Study Guide

Why Don't You Dance? Themes

By Raymond Carver

  • Alcohol Abuse

    We learn right off the bat that the older man at the center of "Why Don't You Dance?" likes his whiskey. From there, it's hard to find a moment in the story where he doesn't have a drink (or two) in his hands. On top of that, his hospitality to his young guests/potential buyers consists primarily of getting them totally wasted. So yeah, alcohol is pretty central to the story and its events and not in the healthiest way.

    It's clear that the older man has just lost his wife, and his hard drinking seems like it might be related to his pain over this loss. The frequent references to alcohol and drinking definitely add to the feeling that the characters are beating off unhappiness with a stick—or a stiff drink, as the case may be.

    Questions About Alcohol Abuse

    1. We know that the older man is probably using alcohol to drown his sorrows, but do we see any of that behavior in the younger couple? Do we have any evidence that they're using alcohol to avoid/drown out their own problems?
    2. Are we just overthinking this, actually? Are they just partying hard and cutting loose? If the alcohol use is unhealthy, how do we know?
    3. What are the most worrisome examples of alcohol use in the story, and why do you find them worrying?

    Chew on This

    These guys are just partying. Alcohol represents a fun release for the characters from their day-to-day problems.

    The constant alcohol use throughout the story is definitely a signal that these characters—and the older man in particular—are in a seriously bad place.

  • Love/Marriage/Sex

    The premise of "Why Don't You Dance?" is that a dude has somehow lost his long-term lady companion, and his response is to put all their shared furniture out on the lawn and up for sale. As a result, the story asks readers to start thinking about love and relationships right from its opening lines.

    There's also the fact that a young couple—two kids just starting out together in life—show up to buy the older dude's furniture, which makes us (the readers, that is) think about relationships even more.

    The story doesn't exactly offer a warm and fuzzy presentation of love and relationships. The older man is obviously in some kind of pain or turmoil after losing his wife, so that's a given for him. As for the younger couple, we're not quite sure what's going on with them, but given that the young girl ends up being attracted to the older man's "desperation," we're not super sure there's a bright romantic future in store for them, either.

    Questions About Love/Marriage/Sex

    1. Why does Carver present us with a relationship recently ended and another just beginning? What is the purpose of doing that?
    2. Is there a message about relationships to be found here? If so, what is it? If not, what sort of message does that send in its own right?
    3. Do the young girl and boy have a good relationship? A bad one? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    Carver puts two different relationships at the center of his story to suggest that love often involves unhappiness and/or seamy behavior.

    The relationships in this story (and the fact that we get little backstory on them/the people involved) highlight the idea that other people are puzzles that will never be solved—it's just plain hard to understand other people.

  • Money

    The premise of "Why Don't You Dance?" is that all the older man's stuff is up for sale, so there's quite a bit of chatter about money. The young couple shows up early in the story while the guy is out, and starts strategizing how to get the most stuff for the least amount of money. It's kind of sad since this guy is basically selling his entire life away, and the couple is trying to lowball him on the souvenirs and objects associated with that life.

    The older man doesn't seem to care, though—he's perfectly happy to accept whatever price the kids want to offer him. The fact that he's so happy being lowballed shows just how desperate he is to shed off his former life… or perhaps for something else this young couple offers him.

    Questions About Money

    1. Why does the older guy put all of his stuff up for sale?
    2. Why doesn't the older guy seem to care how much he gets for stuff? What dos he value?
    3. Why is money mentioned so often in the story? What significance do these references have to our understanding of the characters and/or their relationships?
  • Guilt/Shame (or lack thereof)

    "Why Don't You Dance" kind of gives us the creepy crawlies—there's just something off about the characters, what they're doing, and what they're willing to let other people see them doing. In particular, the older man and the young girl seem perfectly willing to engage in unorthodox behavior, but there's also the sense that they feel self-conscious (or know that they should be feeling self-conscious) about their quirky ways. In other words, the characters suffer just a tiny bit from guilt/shame/self-consciousness regarding their choices—but those feelings don't stop them from acting anyway.

    Questions About Guilt/Shame (or lack thereof)

    1. Why is the young girl so interested in having sex/fooling around where the whole neighborhood can see her?
    2. Why is the older guy so interested in watching the young couple dance?
    3. Why are there so many references to the fact that the couple and the older man are basically on display for the entire neighborhood? What does that whole suggestion of surveillance do for the story?

    Chew on This

    The story highlights this whole idea of being watched to draw attention to how self-conscious the older man must be feeling in his little neighborhood with his relationship having ended.

    The story plays with feelings of guilt vs. feelings of, well, non-guilt to foreground that the older guy is a creeper. The fact that he is so willing to put his life and "desperation" on display indicates that he's an unsavory character.