Raymond Carver is a writer who is known for a distinct style and also for distinct themes. The style is what is usually refers to as 'minimalist.' The themes common to his stories include the basics of life and people's struggles. What is most significant about his subjects is that they are not significant. Rather than focus on anything obviously meaningful, Carver focuses on the realities of the average life, not dressing up the details, but instead focusing on the gritty details that make it real. The stories also tend to focus on issues like loss and violence and drunkenness and rarely provide a happy ending. Each of these distinctive features of Carver's stories can be traced to his own life, with the themes and styles representing Carver's own experiences and his observations of people around him. In this way, Carver's stories are largely autobiographical.
Before considering how Carver's life impacted on his work, it is useful to give a brief biography of his life. Carver was born in Oregon to parents who both worked in low-paying jobs and struggled to support the family. Carver's alcoholic father died at age 53, leaving Carver's mother to support the family. Carver began working at unskilled jobs early in his life and married at age 20, already having two children to his wife Christine (Garraty & Carnes). Carver, like his father, began drinking early, developing the alcoholism that would continue for half of his life. Carver's drinking continued until 1977, accompanied by financial and marital problems. In 1977 he entered rehab for alcoholism. It was in this period after beating the alcoholism that Carver's short story collections were released. These included Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1977), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), Cathedral (1984), and Where I'm Calling From (1988). Carver died of lung cancer in 1988. (Pearson Education).
The struggle of Carver's life shows where he got his material for his stories from. It is been said that, "He experienced blue-collar desperation on terms more intimate than have most American writers" (Pearson Education). It is this 'blue-collar desperation' that became the theme for many of his stories. The stories did not attempt to show perfect lives or perfect people, instead Carver focused on presenting real experiences. The majority of the stories are not based on particularly interesting events, instead the events themselves are usually quite boring. However, by focusing on the gritty details, Carver injects interest into the stories. The short story "Why Don't You Dance," published as part of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love describes a man who sells his furniture on his front lawn after his marriage breaks up. The bed becomes the focus of the story, with a young couple arriving and offering to buy the bed. This is a prime example of Carver's understated approach. The story hints at the sadness of the situation, yet this is never stated. The story begin with the lines, "In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in the front yard" (Carver 3). The story is told without offering the emotions of the man. Like many of his stories, the emotion is present but is hidden within the story and never outwardly expressed. One author describes the meaning of the story, saying that the main character "metaphorically externalizes his failed marriage on the front lawn and then silently watches a young couple repeat that failure in 'play'" (May 72). While this theme underlies the events, it is not on the surface. There is no conflict where the man rises above his failed marriage and redeems himself. Instead, it is just a day in the life of the man with no meaningful conclusion. Rather than focus on overcoming problems, it just presents the basic struggles of life. This is how Carver presents realistic stories, by not focusing on any significant events that saves the characters or changes their lives, but instead representing the quiet desperation of their lives. Considering Carver's own life, this approach can be understood. Carver grew up and lived in a world where lives were lived in quiet desperation. His father did not overcome his drunkenness, instead he died at the age of 53. His mother was not saved by something miraculous, instead she struggled to support a family after the death of her alcoholic husband. And Carver himself had a life of constant struggle, battling through alcoholism, financial problems and marital problems. Carver is quoted describing his familiarity with this subject, do know something about the life of the underclass and what it feels like, by virtue of having lived it myself for so long... Half my family is still living like this. They still don't know how they're going to make it through the next month or two" (Gentry 138).
This statement shows that Carver is well aware that there is no life-changing event that saves people, instead the story of the people is just about the moment to moment events of their lives. These experiences gave Carver an outlook where the struggles of everyday life became the focus. These struggles translated into his stories to form one of the major characteristics, the focus on the everyday struggles of ordinary people.
The stories presented in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love all focus on love in some way. However, rather than present the perfect romantic love that many short stories offer, Carver focuses on the realities of love. This is another example of Carver's ability to see beyond how love is often presented in society and see it for what it really is. A brief consideration of movies, television programs and novels of the modern time, shows a world where love is seen as perfect and the problems of love are always resolved. Not only this, but there is also a focus on love as being a solution. Carver was not fooled by this portrayal and injected his own views on love into his stories. Many of his stories deal with infidelity and the strain of marriage. Carver's representation of marriage has more to do with the pain and hatred that is experienced in marriage, than the love. Carver's piece most focused on love is the title piece, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." In this story, two married couples discuss what love means over drinks. The violence of love is introduced as Terri argues that her abusive husband loved her more than her current husband. According to Terri, he loved her so much that his love overwhelmed him and he could not stop it from turning to rage. In contrast, the four characters have none of this passion in their relationships, each seeming to feel that they are missing out on their lives. This story offers both sides of the picture, on one side showing the passionate violent marriage and on the other, the empty meaningless marriage. The reader is left to wonder if real love can ever be attained. These themes of unhappy marriages are also present in stories like "Mr. Coffee, Mr. Fixit" where Carver describes a man thinking about how he compares with the man his wife is sleeping with. This focus on love can also be traced to Carver's own experiences. Both Carver's parents and Carver himself did not have happy marriages, with this providing Carver with his opinions on love that are portrayed in his stories. It is also true that bad marriages and infidelity are parts of modern society. Carver may have had more experience with observing these because of the world he grew up in. In small towns, and in lower class settings, marital problems are less likely to be hidden from others than in higher class settings. It is likely that Carver gained his ideas about love from his early experiences of seeing families in his community. This does not necessarily mean that marital problems are more common in these communities, only that they are more visible. This visibility appears to have impacted on Carver considerably. The number of stories with dysfunctional marriages is a sign of his own concerns with what love really is.
Common themes in Carver's stories are loss, violence and drunkenness. These are presented both as part of marital problem issues and as part of the general reality of the world. It is rare for Carver's stories to offer a happy ending, with most stories being tales of sadness or distress of some type. In the story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," what initially begins as a conversation over drinks, proceeds into a depressing realization that their lives are seriously lacking something. Another writer may have ended the story on a happier note by showing how these characters learn and change, each vowing to make something of their lives. However, such a significant event would not be characteristic of Carver's style. Instead, the reader is left with the idea that…