. Wallace 170). Having learned the lesson of the masters, Carver knew that Myers could not have unveiled his new narrative without Morgan remaining fixed in his blind devotion to the ancients: he provided Myers with the resistance and opposition he needed for his creative act. Together they constitute a couple of stasis and movement, reactionary forces pitted against the creative urge to explore new grounds. As tempting as it is for the reader, therefore, to put Carver solely in the shoes of Myers, the explicit writer in “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” s/he must not forget his/her function of being “friends” with both men, of knowing that each contains and is contained by the other, that the whole writer is to be found in a dizzying process of dédoublement and embedding of one man’s story within the other’s. Toward that end, it may help to keep in mind that it was Carver (and not Morgan) who said: “Tolstoy is the best there is” (Fires 207).

36If, in Pirandellian fashion, we persist in seeing the story’s “[Four] Characters in Search of a [single] Author,” we will not find Carver in the shoes of either man – or his spouse – but in the oscillating movement of taking off one pair and putting on another – half of him “knowing,” half of him ignoring the ground they are treading. For consciousness, as he suggests in Conversations, is in the act of writing: “When I start writing…. I don’t always know what I’m doing.... Sometimes I’m quite surprised, even when I read the story in longhand and am typing it up. Sometimes I won’t know what’s coming next. I’m quite surprised to see what I’ve written. I’ll be reading something, and think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. What’s going to happen now?’” (144)


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Barthes, Roland. Essais critiques. Paris: Seuil, 1964.

---. Leçon inaugurale. Collège de France. Paris. 7 Jan. 1977.

Bonnefoy, Yves. Leçon inaugurale. Collège de France. Paris. 4 Dec. 1981.

Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. New York: Vintage, 1989.

---. Fires. New York: Vintage, 1983.

---. No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings. Ed. William L. Stull. New York: Vintage, 1992.

---. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? New York: Vintage, 1992.

Gentry, Marshall Bruce and William L. Stull, eds. Conversations With Raymond Carver. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Coetzee, J. M. Foe. New York: Penguin, 1987.

James, Henry. Preface. The Portrait of a Lady. Ed. Robert D. Bamberg. New York: Norton, 1975. VI –  IX.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Ethics of Reading. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1987.

Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Skenazy, Paul. “Life in Limbo: Ray Carver’s Fiction.” Enclitic 11 (1988): 77-83.

Valéry, Paul. Cahiers II. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

Wallace, Martin. Recent Theories of Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 1986.


1  Anagrammatic “tinker[ing]” (Carver’s word for Jakobson’s bricolage) with Morgan’s first name, E-D-G-A-R, also indicates his function to be that of G-A-R-D-E, the French word for “guardian.”

2  Carver also saw himself as an “instinctual writer” (Conversations 199).

3  Similar “matches” are uncannily found in other Carver stories such as “The Train,” one of his most mysterious narratives whose multi-fractured or irrevocably “broken” mimetic surface is best understood if seen as a rebus or a dream. Oniric thus is the description of the story’s protagonist as an “old man…without shoes” waiting at a train station as well as his obsessive search for “matches” throughout the story. After stepping outside temporarily, he returns to tell his female companion: “I found some matches…. There they were, a book of matches right next to the curb. Someone must have dropped them” (emphasis added). If “repetition is in itself a sign” (Riffaterre 49), the above “matches,” which rupture rather than cohere with the diegetic flow of the story, are also signs pointing to how we should read Carver’s own “book of matches”: by matching or connecting parts “dropped” from the writer’s unconscious so that they might elucidate an otherwise incoherent narrative.

4  “Literary parody of dominant novel-types” according to Bakhtin, “plays a large role in the history of the European novel. One could even say that the most important novelistic models and novel-types arose precisely during this parodic destruction of preceding novelistic worlds” (309).

5  A cryptogram for r-a-y-ders, a-r-d-r-e-y-s can be ray-mond Carver’s way of inscribing himself in his text. The double window would thus permit one part of the writer to take a distance from the first story which Morgan has just told in order to view it from the window “across the way.” The “neighbors’” window, moreover, may also serve as a loge for the r-e-a-d-[y]-r-s, the word that results from further tinkering with the same letters.

6  According to Roland Barthes, for whom “Il n’y a pas de fait divers sans étonnement” ‘there is no fait divers without astonishment’ (Essais 197), Mrs. Morgan’s reaction would appear the only honest response one can have to an act committed by a person whose deep motives escape us, as do those of a stranger like Mrs. Attenborough.

7  A similar reflexion on “paper” as eponymic of a certain kind of writing is also seen in “Cathedral” when the blind man asks the implied writer, “go get us a pen and some heavy paper.… So I went upstairs. My legs felt like they didn’t have any strength in them. They felt like they did after I’d done some running. In my wife’s room, I looked around. I found some ballpoints in a little basket on her table. And then I tried to think where to look for the kind of paper he was talking about.”

8  Buzzy’s status is raised to that of a character by Mrs. Morgan, who “announced” him to the Myerses: “‘His name is Buzzy.’ Hilda Morgan announced….”

9  In this issue, see Charles May’s note on döppelganger figures p. 38.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Vasiliki Fachard, « It doesn’t take a Tolstoy: Raymond Carver’s “Put Yourself in my Shoes” », Journal of the Short Story in English, 46 | 2006, 43-62.

Référence électronique

Vasiliki Fachard, « It doesn’t take a Tolstoy: Raymond Carver’s “Put Yourself in my Shoes” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 46 | Spring 2006, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2006, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :


Vasiliki Fachard

Vasiliki Fachard studied French and Comparative Literature in the U. S. and at the Sorbonne. After writing her PhD on Paul Valéry and teaching at the State University of New York at Albany, she moved to Switzerland, where she first started writing on Carver, focusing on his fiction as self-reflexive. Her other articles for JSSE are on “Fat,” “Vitamins,’’ and “Collectors.” She is currently working on a book entitled In the Shoes of Raymond Carver: Where to Look for the Writer in His Fiction.

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