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 | Symbols



In "Viewfinder" and "Tell the Women We're Going" characters use rocks to release their emotional tension. This release of tension, which may be felt by the character as well as by the reader, is known as catharsis. The rock is at once the literal means by which catharsis is achieved, as well as a symbol representing the primal and often violent nature of catharsis.

When the photographer comes to the narrator's house in "Viewfinder," he finds the narrator in an unchanging state of frustration. The homeowner's wife and children have left him, and he remains behind in the house that used to be a home, making gelatin to treat his headaches and looking outside through the kitchen window. The homeowner first begins to feel an internal shift when the photographer shows him the photo he has taken of the house. Yet he does not achieve the satisfaction of catharsis until the end of the story, when he surprises the photographer by his order he be photographed hurling rocks off his roof. This image is absurd because the suburban context clashes with the primal quality of the man's action, but the homeowner is far from self-conscious. He is completely absorbed in throwing the rocks as hard as he can. The rock symbolizes the man's frustration and anger, which lies inert and heavy in him, rocklike, until the moment he finds the strength to lift it and hurl it away.

The use of the rock in "Viewfinder" is not intended as violence, although it contains the potential for that. On the other hand, in "Tell the Women We're Going" Jerry pursues two girls into the wilderness of Picture Rock, where he uses a rock to assault them in some way. The narrator is not clear about what exactly takes place—only that "it started and ended with a rock." Jerry's frustration and rage have built inside him for years, since he dropped out of high school and took on the weighty responsibilities of work, marriage, and childrearing. His life looks perfect from the outside, but he experiences this domesticity as a trap. The tension of living like a trapped animal for years finally erupts in a catharsis that is at once a primal expression of rage as well as a shocking, terrifying, and unexpected act of violence. Here, the rock symbolizes the fact humans, at the root, are little more than animals. The rock is the means by which Jerry both expresses and ensures his separation from civilized society.


Photographs play an important role in several stories. When characters view these images, their understanding of themselves or of their situation is increased. The images symbolize the powerful emotional effects that occur when people see themselves or the world from a perspective that is not their usual perspective.

In "Viewfinder" the homeowner understands himself and his situation better as a result of a photograph taken of the outside of his house. The crucial thing is his own head is visible in the kitchen window. The photograph allows him to step outside his internal pain and see himself as a detached observer would. As is often the case, an increased understanding compels a person to take actions that were not previously possible. This photograph is what spurs the man to move toward accepting his loss and processing the anger that underlies his grief.

A photograph produces insights, but these insights do not necessarily improve a situation. In "Popular Mechanics" the wife is distraught as her husband packs to leave until she spots a photograph of her infant lying on the bed. This distracts her from her own confusion and sorrow by suggesting she has some power over the man via the baby. The man sees this and, unwilling to be vanquished by his wife, begins to struggle violently with his wife for control of the actual baby. They fight without regard for the child's health, as if they were tearing apart the baby's photograph rather than the actual baby's body. Here, the photograph symbolizes the violence and horror that result when a person is treated as a symbol of something else, rather than valued for his own sake. The shift in perception produced by an image can result in an emotional distancing that is destructive instead of healing.


Windows figure meaningfully into most of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Raymond Carver's characters are perpetually looking through them, or being seen through them, or breaking them. While the window's specific symbolism is determined by its function in each story, Carver always uses windows to symbolize the point at which the subjective, internal dimensions of experience intersect with the external, visible world.

In stories where the characters struggle to articulate anguish, windows act as a release valve. In "One More Thing" LD shatters the kitchen window by hurling a pickle jar at it. His wife has just thrown him out, and he does not intend to leave, although he claims the opposite. His destruction of the window communicates more clearly than words could ever do: LD is deeply distressed and will follow his wife's command to leave but will make his exit as destructive as possible.

Carver also uses the transparent quality of windows to provide a means to draw symbolic links between what happens outside a building and what happens inside. In "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" the sunlight coming through the window produces a feeling of expansiveness and enchantment inside the room. At this point the characters are high from drinking, but not drunk, and they discuss their topic in a relatively civil and coherent fashion. But when night comes, the room also darkens. By then the characters are drunk, and their conversation has lost its focus, meandering between absurd non sequiturs and petty personal jabs. The literal and figurative illumination that earlier defined the scene has been replaced by the literal and figurative stillness and darkness of night.

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