Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a 1981 collection of short stories that includes one short story in the collection with the same title. Carver was an American writer whose legacy lives on as he's listed among the most influential writers of the twentieth century. ("SparkNotes: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Context," 2017). In this paper, we will discuss how the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” centers around the theme of love as love exists in every relationship no matter what happens. A precise analysis of the relationships in Carver’s story will illustrate if indeed it is true there is love in every relationship. Focus on the story’s plot and its characters will clearly show the elusive nature of love which is the central theme of the story.
The Theme of Love
Carver focuses on the elusive nature of love as his primary theme. This is evident in the story as the nature of love remains elusive throughout despite efforts by characters to define it. Mel, a character in the book tries over and over to pinpoint the meaning of love, but unfortunately, his examples do not build up to any coherent conclusion. For instance, he tells his friends about an elderly couple who almost died in a car crash. However, the conclusion of the story merely throws off everyone since the old man is distressed as he can’t be able to see his wife. When he finally asserts that he’ll tell everyone exactly what love is, he digresses into a muddled meditation about how strange he and the other characters have ended up loving more than one person. His efforts to clarify the nature of love finally devolve into a bitter tirade against his ex-wife. Mel seems much more sure about what love is not and tells Teresa (his wife) several times that if abusive love implies true love, then she “can have it.” Nick and Laura firmly believe that they know what love is, but they barely provide a clear definition or explain why they’re so inclined in their convictions. The couple merely shows their love for each other by holding hands and blushing. However, these actions only support the mystery of love rather than unmask it. Teresa of all the friends is most certain about what love really means. She claims again and again that Ed, her abusive ex-boyfriend had true love for her even if he had a strange way of showing it. She says the threats, beating and stalking by Ed may be disturbing, but they serve as proof of this love. However, just like the others, she cannot translate her certainty into a clear elaboration of the true nature of love ("SparkNotes: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols", 2017).
Main Characters in the short story
Mel McGinnis is a 45-year-old cardiologist whose significant other is known as Teresa (alias Terri). Together, they live in Albuquerque. In the story, Teresa (Mel’s second wife) is described by the narrator as bone-thin with a pretty face, brown hair and dark eyes. Mel is described as tall and rangy with curly soft hair. Terri and Mel have two friends; Laura and Nick. Nick, aged 38 years is the narrator of the story. Laura is a 35-year-old legal secretary who is married to Nick.
Analysis of the characters
Mel McGinnis - Mel is a cardiologist who has been married to Teresa for four years, and he talks more than anyone else in the story. He now hates his ex-wife, Marjorie who is the mother of his two children. Despite making huge proclamations about knowing what love really is, he ultimately reveals that he’s alarmed and thrown off by the elusiveness of devotion and love.
Terri – Teresa is Mel’s wife. She used to live with Ed, an abusive boyfriend who even tried killing her. Despite Ed threatening her and Mel before finally taking his life, Teresa firmly believes that Ed truly loved her. Ostensibly, everyone else disagrees with how she defines love. Nevertheless, her ideas are clearer than any other characters in the story.
Nick –This is the story’s narrator. Although Nick and Laura met at work, he never says for sure what he does. Nick is thirty-eight years old and has been married to Laura for around eighteen months. In the story, he does not say much in the story, but he makes some keen observations on the amount of remaining gin, the sound of beating hearts and changing light that gives rhythm to the story.
Laura – This is Nick’s wife aged thirty-five and is a legal secretary. She scarcely speaks in the story except to mention that she and Nick understand love and that she’s hungry at the end of the story. However, her gentle physical interactions with Nick such as touching knees, and holding hands give readers an inkling of what love means to her
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a short story about four friends – Laura, Nick, Mel and Teresa (Terri). Mel’s house is the setting, around a table with a bucket of ice at its middle. A bottle of gin is placed inside the bucket. As the title suggests, the four soon start talking about love. In the recent past, Terri has had an abusive relationship, one she claims was derived from love. Her former boyfriend Ed, "loved her so much he tried to kill her." Ed would beat Terri and drag her around the living room by her ankles thus knocking her onto things along the way. Surprisingly, Terri believes that Ed loved her and he showed this by way of domestic abuse. Mel is strongly opposed to this “love” no matter what Terri tries to say. Ed also stalked Mel and Terri when they started seeing each other and sent threat messages to Mel at work. Mel was so scared, and at one point, he even bought a gun and made out a will. He even wrote to his brother who resides in California, saying that "if something happened to him," he should look for Ed. However, Ed would eventually commit suicide after two attempts. Terri still sees this as an act of love. Ed tried killing himself first when Terri left him. He drunk rat poison, but was immediately rushed to hospital, and survived. In his second attempt, (which was successful), he shot himself in the mouth. Someone heard the shot from his room and called the manager. Mel and Terri argued for long about whether she could be in the hospital bedroom with Ed when he passed away. Terri won and was with Ed when he kicked the bucket; as she puts it, "He never came up out of it."
After a short while, Mel starts telling a story of an elderly couple struck by a drunk teenager driver, who was pronounced dead at the scene. Luckily, the couple survived the car accident simply because they were wearing seat belts. Mel was called to report to the hospital as he sat down to dinner that night. As soon as he arrived, he noticed how badly the elderly couple had been injured. According to Mel, the couple had "multiple fractures, internal injuries, hemorrhaging, contusions, and lacerations." (Carver, 2017). As a result, they had bandages and casts from head to toe. Mel tries to drive a point about the husband's consternation when both the latter and his wife moved into the intensive care unit. Mel would visit them daily, and when he put his ear to the husband's mouth-hole, he would tell Mel he was disillusioned since he could not see his wife through his eye-holes. Mel would then stray from the topic and talk more about Ed, hatred toward his ex-wife, his personal thoughts about love, and life as a knight. According to Mel, even though one loves a person, and something were to happen to them, the survivor can grieve but love again after some time. After the couples finish the second bottle of gin, they discuss going to dinner, but none makes a move to proceed with their plans.
Apart from being one of Carver’s most famous stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is often regarded as the epitome of the dirty-realism school. As a result, Carver is considered a writer of the “dirty realism” school along with other prowess writers including Ann Beattie and Tobias Wolff.
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