Compare the conflicts of power and control and of loss and love in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" and "Cathedral" by Carver.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" the conflict of power and control centers around Mel and Terrie. This is a hidden conflict that erupts in looks and surprisingly candid remarks. The narrator and Laura watch in puzzlement and bewilderment not understanding how their friends could have these hidden natures and experiences.

In essence, Mel would like power, but Terrie really has control. Mel would like to convince Terrie that violence and love are incompatible and have no relation to each other, yet Terrie insists they do. Mel tries to prove his point with the story of the seventy-year-old couple hospitalized from a car wreck, but Terrie interrupts and detracts from his point in various ways: "sometimes," Terrie said, "you’re just too much sometimes." The result is that Mel expresses himself by saying can't she be quiet just for once, thus proving his quest for power and Terrie's possession of control.

“Just shut up for once in your life," Mel said very quietly. “Will you do me a favor and do that for a minute?"

The conflict of loss and love similarly centers around Mel and Terrie, while the narrator and Laura are peripheral characters who observe, react and judge what Mel and Terrie and do. They are effectively quarrelling over whether Terrie should be pleased with her previous husband's expression of love as he dragged her by the ankles. Mel contends this is no expression of love. Terrie robustly maintains it is an expression of love as sincere as that of Mel's, though different. She therefore counts his death as a loss while Mel strongly objects to this view. The conflicts here are not resolved. Laura and the narrator resolve what might be a potential conflict between them with Laura's reassuring nod.

In "Cathedral" the conflict of power and control works out in something of the same way. The narrator wants to have power, yet it is his wife who has control, and, similarly, she also blames her husband's honest opinions on the effects of drunkenness. All the same, the ending here proves the woman to be in the right whereas Terri was clearly in the wrong regarding her insulting grip on control:

"his wife’s just died! Don’t you understand that? The man’s lost his wife! [...] What’s wrong with you?” she said. “Are you drunk?”

The conflict of loss and love works out quite differently here as well. The major loss might seem to be the narrator's wife's loss of her best and most intimate friend, Robert. Yet, she never seems to experience her loss as such since she has her husband. Robert's loss is first sightedness, then his friend and then his wife. Yet all this loss is offset by gain that is equally valued. The most difficult loss is the narrator's feared loss of his connection with his wife. The love conflict is expressed in the narrator's struggle to risk sharing his wife's love--at the risk of losing it--and his nearly equal struggle to embrace Robert in love. The cathedral they draw together is the resolution to the conflicts.

So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.

Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
“It’s really something,” I said.

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