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 | The Bath | Summary



On his eighth birthday a boy is hit by a car as he walks to school. During the time scheduled for his birthday party, he is instead in a coma in a hospital bed. His mother therefore never picks up the custom birthday cake she'd ordered, decorated with a spaceship bearing the name "SCOTTY" in icing.

The mother and father wait helplessly by their unconscious son. The medical personnel are detached, not offering any emotional cues to signal the boy's prognosis. They doctor tells the parents their son is sleeping so his body can heal. The mother asks if her son is in a coma, and the doctor replies he wouldn't call it that.

Eventually, the father goes home to bathe. He reflects life had been good so far, but now "fear made him want a bath." During his bath the phone rings repeatedly. The voice on the other end demands payment for a cake which was not picked up and which the father knows nothing about.

He returns to the hospital to wait by his wife. Looking out the window, she tells herself, "We're into something now, something hard." She watches another woman drive away and imagines she is that woman.

Finally, the wife says she'll go home for a little while, to check on things. Her real motivation, which she speaks aloud, is perhaps her presence is preventing her son from waking up. On the way out she cannot find the elevator. She explains this to a family who is sitting and waiting for news of their own son, Nelson. She tells the family her son is sleeping but perhaps will wake if she goes home. Nelson's father shakes his head and says, "Our Nelson."

At home she feeds the dog and sits down on the sofa with a cup of tea. Finally the phone rings, and when the mother asks if the caller has news about her son Scotty, the voice answers in the affirmative: "'Scotty,' the voice said. 'It is about Scotty ... It has to do with Scotty, yes.'"


In "The Bath" Carver examines the way tragedy is handled by a culture whose prevailing norm is a refusal to acknowledge or accept what is unpleasant, difficult, or tragic. The birthday boy's sudden injury and subsequent coma is a crisis for his parents but is treated with nonchalance or indifference by the other characters in the story. Scotty's parents are each left alone in their terror and uncertainty. They seek certainty from the medical authorities but are given only euphemisms. These euphemisms, ostensibly meant to comfort and maintain calm, are actually a call for the parents to participate in willful self-delusion. The struggle of Ann and her husband to delude themselves about their son's coma creates a sinister tone when juxtaposed against the indifferent self-interest of the larger world. This indifference is revealed by the hospital staff's cursory and impersonal attendance to their duties, by the baker who calls repeatedly insisting on payment for the useless birthday cake, by the birthday boy's companion who wonders whether to finish his potato chips or continue walking to school in the moments after his friend is hit by the car, and the family of Nelson whose own crisis renders them unable to bear witness to Ann Weiss's pain.

In this world of silence individual subjective experience becomes subordinated to the tyranny of everyday objects. This has the effect of revealing the shadow side of the most mundane things. The birthday cake Ann Weiss orders for her son is decorated with a spaceship bearing the boy's name. The image on the cake, meant to speak to her son's youthful imagination, becomes an ominous foreshadowing of Scotty's sudden departure from the realm of ordinary life. The cake takes on an additional symbolic meaning when the baker calls the Weiss home demanding payment for his work. The ringing of the telephone repeatedly intrudes upon the bath Mr. Weiss is taking in a futile effort to wash away his fear. He has no knowledge of the cake his wife ordered, just as the baker has no knowledge of the birthday boy's coma. This suggests a symbolic equivalence between the birthday boy and the cake, an equivalence which reveals the culture's elevation of the material, the superficial, and the easily consumable—and the accompanying devaluation of human life. This norm is further expressed by Scotty's companion, the sole witness to his accident. It does not occur to him Scotty might be seriously hurt, or he might have any responsibility to help his friend. He continues on his way to school after expressing a casual curiosity in the experience of being hit by a car, munching his potato chips, as unshaken as if he had merely been watching an action film.

This insistence nothing out of the ordinary has happened is most clearly expressed in the doctor's refusal to admit Scotty is in a coma. "I don't want to call it that," he says. "He's sleeping. It's restorative." Scotty's mother and father continue to believe in the doctor's authority, even though they know he is lying to them and asking them to lie to themselves. This creates, for Ann, a state of cognitive dissonance that leads her to embrace superstition. Her husband encourages her belief Scotty will wake up if she's not watching him. He may also have fallen into this type of magical thinking. He may also be simply encouraging Ann to lie to herself, either so she can retain some sense of control, or simply because it provides an acceptable pretext for her to go home and rest.

The story's closing lines have the effect of transferring the uncertainty and fear felt by Scotty's parents to the reader. Ann answers the phone, frantic for news about her son, and the caller confirms his reason for calling does indeed concern her son. The story ends without revealing the caller's identity or the specific reason for the call. It could be the doctor calling to report anything about Scotty—his death, or his condition remains unchanged, or he has taken a turn for the better. It could be the baker calling to demand, once again, his payment for Scotty's cake. It could also be anyone else at all—perhaps Scotty's school calling to inquire about his unexplained absence, or the mother of Scotty's friend calling to inquire about Scotty's condition.

The revelation of Scotty's fate seems to be the only possible resolution to the story. Through its omission the story's thematic center shifts. The story is not about the individual known as Scotty; he is a symbolic element within the narrative. Scotty symbolizes the incomprehensibility and unknowability lurking beneath every knowable, comprehensible, familiar surface. Society and cultural norms are meant to help people function in spite of this basic existential dread central to existence itself. Denial, repression, the deception of self and others, and the exploitation of linguistic ambiguity are the tools society hands the individual. These tools do keep society functioning more or less smoothly, but they accomplish this by flattening the human experience, dehumanizing individuals, and alienating them from themselves and others.

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