Carver's Use of Figurative Language
Carver is best known for his minimalist writing style, as embodied in a sparse use of language and paired down prose. He is also known as a neorealist, capturing the working class milieu of bluecollar America with his mundane, naturalistic, everyday dialogue. Nevertheless, he does make use of figurative language throughout ‘‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’’ by exploring its central themes of love, relationships, communication, and alcoholism. Through the imagery of the knight’s armor, the beekeeper’s protective clothing, the ‘‘pill’’ and the word ‘‘heart,’’ Carver demonstrates that the surface level conversation of his four characters is only the tip of an emotional iceberg.
Since the character of Mel dominates the conversation, much of the figurative language is expressive of his own feelings about the subject of love. The image of the human ‘‘heart’’ takes on figurative connotations in the story, as it is referred to both in the mechanical sense, of the functioning of the human heart, and the symbolic sense, as the organ of love. Mel is a cardiologist, a doctor who operates on people’s hearts. The opening sentences of the story, in retrospect, play on the irony of Mel, a heart doctor, claiming to be an expert on matters of the heart: ‘‘My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, so sometimes that gives him the right.’’ Mel even describes his own work as that of ‘‘just a mechanic,’’ marking the difference between expertise in heart surgery and knowledge of ‘‘true love.’’ When he tells the story of the old couple injured in the near-fatal car accident, the word ‘‘heart’’ again takes on a double meaning. Mel concludes his story, in which the old man and woman are so bandaged up that they cannot see each other even though their beds are next to each other in the same hospital room, by stating that ‘‘the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his godW damn wife.’’ Mel is using the word ‘‘heart’’ in the figurative sense here, but it also refers back to the fact that Mel himself had been the attending cardiologist for the old couple in the aftermath of the car accident.
Another central element of figurative speech in this story revolves around Mel’s mention that, if he could come back in a different life, he would want to be a ‘‘knight.’’ Mel’s fascination with the armor worn by a knight is perhaps a heavyhanded image of Mel’s need to protect himself emotionally against the ravages of love. Mel explains that ‘‘you were pretty safe wearing all that armor.’’ The image is extended to suggest that Mel’s protective emotional armor has failed to protect him against the dangers of new love: ‘‘It was all right being a knight until gunpowder and muskets and pistols came along.’’ Mel goes on to expand upon his fascination with the protective armor of knights: ‘‘what I liked about knights, besides their ladies, was that they had that suit of armor, you know, and they couldn’t get hurt very easy.’’ Mel is expressing a desire to be protected from getting ‘‘hurt’’ at an emotional level in his relationships with others.
At this point, the discussion of the knight turns on a pun that comes out of Mel’s misuse of the term ‘‘vessel’’ when he means ‘‘vassal.’’ A vassal is a servant to another, and Mel, using vessel by accident, attempts to point out that even knights were subservient to others. The idea of servitude is extended symbolically when Mel points out, ‘‘But then everyone is always a vessel to someone.’’ At this point Terri corrects him, supplying the proper term, vassal for vessel.
Mel’s incorrect use of vessel has further figurative implications. Mel is an alcoholic, and a vessel is an object designed to contain something, usually in reference to a liquid, as a cup or chalice. Through this play on words, the connection is made to Mel’s use of alcohol, which he drinks out of a vessel, or glass, as his means of protective armor against emotional injury. Furthermore, a vessel, such as an ‘‘empty vessel’’ may be read figuratively to indicate that everyone is a vessel to be filled with the love, false or true, of another.
Nick, the narrator,...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)