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 January 20, 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 20, 2019, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Sacks | Summary



Les, the story's first-person narrator, describes meeting his estranged father in an airport lounge, during this brief stopover in Les's work-related travel. His father tells him the story of the affair he had, which led to the breakup of his marriage to Les's mother. Upon greeting his son, the father presents him with a sack of candy, a gift for Les's wife and children, which his father exhorts him not to forget. Les tells his father his family is "fine" but remarks to the reader this is not the truth. Les listens distractedly to his father's story, his attention periodically drawn to the exuberant, flirtatious behavior of a woman on the other side of the room or the bottom of the ashtray, which advertises a casino.

Les works for a book publisher, so his father thinks he might be able to understand the story, which he hasn't yet shared with anyone else. "I liked to have died over it," he says and proceeds to describe, in vivid sexual detail, his affair with a door-to-door saleswoman half his age. "A man can go along obeying all the rules and then it don't matter a damn anymore. His luck just goes," Les's father comments.

The affair was discovered when the woman's husband Larry, a long-distance truck driver, came home unexpectedly, when they were "in the sack." Les's father describes jumping straight into the window, shattering the glass in his panic to get away. When Les asked if Larry chased him, his father retorts, "You don't know anything except how to sell books." He apologizes and then describes how Larry "went all to pieces." Both he and his wife fell to the floor and cried; the wife also "prayed to God, good and loud so the man would hear."

Les parts from his father stiffly, forgetting the gift of the sack of candy in the process. He comments to the reader his wife didn't need that candy a year ago anyway, and "she needs it now even less."


In this story the picture of a larger web of fractured relationship comes into focus through the lens of a brief meeting between the narrator and his estranged father in an airport lounge.

This story, like "Gazebo," is a nested narrative. Les's narrative contains his father's narrative, like the sack that contains the candy Les's father offers as a symbol of his desire for a meaningful relationship with Les and his family. Les's forgetting of this sack of candy has a quality of deliberate refusal to it, much like Les's inability to maintain interest in and focus in his father's story. Les dismisses the candy as unimportant, much like he dismisses his father. "To sack" is an idiom meaning to dismiss or fire, and this is just what Les has done to his father, because his father betrayed his mother by getting "in the sack," or having sex with, another woman.

Just as the word sack has a series of nested implications and the narrative itself assumes a nested structure, the characters are all nested in the context of their relationships and roles. The characters are so intertwined, so nested within their roles, that a single instant of giving in to desire ends up rupturing a whole web of relationships. The affair between Les's father and the Stanley product woman is ruptured in the same moment relationships between Les's father and Les's mother, the Stanley woman and her husband Larry, and Les and his mother are destroyed. The bottom falls out of all these relationships, proving what held them together was about as strong as a plastic grocery sack.

In the wake of such destruction, and with Les hinting his own marriage is in shambles, Les and his father are nonetheless both entranced as they watch a woman across the bar put her sexuality and vivacity on exuberant display. This woman, like the controlling image of sacks, is one of the symbols at the thematic core of the story. There is nothing more trivial or more compelling for these men, than the sight of an attractive stranger. There is also nothing more damaging to the stability of one's life and the integrity of the family unit than to give into this attraction. This is just what Les's father has done, and what Les seems in danger of doing himself, without even being aware of it. The significance of this destruction is conveyed through another core symbolic image: the image of Larry, the betrayed husband, falling to the floor and weeping, while in the other room, the wife who betrayed him falls to the floor, weeping and praying.

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