In the short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" Raymond Carver deals with the theme of love. Through the characters and their interactions, Carver shows the emptiness of love and suggests that real love cannot be found. Carver also uses the setting to turn this story of two couples into a story making universal statements about the nature of love.
Terry's characters reveals a lot about the nature of love. Terry describes her former love interest Ed and presents him as an example of real love. She describes how Ed loved her so much that his love overwhelmed him. He was brutal and violent towards her and even tried to kill her. Even though these actions seem to be describing someone who does not really love someone, Terry believes the opposite. She believes that real love is so intense that a person cannot control themselves. In the story, she is described wondering about how to manage love like that. Her conclusion is that there is nothing you can do because the love you feel is simply so great that it overwhelms a person's mind. She considers that Ed was not capable of being rational because of his feelings. This view of love also shows that Terry thinks of love as passion. She is not describing the actions of love that most people think of. Instead, she is describing actions more associated with passion and lust. Terry's story ends with her describing how Ed drank rat poison and died. This shows that Terry is aware of the final outcome of intense love. At the start of the story, she wondered about how people can manage when they feel such intense love. By telling the end of the story, she answers her own question by showing that people cannot cope with intense love. According to Terry, Ed felt real love and this resulted in him treating her badly and eventually killing himself. Clearly, real love is not a positive thing for Terry. The most important point about Terry's story of Ed and her view of love is how it relates to her current relationship. The story shows that there is little passion in Terry and Mel's relationship. Terry's view of love can be seen as her way of justifying her current love relationship and the lack of passion in it. This is emphasized by the way that Terry tells the story after considering what love means. It is also emphasized by the way that Terry is responding to Mel's statement that real love is spiritual love. Terry seems to be aware that her and Mel do not share an intense spiritual connection and that there is no physical connection or passion between them. This leaves Terry with the question of why her and Mel are together and what kind of love connection they do share. It is very telling that Terry does not describe the love between her and Mel to referring to their actual relationship. Instead, she describes the bad relationship she was in and Ed's suicide. By doing this, Terry is giving an example of love that can be compared to her relationship with Mel. In this way, she is essentially saying that there is no passion or spiritual connection between her and Mel, but at least he isn't violent and at least he isn't driven to suicide. Terry's justification of love as something so intense it cannot be managed also means that she is stating that real love is not even practical. This is another way of justifying the fact that she does not truly love Mel and he does not truly love her. In the end, this shows that Terry uses a violent past relationship and associates it with love so she can justify not feeling any love or passion in her current relationship. Maggi describes the theme of the story saying that "because love seeks absolute goodness and beauty love must therefore be the state of lacking these qualities." Maggi goes on to say that the characters in the story "seek but do not find absolute goodness and beauty." In talking about love, Terry is forced to confront the fact that she has not found real love. Her justifications illustrate that the lack of love in her life is an emptiness that she cannot accept.
Mel's character also reveals a lot about love. He is the character driving the story as he attempts to describe love. This starts where he refers to real love as spiritual love. This is a romantic view of love, but as he continues, it is seen that this view is far from a realistic one. Firstly, there does not seem to be any great spiritual love between Mel and Terry. Next, Mel makes a comment about carnal sentimental love not lasting and describes how they would all go out and find someone else if their partner died. In saying this, he is showing that despite his claims that he believes in spiritual love, he does not really believe that it is possible. His statement of spiritual love is really a description of how he wishes love was. This is Mel's major problem, where he has an ideal of love he wants to believe in, but has also been forced to see the reality of love. This is the conflict he is suffering from and trying to understand and deal with. This continues as Mel tries to explain love but becomes increasingly sidetracked. It must also be noted that Mel tries to explain his view on love by describing a car crash involving an older couple. It is interesting to note that he does not describe love by referring to his actual relationship. This suggests that his relationship is not an example of real love. Recalling that Terry took the same approach to describing love, it is suggested that real love can only be explained by giving theoretical examples. This emphasizes that there is a gap between what the couples think of as real love and the actual relationships they have. It is also interesting that none of the characters seem to be really listening to or following Mel's story. This shows that he is incapable of explaining real love. The fact that he chooses to tell a story about real love also suggests that his ideas of real love only exist in fiction. Otherwise, Mel would be able to provide a real example of love. The next example of love occurs as Mel describes how he would like to harm his ex-wife. This links back to Terry's story of how her partner used to be violent. It is seen that Mel also wants to be violent, but his motivation is anger and not love. This raises the question of whether love really is deep and spiritual, or whether it is violent and uncontrollable. Either way, it seems that real love is not something Mel will be able to attain or something he will be able to understand. He will simply remain in his unfulfilling relationship because perhaps that is all that love really has to offer.
The final point that expresses the theme is the way that Laura and Nick respond to the situation. At the end of the story, all the characters are sitting quietly in the dark. Nick and Laura have not been a major part of the story. Instead, it is more like they have been viewing the older couple's experience. This suggests that they are getting a lesson in what love is really like. This is also suggested by Terry, who tells Laura and Nick that they only still have romance because of the short time they have been together. This makes the situation seem like a preview of how their relationship will become. Their silence at the end of the story suggests that they have realized their own truth and seen the emptiness of their relationship. Certainly, they may still have some passion. But they also seem to sense that the passion will die and leave them feeling empty just like Mel and Terry are. This expresses the theme of the emptiness of love by showing that even what appears to be real love will eventually fade and be lost.
Another way that Carver helps to establish the theme relates to his use of setting. The first important part of the setting relates to the type of characters used in the story. These are typical working-class couples. The most important point is that Carver's story is about more than just the situation for the people in the story. He is using these characters to represent all people and show how everyone experiences emptiness. Delaney notes this saying that
Carver uses working-class people as his models, but he is not writing solely about the working class. It is simply the fact that all Americans can see themselves in his little, inarticulate, bewildered characters.