What We Talk When We Talk About Love Essay

SOURCE: Marsh, Meredith. “The Mutability of the Heart.” New Republic 184 (25 April 1981): 38–40.

[In the following laudatory review of the short story collection What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Marsh contends that the title story “suggests many of the problems of both love and conversation.”]

“‘I'll see if anybody's home,’” says the nameless boy in “Why don't You Dance?,” the first short story of Raymond Carver's masterful collection. The boy and his girlfriend, who are furnishing their first apartment, have happened upon an odd yard-sale in which the contents of the house have been reassembled on the lawn exactly as they stood inside. An extension cord even allows the blender, television, and lamps to keep on whizzing and glowing in the twilight. “‘Whatever they ask, offer ten dollars less,’” the girl advises. “‘… they must be desperate or something.’” She is wrong only in using the plural pronoun. All the occupants of Carver's houses are desperately alone, whether or not they are living with each other.

Apparently the enigmatic man who lives in this house has been left by someone, and he sells the furnishings of his broken life at prices that the youngsters find absurdly low. In their eagerness to begin living together they never guess that, were the man a stranger driving past his own sale, he would not stop. His-and-her night-stands, reading lamps, double bed: everything must go.

In what becomes a strange little party in these rooms that have no walls to contain the light, the man ends up dancing with the tipsy girl. (Carver's characters tend to drink a lot.) She draws him close. “‘I hope you like your bed,’” he tells her.

Later, the girl keeps retelling the story of the yard sale and the haunting sympathy she felt for the stranger who virtually bequeathed her his youth. She is trying somehow to express a meaning greater than the actions, but what she helplessly dwells on is the good bargain she got. So much stuff so cheap. Words fail her.

As the title of the book implies, the difficulty of talking about what really matters is a subject that haunts Raymond Carver. A story called “A Serious Talk” describes the Christmas quarrels of a separated couple who manage to say a great deal in the language of infidelity and violent gestures without ever settling down to the discussion they keep planning. They do exchange one word that means something, however. After they have battled so furiously that it seems little of value can be left unsmashed, the husband selects a particular ashtray to throw, and his wife stops him merely by asserting that it is theirs. Not hers alone, whatever its legal status, but theirs: the plural pronoun rivets each of them. Still, it fails to fuse them together as the husband had hoped. Words retain some power, but not enough to hold our relationships together under the juggernaut of modernity.

Carver is a poet as well as a writer of short stories (his previous collection was nominated for a National Book Award), and the new stories have the fierce compression and evocativeness of fine poems. Their language suggests, however, that the author finds little in contemporary life to wax lyrical about: the pruned-down sentences and paragraphs have the authority of deliberate understatement, even withholding, like a black-and-white photograph of a fire. The first impact of all the stories is sharp and visceral. Only afterward, as the skeleton of each one keeps rattling in the mind, does the painstaking intelligence of their designer become apparent.

The title story [“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”] depicts two articulate couples discussing love, and it suggests many of the problems of both love and conversation. Mel loves his present wife, Terri, but they have different ideal images of what love should be. Terri likes to describe her first husband's violence as a measure of the passion she once inspired. Mel, irritated by her nostalgia, defines love as far more gentle and chivalrous, although it soon becomes apparent that he daydreams about killing his first wife. These people trying to fit words to their experience have lived...

In What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver we have the theme of love and the difficulties that can come with trying to define (through language) what love is. Taken from his collection of the same name the story is narrated in the first person by a man called Nick and it is through his observations that the reader discovers how difficult it is to define what love is. The setting for the story is also important as it is during the main discussion (of what love is) that the reader realises how confined (or in the dark) the characters in the story are. Their restriction or confinement in the kitchen in many ways mirrors the restrictions or inadequacies of language to define what love is. On several occasions in the story Carver highlights to the reader the difficulty or inadequacies of language. There is the obvious example of Mel’s inability to define love despite on several occasions trying. Also Mel’s misuse of the word ‘vessels’ when he really means to say ‘vassals’, is also important. As again it suggests the difficulties of language. Despite both words being close in both pronunciation and spelling, they mean two different things.

There is also a lot of symbolism in the story. There is the fact that Mel is a cardiologist (heart doctor). This is significant as it brings a sense of irony into the story. Love would commonly be referred to as an affair of the heart and despite his attempts to understand what love is Mel at the end of the story is none the wiser in figuring out the elusive nature of love. He remains unsure for certain as to what love really is. Carver also uses symbolism to further suggest the difficulties in expressing a meaning or feeling when Terri tries to describe the restaurant and the food in the restaurant. She is unable to do so, all she knows is that it looks good from the outside. Though some critics might suggest that the difficulties incurred by Terri in describing the restaurant are due to the fact that she is drinking (and possibly drunk).

There is further symbolism in the story which may also be important. Carver appears to use alcohol to highlight the flow of conversation. When the bottle of gin is full the conversation is flowing but by the end when Mel spills his glass, a signal that there is no more gin, it also signals the end of the conversation. This could be important as it may be an example of Carver using alcohol as a rhythmic device throughout the story. It might also be a case that Mel (and Terri) have difficulty discussing past relationships without the aid of alcohol, using the alcohol to numb how they really feel. It is also possible that Carver is using light in the story as symbolism. At the beginning of the story the reader learns that the kitchen is filled with sunlight. Carver may be using the symbolism of light to suggest a clarity. However this sense of clarity fades later in the story just as the light fades in the kitchen and it becomes dark. Though it may also be a case that the loss of clarity may be caused by the fact that each character is drinking and if anything their thought processes are becoming clouded.

What is also interesting about the story is that despite Nick having no opinions on the matter (of what love is) and Laura remaining relatively quiet both do demonstrate the physical side of love by holding hands and touching each other’s legs underneath the table. It is also through Mel that the reader gets an insight into the extremities of love (or at least as perceived by Mel). Mel tells the reader that despite having once loved his ex-wife, he no longer either loves her or likes her. This dislike for his ex-wife is triggered by the fact that he has to pay her alimony. Also Mel tells the reader about Terri’s first husband, Ed. Even though he beat Terri, Ed told Terri he was doing so because he loved her. Also when she divorced him Ed used to stalk Mel and Terri and eventually because he couldn’t handle the breakdown of the marriage shot himself. Again this suggests the extremities of love, which in turn make it even more difficult to define what love is. For many readers Ed would have acted outside the commonly accepted boundaries of love.

Carver ends the story with symbolism too. Despite Terri suggesting she has some cheese and crackers she never actually gets up off the chair to get them for Laura. This lack of action (or resolving the fact that Laura is hungry) mirrors the inability of the characters to resolve or define what love is. It is also significant at the end of the story that Carver writes that Nick could ‘hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart.’ This is important because it again brings in the element of irony to the story. Love (as mentioned previously) is usually described as an affair of the heart yet at the end of the story none of the characters are any wiser, despite Nick hearing his and the others hearts beat. It might also be important that the final sound in the story is Nick hearing everybody’s heart. It highlights that they are not only alive but that they may very well be in love with their respective partners yet remain unable to describe or put into words their love. The fact that the story closes with the word dark (night has set in) is also significant as the darkness of the night mirrors the darkness that the characters are in regards defining what love is.

McManus, Dermot. "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.

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