What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Course Hero, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Study Guide," February 6, 2018, accessed December 17, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | A Serious Talk | Summary



On Christmas day Burt goes to his former home to exchange presents with his estranged wife Vera and their children. The third-person narrator has insight only into Burt's perspective and describes how Burt feels "a welling in his chest" when Vera puts on his gift, a cashmere sweater. Vera has stipulated he must leave before her new boyfriend and his children arrive. As he leaves, he sees six pies Vera has made lined up by the door, "one for every ten times she had ever betrayed him." He takes them all but drops one in the driveway.

The pie is still there the following morning when Burt returns uninvited. Vera tells him she is fed up with him ruining holidays but relents and lets him in to "talk about it." The house is squalid with the mess of yesterday's celebration. Watching her light the stove, Burt imagines her robe catching fire and how he would "cover her with his body" to snuff the flames. He pours himself a glass of her vodka and apologizes, but Vera is unimpressed and excuses herself.

Alone in the kitchen Burt's attention turns to the large ashtray on the table. It is "not really an ashtray" but a handmade pottery dish he and Vera bought early in their marriage. The butts in it are from cigarette brands he doesn't recognize. Offended, he dumps and washes the ashtray, then stubs out his own cigarette in it. Burt answers the phone but hangs up on the caller, a man who asks for Charlie. When the same man calls back, Burt unhooks the receiver.

When Vera returns, she demands to know why Burt has taken the phone off the hook. He demands to know who smokes lavender-colored cigarettes and is shocked when she says the butts are hers. Burt has "things he wanted to say, grieving things, consoling things, things like that." Instead, he and Vera engage in petty bickering. When the same man calls back asking for Charlie, Vera takes the call alone in the bedroom. Burt takes a dirty knife from last night's dinner, washes it, and cuts the phone cord.

When Vera realizes he has cut the cord, she throws Burt out. "Out, out where you belong!" she screams at him, threatening to call the police. Burt takes the ashtray from the table and holds it "like a man preparing to hurl the discus." Vera begs him not to: "Please ... That's our ashtray." He goes out, taking the ashtray with him, and passing the fallen pie in the driveway.

He feels satisfied, thinking he has perhaps convinced Vera of the need to have "a serious talk" soon. They have so many "important things" to talk about, one of them being the fact "the goddamn ashtray was a goddamn dish."


Burt uses physical objects as a means of understanding his situation and expressing himself. In other words he thinks and acts in symbolic terms. Carver makes this clear through his appraisal of the pies, which he interprets as symbols of Vera's betrayal. He steals the pies not because he wants to eat them but because he wants to symbolically "get back" at his wife.

While Burt sees himself as the wronged party in the marriage, Vera makes it clear she has rejected Burt because of his destructive behavior. Carver's mention of their front door being locked since the time Burt's key broke in the lock is a symbolic representation of the fact Burt has only himself to blame for the loss of his marriage. Not only has he been destructive in the past, he continues the same behavior now, ruining Christmas just as he ruined Thanksgiving. "Sorry isn't good enough," Vera tells him. It is clear to Vera—and the reader—Burt needs to change.

Not only is Burt not ready to change, he is perhaps incapable of it. He doesn't even see the need to change, because he cannot see himself or his behavior. Carver makes it clear Burt's alcoholism is a significant factor in Burt's clouded judgment. Moments after taking his morning drink of vodka, he is cutting the cord to Vera's phone. His decision-making process only takes into account he will stop Vera talking to her boyfriend; he does not consider the morality of such an action, nor does he anticipate the obvious outcome of Vera becoming enraged and throwing him out.

Burt's failure to see, understand, and accept the reality of the end of his marriage is expressed in his symbolic fixation on the ashtray. Vera's repurposing of the dish signifies she has moved on, and when Burt threatens to break it, he is unwittingly communicating his intentions to do his best to make Vera's new life as hard as he can. When Burt considers the important things he wants to say to Vera, only the ashtray comes to mind. He will tell her the dish is a dish, not an ashtray, when what he really means to communicate to Vera is she is wrong about their marriage being over.

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