Short story: “Chef’s House”

by look i have opinions

“Chef’s House,” by Raymond Carver

From the November 30, 1981 New Yorker; listen to the October 2010 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; also in Raymond Carver: Collected Stories; also found online here

1,959 words

I like the inevitable feeling of Wes’s despair. To me, he seems like the sort of person who does really well for a while and then runs into an obstacle and gives up completely, because in some secret way he was looking for a chance to give up all along.

There are two big things I have difficulty figuring out in my own writing and sometimes other people’s—emotion and gender. A piece of writing that seems unemotional to me will strike someone else as highly emotional, and vice versa. That in itself may be why gender is tricky for me.

All fiction contains emotion, implied or otherwise, but there are lots of radically different methods of conveying emotion. The writer’s choice of method has a big impact on the way people read the gender of the point-of-view character, the narrator, and the author. I’m having a hard time formulating rules about this. Here’s a stab at it:*

  1. A bald statement like “Pat was sad” can read as masculine or neuter.
  2. The addition of an abstract analysis tends to make such a statement read as feminine. “Pat felt a sadness that went beyond this one room and this one fatherless child….”
  3. But the less artful the analysis is, the more masculine it can be, since emotional clumsiness is a marker of masculinity.
  4. Gushing or rhapsodizing tends to read as feminine, artful or not.
  5. Any analysis that seems to extend empathy to more than one person/character tends to read as feminine.
  6. Self-absorbed and non-empathetic emotion can more easily read as masculine, though it depends a lot on context.
  7. Clinical or detached analysis of emotion: not sure.
  8. Emotion can be hinted at via a symbol or via a character’s gesture. When the narration dwells on that symbol or gesture, milking it for emotional content, it tends to read as feminine. I think.
  9. When the same symbol/gesture is just mentioned briefly, or when it has a non-emotional function, it tends to read as more masculine. I think. It’s like the plausible deniability of gendered emotional displays.
  10. When emotion isn’t mentioned or hinted at, but the action or plot or situation tends to inspire an emotional reaction, that reads as neuter or masculine. I think.
  11. All the above rules apply to dialogue too, only more so. The one exception is remarks like “‘I’m sad,’ said Pat,” which tend to read as feminine unless they are obviously motivated by something outside of the character.

This is all made messier by the fact that some emotions are themselves gendered. Grief, devotion, and other feelings with an abject quality tend to read as feminine, except when they don’t. Inarticulate frustration and stoic self-pity tend to read as masculine.

On this podcast, David Means admits some doubt about whether the narrator convincingly passes as female: “There’s a little bit of a husky tone in there.” It’s true. Edna’s voice has an emotional blankness that reads as masculine to me. “Wes began to cry, but I took it as a sign of his good intentions.” A typical female narrator would not have written this line. She would probably have expressed a more emotional reaction to Wes’s crying. Even if she didn’t have a strong reaction, she would have hesitated to write “I took it as a sign[.]” The phrase has a calculating ring; she would have felt compelled to soften it. And if she had refused to soften it, it would have come out blustery or scheming. It doesn’t. What Edna says is exactly what she means, and she’s strangely unaware of the socially defined role that would have her mean something else.

*I feel like I should add a disclaimer here. Just because a given method reads as masculine/feminine doesn’t mean that it is typical of men/women. Nor do I think that the “masculine” and “feminine” traits I’m describing are necessarily admirable. I’m merely trying to describe the effect these methods have on readers in my culture.

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Section Word count
Opening: Edna agrees to come live with Wes 297 *
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Summer 380 *
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Crisis: Chef breaks the news 320 *
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Closing scene 962 *
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