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Balance of power in Raymond Carver’s ”Errand”


Anton Chekov, the main character in Raymond Carver’s short story ”Errand”, is dying in a hotel in Badenweiler, a health resort in Germany. The narrative is in the third person. In the form of documentary evidence, the narrator describes the very last moments of Chekhov’s life.


Chekhov’s wife, Olga, and the physician, Dr. Schwöhrer, do everything within their power; however, they realize that ”Chekhov’s end” is coming. ” ’What’s the use? Before it [oxygen] arrives I’ll be a corpse,’ ” says Chekhov callously and calmly. It’s almost three o’clock when Dr. Schwöhrer, calls the hotel kitchen and orders a bottle of the best champagne. A young man, a hotel employee whose ”name hasn’t survived, and it’s likely he perished in the Great War” shows up. He is “carrying a silver ice bucket with the champagne in it and a silver tray with three cut/crystal glasses.” They don’t know what to say.  Olga, Dr. Schwöhrer and Chekhov exchange looks before they take a sip of champagne. Chekhov dislikes being maudlin. His last words are “ ‘It’s been so long since I’ve had champagne.’”

    

In the middle of the story, the same young man shows up again. Here, Carver’s story really takes off. The reader is plunged into Chekhov’s death. What will happen after the death of the author? This seems to be what Olga wonders too. Obviously, she needs time to “set about composing herself.” She asks Dr. Schwöhrer to hold back the death reporting until the break of day. She wants to delay the arrival of the officials, the medical examiner, police and journalists as if she arranging something very important. Why is she determined to arrange everything in detail? Chekhov was already very famous by then. Many of his stories were published in a German magazine. He believed neither in an afterlife nor in anything that couldn’t be “apprehended by one or more of his five senses”. Is she concerned about his reputation? Does Carver convey an underlying symbolism or an idea of the balance of power before and after the death of the author?


The hotel employee enters the scene to explain that breakfast will be served in the garden because of the extreme July heat.  In his hand, he holds “a porcelain vase with three long-stemmed yellow roses.” Olga looks down and stares pensively into the distance. He looks down too, noticing a cork near his shoes, the same one which had “popped out of the champagne bottle” a moment earlier. He wants to bend over and pick it up, but he doesn’t. Then, he notices someone still in bed in the next room. He suggests that “the distinguished foreign guests” can have breakfast in their rooms if they wish. When Olga eventually looks up she is surprised to see flowers. “Flowers?” she asks distracted. “She hadn’t ordered flowers.” She doesn’t care about the breakfast, but she asks him a favor. She needs him on a very important errand “to find the most respected mortician in the city ….A mortician, in short, worthy of a great artist.” It’s not clear why she wants him and only him to do the errand. She gives him a large tip and wants him to follow the instructions carefully. The young man, like the reader, is uninformed about what she is up to or why he should “imagine himself as someone moving down the busy sidewalk carrying in his arms a porcelain vase of roses”.  He suspects her arranging everything in detail: “He could even tell himself that the man [the mortician] he was going to see was expecting him”.

    

The point of view shifts between the young man and Olga. While his perspective is limited, it seems that Olga knows much more. John Peck and Martin Coyle, in their book Literary Terms and Criticism describe the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s point of view on this matter. According to Foucault, they say, “we are, as it were, imprisoned in a surveillance system where we are constantly watched, but also constantly watching out for ‘abnormal’ behaviour by others”. At the same time, we keep a close watch on each other in light of our economic, political or social interest. Foucault also coined the term “author-function” according to Robert Eagelstone in the book Doing English. It means that the death of the author leads at least to the death of the author’s authority. Carver’s story is a good example of this by showing Olga’s embellished concern about Chekhov’s authority. As a result of their fame, Olga and Chekhov practice what they preach. Chekhov pulls his weight well. As a physician and a modest writer, he limits himself to objective observations. “ ‘I change it [a political, religious, and philosophical world view] every month, so I’ll have to limit myself to the description of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak.’” Olga also knows that she is constantly watched. She does her utmost to put together all details as if it was a scene in one of Chekhov’s stories before the journalists and critics cross the threshold to disturb the balance of power. At the very end, she says decisively to the young man “forget about crystal wineglasses and such. Leave the room as it is. Everything is ready now. We’re ready.”


Olga’s power over the young man persuades him to be “engaged on an important errand”. He is given a large tip to do the errand. To him it is a matter of economics interest. However, before he leaves,

still gripping the vase, he bends over to pick up the cork. The cork seems to me as a metaphor

for the last unarranged detail, because “everything was in order except for the uncorked”. 

By picking it up, he does her another favor. I can’t resist seeing the act as a last

awe-inspiring bow to Chekhov.


Ironically, as I feel haunted by the spirit of these great authors, Chekhov and Carver,

I realize that I am trapped into what Peck and Coyle describe as an intentional fallacy.

In other words, I find myself interpreting the text in light of what I believe is Carver’s aim.

Unfortunately, I haven’t the slightest cork to prove it!