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 11, 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 11, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Quotes


People stared. But no one stopped. It occurred to him that he wouldn't, either.

Homeowner in "Why Don't You Dance?", Why Don't You Dance?

In the wake of his relationship ending, the man in the story has moved all the contents of his home into his suburban yard, where he has arranged them to be comfortable and functional. By noting the limited interest of passersby—who find it strange enough to stare but not compelling enough to investigate further—the man steps outside his personal loss and is able to see his situation more objectively. What amounts to a serious personal loss for him appears to others as no more than a collection of used furniture in a yard, something to gawk at and then promptly forget.


It won't work ... They're not coming back.

Photographer without hands, Viewfinder

The photographer, who has lost his family (and his hands), intuits in the homeowner's request to photograph him a similarly painful and difficult situation. The homeowner seizes on his expression of sympathy, feeling as if someone has seen and cared about his pain for the first time. The photographer misinterprets the man's desire for more pictures of him and his house as evidence he still holds onto the hope his family may return.

Really, the homeowner is looking for catharsis, which he achieves when he climbs the roof and has the photographer shoot him as he hurls rocks.


Honey ... Let's hug awhile and then you fix us a real nice supper.

Narrator of "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit", Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit

The narrator closes the story by describing this exchange between him and his wife the night she ended her extramarital affair. Myrna answers her husband's request for domestic comforts with an equally domestic but much more ambiguous response: "Wash your hands."

This ambiguity is characteristic of the endings in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It contains both Myrna's practical assent to her husband's request as well as an implication her husband's untreated alcoholism bears some blame for her adultery, and he must therefore metaphorically cleanse himself of this guilt and any accompanying resentment, so they may make a fresh start.


My heart has slowed. I wait. Holly was my own true love.

Duane, Gazebo

The narrator, Duane, recounts a moment in his relationship with Holly toward its ending, when they were attempting to settle the problem of Duane's infidelity. Their communication is marked by omission, with each using the other's name to signify that which is meaningful and difficult and inexpressible.

Here, after just such an exchange, Duane recounts the dread and anxiety he feels at the weight of all that is unsaid behind Holly's use of his name. He neither reports anything else she said to follow up, nor the outcome of the conversation explicitly, but by his past-tense appraisal of Holly as his true love, the reader senses the relationship is at the moment of its ending.


I thought to myself that I should try to remember this, walking around outside like this.

Nancy, I Could See the Smallest Things

Nancy, the first-person narrator, steps outside her routine when the sound of her gate opening draws her out into her moonlit yard in the middle of the night. Her feeling neither the hour nor her clothing is appropriate makes her feel "funny," and the moment stands outside of ordinary time.

By stating she should "try to remember," the reader understands the weight of her anxiety and fear will likely overshadow any sense of freedom and clarity she feels in the present, which will be lost in the depths of memory.


You don't know anything at all. You don't know anything except how to sell books.

Les's father, Sacks

Les's father hoped by unburdening the story of his adultery to his educated son Les, he would be able to understand it better. Les disappoints him by asking whether he managed to escape when his mistress's husband came home and caught them. This is not what is important to Les's father, who obviously escaped any harm. For him, as for Carver, the point is the anguish both the guilty party and the one being cuckolded feel when the deception of adultery comes to light, not the details of the scenario's outcome.


'Scotty,' the voice said. 'It is about Scotty,' the voice said. 'It has to do with Scotty, yes.'

Narrator, The Bath

When Mrs. Weiss, anguished over her son's being in the hospital in a coma, answers the phone, she asks whether the caller has news about her son, Scotty. The caller answers her literally but does not provide any information. The caller's literalism and omission imply the news is tragic, but the euphemistic nature of his words are emblematic of an inability to face and an unwillingness to even speak about what is unpleasant or painful in life. This tone of evasiveness, which permeates the entire story, is Carver's comment on the American culture of repression and denial.


Guy's got to get out ... You know what I mean?

Jerry Roberts, Tell the Women We're Going

Bill thinks he understands what Jerry means, but the vagueness of everyday vernacular language is held to the light when this is revealed as a misunderstanding. For Bill "getting out" of his routine and his responsibilities means acceptable evening activities with friends. But Jerry responds to his responsibilities like a frightened, trapped animal.

For Jerry "getting out" means chasing two girls up a mountain and mauling them with rocks. Jerry's euphemism then takes on a new light: he means not just getting out of the strictures of routine but out of the moral imperatives of civilized society and out of his domesticated self, back into his primal, violent, animal nature.


Then he set to work ... making believe he was waving like the man on the keel.

Narrator, After the Denim

James Packer feels like his life is out of control, and this feeling of unmanageability and despair is heightened this evening after losing at bingo to a cheating young couple and new evidence his wife has failed to conceive (or is about to miscarry) a child. He used to deal with his anxiety by drinking, but since getting sober has taken up needlework.

In the story's closing scene Packer achieves catharsis not only through the physical act of embroidery but through a symbolic identification with a painting in the bingo hall. This painting, of a man standing and waving on his sinking boat, embodies the ideal of personal strength James longs for but cannot achieve.


They have friends, these killers. You can't tell.

Claire, So Much Water So Close to Home

Speaking to a fellow mourner after the funeral of the woman whose body her husband and friends discovered while camping, Claire learns the girl's killer is a local man and has just been caught. Her comment points to her unease her husband bears some culpability in the situation, having failed to regard the dead girl's presence as important enough to cut short his fishing trip. She is suspicious of her husband for this reticence and his secrecy around it. The killer may be her husband or anyone around her, for Claire has learned the appearance of decency is no true indicator.


It scared me, seeing him ... He was just standing there, the saddest man I ever saw.

Jack Fraser, The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off

When the narrator, Jack Fraser, encounters Dummy standing by his ruined pond, watching his beloved fish escape, the sight of such sadness arouses Jack's fear. Dummy's efforts to protect what he loved most have backfired and instead ensured its loss, as Jack has now seen the fence he put up has resulted in the creation of a channel that allowed the fish to escape. Thematically, Carver is pointing to the frightening truth people have no control over anything, no matter the effort they make. Indeed, such effort may only be counterproductive, raising the equally frightening question of how humans should respond in the face of a universe beyond their control or even understanding.


He was not certain, but he thought he had proved something.

Narrator, A Serious Talk

Burt leaves his estranged wife's home in a state of mild self-satisfaction after having engaged in some threatened and actual property damage. Burt's destructiveness is his only way to communicate his inner anguish at the loss of a relationship he doesn't know how to grieve and can't let go of. He is consumed by the idea if he and Vera can only talk, he could perhaps win her back. However, Burt is unable to articulate his feelings and instead acts them out in a drama involving domestic objects. After having threatened to break her ashtray, Burt misinterprets Vera's response as a sign she is open to reappraising the relationship.


Then what? You must have trailed him. They find a hard place to die every time.

Man reading newspaper, The Calm

As Charles narrates his unsuccessful deer hunt to the listeners in the barbershop, one of the men listening expresses his expectation the story will now turn to a description of Charles trailing the dying, bleeding deer until he catches him. In enunciating this expectation he is speaking aloud one of the norms of manhood—and doing so in the barbershop, a setting where these norms are expressed and maintained. The guard has not trailed the deer but blames his failure on his son's hangover, and this lack of taking responsibility is seen as a violation of the moral code of manhood by the others.


That's it ... End of story. I admit it's not much of a story.

The boy in "Everything Stuck to Him", Everything Stuck to Him

After responding to his daughter's request for a story about her childhood with an anecdote about a hunting trip that didn't happen and a spilled breakfast, the man makes a comment that takes on a quality of meta-commentary in the context of Carver's fiction. Most of the stories don't have much external plot and are concerned, like the daughter, with the emotional states that underlie action—or lack thereof. It is this implied subjectivity—not their plotting—that makes the stories interesting.


It was love ... Sure, it's abnormal ... But he was willing to die for it. He did die for it.

Terri, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Terri and her husband Mel disagree about what love is, and their disagreement centers around the example of Ed, Terri's abusive former husband. Terri regards Ed's physical, verbal, and emotional abuse as well as his eventual suicide as a sign of his love. For Terri love is relative, and given Ed's mental instability, his dramatic expressions of attachment are evidence he loved her as much as he possibly could have. Mel disagrees, saying true love is absolute and spiritual, not violent and deranged.

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