“Something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing”: Exploring Epiphany and Metamorphosis in Raymond Carver’s ‘Fat’.
Raymond Carver summarised the short story form by quoting V. S. Pritchett’s definition of the short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”
It is commonly suggested that the short story relies on an epiphany for it to convey a complete idea, but this contradicts Carver’s glimpse idea, as not all glimpses end in an epiphany, nor do all moments carry carefully constructed epiphanies awaiting observation from a side glance. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Carver’s glimpses are carefully chosen from moments of epiphany, though, which draws attention to the fact that epiphany can happen in a moment, from a seemingly arbitrary exchange or experience.
Indeed, Carver states that “it’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects … and to endow those things .. with immense, even startling power.” The story “Fat” depicts a seemingly arbitrary, yet profoundly odd, exchange between a fat man and a waitress. There is nothing remarkable in the scenario – yes the man is remarkably fat, but the image is commonplace. It is the language that taps in to the startling, epiphanic power an unnamed, almost invisible but for his largesse, man has on an equally unnamed and thus invisible waitress.
The story begins with the waitress sitting down to recount a particular Wednesday to her friend, Rita. She immediately introduces “the fat man” as having unusually large fingers. The overtly phallic description of “long, thick, creamy fingers” incites the imagery of reproduction, with the penis-like fingers containing “cream”, or sperm. She later refers to them by reminding herself, “oh, but those were fingers”, in a mix of wonder, perturbation, and perhaps sympathy. Indeed, throughout the story, the waitress defends the man against unkind derogations made by her co-workers. She tells Leander, “He can’t help it … So shut up”. This defence in relation to the immediately phallic imagery brings up themes of choice and sexuality. The man reveals that he is without choice when he asks to be excused for eating so much. He is vulnerable. He then intimates that he is not enjoying the food as the waitress suggests, with his lacklustre response, “I don’t know … I guess that’s what you’d call it”. The fat man is vulnerable and is somehow eating an inhuman amount of food against his will but he also holds a sexual dominance at his fingertips, but can’t quite grasp it.
The key contributor to the waitress’s epiphany is when she says “Me, I eat and I eat and I can’t gain … I’d like to gain”. We can see this perhaps as her admitting she wants to see the swell of pregnancy in her stomach, which is reiterated later when she touches her “middle” in the shower, imagining her fat children. After this admittance, the fat man responds with “ If we had our choice, no. But there is no choice”. The implication is that he has no choice but to eat, but to gain.
Later, when the waitress is raped by her boyfriend, Rudy, she imagines herself being “terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all”. In this moment she has switched places with her abusive boyfriend. No longer is she the “tiny thing” that eats and eats and “can’t gain”, but rather she is big, big like the fat man with his large fingers.
The moment that the fat man says he has no choice, she realises that there is a choice. Of course the fat man can stop eating and lose weight, and of course the waitress can leave her boyfriend and become the big, strong woman she desires to be. At the end of the story, Rita can be seen as a previous version of the waitress, as if she has subverted roles with her as well. Rita “sits there waiting, her dainty fingers poking her hair”. The waitress asks impatiently “waiting for what”, when in reality, it is she who has been waiting all this time. Waiting to leave her boyfriend, perhaps waiting to leave her job that is populated with employees whose company is less than desirable. Furthermore, Rita’s fingers are thin and dainty, in direct comparison with the fat man’s. Given the waitress’s metamorphosis Wednesday night, her fingers are no longer thin and dainty, poking around pointlessly, “waiting” for the meaning of the story to become clear, or waiting for some kind of closure after the shocking admission that the waitress, her counterpart, has been being raped. By saying it aloud, the admission is an admission to herself. Rita is the waitress before her epiphany.
Finally, the waitress ends her story, no longer speaking to Rita, no longer needing an ear to hear her story, nor needing to look in the mirror to do so, by revealing that “it is August”, and her “life is going to change”. It would seem that her life already has changed, that it changed when the fat man unwittingly told her that she does have a choice. By indicating the month, she puts across the vague notion of pregnancy, which is dominated by the progression of months. In her final sex-act with her boyfriend, she felt herself become “terrifically fat”, perhaps impregnated by all the choice that suddenly lay before her.
The fat man’s vulnerability and feelings melt away when she realises his complicity in the abuse he subjects to his body, which directly mirrors her own situation. This is not to say that the fat man and her are not victims, but rather they both have a choice.