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 10, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.


Course Hero, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Study Guide," February 6, 2018, accessed December 10, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | After the Denim | Summary



"After the Denim" is narrated in third-person close, by a narrator with insight into James Packer's interior world. Now that they have quit drinking, the Packers—retired accountant James and his younger wife Edith—play bingo each Friday night at the community center. Since quitting, James has taken up embroidery as a hobby. He is also obsessed with luck. James feels lucky when nothing unexpected happens to derail his precise, rigid routine. His wife, much more relaxed than him, cheerfully and calmly tolerates his obsessions.

On the Friday night in question James's bad luck begins when they arrive late to the community center and find their regular parking spot occupied by "an old van with markings on it." He and Edith walk arm in arm into the building, passing by a photograph on the wall showing "a boat that had turned over, a man standing on the keel and waving." The Packers' usual seats are occupied by a young couple. James bristles at the presence of these outsiders: "The girl wore denims, and so did the long-haired man with her." Despondent, James tells Edith he doesn't "feel lucky tonight." Edith replies, "Don't you pay it any attention ... They're not hurting anybody. They're just young, that's all."

James isn't winning when he notices the young man in denim is cheating. Edith dissuades him from reporting the cheating, but when she goes to the bathroom, James confronts the couple. They act confused. James is gripped by despair when Edith tells him she has once again found blood in her underwear. "This is the worst bingo night in history," James complains. The young couple wins the $98 jackpot game, and James tells Edith they'll use the money for drugs. Leaving, James realizes the couple own the van that occupies his parking spot.

At the house Edith tells James she will see a doctor the next day and goes to bed. James feels "awkward and terrified" and "unworthy." He wonders why Edith must suffer instead of "all those people who sail through life free as birds." He fantasizes about destroying the illusory happiness of the young couple in denim: "He'd tell them what was waiting ... after the denim and the earrings, after touching each other and cheating at games." In the guest room where James sleeps alone, he takes out his embroidery and sets "to work—stitch after stitch—making believe he was waving like the man on the keel."


Like many of the characters in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, James Packer uses symbols to express and understand his own life. The photograph in the bingo hall of a man standing on his sinking boat waving is an important symbol for James. To James life feels like a slowly sinking boat. Things are bad, and he knows they will get worse. This man is "waving" at the photographer, as if he is not bothered at all by the fact he is at that very moment losing everything and will even perhaps drown. Instead of his own despair and terror, James longs for the equanimity and good cheer of the man in the photo.

James idealizes the man in the photo, but he is envious and resentful of the young couple in denims. They are like birds, flying high and carefree over the shipwreck down below. They not only get away with cheating, they win the jackpot. In contrast, James and Edith play by the rules, in bingo and in life. They have done the hard work of quitting drinking and now wish to start a family. But instead of winning, the Packers lose, and not just at bingo. Edith's discovery she is "spotting again" indicates she is about to lose the child she is carrying to a miscarriage, and she and James have experienced such loss before.

As James continues to contemplate the young couple, he decides their happiness indicates their youthful ignorance rather than life's unfairness. Their appearance—the denim, the jewelry, the man's long hair, their beat-up van—signals they belong to a different generation than James and even Edith. Their boat is sinking, but it is still high enough above water they haven't yet realized it. This allows James to see himself as wiser and more powerful than they: he knows the crucial facts about life, while they do not. The idea of inflicting his bitter wisdom upon them invigorates James. It brings a sense of comfort and power, however modest.

His obsession with luck performs the same function, as does his hobby, needlework. When James embroiders, he has control over every stitch. He attempts to have the same control over every tiny detail of his life. When nothing unexpected happens to challenge the rigidity of James's routines and habits, he feels a sense of control he calls luck. But ultimately, it doesn't matter if James double-checks the locks and the lights, or he makes every effort to arrive on time to bingo. He cannot control life any more than he can control a game of bingo.

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