“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.
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.
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.