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 November 14, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Tell the Women We're Going | Summary



Since their childhood in the 1950s, best friends Jerry and Bill have shared everything they could, from cars to clothes to women. "It worked out fine," the third-person narrator informs the reader. This began to change when Jerry married Carol, dropped out of high school to work full-time, and started having kids. A few years later, at his wedding to Linda, Bill is struck by how Jerry's early responsibilities have made him seem much older than his 22 years. Their lives are stable with the routines of family, work, and home; their pleasures are in middle-class material luxuries and weekends barbecuing at Jerry's house.

"It was a Sunday at Jerry's place the time it happened," the narrator offers. Bill and Jerry are, as usual, sitting on Jerry's patio drinking beer, and Bill is struck by "how Jerry was getting to be deep, the way he stared all the time and hardly did any talking at all." Jerry finally suggests they go for an outing, and Bill agrees: "I'll tell the women we're going."

At the rec center they play pool and drink beer in the company of Riley, who wants to know if they're "getting any [sex] on the side." Speeding down the highway afterward, Jerry sights two girls on bicycles, exclaiming, "I could use some of that!" Bill is passively reluctant, and Jerry instructs him, "I'll take the brunette ... The little one's yours." Jerry pulls beside the girls and orders Bill to speak to them. They express their disinterest with ambivalence, not assertiveness, laughing when Bill offers them a ride. They finally reveal their names are Barbara and Sharon. Jerry deduces the girls are headed to Picture Rock, and he speeds off into that direction. The narrator says, "It seemed to Jerry she was looking at him in the right kind of way. But with a girl you could never be sure." Jerry is elated with the prospect of the sexual encounter to come, while Bill is nervous and wants to go home.

They park and wait at the trailhead to Picture Rock. The girls arrive, and Jerry stalks them up the path, ignoring their question about why he is following them. Bill follows, stopping frequently to smoke and glimpse the car below. Soon he is so high he can no longer see the car or the highway, and Jerry instructs him, "You go right and I'll go straight. We'll cut the cockteasers off." Bill sees the girls hiding behind a rock, and the narrator notes, "Maybe they were smiling."

The narrative skips forward to present Bill's reflections on the day's outcome: "He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with" a single rock, which Jerry "used ... on both girls."


Bill and Jerry are best friends, but while their outward lives are very similar, their inward lives are markedly different. They are each living the American dream. For Bill this signifies happiness. For Jerry life feels like a trap. Bill begins to realize this at his wedding, when "in the middle of all this happiness" he realizes Jerry looks "a lot older than twenty-two." What reads as premature aging at Bill's wedding, he reads as Jerry "getting to be deep" a few years later, on the Sunday when the story takes place.

Bill intuits something is amiss with Jerry but fails to understand his friend is desperate. He assumes Jerry feels basically the same way he does. As the narrative reveals, Jerry carries an inner desperation whose subsequent explosion catches Bill completely by surprise.

Jerry's desperation expresses itself through his sexually charged violence against the girls at Picture Rock. In Jerry's pursuit and capture of the girls Carver reveals how such sexual violence arises within the cultural norms of masculinity, particularly male authority and the objectification of the female. These norms are embedded in the language of the story. For example, the title of the story, "Tell the Women We're Going," appears to be an example of a neutral communication. However, the men are "telling" the women what is going to happen. They are not asking them, or consulting them. In referring to their wives Carol and Linda as "the women," as well as withholding the information about where they are going, they are stripped of their agency and reduced to a passive "other." In terms of relations between the sexes female consent ultimately does not enter into the picture.

Jerry is expressing a cultural norm when he thinks one of the girls "was looking at him in the right kind of way. But with a girl you could never be sure." This nonverbal communication, like the patterns of speech in the story, is ambiguous in a way that ensures miscommunication and misunderstanding. For Jerry and Bill ambiguity is a feature of femininity, which makes any attempt to ascertain a woman's will or opinion futile and therefore irrelevant.

The language Jerry and Bill use with each other is also ambiguous. Bill agrees with Jerry's assertion that "a guy's got to get out." For Bill "getting out" means occasional socializing in the evening with his male friends, after his responsibilities to his family are taken care of. This is not what Jerry means. For Jerry his life of responsibility is a trap or prison from which he must escape.

Jerry escapes by suddenly shifting from the domestic and tame to the primal and wild. He enacts his escape through space, moving from the house to the top of Picture Rock. Jerry's escape is also his reversion from the civilized mode of being to the violent animal mode of being. In a matter of hours he goes from hosting a backyard barbecue with his wife and daughter, to hunting and trapping and using a rock to violate two females he randomly encounters.

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