"The Compartment" tells the story of Myers, an engineer who is riding a train through Europe to Strasbourg, where he will reconnect with his son. Myers has not seen his son in eight years, ever since Myers and the boy's mother separated. Myers has always believed the boy's hostility was somewhat to blame for the split. His last memory of the boy is of when the boy attacked him and they fought viciously. In that altercation, Myers shouted, "I gave you life, and I can take it back!" Myers believes he is a different person now. He lives alone, and has little interaction with other people.
In his train compartment is only one other person, a man sleeping with his hat over his eyes. Myers surveys the landscape, dotted with farmhouses. He has not been able to sleep since the night before, and so has read guidebooks about the places he has visited thus far on his trip. He was alone until the man entered his compartment, when the train stopped at Basel. The man speaks a different language, but it doesn't matter since he dropped quickly to sleep.
After having his passport checked by the train official, Myers wonders what it will be like to see his son. He wonders if he will ask about the boy's mother (and realizes she might well be dead for all he knows), he wonders if they will shake hands or hug, or if they will have anything to say at all. He sees that the countryside now features more houses. He decides to take a short walk.
In the bathroom down the train hall, he washes his face and remembers how the boy got back in touch. Out of the blue, the boy sent him a short letter telling him he was studying in Europe. Most interestingly, the boy signed off with "Love." After a while, Myers returned the letter and signed off in the same way. After a short correspondence, he informed the boy he was coming to visit. It was his first trip to Europe, so Myers first went to Rome, but ended up feeling lonely. Venice was no better, and he found it grimy. In Milan, he merely stayed in the hotel watching TV until boarding the train on the night before the day the story is set.
When someone knocks at the bathroom door, Myers returns to the compartment and realizes immediately something is wrong. His coat, which he had left on the seat, has been moved. He checks the pockets and while his passport is still there, the "expensive Japanese wristwatch" he purchased for the boy has been taken. He wakes the man and tries to ask if he saw anything, but their language incompatibility keeps the man from understanding.
Myers wonders if the man himself stole the watch, but knows he can prove nothing, so he heads back out of the compartment, taking his coat this time. He moves slowly down the first-class car, looking into other compartments, most of which house one or two people each. He walks into the second-class car, the compartments of which are much more crowded, and the people inside "more desperate."
Myers heads back to his compartment again, to find the man still asleep and stretched out. He looks out the window to see that "farms and grazing land had given over to industrial plants." He begins to see cars. As he takes his suitcase down, he admits to himself that he actually doesn't want to see the boy. Though he feels "diminished by the meanness" of his realization, he accepts that he still harbors hostility for the boy who had "devoured [his] youth, [and] had turned the young woman he had courted and wed into a nervous, alcoholic woman." He decides he will stay on the train as it returns to Paris, where his plane will leave from.
When the train pulls into the station, Myers sits low in the seat to avoid being seen and eyes the platform for the boy. He doesn't see the boy, but the man in the compartment wakes and, on his way out, tells Myers they're in Strasbourg. Myers ignores him. The boy is nowhere to be seen, and Myers wonders if the boy had reached the same conclusion about their reunion. He watches the people on the platform, noticing the various relationships revealed through their behavior with one another. One such relationship is between a young man and woman, who are saying goodbye to each other.
The young man leaves the woman on the platform and ends up in Myers's compartment. He opens the window and shares kisses with the young woman. The train begins to move and they are separated. Not far away from the platform, the train stops, and the boy starts to read a newspaper. Myers decides to take a walk, and moves down to the second-class car again, hoping to find someone to confirm that the train is going to Paris. He feels the car shake as "something caught and fell heavily into place." The train begins to move again and Myers returns to his compartment, to find neither the boy nor his luggage are there. He realizes that his car must have been unhooked and reattached to a different second-class car. In the compartment now are several dark-skinned men speaking in another language.
The men invite him in, and he accepts. He doesn't know where the train is going, but doesn't bother to find out. For the first time in the story, he's able to go to sleep.
The protagonist of this story is unique in Cathedral in that he seems to be more wealthy, possibly even upper-class. This is illustrated not only by his first-class train ticket but also by the wristwatch that he buys the boy. When the latter is stolen, the value doesn't even cross his mind, only the transgression.
And yet Myers confronts a similar problem to that of Carver's other characters: his isolation from people. The themes of isolation and detachment are very much in play in "The Compartment." While the reader doesn't get much detail about the problems that broke up his marriage to the boy's mother (outside of the mention of her alcoholism), it is clear he reshaped his life as one detached from any significant human contact. He thinks of his troubled past as something that "had happened to someone else," and now seems to see almost no one. He notes that, when he decides to take several weeks' vacation in Europe, only his secretary would even know he was gone. There are a few symbols that illustrate the detached way Myers lives. When he looks out the window early on, he sees a farmhouse surrounded by a wall, and thinks living within a wall would be "a good way to live." Also, the language barriers he faces serve as metaphor for his difficulty in getting along with people.
In the story, Myers has clearly decided to try to reconnect with the boy out of regret. The theme of regret is illustrated not only in the planned reunion, but also in the image Carver uses of Myers reading guidebooks for cities he has already visited. As he looks through them, "he was sorry to be finding out certain things about the country" only after leaving them. He wants to be different, more informed, and this drives him to head to Europe to make up for lost years with his son.
However, the truth is that Myers is not any different than the man he was before. He has deliberately created a wall around himself to make believe that he has changed. This is illustrated in the metaphorical journey of the train, which sees passage from a pastoral landscape into more civilization. As the landscape grows more littered – from farmland to neighborhoods to industry to the city – Myers confronts himself and his planned reunion more aggressively, until he finally realizes he has never gotten over the petty bitterness that first separated him from his son. He's no different, though his long life of isolation has led him to think that maybe he could have changed. As he looks out on the platform for the boy and sees the various relationships reflected there, it might even occur to him that this is a metaphor for his life of living outside of society and looking in.
Myers can only sleep when he ends up in pure anonymity amongst strangers who speak a different language. At story's end, he no longer has any control over where he is going, and isn't concerned about making a decision to that end. Instead, he is merely along for the ride and just another fellow amongst many, none of whom know each other better than he knows them. It's the kind of life Myers likes, and so he is finally able to exorcise his anxieties and get some sleep.