"Popular Mechanics" Study Guide

Raymond Carver's Famous Short Story About Gender and Family Dynamics

Gears. Image courtesy of Guy Sie.

'Popular Mechanics,' a very short story by Raymond Carver, first appeared in Playgirl in 1978. The story was included in Carver's 1981 collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", and later appeared under the title 'Little Things' in his 1988 collection, "Where I'm Calling From".

The story describes an argument between a man and a woman that rapidly escalates into a physical struggle over their baby.

Meaning of the Title

The title of the story refers to the long-running magazine for technology and engineering enthusiasts, Popular Mechanics.

The implication is that the way the man and the woman handle their differences is widespread or typical -- that is, popular. The man, woman, and baby don't even have names, which emphasizes their role as universal archetypes. They could be anyone; they are everyone.

The word "mechanics" shows that this is a story about the process of disagreeing more than it is about the outcome of those disagreements. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final line of the story:

"In this manner, the issue was decided."

We're never told explicitly what happens to the baby, so its possible there is a chance that one parent managed to wrest the baby successfully from the other. However, the parents have already knocked down a flowerpot, a bit of foreshadowing that doesn't bode well for the baby. The last thing we the audience see is the parents tightening their grip on the baby and pulling back hard in opposite directions. 

The parents' actions couldn't have failed to injure him, and if the issue has been "decided," it suggests that the struggle is over. It seems most likely, then, that the baby was killed.

The use of passive voice is chilling here, as it fails to assign any responsibility for the outcome. The words "manner," "issue," and "was decided" have a clinical, impersonal feel, focusing again on the mechanics of the situation rather than the humans involved.

But the reader won't be able to avoid noticing that if these are the mechanics we choose to employ, real people do get hurt. After all, "issue" can also be a synonym for "offspring." Because of the mechanics the parents choose to engage in, this child is "decided."

The Wisdom of Solomon

The struggle over a baby echoes the story of the Judgment of Solomon in the book of Kings in the Bible.

In this story, two women arguing over a baby bring their case to King Solomon for resolution. Solomon offers to cut the baby in half for them. The false mother agrees, but the real mother says she'd rather see her baby go to the wrong person than see it killed. By her selflessness, Solomon recognizes who the real mother is and awards her custody of the child.

But there is no selfless parent in Carver's story. At first, it appears the father wants only a photo of the baby, but when the mother sees it, she takes it away. She doesn't want him to have it.

Angered by her taking the photo, he escalates his demands and insists on taking the actual baby. Again, he doesn't really seem to want it; he just doesn't want the mother to have it. They even argue about whether they're hurting the baby, but they seem less concerned with the truth of their statements than with the opportunity to hurl accusations at each other.

During the story, the baby changes from a person referred to as "him" to an object referred to as "it." Just before the parents make their final pull on the baby, Carver writes:

"She would have it, this baby."

The parents want only to win, and their definition of "winning" hinges entirely on their opponent's losing. It's a grim view of human nature, and one may wonder how King Solomon would have dealt with these two parents.