In “Alcohol, Emotion, and Tension in Raymond Carver’s Fiction,” Sara Kornfeld Simpson writes about the complicated relationship between alcohol and emotion in the short fiction of Raymond Carver. The final segment of our class focused on Cathedral, Carver’s fourth and best-known collection. Many students and professional critics have read the collection, the scholarship, and the biographical information, and have come to the conclusion that the movement from alcoholism toward sobriety that is an important pattern in the book is Carver’s clear-cut statement on alcohol: the failure, loss, and emotional disconnection of “Chef’s House” to the recovery and improved communication of “Where I’m Calling From” to the emotional connection and enlightenment of “Cathedral,” Carver’s most famous short story.

Sara Kornfeld Simpson was not satisfied with that reading and decided to dig deeper, including going back to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the title story of Carver’s previous collection. She discovered that alcohol is functioning in a more complex and “paradoxical” way here and elsewhere, and that alcohol and its more complex depiction is a key to the emotional content of Carver’s fiction—emotion that is always in tension, and in relentless motion. Simpson discovered that Carver saw alcohol as a powerful and mysterious element that could enhance lives as well as destroy them, foster communication as well as silence or distort it.

Simpson argues an original and well-motivated claim through a wonderfully close, perceptive reading of four of Carver’s best-known stories, and she balances that reading with careful and astute engagement with a wide range of secondary sources, including Carver’s own essays and interviews, Carver scholarship, and critical essays from other points in the course—a truly successful capstone essay for WR 100.


WR 100: The American Short Story: Tradition and Evolution