I’d like to begin by thanking Tyson Woolman for bringing up Raymond Carver in response to one of my recent videos. Today I found “Fever”, in a collection titled, American Short Story Masterpieces (Edited by Raymond Carver, himself, and Tom Jenks). I believe the story had initially appeared in a collection called, Cathedral, which I’m planning to read in full.
“Fever” is a strange story. It doesn’t contain any dramatic event, any transformation of a situation, any turning point in the world depicted in the story. The dramatic and transformative event has already happened prior to the story. The story is formed almost like a delayed response to that event. If there is a transformation throughout the story, it is interior transformation–interior to the main character.
What is the story about? It is about coming terms with a loss. The loss of a marriage. But, more accurately, it is about coming to terms with it, understanding it, in the right way. Accepting the loss isn’t just about accepting the end of the relationship. It’s about accepting the end of the world (and the end to a period in one’s own identity), where that relationship was an essential part. The central character, Mr. Carlyle, is a school teacher. He has two kids. His wife left him a few months prior to the moment we find him at the outset of the story. We read that his wife left him to be with one his colleagues, Mr. Hooper. Mr. Hooper and Mrs. Carlyle (Eileen) are now living their new life in Southern California. The summer is coming to an end and Carlyle, having to go back to his teaching job, needs to find a babysitter for his kids. He has bad luck finding a good babysitter. While he’s dealing with his day-to-day life, his job, the babysitter problems, a new romantic interest, Eileen continues calling him. She is presented as a somewhat New Age-y character. She talks about karma, good vibes, and that sort of superficial spirituality. We don’t know much else about her, but we join Carlyle’s position and get irritated with her and her stream of unsolicited advice.
Eventually, Eileen helps him find a babysitter: an older lady, named Mrs. Webster, who is an acquaintance of Mr. Hooper. It turns out that Mrs. Webster is the ultimate babysitter. She is great with the kids, reliable, kind, and genuinely caring. Things begin falling into place. His new romance starts taking root, as well, but his heart is still (at least occasionally) preoccupied with his wife and the hope of her return. Soon after things begin to settle, the fever begins. The fever coincides with a bad news: Mr. and Mrs. Webster have decided to move to Oregon for financial and family reasons. The great babysitter will soon leave them.
There is a strong (symbolic) link between two of the characters in the story, namely Eileen and Mrs. Webster (I won’t get into a mapping between Hooper and Mr. Webster, though we could explore that, too). Why do I see this correspondence? They are both associated with perfect starts, with hope, perhaps also with a sense of permanence, “things are going to work out!” And, they both end up having to leave. What is crucial, and I think Carlyle’s coming to understand this point is the heart of this story, is that both women have no ill intention toward him. His wife left him for reasons that had very little to do with him. She wanted to pursue her life with Hooper! She wanted to be an artist and live her New Age life in Southern California (maybe learning about Eastern Spirituality and becoming a life coach!). Mrs. Webster, similarly, has to leave for her own reasons. My great art teacher, Kevin McCormick, used to emphasize this insight–when we were working on John P. Shanley’s play The Dreamer Examines His Pillow–that it’s possible to love someone while being unable to give them what they need. In the case of the characters in “Fever”, Mrs. Webster and Carlyle’s wife, Eileen, both are unable to give him what he needs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about him. In my mind, the difficulty of grasping this point is what gives Carlyle the fever. In his feverish state, he tells the story of his marriage to Mrs. Webster, from the beginning to the end. He can hardly cope, and coping requires him to revise the idea of his life and his world, to let go of what is irretrievably lost.
Toward the end, we read about Carlyle:
… he understood it was over, and he felt able to let her go. He was sure their life together had happened in the way he said it had. But it was something that had passed. And that passing–though it had seemed impossible and he’d fought against it–would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he’d left behind.