Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” takes place in one sitting, or more precisely, one pre-dinner drinking bout. It is told in first person, with one of the four characters referring to himself as “I,” but ironically this is the character about whom we know the least; he is merely the mouthpiece for the action, and all we know about him is that his name is Nick and he is married to Laura. His friend Mel is a cardiologist, married to Terri, and initiates the conversation of what love means. This conversation provides the central focus of the story.
Mel, Nick tells us, thinks “real love [is] nothing less than spiritual love.” He cannot comprehend that his wife’s abusive ex-husband, Ed, could possibly have loved her while he was dragging her around the room by her ankles. “That’s not love, and you know it,” Mel says. “I don’t know what you’d call it, but I sure know you wouldn’t call it love.”
Terri, on the other hand, insists that it was. She has led a much less sheltered life and is also much less self-righteous than Mel; she understands that while objectively Ed could be regarded as sadistic, dangerous, and pathological, he operated out of a reservoir of strong emotion that was simply incapable of channeling itself in socially-acceptable ways. This strong emotion, when turned toward other human beings, erupted in violence. This is why he beat his wife and eventually committed suicide.
Ed, in fact, functions as a pivotal character in the story even though he is dead by the time the action occurs. He stands out in stark contrast to the little group drinking around the table, for, crazy as he was, he had life in him. Terri seems to look back to her days with Ed with a kind of nostalgia, because for all his crackling violence, she thinks he is more man than Mel will ever be.
Mel, for his part, presents the story’s central question—what is love—because like the rest of the group he is imbued with a sense of loss, of regret, of unutterable sadness, for reasons he can not quite describe. He feels instinctively that it has something to do with love, and he’s right in a way; it has everything to do with passion. The little group sees in alcohol a way to inflame the passion they once felt for living, or the passion they think they should feel. Mel notes that as much as they love each other, if they were all married to someone else, it would make no difference in their lives; one empty person is as good as another.
In fact there is in fact no passion in these people; the alcohol makes it worse, and at the end, when Mel says the gin is gone, Nick concludes the story with the words: “I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” They can’t move because they suddenly realize that none of them have ever moved; their lives have always been, and will always be, empty and dark, and they no longer have gin to cover this up.
This story can be found in the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, available in paperback from Amazon here.
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