'Popular Mechanics' Analysis

Understanding Raymond Carver's Short Story About Disagreement

Gears. Image courtesy of Guy Sie.

"Popular Mechanics," a very short story by Raymond Carver. It was included in Carver's 1981 collection called "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."

"Popular Mechanics" 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 a long-running magazine for technology and engineering enthusiasts of the same name.

The implication is that the way the man and 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 it's possible 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 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.

Intentional Wording

The use of passive voice in the final sentence is chilling, as it fails to assign anyone responsibility for the outcome. Additionally, 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 1 Kings in the Bible.

In this story, two women arguing over ownership of 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. Because of this woman's selflessness, Solomon recognizes that she is the real mother and awards her custody of the child.

Escalations and 'Winning'

Unfortunately, there is no selfless parent in Carver's story. At first, it appears that 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 even that.

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 one another.

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.