By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Fat’ is a short story by the American writer Raymond Carver. In just a few pages, Carver’s narrator recounts the day she served a very large man who came into the diner where she works as a waitress. Seeing this man inspires a number of feelings in the narrator, although their significance requires careful analysis in order to be fully understood.
‘Fat’: plot summary
The story is narrated in the first person by a woman who works as a waitress in a diner. She is having coffee with her friend Rita, whom she tells about an overweight man who came into the diner one day. The narrator takes the man’s order, and makes him a Caesar salad and brings him bread.
The fat man eats the bread so quickly that she brings him more, and then another batch after that. Throughout the story, the man apologises and claims he doesn’t usually eat this much. Every time the man speaks to the waitress, he uses the royal ‘we’: whether in acknowledgment of his excessive size, or from a strange air of nobility.
The other staff in the diner make fun of the fat man’s size, but the narrator doesn’t, and gets accused of being ‘sweet’ on ‘fat-stuff’. Rudy, her colleague and, it later emerges, her boyfriend, also teases her for defending the fat man.
The narrator continues to serve the man his food, and when he leaves, she finishes her shift and goes home and takes a shower. While she’s standing under the water, she imagines having children and wonders how she would feel if one of them was as fat as the man from the diner. Rudy then tells her about two fat men he knew when he was growing up, whom were nicknamed Fat and Wobbly in the neighbourhood.
The narrator goes to bed, and Rudy follows her, climbing into bed and having sex with her, although the narrator, who lies there and submits to it, doesn’t really want to be doing it. To take her mind off it, she imagines she is as fat as the man from the diner so that Rudy would be so small on top of her that she’d hardly feel him on her at all. When the narrator has finished telling Rita this story, the narrator confides that she feels her life is going to change.
‘Fat’, perhaps ironically given its title, refuses to pile on the details, and we are left with a tantalisingly elliptical story whose deeper meaning remains shrouded in mystery. This is hardly surprising, perhaps, given Carver’s association with the minimalist approach in fiction.
Nevertheless, ‘Fat’ feels almost perversely reluctant to reveal its true meaning, so we as readers are forced to fill in the gaps – and, perhaps, decode the nature of the narrator’s revelation at the end of the story (of which more in a moment).
Rita’s response to the story the narrator tells her is interesting. First, she believes the story is about to get exciting as the fat man orders more desserts, but then the narrator tells her that that was the end of the matter: he finished his food and left.
Then, at the end of the story when the narrator concludes her narrative, she observes that Rita sits there ‘waiting’, but the narrator doesn’t know what her friend is waiting for. There is an implication that Rita finds her friend’s story anticlimactic: lacking in ‘fat’ or padding, certainly, but also in any real ‘meat’ or substance.
Alternatively, there is something unspoken between them which Rita is expecting her friend to address.
We might connect this with the narrator’s strange desire to grow fat while Rudy is on top of her, and her (presumed) fascination with the idea of having a fat baby. It’s as if she is longing for substance in her life, and this search for substance is embodied – quite literally embodied – by the fat man who comes into the diner.
Note how he maintains that he doesn’t usually eat as much, implying (albeit unconvincingly) that this is an unusual and noteworthy occurrence. He provides some excitement for the workers in the diner, who see him as worthy of comment (and ridicule). He is, at least, eye-catching and noteworthy.
The man’s persistent use of the royal ‘we’ also marks him out as unusual and different. It is as if he symbolises everything that the narrator perceives as being missing from her own life: not ‘success’ or ‘fame’ or ‘riches’ or all the other things which we might long for, but an almost dreamlike representation of all of these things lumped (quite literally) together.
In dreams, Freud argued, meaning is presented through something known as condensation, where a symbol carries a number of different meanings condensed into one image. And dreams are often, for Freud, a form of wish-fulfilment. Does the large man in the diner represent, however obliquely, all that the narrator longs for? She tells us that she can never put on weight, no matter how much she eats. The fat man, viewed this way, is a success in her eyes, though we can see that he is clearly under the grip of some unwelcome compulsion.
We might view Carver’s narrative as working in a similar way, whereby the fat man represents a number of things to the narrator: a desire for substance, singularity or notability (even of the sort that invites ridicule from others), and perhaps even her latent desire for children which is later touched upon while she is in the shower (what else might a fat man symbolise but the figure of a heavily pregnant woman?).
But fatness is also figured as a symbol of power, with the narrator imagining herself fat while Rudy is on top of her because that way, Rudy would be small and insignificant when compared with her.
But this is, of course, a feeble wish, when fatness elsewhere in ‘Fat’ is not exactly equated with power. The fat man in the diner has no control over his over-eating, and has to make pathetic and unconvincing apologies for his excessive appetite, claiming he doesn’t usually eat this much.
He even decides against taking his coat off, despite acknowledging that it is hot in the restaurant, perhaps because he is worried about exposing just how fat he is, or to avoid revealing the sweat on his shirt underneath.
In desiring herself fat while Rudy is taking advantage of her at the end of the story, the narrator is making a similarly pathetic and feeble wish for autonomy and control over her relentlessly powerless existence. She is, she confesses, ‘depressed’.
Perhaps what Rita is waiting for her at the end of the story is not some juicy new piece of the plot but some admission from the narrator that she, like her story, is frail and impotent, without purpose or substance. But she cannot bear to confront this reality directly.
And what are we to make of the narrator’s closing words, in which she feels that her life is going to change? The wording is suitably ambiguous, poised between passivity (‘I feel my life’s going to change without my having any control over it’) and a more assertive outlook (‘my life will change, and I feel the urge to change it growing strong within me’). We might call this realisation an epiphany: a moment of sudden understanding which a character experiences about themselves or about life more generally.
What the narrator’s epiphany is remains unspoken, but the most plausible explanation is that she is actually pregnant and she is struggling to confront this reality (whether because – consciously or unconsciously – she’s not ready to, or simply because it’s the early stages of her pregnancy and she hasn’t even properly realised yet).
If this is the ‘change’ that is going to come over her life, she is pregnant (presumably) by Rudy, a man who takes her ‘against [her] will’ while she lies there, passive and compliant, so we can understand why she might have mixed feelings about the news.
Her fantasy of being fat so he would become ‘tiny’ makes more sense if we replace ‘fat’ with ‘pregnant’: while she is carrying Rudy’s child, there will be less chance of him climbing on top of her whenever he feels like it. We might also observe the significance of the narrator’s otherwise cryptic reference to the month: ‘It is August.’
Is she trying to work out when her baby will be due? And, of course, her passing reference to having children while in the shower makes more sense if she is either putting off confronting the reality of her pregnancy or she hasn’t even realised yet.