A Small, Good Thing


Raymond Carver

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A Small, Good Thing Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Raymond Carver's A Small, Good Thing. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, before his family moved to Yakima, Washington. In 1957, when he was 19, he married 16-year-old Maryann Burk. The couple had two children by the time Carver was 20. Carver and his wife worked a variety of low-paying jobs to support their family, which gave Carver insight on working class life. Carver attended Chico State University and later Humboldt State College, from which he received his BA in 1963. He then attended the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Carver eventually released the short story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Cathedral. Carver’s writing tends to focus on working-class and lower-middle class people, featuring characters who worked low-paying jobs and encounter the mundane difficulties in American life. He also wrote poems, many of which appear in the collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Carver struggled with alcoholism throughout most of his adult life, until he quit drinking in the late 1970s. He eventually separated from his first wife and lived with the poet Tess Gallagher from the late 1970s until he died of lung cancer in 1988.
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Historical Context of A Small, Good Thing

Although “A Small, Good Thing” was written in 1980, it seems to be set earlier in the 20th century. The story focuses on social connections that a white couple makes with various people, including a Black family that’s referred to as a “Negro family” in the story. “Negro” is now considered an outdated and offensive term, so this language indicates that the story is set in a past time period—perhaps when racial segregation was still commonplace. Most of “A Small, Good Thing” takes place in a hospital, where the effects of segregation would have been especially pronounced and even life-threatening. Under Jim Crow (segregation) laws in the U.S., hospitals serving Black communities tended to be understaffed and underfunded. Furthermore, segregation within hospitals themselves (with entirely separate wings for white and Black patients) led to subpar health outcomes for Black Americans. Even after the civil rights movement made overt segregation illegal, racial discrimination continued to negatively affect Black Americans’ health, as they were often still sent to lower-quality hospitals than white people were. It’s possible that these issues played a role in the death of Franklin, the son of the Black family that Ann meets in the hospital waiting room.

Other Books Related to A Small, Good Thing

“A Small, Good Thing” was published in Carver’s short story collection Cathedral, which was similar in its realistic style to Carver’s other story collections, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver wrote in his essay “Fires” that he admired the British writer Lawrence Durrell, whose books include Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. Carver also acknowledged reading novels and short stories by Ernest Hemingway, whose terse prose Carver’s work has been compared to. Hemingway’s most prominent works include books like A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, but he also wrote short stories and published the short-story collections Men Without Women, Winner Take Nothing, and In Our Time. Because of his poignant short stories, Carver has also been compared to Anton Chekhov. Chekhov was a Russian playwright and fiction writer who was famous for his short stories, including those in the collection The Wife and Other Stories.
Key Facts about A Small, Good Thing
  • Full Title: A Small, Good Thing
  • When Written: 1980
  • When Published: The story was initially published in an edited form as “The Bath” in 1981. It later appeared in the short story collection Cathedral as “A Small, Good Thing” in 1983.
  • Literary Period: Minimalism
  • Genre: Short Story
  • Setting: Mid-20th-century U.S.
  • Climax: Scotty dies suddenly after being in a coma for days.
  • Point of View: Third-Person

Extra Credit for A Small, Good Thing

Unedited. After Carver’s death, his wife published the collection Beginners, which presented many of his stories in their original, unedited form. These versions show how Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, made significant changes to Carver’s stories, converting them from much longer and more verbose pieces to the famously minimal style of Carver’s earlier collections.

For Tess. Carver married the poet Tess Gallagher only six weeks before he died in 1988. Carver’s poem “For Tess,” presumably about Gallagher, appeared in Poetry in 1985.