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We'd like to start with a warning: Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?" ends with the main characters totally befuddled as to what the heck just happened, so as a reader, you might be in for some confusion as well. Not to worry, though—we're here to help you through.
Basically, not a whole lot happens in the story. An older guy is selling all his stuff and has arranged it out on the lawn, exactly as it was arranged inside his house. A young couple comes by to purchase some of it, and while negotiating prices, they and the older guy end up getting hammered. And then dancing. And it gets weird.
The key to this story is definitely reading (and re-reading) between the lines because there's actually a lot of stuff (like emotions, sexy feelings, and more goodness) churning beneath the surface. The guy selling the furniture appears to have lost his wife (we don't know how), and he seems kind of creepily drawn to the younger couple, particularly the girl. And they're kind of drawn to him—but also kind of repulsed.
This story is an interesting study of relationships at two very different stages, so it seems appropriate that it is the first story in Carver's 1981 collection entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Of course we're never quite sure what we're learning about love here… but that's part of the fun, right?
Ever deal with someone and find you just have no idea what was running through his or her head when they said or did something? That's pretty much the situation in "Why Don't You Dance." There's clearly a rich backstory for both the young couple and the older man, but they don't share it with each other—or with us.
Is it frustrating? Sure, but it's also realistic. Think about it: There are a thousand mysteries in our every day interactions that we never get to solve. What in the world happened to that barista to make him that unpleasant? Why is the bus driver so inexplicably cheerful these days? (Or not.) There's a whole world of motivations and emotions driving other people that we never get to see, and this story makes us stare at a couple of examples of that reality.
But what's the point of doing that? That's up to interpretation. You might argue that there's something to be said for acknowledging how much we don't know about other people, that the book encourages readers to be more humble or sensitive or empathetic or whatever when dealing with others. But there's really no right answer to this one, so you're just going to have to read the story to come up with your own.
Lighten Your Load
No need to lug around a heavy text. The full story is available for free right here.
In Living Color
If you like your desperation acted out for you (instead of having to read), check out the 2009 movie version of this short story.
Curious About Carver?
This is a pretty decent bio on Raymond Carver, as well as a bit of an overview of his work. Did you know he picked tulips for a living at one point?
To learn more about Carver—and see how much he resembled one of his own characters—check out this interview done by The Paris Review.
Have Seventeen Minutes?
If you do, you're in luck: Here's the entirety of the 1990 film version of this short story for your viewing pleasure.
The Man Himself
Click here for multiple audio interviews with Carver. Pretty cool, right? It's not every day you can hear a dead author speak.
Putting a Face to a (Strange) Story
Ever wonder about the man who wrote about these strange characters? Here he is.
Why So Serious?
Here's another picture of Carver. Seems he wasn't big on smiling in author photos.