Literature Study GuidesWhat We Talk About When We Talk About LoveThe Third Thing That Killed My Father Off Summary

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off | Summary



Jack Fraser, the story's narrator, grew up in Yakima, Washington. His father, Del, worked at the local sawmill with a peculiar deaf and mute man called Dummy. Dummy was only a janitor, but he carried all the tools the millwrights used. He lived in a tar-paper shack "as good as anyone's" with a much younger wife rumored "to go around with Mexicans." Most of the mill workers made fun of Dummy for his disabilities and odd manner, but Del was his friend. Jack tells the reader his father blamed himself for Dummy's death, which was one of three things that "did [his] father in."

Del had grown up fishing for bass in the rural Southeast, but there are no bass in the waters around Yakima. Dummy orders three barrels of bass fingerlings through the mail at Del's encouragement. Jack, Del, and Dummy go to the train station to pick up the barrels. It is past dark when they get back to Dummy's pond to dump the fish. Jack sees "the strangest sight" when he looks inside one of the barrels. The light of Dummy's flashlight seems to fall on "a million bass fingerlings ... finning," and Jack is struck by wonder at "all those live things busy in there, like a little ocean that had come on the train."

Del claims "the fish changed Dummy's whole personality," and Jack agrees: "From that night on, Dummy was different." Dummy becomes fiercely protective of the fish. He uses all his savings to surround the pond with electrified barbed wire. When Del comes to see the young fish, Dummy chases him off the property, fracturing their friendship. Two years later Jack overhears his father mocking Dummy's obsession: "You'd reckon the fool was married to them fish, the way he acts." Del tells Dummy he needs to remove the weaker fish from the pond "on account of keeping things fit for the rest of them." Dummy's body language is ambivalent as Del says he'll come help the following day.

Del and Jack can barely contain their excitement, but Dummy leads them to the pond haltingly, clearly anguished. Upon reaching the pond, their excitement turns to awe. The waters are thick with bass, and the pond's surface is "dimpled with rising fish," leaping and splashing. "I could see their big, heavy-lidded eyes watching us as they went by," Jack recalls. Most impressive of all is the fish's indifference to the watching fishermen. "The fish just didn't think a thing about us," Jack remarks. "I tell you, it was a sight to behold." Jack casts his line and hooks an enormous bass while his father stands by, shouting instructions and encouragement. A prolonged struggle ensues, but Dummy intervenes and the fish escapes. Profoundly angry, Del calls Dummy a fool and storms off with his son.

When the river floods the following February, Del remarks, "Old Dummy going to lose his darlings." When the waters start to recede, Jack and a friend walk near the river and Dummy's property. They see the fence around Dummy's pond has sunken into a deep new waterway, allowing Dummy's fish to escape. The boys are frightened by the sight of Dummy by the ruined pond, "just standing there, the saddest man [Jack] ever saw." Soon after, news comes Dummy has killed his wife and drowned himself.

Del and Jack go to Dummy's pond, where the search for his body is in progress. One of the search teams finds and pulls Dummy's corpse out of the pond. The arm of the corpse moves as if it is waving. Del tells Jack, "That's what the wrong kind of woman can do to you."

Del was never the same, and Jack remarks perhaps Dummy's arm was waving "so long to good times and hello to bad" in his father's life. However, he can't be sure it was Dummy's death that killed his father, since "Pearl Harbor" and having to move back in with his own parents "didn't do [his] dad one bit of good, either."


The fence Dummy puts up around his fish pond is meant to keep them in and others out, but it also symbolizes the fish are what Dummy loves most. In a cruel irony that leaves Dummy "the saddest person [Jack has] ever seen," it is this very fence which causes Dummy to lose the fish. The reader can imagine how during the flood, the fence acted as a break against the surging waters, causing them to flow along the fence line instead of beyond it. Over time the continual flow of the water along the fence line created a channel there, which eventually grew wide and deep enough it simply swallowed the fence which had created it. Dummy's profound sadness suggests he is no dummy; he understands exactly what has happened.

Dummy's subsequent suicide suggests his understanding went beyond the physics of the situation. The fate of his fence symbolizes the tragic predicament underlying the human experience. Like any other person Dummy has an instinct to protect what he loves. This instinct arises because the world is an unpredictable and dangerous place, and that which he loves is at the mercy of the forces of nature he cannot control. His attempts to protect what is dear to him go against nature. Not only are his efforts futile, he may even hasten the inevitable outcome he seeks to avoid. He is trapped: damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. The force of this realization hits Dummy like the floodwaters hitting his fence. Dummy cannot bear this force any more than his fence could, and like his fence, Dummy drowns himself.

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