What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver: Summary & Analysis

Raymond Carver's 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' stands as one of the most renowned short stories by the American writer (1938-88). The narrative centers around four characters, comprising two romantic couples, who spend an afternoon discussing the essence of love while sipping gin.

Carver's fiction often wields a subtle impact, prompting us to explore the plot of 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' before delving into its analysis.

Plot Summary

The story revolves around four friends forming two couples: Mel and Terri, married to each other, and Nick and Laura, engaged in an 18-month relationship. Nick serves as the narrator. All four characters have experienced previous marriages with different partners.

The events unfold in a single afternoon and evening at Mel's home, where they gather around the kitchen table, savoring cheap gin with lime wedges. As conversation takes a turn towards the topic of love, Terri recounts her past relationship with a man named Ed. Ed was abusive, even attempting to kill her, claiming his actions were driven by love. Tragically, he later took his own life with rat poison after Terri left him.

Mel disputes the idea that Ed's actions stemmed from love for Terri. He and Terri share their fear of Ed when he was alive, as he threatened both of them after Terri left him for Mel.

Terri implies that Nick and Laura are fortunate to be in the 'honeymoon' phase of their relationship, suggesting that love feels effortless at the beginning.

Mel then shares his perspective on love by recounting an incident from several months earlier when he, as a heart surgeon, treated an elderly couple involved in a tragic car accident. The husband, seriously injured, was unable to turn his head to look at his wife, which, for Mel, epitomizes true love.

As the story progresses, Mel, inebriated by now, confesses to Laura that if he were not married to Terri and Nick was not his friend, he could easily fall in love with her. He entertains thoughts of contacting his children, who live with his ex-wife and her new partner, but ultimately decides against it. Instead, they all choose not to go out for dinner.

The story concludes with the four friends sitting in silence as the room darkens with the onset of the night, the sound of their hearts beating seemingly resonating in the silence.

Critical Analysis

The Symbolism of Silence and Darkness

In Raymond Carver's story, rich symbolism permeates the narrative, particularly evident in the poignant ending where the four characters sit in silence amidst the growing darkness. The loss of light represents a more profound metaphysical 'darkness,' symbolizing their continued lack of understanding about the true nature of love. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that they remain 'in the dark' concerning a definitive definition of love, much as they were at the story's outset.

The significance of silence is underscored by the title itself, 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.' Strikingly, the story concludes with the four characters quietly listening to the rhythmic beating of each other's hearts. Carver seems to suggest that love transcends mere verbal expression, and the literal sound of the human heart surpasses the limitations of language.

The Duality of Love - Words vs. Actions

Throughout the narrative, Carver explores the dichotomy between verbal expressions of love and the actions of the two characters most deeply in love: Nick and Laura. When Laura claims that she and Nick understand love, Nick responds not with words but by affectionately kissing her hand, demonstrating that actions can communicate more effectively than language. Their subtle gestures, like bumping knees and tender touches, hint at the complexity of love, raising questions about whether what they experience is true love or merely passion often mistaken for it in the initial stages of romance.

The Ephemeral Nature of Epiphany

Carver skillfully presents a moment of potential enlightenment or epiphany when the afternoon sun bathes the room in a generous, enchanted light. This evokes a sense of magic or revelation akin to a literary epiphany common in modern fiction, particularly in short stories. However, the light's fleeting nature suggests that such enlightenment is transient, casting doubt on its authenticity. The transformation of Mel's kitchen into an otherworldly space further emphasizes the unreality of the experience, ultimately leaving the characters grinning like children, appearing more innocent than enlightened or experienced.

Mel McGinnis - The Paradoxical Heart Surgeon

Mel's profession as a heart surgeon carries both symbolism and irony. While he deals with physical hearts in his medical practice, matters of the heart, such as love, remain as mysterious to him as they are to the others. His yearning to be a medieval knight implies a desire for safety and protection, but Nick's counterpoint about knights suffering fatal heart attacks in their armor reveals the naïveté in Mel's romantic notions.

Furthermore, Mel's confusion between the words 'vassal' and 'vessel' serves as a Freudian slip, suggesting that his fascination with the Middle Ages is superficial and only concerned with hearts in a physiological sense - as biological machines pumping blood through various blood vessels.

The Central Role of Mel McGinnis

Mel's character assumes a pivotal role in Carver's narrative. His reactions to Terri's memories of Ed, his story about the elderly couple in the accident, and his discussion of his ex-wife form the crux of the story's exploration of love. Each detail surrounding Mel is worth meticulous analysis, emphasizing his significance as a character and the complexities of love and language.

Overall, Carver's 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' delves into the intricate nature of love, its elusive definitions, and the limitations of language in encapsulating such a profound emotion. Through symbolism, irony, and nuanced characterization, Carver invites readers to introspect and contemplate the true essence of love that remains beyond verbal expression.

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