Popular Mechanics, Raymond Carver: Summary, Analysis & Themes

‘Popular Mechanics’ is one of Raymond Carver’s shortest stories. It is also known by the alternative title ‘Little Things’. The story explores themes of domestic unhappiness and the breakdown of familial relationships.


  • The story begins with the third-person narrator describing the melting snow turning into dirty water and the approaching darkness, foreshadowing the conflict to come.
  • A husband is packing his bags, preparing to leave his wife after deciding their relationship is over.
  • The wife stands at the bedroom door, telling him she’s glad he’s leaving, but he does not respond.
  • She bursts into tears and picks up a picture of their baby from the bed before retreating to the living room with it.
  • The husband demands the photo back, but the wife tells him to finish packing and leave.
  • After packing, the husband goes to the living room, where the wife stands holding their baby in the kitchen doorway.
  • The husband demands custody of the baby, but the wife refuses, calling him crazy.
  • The baby starts crying, and the wife tries to keep the baby out of the husband’s reach, but he grabs the baby.
  • The parents struggle over the baby, knocking over a flowerpot in the process.
  • The husband manages to make the wife let go, and she screams as she loses her grip on the baby.
  • The story ends ambiguously, with the fate of the baby left unresolved as the narrator states that the ‘issue was decided’ in ‘this manner’.
  • Analysis

  • The story ends on an ambiguous note, leaving the fate of the baby open to interpretation.
  • Carver’s use of bland bureaucratic language (‘manner’, ‘issue’, ‘decided’) contrasts with the potentially dark outcome for the baby.
  • The story focuses on the conflict between the parents rather than the eventual fate of the baby.
  • Carver leaves room for readers to interpret and speculate on the story’s ending.
  • The parents are unnamed, as is the baby, suggesting they represent broader types rather than individual characters.
  • The conflict between the parents highlights the selfishness and spite that can arise in familial breakdowns.
  • The Title

  • The story’s title has changed over time, each title offering different interpretations.
  • The original title, ‘Mine,’ highlights the possessiveness and ambiguity of ownership between the husband and wife.
  • The title ‘Little Things’ can be seen as either trivializing the events or highlighting the small objects that frame the couple’s life.
  • The most famous title, ‘Popular Mechanics,’ ironically references a magazine about domestic and technological topics, emphasizing the mechanical and routine nature of the conflict between the parents.
  • Final Thoughts

  • The story’s fundamental message is that selfishness leads people to desire things, including other human beings, not out of love but to deprive others of them.
  • The parents’ struggle over the baby reflects their dehumanization of the child to the level of a possession or object.
  • Carver illustrates this by first introducing the baby as a photograph, an object that symbolizes the baby’s transformation into a pawn in the parents’ conflict.
  • The husband’s desire to take the baby arises from his reaction to the wife’s possessiveness, not from genuine love or concern for the child.
  • Major Themes

    Theme Details
    Domestic Conflict The story centers on the intense and destructive conflict between the husband and wife, highlighting the breakdown of their relationship and the impact on their child.
    Possessiveness Both parents view the baby as a possession to be fought over, rather than a human being needing care and love.
    Ambiguity The story’s ending is left ambiguous, inviting readers to interpret the outcome and consider the implications of the parents’ actions.
    Dehumanization The parents’ struggle over the baby reduces the child to an object, reflecting their selfishness and inability to see the baby as an individual with needs and emotions.
    Irony The title ‘Popular Mechanics’ and the mundane language used to describe the conflict contrast sharply with the emotional and physical violence of the story, highlighting the irony of the situation.

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