Course Hero. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Study Guide." Course Hero. 6 Feb. 2018. Web. 17 Jan. 2019. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/>.
Course Hero. (2018, February 6). What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved January 17, 2019, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/
(Course Hero, 2018)
Course Hero. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Study Guide." February 6, 2018. Accessed January 17, 2019. 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 January 17, 2019, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.
The first-person male narrator describes his life as it was three years ago, when he was unemployed, wrestling with severe alcoholism, and both his mother and his wife were "putting out." He tells the reader he's "seen some things," and then describes walking in on his elderly mother "on the sofa kissing a man." He elaborates: "It was summer. The door was open. The TV was going. That's one of the things I've seen."
At this time his wife Myrna was openly having an affair with a man named Ross whom she met at Alcoholics Anonymous. Ross, an "unemployed aerospace engineer," had six kids and a limp, thanks to a gunshot wound from his ex-wife. Claiming to "wish him well now," the narrator admits, at the time, he fantasized about shooting Ross. He never bought a gun, but he made fun of Ross at every opportunity.
The narrator describes all the ways Ross failed to live up to what he claimed to be. When Ross went to jail, Myrna bailed him out. Myrna claimed Ross collected antique cars, but the narrator saw the cars and they were "just clunkers." Ross claimed to be a handyman, but the narrator says Ross could no more fix the television set than he could. "I had his number. Mr. Fixit," the narrator claims. He describes the place where Ross used to work, a "modern operation" with "Mr. Coffees in every office." He then mentions Ross's interest in "astrology, auras, I Ching—that business," before stating Ross must have been smart and interesting for his wife to be attracted to him.
The narrator describes how his father died "in his sleep, drunk" after coming home from work one afternoon eight years ago. He then shifts forward to the night Myrna ended her affair with Ross and came home. When he suggested they have sex and a homemade dinner, she replied, "Wash your hands."
In this story the narrator adopts a tone of intimacy with his audience as he reflects on his life three years ago. His casual opening, "I've seen some things," implies he expects his audience to view him as a survivor, one who has passed through injustice, pain, and betrayal to come out on the other side a better man. However, in the course of telling his story, the narrator reveals a lack of self-awareness that indicates his point of view is unreliable.
One clue to the narrator's unreliability is his admission, at the time these events took place, he was "drinking a fifth a day." His wife, on the other hand, had given up drinking and was attending AA meetings. AA refers to Alcoholics Anonymous, an all-volunteer organization founded by alcoholics for the purpose of achieving sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous views alcoholism as a spiritual illness, the remedy for which is the spiritual growth brought about by working the Twelve Steps and helping other alcoholics to do the same. The narrator's self-admitted active alcoholism and his wife's (and Ross's) pursuit of recovery calls into question the narrator's judgment that his wife, his kids, and Ross are all crazy.
It is more likely the narrator had alienated himself from his family through his alcoholic behavior. He portrays himself as an innocent victim of his family's insanity, never reflecting on how his own destructive, unreliable, or insane behavior might have helped drive his wife into the arms of another (sober) man.
Even though Myrna has ended her affair with Ross and gone back to the narrator, the narrator spends most of the story belittling Ross while attempting to deny he is doing so. Instead, he casts his mockery and criticism as objective observation, implying both Myrna and Ross are deluded while he alone has access to truth and wisdom. "We had things in common, Ross and me," he claims with verbal irony. "For example, he couldn't fix the TV ... I couldn't fix it either." Since Ross claims to be a handyman, this is actually a dig at Ross's ability.
Similarly, the nickname he gives Ross—Mr. Fixit, a reference to a 1960s and 1970s television show featuring a man tackling simple home-repair projects during a 15-minute slot—is meant to disparage rather than compliment him. Likewise, he attempts to undermine the prestige of Ross's career by reducing it to the proliferation of Mr. Coffee-brand coffee makers in his workplace. Mr. Coffee is a drip-style coffee maker, the first of its kind to appear on the consumer market in the 1970s. It achieved enormous popularity and replaced the old way of making coffee with a percolator. The narrator links Ross with these elements of popular consumer culture in order to trivialize him as a fad or a novelty in his wife's life, lacking the substance to live up to his slick exterior. Paradoxically, it is his quick, barbed wit, as well as his own insincerity and immaturity, which come into focus with this approach.
The narrator concludes the story by juxtaposing two events: his father's death from alcoholism and his wife's return to the marriage. The implication is the narrator realized he would end up dead, like his father, and Myrna would then move on permanently, like his own mother has done. Myrna's return to her domestic and conjugal role is signaled by her ambiguous instructions to the narrator, "Wash your hands." This statement indicates her literal assent to his proposed evening of sex and food, while also suggesting she sees him as figuratively dirty and in need of cleansing before she can reaccept him. She may be asking him to drop his resentment of Ross, or pointing out he bears culpability for the difficulties in their marriage. As the narrator makes no comment, the reader is left to wonder whether he grasps the second meaning of his wife's words.