Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
A Short Story Full of Meaning
"Popular Mechanics" tells the story of a separating couple having an argument that escalates quickly.
It was first published as "Mine" in Furious Seasons and Other Stories in 1977. The collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love from 1981 was retitled "Popular Mechanics". When it was selected for the collection Where I'm Calling From in 1988, it was retitled again as "Little Things".
It's very short at just under 500 words, but there's a lot of room in it for speculation and interpretation. It's often read by older students.
An Argument Escalates
It's slushy outside and getting dark. Inside, a man is in the bedroom, hurriedly packing his suitcase. A woman says she's glad he's leaving. She starts crying.
She takes a picture of the baby from the bed and leaves the room. He wants the picture back.
He finishes packing, puts on his coat, and turns out the light. He goes to the living room. The woman stands in the doorway of the kitchen, holding the baby.
He wants to take the baby. She refuses. The baby starts crying.
A Baby Caught in the Middle
He moves toward her. She retreats into the kitchen, standing in a corner by the stove.
He grabs hold of the baby. They argue over him. The baby is screaming. They knock down a flowerpot.
He crowds her, trying to break her grip on the baby. He grips the baby under an arm and tries to pull the woman's fingers apart.
She feels her grip loosening. As the baby slips away, she screams and grabs for the baby's other arm. She has one wrist and leans back. The man pulls very hard.
The issue gets decided.
What Happens to the Baby?
This is the main point of speculation in the story. We can't say for certain what happens. The two likely possibilities are:
- The baby gets injured either from a fall or the pulling.
- The baby is killed either from a fall or the pulling.
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The last sentence of the story is, "In this manner, the issue was decided." To figure out what happened we need the answer to two questions:
- What is the "manner"?
- What is the "issue"?
The "manner" is the way the couple fights over the baby. Specifically, the physical actions they're taking at the moment the story ends.
The woman is determined not to lose this battle: "She would have it, this baby." Her last action is to lean back while holding the baby's wrist.
The man is equally determined: "But he would not let go." His last action is to pull back very hard while grasping the baby under an arm near the shoulder.
The "manner" of the argument suggests the baby either gets injured or is killed.
The "issue" is what the couple is fighting about, which is who gets the baby.
This is the part of the equation that makes the baby's fate even more uncertain. It's important to realize that they're fighting over who gets the baby that night. Certainly, this wouldn't be the end of the disagreement. A custody dispute is a matter for the courts.
If the baby was either injured or killed it would settle the "issue" of who gets the baby right now: neither of them.
"Popular Mechanics" as an Allegory
The story can be read as an allegory for the effect of divorce or separation on children. In this interpretation which could also be treated as a theme:
- The man represents fathers in relationships that are ending.
- The woman represents mothers in relationships that are ending.
- The baby represents children in these relationships.
- The darkness inside the home represents the stunting environment.
- The woman takes the picture of the baby from the man. This represents the spiteful actions taken by parents simply to hurt their partner.
- The man, who was satisfied to only take the picture a minute ago, responds by trying to take the baby. This is another spiteful action that represents parents using the children as weapons to hurt each other or as simply property to be "won".
Other Themes and Interpretations
If the story is read as an allegory, it allows for an interesting inference about the ending. We could take it literally.
The parents actually pull the baby apart. This would represent how the acrimony between separating parents figuratively tears their children apart.
This reading calls to mind the Biblical account of Solomon adjudicating the dispute between two women over a baby. They both claim to be the mother. He orders the baby to be cut in two, with half being given to each woman. One woman agrees. The other offers to give up the baby to save its life. Solomon identifies her as the real mother and gives her the baby.
In this story, neither parent puts the baby's safety first.
Many of these details could also be used to support the theme of selfishness.
What Do the Different Titles Suggest About the Story?
Carver's original title, "Mine", captures the attitude of the man and woman. They view the baby as their property.
A dispute over an actual piece of property, the picture, escalates into treating the baby the same way. It's noteworthy that the man doesn't turn his attention to the baby until after the woman says, "Just get your things and get out." He knows what the most prized possession in their home is. Each views the baby as "mine"; neither will yield even when the baby is in danger.
The next title, "Popular Mechanics", is a bit trickier. That's the name of a long-running magazine dedicated to explaining how the world works. It covers DIY topics, technology, and science.
It could indicate the story is telling us something about how the world works. Many people, adults and children, are affected by broken homes.
It could also refer to the ending. When the parents exert opposing forces on the baby, "the issue was decided" by the laws of physics, a subject that the magazine would cover.
The last title, "Little Things", could apply to at least two elements:
- The dissolution of the relationship could have been precipitated by the accumulation of many "little things".
- The couple fights over a "little thing", the baby.
Of all the titles, I think the one we see most often, "Popular Mechanics", is the most interesting. It also seems the most symbolic, which could support the allegory reading.
What Effect Do the Seven Adjectives Have?
In a story this short, word choice is particularly important. Words from the much-maligned adjective category have to work even harder to keep their place. I only found seven:
- Fisted, and
Adjectives and Metaphors
The "snow was melting into dirty water." This could represent the change in the relationship. The clean, white snow has turned dirty, as the relationship has gone from pure to spoiled.
The window is "little" and "shoulder-high". The smallness of the window only allows a limited field for light to enter the home. The figurative significance of this is confirmed two sentences later when we're told, ". . . it was getting dark on the inside too." The fact that it's "shoulder-high" has the same effect. A higher window would let in more light.
After both parents have a hold of the baby, he's "red-faced and screaming." The baby instinctively knows he's in danger and wants it to stop, putting him ahead of his parents at this moment.
"Near-dark" appears just before the climax. This is part of a light and dark motif introduced in the first paragraph. The parents' behavior has been unenlightened. This is echoed one last time before the story's darkest moment.
The man tries to pry apart the woman's "fisted fingers." This image reinforces the violence of the scene right before it reaches its peak.
At the climactic moment, the man pulls back "very hard." He doesn't hold back. The baby is only an object to be won at this point.
How Are Dialogue Tags Used?
Carver uses "he said" and "she said" in all but two of the cases. The exceptions both come from the woman—"she cried" and "she screamed."
They seem to mark the two most significant actions of the story. "[S]he cried" is used after the man turns the disagreement physical, by grabbing the baby. This is a huge escalation of the conflict. "[S]he screamed" is used just before they both make their most desperate attempt to get the baby, which is the climax.
How Is the Flowerpot Used?
During the physical struggle, they knock down a hanging flowerpot. This seems to foreshadow what will happen to the baby. We aren't told if the flowerpot is damaged beyond repair or not, just as we're not told exactly what becomes of the baby.