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 November 12, 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 November 12, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Character Analysis



Holly's identity and sense of self-worth have been shattered by Duane's affair with the cleaning woman at the motel he and Holly manage. Holly's anguish is no doubt amplified by Duane's insistence the affair is meaningless and Holly should be able to accept it. She dramatically acts out her pain and confusion, at one point attempting to jump out the motel window. By reminiscing about a time early in their relationship when they encountered a dignified older couple living in the country, Holly realizes her marriage to Duane has failed to bring her the stability and dignity she desired in adulthood. These things were embodied in the gazebo the old couple had in their yard, a place where people regularly came together in the community. With this in mind, Holly has the strength to leave the marriage, with its alcoholism and deceit in a run-down motel.


Nick's narration of the story makes it clear he feels very connected to his wife, Laura. Laura is sincere, curious, and nonjudgmental. She asks questions, keeping the conversation on track as Mel gets drunk. However, Laura never passes judgment on anything spoken—she is open-minded. Nick remarks Laura is easy to be with, and her easygoing manner does not turn hard or bitter as she continues to drink—unlike Mel and Terri. She shows gentleness and understanding when Mel, drunk, speaks of his attraction to her. Her relationship with Nick is secure enough Laura can respond with a kind deferral to Mel's attempt to cross a boundary.

Mel McGinnis

Mel McGinnis is the character with the most presence in this story, which has no true protagonist. The four friends sitting around, drinking and talking, might be thought of as a cultural ritual; Mel is the master of ceremonies. He is the host, the most dominant (and later, aggressive) personality, and the one who ensures the liquor flows. He begins with thoughtful questions and musings on the problems he sees with the idea of love, presenting the topic as something he'd like to hear everyone's opinion on. However, he begins to contradict himself, to snap harshly at Terri when she comments, and to devolve into his fantasies about being a chef, a knight, and getting revenge on his bee-allergic ex-wife by letting a swarm of bees into her home. Mel dropped out of seminary to become a cardiologist. This decision symbolizes the difficulty of finding immaterial truths; it is easier to be just a "mechanic," as he refers to his job at one point. Mel tells the story of the injured old couple he has been intensively caring for, and it is from his preface to his anecdote the story's name is taken. Mel says they ought to be ashamed to pretend they know anything about love, and after he tells the story, his bravado breaks down, and he begins to express his anxieties, fears, and a desire to call his children. Mel represents our culture, which knows a lot about how to fix bodies, but can do next to nothing when it comes to matters of the soul.


Nick is both the story's narrator and the character who does the least amount of talking throughout the gathering. His attention is focused not on presenting and arguing his own point of view, like Terri and Mel, but rather on observing the complex dynamics at play among his friends. Nick's attention is also on the sunlight coming through the window, which in the late afternoon creates a feeling of timelessness and enchantment. Nick describes how the sun fades and darkness descends upon the room as the conversation shifts away from its initial tone of intellectual curiosity and becomes a staging ground for Mel and Terri to enact a conflict that apparently lies under the smooth surface of their marriage. Like Laura, he does not judge what his friends say and do; he merely reports it. At the end of the story, Nick says he could keep drinking, but the emotional energy in the room has reached its highest point of tension and begun to unravel, the alcohol is finished, and each person seems to be in a mood to sit alone with his or her own thoughts—something Nick has been doing the entire evening.

Photographer without hands

The photographer without hands offers the narrator of "Viewfinder" not only a Polaroid of his home but his sympathy and understanding. Inside the narrator's home the photographer intuits the narrator's personal difficulties and shares his own story. He has lost not only his family but his home and his hands. He reveals the children he used to have are the reason he has hooks for hands. These hooks are the outward and clearly visible evidence of an inward tragedy. He processes his loss by looking at others and their tragedies through his viewfinder. The images he produces allow the narrator to "see" his own situation from the outside, and it is this seeing and being seen that provide emotional relief.

Sam Lawton

Nancy finds Sam outside in his yard killing the slugs that are eating his roses. Sam's wife died of heart failure, managing to drive the car through the house in the process. Sam's drinking led to a falling out with his friend and neighbor Cliff, Nancy's husband. Sam's sadness is evident in his face and in his choice to practice pest control in the wee hours of the night, signaling his insomnia and an attempt to overcome a wider sense of existential powerlessness. After their alcohol-fueled argument Cliff and Sam each built a fence between their houses. Now that Sam has gotten sober and found himself without a wife and estranged from his neighbors, he has nothing to do but kill slugs. The slugs are eating holes in his roses, just as life's knocks have surely penetrated Sam's heart with sorrow. It is this sense of emptiness and sorrow that compels him to make the first overture in restoring his broken connection with Cliff.


Terri's delicate appearance belies the inner fierceness and cynicism that begins to show as she and Mel become increasingly intoxicated. Terri presents the first anecdote about love. It is a wrenching and grotesque story about her late ex, Ed, who died after two disfiguring suicide attempts after Terri left him. Even though Ed had tried to kill Terri during their relationship and had repeatedly threatened and intimidated Terri and Mel after the relationship ended, Terri insisted on sitting in the hospital with Ed as he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Ed is a prime point of contention between Terri and Mel, and his story reveals they actually hold opposite conceptions of what love is. Terri's claim Ed loved her is based on the fact he "was willing to die for it" by committing suicide. Terri claims Ed's murderous and unprovoked violence against her is further proof of his love. For Terri death seems to be the essence of love; for Mel the presence of violence directed toward self and others is a sure sign a relationship is absolutely not love. After sincerely defending Ed, Terri's attitude shifts, and she begins to make mocking, cynical comments and judgments about her husband as well as Nick and Laura's relationship. Terri's reaction to Nick and Laura's healthy, respectful display of affection is to claim it makes her sick. She then informs them their happiness won't last. Terri is so quick to judge because she is convinced, although she won't say it directly, love is a thing that occasions suffering. She was not happy with a psychotic man who assaulted her regularly, nor is she happy now with Mel, whose life looks like a success—at least on the outside.

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