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

Raymond Carver

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Popular Mechanics | Summary



A man stands in his bedroom packing a suitcase. He is leaving his infant and the infant's mother. Dirty snowmelt darkens the room's small window. Night is falling outside, "but it was getting dark on the inside too."

The woman comes into the bedroom, upset. She cries and curses the man, claiming to be glad he is leaving. On the bed lies a picture of their baby. The woman takes the photo and walks into the living room. The man follows her, but she refuses his demand to give the photo back. The man finishes packing and turns off the light in the bedroom.

In the kitchen, where the "window gave no light," the woman holds the baby. The man tells her he wants the baby. "You're not touching this baby," she replies. The man backs her into a corner by the stove. As they struggle over the "red-faced and screaming" baby, a flowerpot falls and breaks. "You're hurting the baby," she tells him, and he responds, "I'm not hurting the baby." He wrests the baby from her but she grabs and pulls the baby's wrist, for "she would have it, this baby." Each pulls as hard as they can on the baby, and "in this manner, the issue was decided."


In this story it is easy to observe Ernest Hemingway's famous "iceberg principle" or "theory of omission." The narrator provides no exposition, or backstory, and does not describe or name the characters. Man, woman, and baby are not individuals, but archetypes. Carver conveys his intention for the reader to understand the story's conflict as universal rather than specific with the story's title. "Popular Mechanics" is the name of a mass-media print magazine that explained the inner workings of common technologies in simplified language the average consumer could understand. Carver's purpose, then, is to do something similar for the "machine" of the family.

While the third-person narrator epitomizes detachment, the reader understands how Carver feels about his subject matter because of the story's menacing, sinister tone. Carver achieves this tone through his use of symbolism. When night falls outside, the narrator points out it was "getting dark on the inside too." It is literally getting dark inside the house, but the man and woman are also about to engage in a violent and senseless power struggle. They cannot see the difference between right and wrong, nor do they see they are tearing their baby limb from limb. When the woman finds herself cornered by the stove, the fight escalates, suggesting symbolic connections which are embedded in everyday language: people are "backed into a corner" when they have few options, and when someone's anger is getting out of control, they are "hot" and suggest they "cool off." The flowerpot that breaks during the struggle literally signifies the intensity of their fighting, while also acting as an ominous foreshadowing of the baby's fate.

Carver is not explicit about how the fight ends or whether the baby lives or dies, because that is not what he wishes to call attention to. His focus is rather on the struggle between the parents. The struggle horrifies the reader, yet by calling it "popular," Carver wishes the reader to understand it as symbolic of cultural norms, rather than as an exceptional circumstance. It is merely a symbolic exaggeration of the dysfunction that pervades male-female relationships and family dynamics. Like a mirror the story demands readers take a clear, unflinching look at themselves, both as a society and as individuals.

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