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Viewfinder by Raymond Carver Themes and Analysis

Updated on May 5, 2013

Discourse Analysis

“Viewfinder” by Raymond Carver is written in the first person point of view. There are two characters in the story, the narrator, and the man who arrives at his house who has hooks for hands. Since the story is written in the first person perspective, the narrator’s thoughts and opinions are openly available to the reader throughout the story. On the other hand, the reader has a limited understanding of the photographer and can only base his character off of his dialogue and depicted actions. Though short, the story manages to capture the narrator at a transitional stage in his life. At the beginning he is hostile and reserved in nature, through both his words and actions, whereas towards the end of the story he seems to have come out of his shell. The photographer is a complementary character and aids him through this, since he is going through similar circumstances.

The narrator invites the photographer in for coffee when they meet at the door. While that in itself isn’t hostile, his intentions are shortly made clear when he thinks, “I wanted to see how he would hold a cup” (Carver 353). His hostility is depicted in his choice of words, where he goes on to refer to the photographer as the “the man” instead of just “he.” As mentioned in the lecture audios, calling the photographer “the man” distances him from the narrator. In a way the narrator sounds repulsed by him, but at the same time curious.

The photographer presents himself in a more blatant hostile fashion. When asked about his hands, he simply replies, “that’s another story… You want this picture or not?” (Carver 353). And of course why wouldn’t he say that? He simply came to make a sale, not for small talk. The reader can sympathize with the photographer because it would be fairly rude asking a stranger that question. He’s probably been asked that question several times, and doesn’t want to feel defined by his hooks. Of course, that’s just the first impression that the reader gets. The reader can also comprehend that lack of social restrain that the narrator has because he asked such an upfront question. Perhaps the narrator doesn’t really care what people think of him? He is certainly perceived as an apathetic character and even though it wasn’t explicitly stated, it is already plausible to assume that the narrator has some sort of backstory.


Field and Mode Of Discourse

The context of the situation is fairly simple. The field of discourse is two just the two characters initially exchanging greetings at the door, and then making small talk throughout the first half of the story; or at least what seems to be small talk but eventually turns out to be a much deeper conversation. The tenor of discourse is simply two strangers. As the story progresses though, the reader realizes that both characters are complements of each other. They both feel the same way and have gone through similar circumstances, and that’s probably why they have a connection even as strangers.

The mode of discourse is a little tricky. The dialogues of both characters are questionable in terms of motive. The narrator wants to know about the photographer’s hand, whereas the photographer just wants to make a quick sale. As the story goes on though it’s clear that both characters are confiding in each other. The narrator subtly hints by telling the photographer that he’s usually in the back. Though the reader doesn’t really pick up on it just yet, this is the first time in the story where the narrator let’s his guard down and is perhaps seeking comfort. The photographer, who is an old man, in all his wisdom starts off the real discussion abruptly by asking, “ So they just up and left you, right?” (Carver 354).

The photographer usually phrases everything as a question. Even if he is making a remark, he will do it as a question. For example, when he returns from the bathroom he asks “All right? Personally I think it turned out fine. Don’t I know what I’m doing? Let’s face it, it takes a professional” (Carver 353). He asks the question, and then answers it himself. Perhaps by doing this he is seeking acceptance from the narrator. In terms of the interpersonal speech function, he could have simply made statements such as “They are fine pictures, I’m a professional at this” and been on the same level of authority as the narrator. By stating them as questions, it puts him in a position of inferiority. Conceivably the photographer’s self-esteem is lowered because of his hooks and he has been trying to gain acceptance in society ever since, and so it comes naturally for him to speak this way.

Another way of looking at it is that the photographer is simply manipulating the narrator into buying the photos, in which case he might be viewed of as being in a position of power. The reader isn’t really sure what the narrator is thinking at this point. Though first person, the narrator’s thoughts are only presented on scarce occasions. Because of this method, the reader puts him or her self in the position of the narrator and sort of fills in the gaps. The narrator simply ignores the photographer’s question and offers him the coffee. The reader can assume a few ideational functions for the narrator because of this.

The narrator simply says, “here’s coffee” (Carver 353). He doesn’t say “the coffee” but simply just “coffee,” another example of his indifferent nature. The circumstantial role for the narrator here is that the coffee is simply a way to prolong the photographer staying at the house. At this point it isn’t clear if the narrator actually wants company or not, he just wants to see how the photographer drinks the coffee. The coffee isn’t really significant and not the main purpose of the interaction between the two, it is simply an excuse for the photographer to be in the narrator’s company.

After the photographer asks if the narrator is alone, the narrator again replies by saying, “drink your coffee” (Carver 354). This time however, he says the words drink and your. He is assigning an obligation to the photographer now, and making it clear to him that he doesn’t want to discuss the matter any further. It’s likely that the narrator is feeling uncomfortable, which is why the reader even gets a glimpse of his thoughts at this point. The narrator was just trying to change the topic, and brought up some kids that had visited him earlier. He turned the conversation back around to the photographer. Maybe now the photographer would discuss the story of his hooks?

At this point the photographer decided to reveal a little more about himself. It seems like he knew the question was just a pointless comment to defer the conversation. He made a point to clarify that he is in fact alone; that he works alone, “always have, [and] always will” (Carver 354). The photographer notices that the narrator is just as lonely as he is, so this is more than likely a method for him to reach out to the narrator.

As they begin to converse, the photographer ultimately reveals that his kids somehow caused him to have the hooks. He says, “They’re what gave me this” (Carver 354). As the course audios pointed out, the word choice in this phrase is quite interesting. He uses the word “this” instead of saying “these”. He is implying that it is a much bigger thing than the narrator would understand. However, it is now out in the open that both of them have essentially the same situation. They are both down because of their families, and have a bond because of it.

The narrator now uses full sentences to express what he wants to say, in an almost excited sort of tone. Furthermore, now he actually wants the photographer to take pictures of him. He says, “Take more pictures of me and my house” (Carver 354). He’s in a state of acceptance now. He accepts that he is alone, with just him and his house. Previously he had questioned even buying the one picture, but something changed, and all of a sudden he wants more pictures. By throwing rocks, it can further be regarded as an act of liberation. Whether it was guilt, shame, or any other negative emotion he had for himself, he is getting rid of it.

The end of the story signifies a new beginning for the narrator. He now seems free, and is symbolically standing above his house, rather than inside of it. He is ready to face the world, and live his life. His past is behind him (or literally beneath him as he is standing on the house). The photographer goes along with the narrator and continues to take the pictures. While the photographer had no initial intention of doing so at the beginning, this chance occurrence has changed both of their lives.


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