"Fever" tells the story of Carlyle, a high school art teacher who is desperate to find good childcare for his son and daughter. His wife Eileen ran off with his former colleague Richard Hoopes early in the summer for a 'new-age' life in California (the kids have been told she is "away on a long trip"), and since that time he has taken care of them. But the school year is restarting, and he now needs someone regular.
The first sitter he tried was Debbie, a 19-year-old "fat girl." She seemed acceptable, but when he came home early from school one day, he found cars in the driveway and the kids playing alone outside in the yard, extremely dirty. He carried them inside to find several teenagers drinking, smoking, and listening loudly to Rod Stewart. Debbie's blouse was unbuttoned. He angrily kicked them out of the house. Debbie asked for her due payment, and he didn't give it. When theywere in the drive, he noticed how Debbie "stumbled" and then stopped for a moment to get her composure before getting in the car.
Later that night, he called Carol, the secretary from school who he was dating casually. She offered to head to his place and suggested he open up more, but he told her he'd feel strange if she came over. He expressed his frustration and fear over not finding a suitable babysitter. After calling her, Carlyle thinks about how hermetic he had been that summer, spending all his time with the kids, as thought he "were in mourning." Occasionally, the kids would ask about their mother and he would divert. All the while, he'd been convinced she would come back, even though he resented her for her selfishness. He also thinks of his first attempt at a babysitter – he'd contacted an employment agency who then sent a 35 year-old who barely asked or seemed to care about the kids, a disappointment so great that he called a girl who advertised at the supermarket: Debbie.
Eileen has occasionally sent cards and photographs to the kids, as well as letters asking Carlyle to understand that she was making art in California and truly happy, and hoped he understood. He is understandably ambivalent about her.
The story moves back to its present, after his phone call with Carol. Carlyle considers calling Eileen for advice but decides against it. He had only phoned once before, and Richard answered the phone. After he passed the phone to Eileen, she had spoken about karma, which turned him off. He is thinking about that conversation when the phone rings; it's Eileen, who claims she knew she was on his mind. She asks if he's still looking for a housekeeper/sitter, and says Richard had contacted his mother about a woman who once worked for them, named Mrs. Webster. Eileen inquires after the kids, and he says they're fine, though he considers telling her "they cried themselves to sleep every night," or worse, "the truth--that they hadn't asked about her even once in the last couple of weeks." Eileen uses more new-age terminology, and they hang up.
An hour later, Mrs. Webster ("Mrs. Jim Webster," she explains) calls, saying she got his information from Richard's mother. He asks her to come the next morning, and she agrees.
The next morning, he awakes from a dream of a pastoral landscape, and gets breakfast ready for the kids. He is wondering whether Mrs. Webster will actually show up when he hears a loud rumbling out in the street. He looks out the window and waves back to an old woman who waves to him from the passenger seat. The driver stops the loud engine and then disappears below the dash, which creates the image for Carlyle of him starting the car by touching wires together.
Carlyle welcomes Mrs. Webster, and offers for her husband to enter; she declines for him, saying "He has his thermos." Carlyle fetches the kids, and tells her they need "someone [they] can count on." Mrs. Webster is good with the kids, and so Carlyle offers her the job. She agrees, and he follows her command to give Mr. Webster the "all-clear sign" so he can leave. She tells him he can leave for work, and he does so, feeling "a hundred percent better." At school, he feels a renewed passion for the art he teaches, and in the lunchroom, he is unusually affectionate with Carol, who is worried because she wants to keep the relationship secret. He isn't worried, and asks her to come over that night.
He comes home from work that day to find his house orderly, cookies in the oven and the children happy. Mrs. Webster tells him that his wife ("Mrs. Carlyle") called that day, spoke to the children, and left the message: "what goes around, comes around." After putting the kids to bed that night, Carol comes over. After they make love, in bed, the phone rings and Carlyle refuses to answer, knowing it's Eileen. Carol heads back home.
The story jumps forward six weeks, during which Carlyle's life "had undergone a number of changes." He has accepted that Eileen is not coming back, though he still has feelings for her. The children are thriving under Mrs. Webster, and she occasionally works overtime on Saturdays, always after noon because she has errands to run for Mr. Webster. On those nights, he and Carol go out together.
It's around this time that Carlyle gets sick. He wakes up one Sunday in the throes of a fever. The kids took care of him as little they could, and the next day he calls in sick to work. Through his feverish delirium, he hears the pickup rumbling, and then Mrs. Webster checking in on him. She says not to worry, and then he believes he hears a man in the living room. Later (he can't tell when he's sleeping and not through his fever), Mrs. Webster offers to call a doctor but he declines. Later, he hears the kids playing and hears Mrs. Webster tell "Jim" to keep the TV down. Mrs. Webster nurses him through his sickness and gives him aspirin and cereal.
He awakes in the afternoon feeling a bit better, though still sickly. Outside, he finds Mrs. Webster and the kids playing with clay. After settling, he asks if he'd heard Mr. Webster inside earlier. She tells him he'd come in to talk to him about his and Mrs. Webster's "plans," but she doesn't want to concern him with those while he's sick. He's nervous about it, but the phone rings.
It's Eileen, who claims to have known he was sick, and who claims Richard is also sick. She asks if he still writes in his journal, something he hadn't done in over a year. She tells him he should record his sensations while sick since "sickness is a message about your health and your well-being." He thinks she's insane but she insists, "we have to be able to communicate." When he hangs up, he brings his hand to his head, a movement echoes Debbie's movement on returning to the car weeks before.
Mrs. Webster sits him down and explains that Mr. Webster's son Bob has invited them to come work on his ranch in Oregon. She explains that they're getting old and "need something more than [they] have at the present." She tells him Mr. Webster has not "had anything for some time," and that this work would both invigorate him and give them both security. She offers to stay through a few days in the next week, but that they have to leave.
He tells her he understands, and asks for aspirins. He finds that he is crying a bit. When she returns, he begins to talk to her. He tells her about when he and his wife "loved each other more than anything or anybody in the world." He tells her about how they expected to "grow old together," and that the great "sadness" was that "each would do it without the other now." She says she understands, and he continues to talk. Through his pain and awkwardness, even as the kids are uncomfortably forced into silence, he keeps talking. His headache goes away and he finds himself telling her their whole story, from the time Eileen was 18 and they were "burning" with love. She tells him to keep talking – "something just like it happened to [her] once...Love. That's what it is." He talks under Mr. Webster arrives, but Mrs. Webster has him sit and listen as well.
When he's finished, Mrs. Webster tells him that both he and his wife are "made out of good stuff," and that they'll be okay. He sees the Websters out, and watches them drive away. "It was then…that he felt something come to an end." He makes his peace with Eileen's escape, and realizes that while they were once so in love, "it was something that had passed." It will be a "part of him" now. He waves goodbye and then turns to his children.
"Fever" is concerned primarily with themes of helplessness and trust. At the beginning of the action, Carlyle feels extremely alone, as if he can't trust anyone. Eileen has run away to be an artist, which might be admirable in one regard, but it required her to abandon her responsibilities to her family. His attempts to find a babysitter produce miserable results in the quiet older woman and then in Debbie. Mrs. Webster's arrival is a miracle for Carlyle, who was falling increasingly into despair from his lack of options. Even Carol, his girlfriend, can only devote so much of her time to him – once their romantic evening ends, she has to head back home.
Carlyle's sense of helplessness is anchored in another theme, the Carver favorite of separation from others. When Carol tells Carlyle that "he shouldn't be afraid to say when he needed affection," she is touching on his deepest sadness, his detachment from himself. This is reflected in the irony of him being an art teacher who has trouble expressing himself. Carlyle's helplessness and separation appear to be circumstantial at the beginning of the story: he needs to find someone to take care of the kids. But once that problem solves itself, the symptoms of the deeper helplessness hit, and are expressed through the metaphor of the titular fever.
He still loves his wife very much, but he doesn't know how to speak to her anymore. She speaks in a 'new age' fashion, seems to show disregard for their family, and acts as though they haven't separated (when he feels deeply the pains of that separation). She tells him "we have to be able to communicate," but he is haunted by the ghost of who she once was, of who she was in their past. It is this that he is finally able to express in his final confession to Mrs. Webster, this inability to reconcile that she has gone and left him alone. He is detached from the true pain – "you hear about stuff like this happening to other people" -- but he can't accept that it has actually happened to him. At one point, in his sickness, he touches his hand to his head and thinks of Debbie right before she drunkenly stumbled before getting in her car in his driveway, showing that he is aware of his helplessness, but powerless before it.
His release at the end of the story, which both pulls him from his sickness and gives him the inner resolve to move forward, comes from accepting the helplessness of how alone he is in time. His growth in the story lies not in overcoming helplessness, but rather accepting it and moving forward anyway. He stops looking to the past to understand how it is possible he could be so alone, and instead "turned to his children," as the last line says. One interesting thing is that Eileen seems to have felt trapped herself by her detachment from her life – the story indicates that she once wanted to be an artist but had given it up over the years. Carlyle doesn't leave the family, but his epiphany at story's end is similar to hers, in that he throws away an old mindset in anticipation of a new one.
One other element that makes Mrs. Webster so attractive to Carlyle is likely the dependence she and her husband seem to have on one another. Unlike his own situation, which only convinces him he is alone, she and Mr. Webster are very intertwined. He drives her to work but stays removed from her responsibilities, and she schedules specific times to take care of their family. And still, as the story shows, she is in fact helpless as well. Her indication that Jim Webster has not "had anything for some time" shows that they battle their own difficulties, and in fact, they are leaving town because they need help taking care of themselves. Like Carlyle, they will have to come to terms with their own helplessness at some point, though it seems as though perhaps they already have.
The connection between Mrs. Webster and Carlyle in this sense also suggests the theme of time. Carlyle's story to Mrs. Webster is very much about time – trying to reconcile what was with what is. On top of her kindness and reliability, her age makes her a good audience for this confession. Their infirmity, which is what brings them to move to Oregon, is a symptom of the same disease as that which has led Carlyle's life to slip away: the passage of time.