Minimalism is defined as the use of the fewest and barest essentials or elements, as in the arts, literature, or design. In literature, Raymond Carver has been described by some as being the one of the most widely known minimalist writers. However, some have stated that the word minimalist has become some sort of a curse word that all American writers since Hemmingway are attempting to escape. All labels aside, Carver’s form of minimalism is a unique one which grew throughout his literary career and no works better show that then The Bath and its later update A Small Good Thing. Both stories have the same central plot and a majority of details remain the same, but the effects that the stories hold upon the reader is significantly different. While the sparse details, language and sentence structure of The Bath provide a sharp contrast emotionally and artistically to A Small Good Thing, it is what is left out in the ending of The Bath that provides the strongest emotional and stylistic impact of Carver’s writing.
The fundamentals stay the same in both stories, which have essentially the same effect on the reader: Ann, Scotty’s mother, orders a birthday cake from the baker, Scotty is hit by a car and taken to a hospital where a well dressed Doctor assures the family that Scotty will be fine, when in actuality, it seems that Scotty’s condition is degenerating. Throughout A Small Good Thing, Carver painfully adds more detail into the story, which departs from the religiously minimal aspect of The Bath. In doing so, Carver sacrifices open ended questions and expansive and profound thought for a stronger story and more insight into the characters. For example, the baker is described as abrupt, whereas we find him to be rude in The Bath. The actions of Howard, Scotty’s father, are more descriptive which turns him into a larger part of the story. And finally, Scotty’s condition is discussed in greater detail by the Doctor, leading us earlier on to believe that something is truly wrong with him.
The Bath ends with Ann coming home to take a well deserved break from the hospital when she receives a phone call. As Ann asks if it is about Scotty, the voice on the other line, left specifically ambiguous by Carver, states enigmatically that it does have to do with Scotty. This open ending provides several questions for the reader, among them; What is wrong with Scotty? Who made the phone call? and What will Ann’s reaction be? The confusion of the reader then leads to emotions of confusion caused by Carver’s ambiguity. It also stylistically, lends to a model version of minimalism that Carver perfects.
A Small Good Thing then, is Carver’s attempt to break away from this label of a minimalist writer.
The emotions of confusion and ambiguity are lost somewhat by Carver’s continuance with the story line and the increase of detail. However, in losing this open ended and emotionally powerful ending, Carver makes up with it by revealing the nature of the baker.
In The Bath, we can only assume that the voice on the other end of the line at the end of the story is the baker. In this assumption, we perceive the baker almost as a stalker. The blind motivation for making the relentless phone calls is not revealed; instead, the reader is led to feel the baker is disturbed and has attributed human attributes to his baked goods. A Small Good Thing changes this emotion of the baker. In the end of the story, the baker is confronted by the hurt parents who unleash their anger at Scotty’s death at the baker. All he can do is accept this verbal abuse and in this way he becomes messiah-like. The baker accepts all of the parents’ abuse and provides comfort to their wounded hearts and empty stomachs through the nurturing fruit of life, freshly baked bread.
The emotions Carver evokes through this different portrayal of the baker are more acceptable to the common reader. No longer do we leave the story on a sad, indifferent, or confused note; insteaad, the bread serves as closure and of healing the parents’ wounds. The readers of A Small Good Thing, aptly titled, feel this generosity and respond significantly more positive.
Clearly, the revisions by Raymond Carver to The Bath make for a better story. The loops and holes of The Bath are sealed with the extra detail provided in the update. We also leave with a more positive feeling due to the closure brought about with the baker. Carver even manages to shatter the minimalist title that comes along with much of his work. However, A Small Good Thing acts as a trade off with The Bath. While we do get a stronger story and better character insight, we lose the powerful emotions and thoughts that The Bath provokes in the end of the story. The intentions of the characters and identity of the baker is hidden; and the open-ended, thought provoking ending is the most powerful aspect of Carver’s story.