‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ by Raymond Carver appeared in his collection of short stories of the same name. This story is a contemplation of love, tensions within love, and the possibility of ‘true’ love.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Summary
The story is narrated by Nick and is taken forward in the form of a discussion where two couples, Mel and Terri, and Nick and Laura, sit around and drink gin. They talk about ‘love’ and what ‘true love’ might mean, if there is any such thing.
Mel is a cardiologist whose second wife, Terri, was in an abusive relationship with a man named Ed. Terri says how Ed beat her up one night, dragging her around the living room by her ankles, saying how he loved her. Terri asks, sincerely, “What do you do with love like that?” Mel, however, replies, “My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it”. However, Terri insists that Ed loved her in ‘his own way’. Mel and Terri debate this point for a while and then ask Nick and Laura for their perspectives. Nick and Laura both reply that it is hard for them to pronounce any sort of judgments regarding this matter since they know very little about the incidents, and more importantly, they have not lived in Ed’s or Terri’s, and Mel’s shoes. Also, Nick and Laura hold that the definition of love cannot be absolute. At this point in the story, it becomes clear how dearly Nick and Laura love each other.
Mel then goes on to enumerate the ways Ed caused problems in Terri’s and his lives. For one, Ed drank rat poison when Terri left him. Unsuccessful at this suicide attempt, Ed took to threatening Mel. And then one day Ed shot himself in the head. Even this fatal attempt proved flimsy as Ed did not die immediately, suffering for some days before succumbing to his injury. Mel says how Terri stayed up with Ed in the hospital beside his deathbed. Mel calls Ed ‘dangerous’ but Terri still has sympathy for him, though she concedes how Ed made Mel’s life very difficult with his constant threats. At this point, again, Nick and Laura share another warm verbal exchange that shows how happy they are with each other.
Mel starts becoming slightly tipsy and now opens up about his first wife. He says how he once loved her but now hates ‘her guts’. He muses how people just move on from one love to another and former loves eventually become memories and nothing more. Mel now starts narrating a story that he will use to define what he means when he is talking about love. Mel tells the story of an elderly couple who were victims of a road accident caused by a drunk teenage driver who pushed his vehicle into the old couple’s. Mel oversaw the surgeries. Both the husband and wife were badly injured but somehow they stayed afloat in the struggle for life. They were both completely covered in casts and bandages with only mouth-holes and eye-holes for openings. Mel here digresses a bit to talk about knights and how he would like to become one if this were another age. Anyway, Laura directs Mel back to the story about the old couple, and Mel concludes the story remarking how the old husband was sad not because of the injuries and accident or any such related matter, but because of the fact that he could not so much as see his wife through the eye-hole. Mel uses the old man’s poignant yearning to solidify his point about ‘true love’. All four of them now keep sitting and thinking, though they are supposed to go out for food.
‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ ANALYSIS
What is ‘true’ or ‘real’ love? Is love an absolute? These questions lie at the very heart, and form the central themes of the story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Nick, the narrator and Mel’s friend, says, ‘Mel thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love.’ Indeed, Mel struggles with Terri’s view that Ed, her abusive former partner, did love her in his own way. Terri explains:
“Say what you want to, but I know it was … It may sound crazy to you, but it’s true just the same. People are different, Mel. Sure, sometimes he may have acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me. In his own way maybe, but he loved me. There was love there, Mel. Don’t say there wasn’t.”
Mel struggles against this heavily relativistic view of love. He passionately defends his absolutist view on love by telling Nick, “The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people.” While Mel’s point is practical and fair, Terri still maintains, “He [Ed] did love me though, Mel. Grant me that … That’s all I’m asking. He didn’t love me the way you love me. I’m not saying that. But he loved me. You can grant me that, can’t you?” Mel’s and Terri’s differing opinions on whether Ed indeed loved Terri begs the question as to what love is and if there is an absolute way to define it. The author does not point towards an answer in the story, rather he brings up further complex angles pertaining to the subject of love.
The slippery nature of love is another prominent theme of the story. Let us look at a part of the long speech by Mel that appears halfway into the story:
“What do any of us really know about love? … There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? … if something happened to one of us– excuse me for saying this– but if something happened to one of us tomorrow I think the other one, the other person, would grieve for a while, you know, but then the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else soon enough. All this, all of this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory. Am I wrong?”
All the four characters sitting around the table and discussing love are characters who each loved another partner in the past. Yet they have moved on, some of them even hating their former partners. Love, then, is perhaps a very unpredictable thing.
The very unpredictability of love highlights the possibility of tension and violence that might lurk underneath the surface of love. In other words, there is always a possibility of love taking up a violent trajectory and ending on bitter terms. Both Mel and Terri have experienced traumatic past relationships. They are now together. And yet, their own relationship is not free of the tension of potential unrest; there are hints in the story that suggest that all might not actually be well between Mel and Terri, after all, no matter how many times they profess love towards each other throughout the story. Let us look at two such examples. When Terri asks Mel not to talk like he is drunk if he is actually not drunk, Mel retorts this way: “Just shut up for once in your life … Will you do me a favor and do that for a minute?” Like a wrong stroke of the brush, this sentence disturbs the overall frame of amiability between Mel and Terri which the reader gets the impression of initially. Let us see the other example:
‘Terri said, “Go on with your story, hon. I was only kidding. Then what happened?”
“Terri, sometimes,” Mel said.
“Please, Mel,” Terri said. “Don’t always be so serious, sweetie. Can’t you take a joke?”
He held his glass and gazed steadily at his wife.’
Again, this makes the reader, and Nick and Laura as well, privy to the possible history of such tensions between Mel and Terri’s relationship.
The lurking violence threatening the surface of perfect love is brought out more forebodingly through the following part of the story:
‘”You guys,” Terri said. “Stop that now. You’re making me sick. You’re still on the honeymoon, for God’s sake. You’re still gaga, for crying out loud. Just wait. How long have you been together now? How long has it been? A year? Longer than a year?”
“Going on a year and a half,” Laura said, flushed and smiling.
“Oh, now,” Terri said. “Wait a while.”
She held her drink and gazed at Laura.
“I’m only kidding,” Terri said.’
This exchange between Terri and Laura feels like a warning signal from a veteran to a novice. This relationship between Mel and Terri, just like their past ones respectively, is also perhaps falling apart. And there is every chance that the same might be the case with Nick and Laura sometime later. Is this what happens to all loves eventually? This question haunts the story throughout.
Mel is characterized in a way that his experiences and feelings become the thematic locus for much of the story. For instance, Mel has an intense liking for the knights, with all their bravado, their stylish armor, and of course, their charm with women. At the same time, we see Nick giving his friend a reality check:
“But sometimes they suffocated in all that armor, Mel. They’d even have heart attacks if it got too hot and they were too tired and worn out. I read somewhere that they’d fall off their horses and not be able to get up because they were too tired to stand with all that armor on them. They got trampled by their own horses sometimes.”
Mel’s desire to be a knight is but another manifestation of the perhaps universal human desire to feel safe (‘they couldn’t get hurt very easy. No cars in those days, you know?’) and validated (symbolized by the company of women). Forty-five, divorced from his first wife and separated from his children, Mel naturally constructs a picture of power and stability through the symbol of the knight, and holds on to this symbol. However, Nick shows the bigger picture Mel has been ignoring all this while. This bit of the story perhaps also pits the two opposing viewpoints running throughout the story against each other: on the one hand, there is Mel who seeks stability, trying to make sense of life on objective and absolute terms, while on the other hand, we see in the story how infinitely complex, abstract and relativistic most things are in life. Towards the end of the story, Mel still tries to argue that there is in fact something called ‘real’ love and that it does not necessarily have to be dealt with subjectively. However, there is a sense of general foreboding in the room as the story closes, as Nick and Laura perhaps speculate about what turn their so-far-pleasant relationship might take in the future.
Ironically for a story that dwells so much on love, divorce is another theme in the text. Mel, Nick, Laura- all of them were married to other people before divorcing.
NARRATIVE STYLE AND TECHNIQUES
The story is narrated in first-person by Nick. The prose is minimalist; the narrative is mainly driven by dialogues between the four characters. Flashbacks are used extensively in the story.
THE TITLE OF THE STORY
‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ is a speculation on love, and how different people view love. The title of the story interestingly gives out the principal thematic focus of the story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Raymond Carver was born on May 25, 1938. He worked as a manual laborer at various jobs, before completing his education and taking up the job of a teacher. He is known for his minimalist prose style. His two major collections of short stories are Will You Please Be Quiet Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He died in 1988.