What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What is love? Well, it's more than the title of a 90s Eurodance number one hit. Countless artists, poets, and authors have debated the question for centuries, if not millennia. In his 1981 popular short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", American poet and short story writer Raymond Carver contributes to the debate surrounding the nature of love. But the more his characters talk about the theme of love, the less they actually understand what it is.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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    Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love": a Short Story

    Popular American short story writer and poet Raymond Carver (1938-1988) published the short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" in his collection of short stories by the same name in 1981. It is one of his most successful short story collections, and the short story itself is one of his most popular. As the title suggests, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is almost entirely comprised of a dialogue between four characters, discussing the nature of love.

    The short story itself is an example of dirty realism, in which the focus of the story is ordinary, middle-class people and the darkness that they encounter in their mundane lives. This darkness is apparent in the alcohol, abuse, divorce, and suicide in the story.

    Bill Buford coined the term dirty realism in Granta magazine in 1983. In this magazine article, he explained what he meant by the term, saying dirty realist authors:

    write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwanted mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy.¹

    Besides Carver, other writers in this genre include Tobias Wolff, Charles Bukowski, Jayne Anne Phillips, Elizabeth Tallent, and Richard Ford.

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is set in the kitchen of an ordinary home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There are no specific details that definitively point to any one point in time, making this story a timeless contemplation on modern love. There are, however, a few details in the story that could imply a time period and that relate to Carver's own life.

    Carver was born in a small mill town in Oregon in 1938. His father was an alcoholic and a blue-collar worker, both of which were characteristics that Carver "inherited" when he reached adulthood. Carver married young and had two children by the time he was 21. He worked a variety of odd jobs to support his family before going back to school in 1958.

    Carver's first short story was published in 1960, and the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was published about 20 years later in 1981. In the interim, Carver found work teaching at various universities and began a serious struggle with alcoholism. Alcohol is a dominant motif in Carver's work, including in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", where the characters rely on alcohol to convey their feelings and connect with one another.

    The abuse Terri experiences in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" could be a reflection of abuse in Carver's own marriage. Carver and his first wife, Maryann, married when he was 18 and she was 16. She was fiercely devoted to him, even when his alcoholism consumed his life in the 1970s. Despite her devotion, Carver began cheating on Maryann, and there was wide speculation that he was physically abusive when he was drunk. In her 2006 memoir, she wrote:

    I really wanted to hang in there for the long haul. I thought I could outlast the drinking. I'd do anything it took. I loved Ray, first, last, and always.²

    Maryann Carver's attachment to her husband, despite his alcoholism, affairs, and potential abuse, is similar to Terri's insistence in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" that Ed threatened her out of love. Both women refused to give up on love, even though the situation was toxic.

    The influence of the 1970s and 1980s is subtly depicted in the short story through the characters themselves. Terri lived with Ed for a while even though the two were not married. This would have been taboo even in the 1950s when women were still expected to save their virginity for marriage. And the fact that three out of the four characters are divorced and remarried (Mel, Nick, and Laura) further alludes to the story being set somewhere around the 1980s. Liberal social attitudes that made divorce and premarital sex more acceptable were not widespread until around the 1970s and 1980s.

     What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, A Torn Family, StudySmarterThe prevalence of divorce helps to situate the short story in the 1970s/1980s, pixabay.

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" Summary

    The short story begins with the narrator and his wife, Laura, drinking a bottle of gin with his best friend, Mel, and his wife, Terri. Mel, a cardiologist, or heart doctor, begins discussing his idea of love when he says that he believes love is spiritual in nature, citing his five years in a seminary as evidence.

    His wife, Terri, says that she experienced love with her abusive ex, Ed. When she and Ed used to live together before she met Mel, Ed was physically abusive. He threatened to kill her and Mel, and when she moved on, he committed suicide. Terri asserts that he died for love. Mel argues that she is completely wrong.

    The narrator, Nick, and Laura remain relatively quiet as the other couple debates. Laura speaks up and says that she and Nick love one another. He proves it by making a big display of kissing her hand. In response, Terri says they're just in the honeymoon phase; they've been together less than a year. Mel breaks out another bottle of gin.

    Mel says that he witnessed true love during his time at the hospital. A drunk driver crashed into an older couple, almost killing both of them. They survived, but their injuries were so bad they were separated and put in casts. The husband told Mel that he was depressed because he couldn't see his wife out of his cast. Mel asserts that that's true love.

    The group continues drinking, talking about knights and Ed and Mel's ex. Mel says he wants to call his children, but Terri reminds him he would have to talk to his ex-wife, Marjorie. Marjorie reportedly only stays single to torment Mel and Terri and take their money.

    Mel says that he knows he loved Marjorie at one point, but now he just wishes she would die. He reflects on the nature of love, saying that he knows he loves Terri, but if either one of them died he knows the other would move on. He also thinks about how he, Laura, and Nick were all married and in love before, but now they've fallen in love again.

     "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", torn heart, StudySmarterMel argues that everyone falls in love again even after heartbreak, which contributes to his confusion about the nature of love, unsplash.

    The group continues drinking, despite several comments that they're going to leave and go eat at a new restaurant that Mel and Terri know. They sit there until it's dark outside and Nick can hear everyone's heartbeats.

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" Characters

    This short story revolves around four main characters and their experiences with a few minor characters who are mentioned but not present.

    Mel McGinnis

    Mel is a 45-year-old cardiologist who commands most of the dialogue in the short story. He gets the group on the topic of love when he starts to talk about it in the spiritual sense, saying that he studied for five years in a seminary. He argues that Terri's ex was crazy and didn't love her, while claiming that all four of the friends are new to love and don't truly understand it.

    Mel cites an example of true love by mentioning an old couple that got in a car accident and became depressed because they could no longer see each other. He hates his ex-wife but misses his children, and reveals that he is alarmed by his ignorance of love.

    Teresa (Terri)

    Terri is Mel's wife and the character that is most adamant about what love is. She used to live with her abusive ex, Ed, who threatened to kill her and eventually committed suicide when she left him. She argues that he died for love, proving that he truly loved her. Mel explicitly disagrees with her assessment of love, while the other couple refrains from agreeing or disagreeing.

    Nick

    Nick is the narrator of the story and has been with his wife Laura for about a year and a half. He is physically affectionate towards his wife, making a big display of kissing her hand in front of everyone. He contributes to the rhythm of the short story through his narration of the sunlight turning into darkness, the gin disappearing, and the sound of the heartbeats at the end of the story.

    Laura

    Laura is Nick's new wife and a legal secretary. She doesn't talk very much through the entire interaction, only claiming that she and Nick know what love is. Terri dismisses her assertion of love, saying she and Nick are just in the honeymoon phase. She is gently affectionate with her husband, touching his knee and holding his hand.

    Ed

    Ed is not physically present in the story, but he encompasses Terri's entire view on love. Although he was abusive and threatened to kill both Terri and Mel, Terri thinks that he only did it out of love. Ed ultimately commits suicide when he realizes Terri has moved on.

    Marjorie

    Marjorie is also not present in the story, but she serves as a reminder to Mel about the impermanence of love. Mel and Marjorie loved one another at one point, but now he wishes he could kill her by releasing bees into her home. It is the love that Mel once shared with Marjorie that convinces him that love is impermanent and impossible to define.

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" Analysis

    The two main literary devices used in this short story are point of view and symbolism.

    First-person Point of View in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is told using a first-person point of view, but the character that controls the majority of the dialogue and subsequently the discussion is not the narrator. Mel is the main contributor in terms of dialogue, followed closely by Terri.

    The narrator, Nick, doesn't even really reflect on Mel's assertions about love. Nick is mostly an observer who keeps track of time and rhythm in the story. Although readers don't get a lot of insight into Nick's thought processes, he does perform the important task of keeping time, moving the story along.

    Symbolism in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

    Symbolism plays a large role in the short story, showing how characters relate to one another, their own thoughts, and the vastness of the universe. The main recurring images are also the most important symbols in the story: sunlight and darkness, the heart, and alcohol.

    Symbolism: a person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

    Sunlight and Darkness

    When the story begins, it is the middle of the day, and "Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink." The mood is light, the gin is flowing, and the friends are happy. The sunlight symbolizes clarity and ease. The characters enter into the conversation completely in control of their own thoughts and confident in their relationships. In the bright sunlight, they begin to debate the true nature of love. Even after Terri's discussion of her abusive ex, the mood is still pleasant and the sun is still shining:

    The afternoon sun was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity. We could have been anywhere, somewhere enchanted. We raised our glasses again and grinned at each other like children who had agreed on something forbidden.

    But their self assurance and clarity quickly slips away from them as the sunlight gives way to the moon. The more they talk about love, the more uncertain any of the characters are that they truly understand it. Just as the light slips out of the room, so does their clarity:

    I know it was hard keeping things in focus. The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from. Yet nobody made a move to get up from the table to turn on the overhead light.

    By the end of the story, the light is completely drained from the room. The characters sit in both literal and figurative darkness as their entire understanding of love has become unraveled. Their uncertainty is further shown as they allow themselves to sink into darkness. The narrator notes:

    I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

    The heart

    The heart is most often associated with love, which is ironic because Mel is a cardiologist. Throughout the story, Mel struggles to define what love is, and a few times he even referenced his work as a heart surgeon. He jokes about being ignorant, saying,

    'So I'm not educated. I learned my stuff. I'm a heart surgeon, sure, but I'm just a mechanic. I go in and I fuck around and I fix things. Shit,' Mel said.

    Mel is trying to be purposefully ironic, however, at the end of the story, he is perhaps the character that is most confused about the nature of love.

    The heart is also the last auditory imagery in the story. Nick says:

    I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

    This is significant because even Nick he can hear his own heart and everyone else's, he's no closer to understanding love. All four of the characters are connected by the shared experience of life and love, but none of them understand the reasons or meaning behind it. They are connected in their humanity, but isolated in their ignorance.

    What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Literal Hearts, StudySmarterLiteral hearts (i.e. the cardiologist's work and the heartbeats) are an ironic symbol of the characters' ignorance about love, unsplash.

    Alcohol

    Alcohol acts as an ambivalent force in the story, although it has more negative connotations than positive ones. On one hand, the characters open up more to one another when they have had more to drink. Alcohol makes everyone, especially Mel, talk freely.

    This is a positive development in terms of connection, because the characters share incredibly personal things about their lives with one another, making them feel understood and helping them to bond. This bonding is apparent in the toast that they make to love:

    'Here, you guys,' he said. 'Let's have a toast. I want to propose a toast. A toast to love. To true love,' Mel said.

    We touched glasses.

    'To love,' we said.

    However, the gin also clouds the characters' minds, especially Mel. Yes, he talks more openly, but he also becomes increasingly belligerent and incoherent. When his wife critiques his drunken outbursts, he gets outright hostile:

    'Come on now,' Terri said. 'Don't talk like you're drunk if you're not drunk.'

    'Just shut up for once in your life,' Mel said very quietly. "Will you do me a favor and do that for a minute?

    Alcohol is a symbol of both connection and isolation.

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" themes

    The major themes come down to the nature of love and communication and connection.

    The Nature of Love in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

    Love dominates the topic of conversation as well as the themes presented in the short story. But love isn't presented in a fairy tale romance, white-wedding-dress kind of way. In fact, the love in the story is messy and dark, involving a car crash, killer bees, alcohol, suicide, and abuse.

    First, there is the discussion of what does or does not constitute love. Terri asserts that her abusive ex-boyfriend was in love with her:

    'I was in the room with him when he died," Terri said. He never came up out of it. But I sat with him. He didn't have anyone else.'

    'He was dangerous,' Mel said. 'If you call that love, you can have it."

    'It was love,' Terri said. 'Sure, it's abnormal in most people's eyes. But, he was willing to die for it. He did die for it.'

    Terri’s view on love can be considered toxic. She suggests that violence is an acceptable part of love and can even be condoned. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, but most notably because it romanticizes obsession, abuse, and suicide as a display of love. Terri attempts to position Ed as a sort of victim of love, even though his actions had more to do with his own issues than love itself.

    Nick and Laura, on the other hand, position love as a physical connection. Nick reflects.

    In addition to being in love, we like each other and enjoy one another's company. She's easy to be with.

    The two certainly seem to be intimate and very physically connected. However, can love be reduced to simply liking a person and getting along? As Terri suggests, Nick and Laura might not really know what love is because they are still in the honeymoon phase and infatuated with one another. But if physical intimacy and fondness don't quantify love, what does?

    Mel argues that love is being depressed when you can't physically see one another. He uses the example of an old couple in the hospital that can't see each other because they were in a horrible accident. He says,

    I'd get up to his mouth-hole […] and he'd say no, it wasn't the accident exactly but it was because he couldn't see her through his eye-holes. He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? I'm telling you, the man's heart was breaking because he couldn't turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.

    So is love a desire to see one another? Is it getting depressed when you're separated? To Mel, it seems to be an eternal devotion and necessity to physically make sure the one you love is okay.

    At the end of the story, the characters are still clueless about what love actually is. It frustrates them that they can't agree on the answer and that their clarity on the nature of love is slipping away. Mel sums it up best when he says,

    'What do any of us really know about love?' Mel said. 'It seems to me we're just beginners at love.'"

    Carver originally entitled the short story "Beginners" because of this line. What effect does that title have on you versus "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"? Which title do you think is ultimately more effective?

    Communication and connection in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

    Throughout the text, there is also this underlying theme of communication and connection. The characters drink gin in order to communicate with one another and express themselves in ways that they probably wouldn't if they were sober. They talk about dark things like abuse and suicide, murder, drunk driving, and messy divorces. The gin allows them to communicate which draws them all together. They go so far as to profess their love for one another:

    'Mel, we love you,' Laura said.

    Mel looked at Laura. He looked at her as if he could not place her, as if she was not the woman she was.

    'Love you too, Laura,' Mel said. 'And you, Nick, love you too. You know something?' Mel said. 'You guys are our pals,' Mel said."

    They connect through their trauma and through their inability to understand and express love. Although this is a source of connection, it also shows how limited their ability to communicate really is. This first shows up when Terri tells everyone that Ed loved her and Mel says, "I don't know what you'd call it, but I sure know you wouldn't call it love". He is unable to express what the abusive relationship truly was. Later, he directly says he doesn't know anything about love when he says,

    'Because I want you to set me straight if you think I'm wrong. I want to know. I mean, I don't know anything, and I'm the first one to admit it.'

    Nobody corrects Mel because they themselves don't know how to communicate their thoughts. The deficiencies of communication is also symbolically shown when they argue over the distinction between vessels and vassals. Although they were all talking about the same thing, the intricacies of language inhibited the conversation.

    Mel and Terri repeatedly argued over which word was correct instead of being able to fully move on and communicate new ideas. Over and over the group went back to the same topic of conversation: the alcohol, the restaurant they were supposedly going to, Ed, and knights. Their communication was limited, which both contributed to their connection and detracted from their ability to learn.

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" - Key takeaways

    • "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is a short story written by American short story writer and poet Raymond Carver. It was published in his short story collection by the same name in 1981.
    • The short story is an example of dirty realism, which examines the darkness and grit of mundane life.
    • The story follows four characters as they debate the nature of love using examples from their own lives.
    • The major symbols of the story of light and darkness, the heart, and alcohol.
    • Themes in the story include the nature of love and communication and connection.

    1. Granta Magazine, Summer 1983, https://granta.com/archive-access/

    2. Maryann Burk Carver, What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. St. Martin's Press. (2006).

    What We Talk About When We Talk About Love What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
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    Frequently Asked Questions about What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

    What is the theme in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?

    The themes in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" are the nature of love and communication and connection. 

    What is the main point in "We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?

    The main point in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is that the nature of love is ambiguous and hard to define. Love is also dark and messy and not just having fun together and liking one another. 

    What is the conflict in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?

    The conflict in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is that the more the friends try to define love the less sure they become in their own understanding of it. 

    What kind of person is Mel in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?

    Mel in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" seems to be a generally good person. He is a cardiologist who cares about an elderly couple who gets in a car accident. He is also assertive that abuse is not love. But throughout the story he is drunk, and he becomes increasingly belligerent and incoherent. He struggles the most in understanding love and his relationship with both his current wife and ex wife seems contentious. 

    What does the gin symbolize in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?

    The gin in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" symbolizes connection but also a loss of clarity.

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