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 | I Could See the Smallest Things | Summary



Hearing the noise of her gate opening, the narrator, Nancy, gets out of bed and looks out the window. She expects to see "scary shadows," but everything "lay in moonlight, and [she] could see the smallest things." She returns to her place in the bed where her husband, Clifford, sleeps drunkenly, but the idea of the open gate, "like a dare," draws her out into the yard. There, "the moon lighted up everything‚ÄĒhouses and trees, poles and power lines, the whole world."

She is surprised to see her neighbor, Sam Lawton, "leaning with his arms on his fence, there being two fences to lean on." Nancy explains how, after the sudden death of Sam's wife, her good friend Millie, Sam and Clifford had a falling-out while drinking. Each man then built a fence around his own house.

Brushing off her anxiety about the gate, Sam invites Nancy into his yard. Nancy thinks she "should try to remember this, walking around outside like this." Sam shows Nancy "some wormy things curled on a patch of dirt." He explains they are slugs, "bastards" whose "crime" is eating his rosebushes. He is out poisoning them.

Sam is telling Nancy about his longing to have Clifford as a friend once again when he interrupts himself to poison a slug and watch it die. He tells Nancy he quit drinking, and she excuses herself. After promising Sam she will pass on his greeting to Clifford, she returns to bed. She remembers she has left the gate open and tries to shake Clifford awake. She thinks "for a minute of the world outside [her] house," but her mind empties itself of everything but her need to "hurry up and sleep."


In a book of minimally plotted stories, the plot of "I Could See the Smallest Things" is perhaps the most unremarkable of all. This lack of action allows Nancy's simple, naive perspective to dictate meaning. The quality of stasis, or lack of movement, that structures the story is also a defining quality of the characters' lives. Each is fighting a losing battle to maintain a sense of control and safety in a world that is ultimately and terrifyingly unpredictable.

On a literal level this is a story about a woman getting out of bed and having a brief exchange with her neighbor before returning to bed. However, Nancy's spare, deadpan narration results in every detail assuming a second, figurative meaning. These symbolic meanings function together as an allegory, giving rise to a coherent second level of meaning within and underneath the literal. An allegorical reading of the text, where every detail is taken as a symbol for something else, reveals an elegant meditation on the relationship between loss, fear, and human neurosis.

The precipitating event for all three characters' neurosis is likely Millie's horrific and sudden death. Nancy's vigilant, insomniac anxiety and rigidity of habit and thought are a response to this, as is Sam's symbolic war on the slugs and Clifford's heavy drinking and smoking. With the same detachment she describes watching a plane pass by overhead, Nancy describes the way Millie's heart failure coincided with her pulling into her driveway. The car broke through the wall and landed inside her house. The reader can infer, when Millie died, the nature of her death caused any sense of security and safety Sam, Nancy, and Clifford had to perish with her.

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