What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Essays and Criticism

Raymond Carver

Carver's Use of Figurative Language

(Short Stories for Students)

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.)

The Middle Years: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

(Short Stories for Students)

Carver had stopped drinking by the time Furious Seasons was published, but he had not yet returned to writing. When he did, his stories were markedly different from what they had been. The obsessions were the same, but the stories were much darker, reflecting the hell of marital discord and alcoholism that Carver himself had experienced. Their style, moreover, was an exaggerated form of minimalism. Whereas he had once worried that a story like ‘‘Neighbors’’ might be ‘‘too thin, too elliptical and subtle,’’ Carver was now writing stories that would make ‘‘Neighbors’’ appear positively lush. As one critic has pointed out, in these new texts ‘‘language is used so sparingly and the plots are so minimal that the stories at first seem to be mere patterns with no flesh and life in them. . . . Characters frequently have no names or only first names and are so briefly described that they appear to have no physical presence at all; certainly they have no distinct identity.’’ Carver, looking back on the volume several years after its initial publication, told an interviewer that the texts in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love were ‘‘so pared down. Everything I thought I could live without I just got rid of, I cut out.’’ Urged on by his editor Gordon Lish, he began implementing Hemingway’s ‘‘theory of omission. If you can take anything out, take it out, as doing so will make the work stronger. Pare, pare, and pare some more.’’ That phrase could in fact serve as a motto for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, although critics have more often pointed to the following lines from ‘‘On Writing’’ : ‘‘Get in, get out. Don’t linger.’’ The stories here are indeed shorter, on average, than those in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Furious Seasons. They also have a more desolate outlook, which is amplified by their astringency of tone. Nowhere is Carver’s minimalist aesthetic more clearly visible than in the five stories from Furious Seasons that reappear here in reduced versions, having been ‘‘subjected to rigorous cutting.’’ Although Carver eventually reacted against this extremely pared-down style, the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love continue to embody minimalism at its most distinctive. The collection has been nicknamed the ‘‘minimalist bible,’’ and when readers and critics consider Carver a minimalist they generally have this volume in mind. Because it is the volume that established Carver as a major literary figure, it has remained the collection most often associated with him, even if it is, as we shall later see, his least representative. . . .

The title story is the collection’s longest and undoubtedly its greatest achievement, as well as being a fitting climax to the volume. Although its plot is rather thin, several of the obsessions that have run through the collection—the difficulty of sustaining relationships, the effect of alcoholism as a contributing factor to that difficulty, the problem of communication—are given their most extensive treatment. As the four characters (the narrator, Nick; his wife, Laura; their friend Mel McGinnis, a cardiologist; and his wife, Terri) sit around the table drinking gin, Carver is able to turn the question of love in several different directions. For this reason, more than one critic has likened the story’s situation to Plato’s Symposium, which does indeed seem to be the model for the dialogue. Nevertheless, ‘‘the relative articulateness of these characters by no means enables them to reach a satisfactory conclusion.’’ The only resolution reached in this version of the symposium is that we really have no idea What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

As the story opens, Terri, Mel’s second wife, states that Ed, ‘‘the man she lived with before she lived with Mel[,] loved her so much he tried to kill her.’’ Mel argues, however, that she cannot really call Ed’s emotions love. Having been a divinity student before he became a doctor, Mel feels that true love must contain a spiritual dimension. He argues that ‘‘‘the kind of love I’m talking about is [an absolute]. The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people.’’’ Terri’s continuing insistence that what Ed felt was love only serves to anger Mel, and we begin to see signs of strain in their own relationship. To show what real love is, Mel tells the story of an old couple he had treated in the hospital. While recovering from a terrible car accident, the husband became depressed because, due to his bandages, ‘‘‘he couldn’t turn his g–dd–n head and see his g–dd–ed wife.’’’ This old couple symbolizes for Mel what the old couple in the gazebo meant for Holly, a sign of stable and longlasting love. During his narration, however, he and Terri begin to argue more openly. When Terri kids Mel about sounding drunk, he quietly responds, ‘‘‘Just shut up for once in your life. . . . Will you do me a favor and do that for a minute?.’’’ Mel begins to explain about the old couple’s injuries, how they had...

(The entire section is 2121 words.)

The Several Varieties of Emotion

(Short Stories for Students)

Readers often complain that nothing happens in stories like ‘‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’’ Two couples in this story—Mel and Terri McGinnis and Nick and Laura—sit around a table, drinking gin and talking about love. Several varieties of emotion, existing under the single rubric of love, enter into the conversation either in passing or at length—spiritual love, carnal love, chivalric love, idealized devotion, and even the sort of complex torment that exhibits itself in abuse, often murder, and sometimes suicide. Mel the cardiologist does most of the talking, and much of that about Terri’s former lover, Ed, who abused her, threatened murder, and finally succeeded on his second attempt at suicide....

(The entire section is 964 words.)