Analysis & Themes of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver‘s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the title story of his 1981 short story collection.

This article looks at some of the story’s elements and talking points.

Setting

The story is set at the McGinnis kitchen table in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The characters stay seated the entire time, except for Mel, who gets up once for another bottle of gin.

Characters

Mel McGinnis: Tall, a cardiologist, 45 years old, Terri’s second husband.

Terri McGinnis: Pretty, very thin, Mel’s second wife.

Nick: The narrator, 38 years old, Laura’s husband.

Laura: 35 years old, legal secretary, Nick’s wife.

Theme: The Nature of Love

The whole thrust of the story is a conversation about what “real” or “true” love is. A few different opinions are voiced, and no consensus is reached.

Mel, the most talkative character, believes real love is spiritual love, although he doesn’t explain exactly what this means. He also thinks it’s an absolute, that it’s perfect.

He disagrees when Terri says her ex husband loved her. He thinks it’s silly that she thinks that could be love, but he can’t clearly explain why.

Mel expands on his definition later by saying the love the couples have is physical love and a love of who the other person is.

He has a hard time reconciling the fact that he loved his first wife but now hates her. He also has trouble with the fact that they all loved other people before their current spouses, and could love someone else if one of their spouses died.

Mel gives an example of what real love is. An elderly couple was in a car accident and they were badly injured. After some recovery time, when it seemed like they were going to make it, the husband was still very depressed because he couldn’t see his wife through the eye-holes in his bandages.

Terri doesn’t offer a definition or description of what love is, but she seems to have an expansive view of it.

She claims that her first husband loved her even though he was physically abusive. She says people are different, and they will show love in their own ways.

She doesn’t seem to believe that love is the ultimate prize in itself, though. Of her abusive ex’s love, she asks, “What do you do with love like that?” Even if he did love her in his own way, it didn’t do her any good. For the recipient, it’s a thoroughly useless love.

Terri’s ex also tried to kill himself twice, first by drinking rat poison when she left and, later, he succeeded by shooting himself. She believes these acts were demonstrations of his feelings for her, that he died for love.

Nick doesn’t give a definition either. His view seems close to Terri’s, as he responds to Mel’s appeal for support by saying he doesn’t know her ex, and that he’d have to know the particulars to decide.

Laura doesn’t get specific at first. Her view is similar to Terri’s and Nick’s. She says she doesn’t know anything about Terri’s ex or the situation, and that we can’t judge someone else’s situation.

Later, she says that she and Nick know what love is, but she doesn’t explain it. For her, it’s a feeling that she has and a feeling she gets from Nick.

Laura is the first to expand the discussion of love outside of romantic partners. When Mel feels attacked over his drinking, she says the group loves him. Mel then says he loves everyone present.

So, What does the story tell us about love?

In the end, love is presented as taking on many forms, and existing in contradictory conditions. Among other things, it could:

  • Be lasting or ephemeral
  • Be romantic or platonic
  • Be based on objective acts or abstract
  • Be rewarding or useless
  • Exist regardless of how a person acts

Do the married couples love each other?

It can be argued that Mel doesn’t love Terri based on his own requirement that love is an absolute. Their relationship seems strained; there’s an undercurrent of hostility in their exchanges. It comes to the surface when Terri brings up his drinking again. Mel says, “Just shut up for once in your life”, and “Will you do me a favor and do that for a minute?”

Terri seems to be revealing her true feelings when she dismisses Nick and Laura’s love because their relationship is still new. She tells Laura to “Wait awhile”. Terri and Mel have been together much longer—they’ve already waited awhile—suggesting she doesn’t really feel love for Mel and doesn’t feel it from him.

Nick and Laura seem to love each other. They make physical contact a few times during the evening. There doesn’t seem to be any resentment in their conversation. Nick tells us directly that they are in love, and they like each other and enjoy each other’s company. He says Laura is “easy to be with.” Nick’s narration switches to the present tense in this section, suggesting he still feels the same way now. However, we don’t know how much time has passed since this evening.

Theme: Communication

This is another obvious theme as the bulk of the story is a conversation.

None of the characters is able to articulate exactly what they think love is.

The communication between Mel and Terri seems insincere rather than tactful. They call each other “honey” and “sweetie”, but there’s tension between them.

Mel also takes offense when Terri makes jokes. A form of communication that could bond them ends up dividing them instead.

Mel intentionally (possibly not because he’s drinking?) misrepresents Terri’s position on her ex husband. He says she’s “of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school.” Of course, Terri hasn’t claimed that physical abuse is necessary to show love. She believes her ex loved her despite the abuse. Mel doesn’t acknowledge he’s being unfair, saying, “Make up what? . . . What is there to make up?”

A Look at the Title

The title seems to suggest the themes of communication and love as well. When we talk about love, we have to talk about something else—the things people say and do. From there we have to speculate about their motivation and inner feelings, making it difficult, if not impossible, to pin down exactly what love is.

The title, and by extension the story itself, could be suggesting that we can’t really know or express what love is. Or, it could be suggesting that love is variable—it’s different things to different people and will evince itself differently in various circumstances.

Why does Mel talk about being a knight?

Mel interrupts his story about the old couple with a tangent about coming back in another life as a knight.

This seems to represent the idealized love, the spiritual love, that Mel believes in. A knight lives by a chivalric code, rescues a damsel in distress and, presumably, experiences real love. He also likes the fact that their armor prevented them from getting hurt easily. Nick shatters the illusion by pointing out the negatives of a knight’s life. Their armor can contribute to their death. This could be suggesting that such an ideal love doesn’t exist, and that to experience love we also have to be vulnerable.

There’s also a parallel in Mel’s desire to show up at his ex wife’s place dressed as a bee keeper, which would look similar to a knight’s armor. He wants to release a swarm of bees to kill her, because she’s allergic to them. This also undercuts Mel’s idea of spiritual love. Mel reveals what kind of a knight he would be. His fixation on what love is could stem from his failure to give and receive the kind of love he wants. Mel might not be equipped to feel satisfied with love.