What We Talk About When We Talk About Love What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Raymond Carver - Essay

Raymond Carver


(Short Story Criticism)

“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” Raymond Carver

American short story writer, poet, and essayist. The following entry presents criticism on Carver's short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” (1981).

“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” (1981) is one of Carver's best-known short stories. The short fiction collection What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, in which the story appeared, was published in 1981 to critical and commercial acclaim. The story was termed minimalist by critics upon its arrival, a term Carver himself rejected since it emphasized the narrative's form to the neglect of its human focus. Praised as highly original and one of Carver's finest tales, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” explores the vicissitudes of human emotion, especially the inconstancy and power of romantic love.

Plot and Major Characters

In “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” four characters sit around a kitchen table in the afternoon: Mel, a cardiologist; Terri, his wife; Nick, the narrator; and Laura, Nick's wife. They are drinking gin and discussing love. Mel asserts that true love is “nothing less than spiritual love” and emphasizes the chivalric nature of romance and devotion. Terri recalls the abusive and possessive love of her ex-husband, and maintains that his physical abuse was a sign of his love for her. Initially, Mel is shocked, but then confesses his fantasy of murdering his first wife, Marjorie, because she remains financially dependent on him. Nick and Laura believe that they are too much in love to be torn apart by external circumstances. Mel tells a story about an elderly couple badly injured in a car crash whom he attended in the hospital. They were still in love after many years and their sole wish was to see each other. The devotion of the husband and wife affects the group. After musing about the confusing and transitory nature of love, the two couples finish the gin and seem to arrive at a new understanding of their marriages.

Major Themes

Dominant “obsessions”—Carver preferred the term “obsession” to that of “theme”—in “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” include the impermanence of love and the inadequacy of verbal communication to fully express the complexity of human passion. In the story, the four characters debate the nature of love, only to find that their ideas are wildly different—instead of love, they seem to be talking about jealousy, misunderstanding, and pain. In fact, their conversation underscores their alienation from one another. Some commentators perceive each couple as representing a different stage of love: Nick and Laura are in an early, idealistic period, while Mel and Terri are the older, more cynical couple. Critics have also discussed “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” as Carver's updated version of Plato's Symposium, stripped of its classical aspects.

Critical Reception

Critics have aligned Carver with minimalist writers because of his truncated prose and elliptical delineation of characters and events in the volume What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, in which Esquire magazine claimed that Carver had “reinvented the short story.” The stories of this collection, which reach extremes of stark understatement, have been called spare and knowing masterpieces by some reviewers and laconic, empty failures by others. Specifically, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” has been described by some commentators as a story where nothing really happens, but others see it as a demonstration of the barely-furnished nature of Carver's distinctive style. Most critics laud the impact and power of the stories in the collection, including “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” Scholars have praised the realistic and evocative dialogue of the couples in the story as well as Carver's use of irony. Critically and popularly, Carver is acknowledged as a profound influence on contemporary writers and literature, and stories such as “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” are considered valuable, original contributions to the American short fiction genre.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Put Yourself in My Shoes 1974

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? 1976

Furious Seasons, and Other Stories 1977

What We Talk about When We Talk about Love 1981

The Pheasant 1982

Cathedral 1983

Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories 1983

If It Please You 1984

The Short Stories of Raymond Carver 1985

Those Days: Early Writings 1987

Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories 1988

Short Cuts: Selected Stories 1993

Near Klamath (poetry) 1968

Winter Insomnia (poetry) 1970

At Night the Salmon Move (poetry) 1976

Two Poems (poetry) 1982

This Water (poetry) 1985

Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (poetry) 1985

Ultramarine (poetry) 1986

A New Path to the Waterfall (poetry) 1989

Meredith Marsh (review date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Marsh, Meredith. “The Mutability of the Heart.” New Republic 184 (25 April 1981): 38–40.

[In the following laudatory review of the short story collection What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Marsh contends that the title story “suggests many of the problems of both love and conversation.”]

“‘I'll see if anybody's home,’” says the nameless boy in “Why don't You Dance?,” the first short story of Raymond Carver's masterful collection. The boy and his girlfriend, who are furnishing their first apartment, have happened upon an odd yard-sale in which the contents of the house have been reassembled on the lawn exactly as they stood inside. An extension cord even allows the blender, television, and lamps to keep on whizzing and glowing in the twilight. “‘Whatever they ask, offer ten dollars less,’” the girl advises. “‘… they must be desperate or something.’” She is wrong only in using the plural pronoun. All the occupants of Carver's houses are desperately alone, whether or not they are living with each other.

Apparently the enigmatic man who lives in this house has been left by someone, and he sells the furnishings of his broken life at prices that the youngsters find absurdly low. In their eagerness to begin living together they never guess that, were the man a stranger driving past his own sale, he would not stop. His-and-her night-stands, reading lamps, double bed: everything must go.

In what becomes a strange little party in these rooms that have no walls to contain the light, the man ends up dancing with the tipsy girl. (Carver's characters tend to drink a lot.) She draws him close. “‘I hope you like your bed,’” he tells her.

Later, the girl keeps retelling the story of the yard sale and the haunting sympathy she felt for the stranger who virtually bequeathed her his youth. She is trying somehow to express a meaning greater than the actions, but what she helplessly dwells on is the good bargain she got. So much stuff so cheap. Words fail her.

As the title of the book implies, the difficulty of talking about what really matters is a subject that haunts Raymond Carver. A story called “A Serious Talk” describes the Christmas quarrels of a separated couple who manage to say a great deal in the language of infidelity and violent gestures without ever settling down to the discussion they keep planning. They do exchange one word that means something, however. After they have battled so furiously that it seems little of value can be left unsmashed, the husband selects a particular ashtray to throw, and his wife stops him merely by asserting that it is theirs. Not hers alone, whatever its legal status, but theirs: the plural pronoun rivets each of them. Still, it fails to fuse them together as the husband had hoped. Words retain some power, but not enough to hold our relationships together under the juggernaut of modernity.

Carver is a poet as well as a writer of short stories (his previous collection was nominated for a National Book Award), and the new stories have the fierce compression and evocativeness of fine poems. Their language suggests, however, that the author finds little in contemporary life to wax lyrical about: the pruned-down sentences and paragraphs have the authority of deliberate understatement, even withholding, like a black-and-white photograph of a fire. The first impact of all the stories is sharp and visceral. Only afterward, as the skeleton of each one keeps rattling in the mind, does the painstaking intelligence of their designer become apparent.

The title story [“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”] depicts two articulate couples discussing love, and it suggests many of the problems of both love and conversation. Mel loves his present wife, Terri, but they have different ideal images of what love should be. Terri likes to describe her first husband's violence as a measure of the passion she once inspired. Mel, irritated by her nostalgia, defines love as far more gentle and chivalrous, although it soon becomes apparent that he daydreams about killing his first wife. These people trying to fit words to their experience have lived...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)

Robert Houston (review date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Houston, Robert. “A Stunning Inarticulateness.” Nation 233, no. 1 (4 July 1981): 23–5.

[In the following review, Houston regards “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” as emblematic of Carver's short stories.]

Raymond Carver is a pernicious alchemist. Take this setting, for example, from the beginning of the title story of his new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: “The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque...

(The entire section is 1562 words.)

Jerry Bumpus (review date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bumpus, Jerry. “Gut Shot.” American Book Review 4, no. 2 (January 1982): 8.

[In the following review, Bumpus discusses the dominant themes of the stories in What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.]

Like the buck in “The Calm,” people in Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are still on their feet, though mortally wounded. “It was a gut shot. It just like stuns him. So he drops his head and begins this trembling. He trembles all over. … So I shot again but missed. Then old Mr. Buck moves back into the brush. But now, by God, he doesn't have any oompf left in him. … I'd rammed one right in his guts.” He doesn't...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

Victoria Aarons (review date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Aarons, Victoria. “Variance of Imagination.” Literary Review 27, no. 1 (fall 1983): 147–52.

[In the following excerpt, Aarons emphasizes the significance of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” in Carver's short story oeuvre.]

Writer Guy Davenport, in the title work of his collection of essays, The Geography of the Imagination (North Point Press, 1981), argues that the imagination, that process that governs the way we perceive the world, has boundaries, boundaries we cross while trying to shape and define our experiences. He begins “The Geography of the Imagination” with a definition of the imagining process, emphasizing the...

(The entire section is 1537 words.)

Warren Carlin (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Carlin, Warren. “Just Talking: Raymond Carver's Symposium.” Cross Currents 38, no. 1 (spring 1988): 87–92.

[In the following essay, Carlin considers “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” to be a theological exploration of love and finds parallels between Carver's story and Plato's Symposium.]

John Updike, in the course of a visit to Paris in the summer of 1986, was interviewed in the popular literary review, Le magazine litteraire.1 He comments on the stylistic and mechanical excellence of many young writers in America. He then goes on to mention his one serious complaint: Their stories, he says, are too localized, too...

(The entire section is 3082 words.)

Arthur M. Saltzman (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Saltzman, Arthur M. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In Understanding Raymond Carver, pp. 100–23. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Saltzman identifies the impermanence of love as the dominant theme in “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”]

Frustrations burn like scraped nerves throughout Carver's third collection. Every story documents the ducks and feints of couples who prefer the static of “human noise” to the rigors of more substantial contact. Carver continues to write about America's written-off—people who cannot communicate and bemoan that impairment constantly. What...

(The entire section is 5671 words.)

Ewing Campbell (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Campbell, Ewing. “Breakthrough: What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 31–3, 45–7. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell lauds the complexity and accomplishment of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”]

When What We Talk about When We Talk about Love appeared in 1981, its spare style and unity of method caught the attention of reviewers and readers alike. Suddenly Raymond Carver, working consistently in a minimalist idiom, had people talking about the renaissance of the short story and about his new collection as the masterpiece of...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)

Randolph Paul Runyon (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Runyon, Randolph Paul. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In Reading Raymond Carver, pp. 131–35. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Runyon offers a stylistic analysis of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.”]

In the title story [“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”] of the collection [What We Talk about When We Talk about Love], two couples are sitting around talking and drinking gin: Mel, a cardiologist; his wife, Terri; the narrator, Nick; and his wife, Laura. Terri recalls her lover Ed, who used to beat her. “He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept...

(The entire section is 1561 words.)