Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" (Carver, 1981) were to be encapsulated in a single statement: What we talk about when we talk about love is really a mirror to our personalities and our characters. This is more than evident in Carver's description of two couples' conversation during an afternoon spent drinking gin prior to going out to dinner. In fact, considering that love involves more than one person, the conversations in the short story may have nothing to do with love at all. It meanders (while retaining dramatic heights and depths) and then peters out to nothing because none of us (at least none of the characters) really know what love is.
The conversation involves two couples. The protagonist is Nick who is happily married to Laura; they are at the home of a cardiologist, Mel Guinness, and his wife Terri (Teresa). Mel and Terri have been married for four years; Nick and Laura, for a little more than a year. So let's visit some of the definitions of love: According to Mel, "real love [is] nothing less than spiritual love." (Carver, p. 137) This was from his days as a seminarian before going to medical school.
Mel also relates another story of an old couple, who barely alive after a car-wreck, fought for their lives and became better. The old man, however, was depressed. Swathed in bandages, all he wanted to do was to be able to look at his wife. Mel relates this story with a hint of regret. The old couple, from years of companionship, had somehow attained spiritual oneness. Mel's character is cerebral. He strives to attain an idealized level of love, but has always been unsuccessful. His life has been spent seeking that elusive love. In most cases, it has remained, for Mel, unrequited.
He asks a very pertinent question to his friends: Each of them had been previously married (at least once) or has had lovers. While they professed to love their current spouses, was that love genuine or merely ephemeral -- window-dressing for the moment. His illustrates his point from his own life. He hates his ex-wife Marjorie, whom at one point he "loved more than life itself." (Carver, p. 145)
While Mel and Terri seem to have a happy marriage, their union is superficial. Here the differences between Mel and Terri's take on love are evident. While Mel is cerebral, Terri is ruled by her heart. She is more nurturing and perhaps, forgiving. Mel cannot understand how Terri could have anything nice to say about her ex-husband Ed who expressed his love by physically abusing her: "He beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, 'I love you, I love you, you *****'." (Carver, p. 138) When Terri leaves Ed for Mel, Ed threatens them both. Unsuccessful in getting Terri back, he attempts suicide -- unsuccessfully the first time -- by drinking rat poison. In the second suicide attempt, Ed shoots himself. This time he is successful. On both occasions Terri is at his bedside. "That's not love, and you know it," Mel says, "I don't know what you'd call it, but I sure know you wouldn't call it love." She reconciles her relationship with Ed: "Say what you want to. I know it was (love). (Carver, p. 138)
Terri has led a much less sheltered life. She is also much less self-righteous than Mel. She understands that though Ed could be dangerous and temperamental, he was very emotional. It was this emotion that was appealing to Terri who probably operated on the same level though her emotions did not manifest in violence. Karen Bernardo, in an Internet commentary, avers that "Ed, in fact, functions as a pivotal character in the story even though he is dead by the time the action occurs. He stands out in stark contrast to the little group drinking around the table, for, crazy as he was, he had life in him." (Bernardo, 2002)
While Terri's life with Mel is not threatening to her life, she certainly is not very happy in her marriage. Certain staleness has crept into the marriage. Terri comments on the small instances of physical intimacy that exist between Laura and Nick: the extravagant gesture of kissing her hand, letting his hand linger on her thigh, and holding her well-manicured wrist between his fingers. Laura and Nick also possess that "in love," newly-wed glow about them. Terri tells them that they're "still on a honeymoon" and must "wait awhile" to see what married life is really like. (Carver, p. 143) Though Terri seems to be jesting, one would presume that her marriage is not as intimate. There are a couple of moments between Mel and Terri, where their fingers meet or when they reach out to each other and kiss. But these are merely moments of reconciliations that creep into the conversation when they have minor disagreements and arguments.
Adam Meyer, in analyzing Raymond Carver's work, describes the period of the short story (Meyer, 1995). Carver had been drinking heavily. And Mel's search for love may be quasi-autobiographical. (Meyer, p. 86) This was also a period when Carver pared down his stories to bare essentials. This probably gave the stories a unique twist (Park, 2002). The reader is gripped into following the narrative in the hope of finding an answer, which may or may not come.
As the story unfolds and the drunkenness of the conversation increases, Mel, in a constant search for divine love tries to turn to a love that is pure: a love that transcends the ordinary and carnal. He wants to talk with his kids from his previous marriage. "I think I want to call my kids," Mel says. One can tell that Mel hates his previous wife. He is therefore afraid for his current marriage -- that it soon will devolve into mutual hatred. Obviously, Marjorie has gotten the better deal in the divorce settlement. She has most of his assets and also the children. He wishes that she dies.
Drunkenness always loosens tongues. Mel talks about coming back as a knight (if he could). Knights were famous for their acts of chivalry in protecting "damsels in distress." Mel, however, really wants only the armor for his protection. Does he want to be protected from love? Or, does he want to be protected from the consequences of love? Mel obviously hurts from having given more of himself than his character would allow in searching for that higher, spiritual love. Even his discussion on knights ends in them lying helplessly on the ground, tired, and weighed down by armor. The knights may die from being trampled by horses, or "Some vassal would come along and spear the bastard in the name of love." (Carver, p. 149)
The couples realize that as the afternoon wears on, they are plunged into a morass of questions that none of them can extricate him or herself from. The more they try to answer the questions of love, the more ignorant they find themselves. They also find out the hidden, ugly truths lurking underneath: They might not really love one another. The story provides a lot of information about Mel and Terri. Laura and Nick are however, relegated to a few tender moments and unremarkable interjections. We know that they love, and are comfortable with, each other, "In addition to being in love, we like each other and enjoy each other's company. She's easy to be with." (Carver, p. 141)
Through out the story, as the tension between Mel and Terri increases, due to an argument, a difference of opinion, or partially-finished anecdotes, Carver, through Nick, seeks to release some of it. Out of…