Raymond Carver

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Elephant Study Guide

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

Brief Biography of Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver was born to a working-class family, the son of a sawmill worker. He married young, just out of high school, and supported his family by working a series of jobs: gas station attendant, janitor, and delivery man. He became interested in writing after taking a college-level creative writing class, and soon his stories began to appear in magazines. His first successful short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet Please?, cemented his reputation and allowed him to focus on writing. He eventually landed a job teaching creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, and then at Syracuse University. Throughout his life, Carver battled alcoholism, an addiction that frequently resulted in stays at the hospital. At the age of fifty, he died from lung cancer.
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Historical Context of Elephant

Much of Carver’s work focuses on the social and economic effects of poverty in blue-collar America. Though the 1980s is often remembered for its materialism and consumerism, the decade is also characterized by a decrease in wages for low-income Americans. Ronald Reagan’s economic plan, called Reaganomics, centered the idea that money from the wealthiest Americans would trickle down to the poorest Americans. Yet, these benefits failed to materialize for many working-class Americans. Additionally, the fall of import prices in the 1980s led to deindustrialization, as many American factories moved production overseas, resulting in large-scale layoffs. The switch from an industrial to a service economy broke up many existing labor unions, causing union membership to fall drastically. In sum, working-class Americans were facing a decrease in wages, less powerful unions to defend them, and mass layoffs, which is reflected in the family’s hardship in “Elephant.”

Other Books Related to Elephant

Carver’s realist style, known as minimalism, prioritized brevity. Perhaps the writer who most influenced Carver was Earnest Hemingway, who was known for his terse style. Hemingway’s novels, like The Old Man and the Sea, feature the same simple, concise language that would later characterize Carver’s work. Nearly all of Carver’s stories, including his two most famous collections, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral, focus on blue-collar America. They often depict characters who struggle with addiction or other self-destructive behaviors. After Carver’s success many American writers adopted his minimalist style, albeit with their own twists. Tobias Wolff’s first story collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, was lumped together with Carver’s work under a label called “Dirty Realism” for its grittiness and unadorned language.
Key Facts about Elephant
  • Full Title: Elephant
  • When Written: 1988
  • When Published: 1988
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Minimalism
  • Setting: A working-class American town
  • Climax: The narrator has two dreams that reframe his idea of dependency
  • Antagonist: Financial strain
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for Elephant

Editing Controversy. Raymond Carver’s original, unedited stories are quite different from how they mostly appear in print: his longtime editor, Gordon Lish, controversially altered Carver’s work by changing character names, modifying endings, and, in two cases, cutting a story’s length by seventy-five percent.