Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Raymond Carver’s story bears many calculated, ironic resemblances to Plato’s Symposion (388-368 b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701), a dialogue meant to showcase Socrates’ views on love. Carver uses the same frame that Plato does, that of a friend recounting a story. Carver, however, twists this frame, which is meant to give added validity to the opinions expressed in Symposium, to suit his own more ironic purposes. Among these is that trying to understand the nature of love through talk is at best a tale twice removed from its own point. In Symposium, Socrates walks away from a table of drunken, sleeping men whom he has bested with his wisdom, but in Carver’s story a drunken Mel pours his gin out on the table, then sits in silence and darkness. Mel, an ironic Socrates, has bested no one and has not successfully defended his ideas about love. No one, least of all Mel, is able to walk away after the discussion is over. They are all too drunk. Mel is unable to arrive at any statement wiser than “gin’s gone.”
One of Carver’s themes is that talking about love does not bring people any closer to understanding the experience of love. This idea is complemented by the ironic implication that talking about love seemingly inevitably involves telling stories of lovers’ entanglements or situations filled with gruesome extremes. Carver cleverly dramatizes a philosophical point made by Socrates in the middle of Symposium: that because love seeks absolute goodness and beauty, love must therefore be the state of lacking these qualities. The characters in Carver’s story are examples of this lack. They seek but do not find absolute goodness and beauty. In contrast to the Symposium, Carver emphasizes the carnal, physical nature of love as intrinsic to its power. Carver implies that love almost never manifests itself apart from the tortures it brings.