Published in his first major short story collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? “The Student’s Wife” marks Raymond Carver’s first use of insomnia, a plot device and theme he returned to in later stories. As Ernest Fontana notes, insomnia “provides the model for Carver’s fictional technique—specifically, his increased use of present tense interior and dramatic monologue rather than third-person discursive narrative” (447). “The Student’s Wife” also illustrates Carver’s early minimalism, his prose stripped down to the bones.
“The Student’s Wife” opens with the character of Mike reading the poetry of Rilke to his wife, Nan, who drifts into sleep only to awake frightened from a dream. Nan asks her husband to fix her a sandwich, and Mike, now ready for sleep, reluctantly rises from bed. As she eats, Nan tells her husband about her dream, in which an older couple offers her and Mike a ride in their motorboat at the lake. Nan and Mike argue over who will sit in the cramped back seat of the boat, and Nan reluctantly climbs in back despite the discomfort and her fear of water. The dream reminds her of a moment early in their marriage when they as a young couple enjoyed the simple pleasures of camping out and being alone with each other, yet Mike cannot recall the experiences and desires sleep. Nan, afraid to be awake alone, asks Mike to rub her achy legs, which Mike identifies as “growing pains” (38). To push away the anxiety of her dream further, Nan lists the things she likes, and when she invites Mike to do the same, he replies, “I wish you would leave me alone, Nan” before falling asleep (40).
Her uneasiness returns as she listens to the sound of Mike’s breathing. Nan becomes acutely aware of each sound in the apartment building, from her neighbors returning home to the flush of the toilet next door. Nan practices a relaxation technique, which only succeeds in increasing her fear, and she prays for sleep, yet sleep remains elusive. Her sense of unease grows as she listens to the beat of her own heart and begins to cry. Rising from bed, Nan washes her hands and face, smokes a cigarette, cries again, checks on her children, and leafs through various magazines. At the break of dawn, Nan unlocks the door and steps out on the porch to watch the sunrise as “things were becoming very visible” (42). She returns to the bedroom, where her husband in bed “looked desperate in his heavy sleep” (43).
Nan kneels beside the bed and prays: “ ‘God,’ she said. ‘God, will you help us, God?’ she said” (43). Nan’s insomnia and isolation lead to an epiphany, perhaps one about her marriage as suggested by the void that exists between her insomnia and her sleeping husband: “Although the precise source of Nan’s terror is not explicitly identified, the narrative ends with the image of Michael hiding himself from her, denying her intimacy” (Fontana 448). Nan’s frantic prayers imply the difficulties in her marriage and an acknowledgment that the earlier happiness she remembers may never return. Her prayers also emphasize her fear of solitude, “the sudden knowledge that one, even in the presence of another, must face the void alone” (Campbell 23). “The Student’s Wife” ends on a desperate note and darkly hints at what may come.
Campbell, Ewing. Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Carver, Raymond. “The Student’s Wife.” In Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1989.
Fontana, Ernest. “Insomnia in Raymond Carver’s Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 26, no. 4 (1989): 447–451.
Meyer, Adam. Raymond Carver. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. New York: Twayne, 1995