By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ is perhaps the best-known short story by the American writer Raymond Carver (1938-88). The story sees four characters, who form two romantic couples, sitting around one afternoon and drinking gin while they discuss the meaning of love.
Carver’s fiction and its effect are often subtle, but before we come to an analysis of ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, it might be worth recapping the story’s plot.
‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’: plot summary
The story involves four friends who form two romantic couples: Mel and Terri, who are married to each other, and Nick and Laura, who have been in a relationship for eighteen months. Nick is the narrator of the story. All four characters have been married before but to different people.
The story takes place one afternoon and evening when the four of them are at Mel’s house, sitting around his kitchen table and drinking cheap gin with lime wedges.
The conversation turns to love, and what constitutes ‘love’. Terri tells the others about a previous relationship she was in with a man called Ed. Ed physically assaulted her and even tried to kill her, claiming he did it out of love. He then took rat poison when she left him, before later shooting himself in the head, dying in hospital from his injuries. Again, this act is considered an act of love, according to Terri.
Mel rejects the idea that Ed acted out of love for Terri. The two of them tell Nick and Laura that they were fearful when Ed was alive because, after Terri left him for Mel, Ed would threaten both of them.
Terri also tells Nick and Laura that they are fortunate because they are in the ‘honeymoon’ period of their relationship. Her implication is that love is easy when you’re first with someone.
So he offers a story of his own as an illustration of what love really is. He is a heart surgeon, and he tells the others about an event that happened several months earlier. An elderly couple were in a car accident when a joyrider crashed his car into theirs, dying instantly.
The elderly couple were badly wounded, but Mel says that that most tragic thing for the husband was that because of his injuries he couldn’t turn his head and look at his wife. That, for Mel, is true love.
The story ends with Mel, who is clearly quite drunk by this point, telling Laura that if he wasn’t married to Terri and Nick wasn’t his friend, he could easily fall in love with her. He then contemplates phoning his children, who live with his ex-wife and her new boyfriend.
Mel fantasises about turning up at the house when the children are out and unleashing a swarm of bees on his ex-wife, who is allergic to bee stings. In the end, he decides against phoning his children and the four decide against going out for something to eat.
In the end, they sit there in silence, with Nick telling us that he could hear everyone’s heart beating as the room went dark with the onset of the night.
‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’: analysis
There is much rich symbolism in Raymond Carver’s story. Consider that ending, which sees the four characters sitting in silence in the growing dark. The loss of light is, of course, symbolic of a more metaphysical kind of ‘darkness’: they remain ‘in the dark’ about what love really is, no closer to a true definition than they were at the beginning of the story.
And for a story which mentions the act of talking twice in its title, it is deeply significant that ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ ends with the four characters sitting in silence, listening to each other’s hearts beating. It’s as if, in the last analysis, love cannot be summarised or conveyed through language: the (literal) sound of the human heart goes beyond words.
Such a fact is borne out by the way Carver juxtaposes the characters’ (ultimately) futile attempts to talk about love in any satisfying way with the actions of the two characters who are most in love: Nick and Laura. When Laura announces that she and Nick know what love is, Nick’s first response is not to respond verbally but to take her hand and kiss it: actions speak louder than words. The two characters also bump knees under the table and Nick strokes Laura’s thigh.
But is this ‘love’ either? Or is it lust and passion, which in the heady first days (and months) of romance we mistake for love? This is a question Carver’s narrative invites us to ask ourselves. It is significant that, in contrast to the final paragraph of the story when the kitchen is plunged into darkness, an earlier moment saw the afternoon sun flooding the room with a light which Nick describes as easy and generous. The light transforms the room into somewhere that seems enchanted or magical.
And yet, if this is a moment of potential epiphany – that moment of revelation or enlightenment characters experience in modern fiction, and especially in short stories – the light, and the enlightenment, will be short-lived. It is already suspect, we might say, because it has the effect of making the domestic reality of Mel’s kitchen into an enchanted space: somewhere unreal and fantastical, in other words.
It is perhaps significant that this moment leads the four adults to grin at each other like children: they have been made more innocent by the light, rather than wiser or more experienced.
Mel’s job is also rich with symbolism, but also irony. He is a heart surgeon, but by his own admission he’s just a ‘mechanic’ who fixes things that people have physically wrong with them. Other ‘matters of the heart’, we might say, such as love, are as mysterious to him as they are to the others.
Mel also says that he would love to come back in another life as a medieval knight, because they were safe in their armour. However, Nick points out that knights sometimes suffered fatal heart attacks in their armour when they became immobilised or too hot. Once again, Mel has proved himself innocent and even idealistic and ignorant about the realities of the ‘heart’.
Indeed, Nick in many ways occupies a similar position to that of another Nick, Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby, in that he is the narrator of the story but the main character is someone else he is observing. And Mel McGinnis is arguably the most important character in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. It is his reaction to Terri’s recollection of Ed, his story about the elderly couple in the road accident, and his discussion of his ex-wife, which form the core of Carver’s story.
Every detail here is worth analysing closely. Even his confusion of the word ‘vassal’ (a serf in medieval feudal society who owed homage and service to a more powerful person) with ‘vessel’ (perhaps chiefly here, a blood vessel) is not just another illustration of the linguistic difficulties attendant upon any discussion of love, but a kind of Freudian slip which suggests his romantic fondness for the Middle Ages is insincere and only skin-deep: his mind is still really concerned with hearts in their purely medical, corporeal sense, as machines for pumping blood around the body via various blood vessels.