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 | Themes



Many of these stories center on communication. For Raymond Carver the communication of individual subjective experience is a pressing need. However, this is difficult to accomplish. His characters often find themselves speechless when they wish nothing more than to speak. In "The Bath" the husband and wife sit in uncertainty, fear, and silence next to their son, who lies in a coma in a hospital bed. The husband longs to comfort his wife but cannot find the words to do so. Instead, he takes his wife's hand, which "made him feel better" because "it made him feel he was saying something."

When the characters do speak, the bulk of their communication resides in the way things are said rather than the actual content of the words, which is often empty or self-contradictory. This is seen in "Tell the Women We're Going," where Jerry and Bill's verbal exchanges are so vague and repetitious they serve only to communicate the alliance of their friendship. In "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" Mel McGinnis's claims to know what he is talking about, minutes before claiming he knows nothing. This is a reflection of Mel's shifting mood and increasing drunkenness, rather than his actual knowledge.

When verbal communication succeeds, it does so because the characters speak in figurative, symbolic terms. In "Gazebo" the turning point occurs when Holly narrates a story of her shared past with Duane, centered around a gazebo they once stumbled across. For Holly the gazebo is a symbol that brings into focus how far off course her life has become; with this new understanding she finds the courage to leave. Duane, who finds himself "all out of words" and only able to say Holly's name, eventually comes to understand the symbolic value of the gazebo as well.

Most of the time it is the characters' actions—their gestures, body language, and manipulation of concrete objects—that communicate most effectively. Carver's writing always takes careful note of these things, while often avoiding any description of characters' internal worlds. In "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off" Dummy has no choice but to communicate through gesture and physical symbolism, since he is literally mute. His name, however, shows verbal irony: Dummy may not speak, but he is not lacking in intelligence; he makes himself very well understood.

Seeing and Understanding

Carver proposes the experience of seeing and being seen as a fundamental human need. Sight is connected to looking, to the sight of the eyes, but it also implies understanding. In these stories seeing can refer to an objective glimpse of oneself as well as to the act of bearing witness to the subjectivity of another person. Both events are healing, because they provide a cathartic emotional release. Sometimes there is a failure to look, and sometimes one looks but cannot see in the metaphorical sense. These various permutations of the concept of sight create the idea it is fundamental to the human experience, and it is a mode of perception that links physicality to emotion, knowledge, and even spiritual experience.

In "The Calm" Albert and Charles speak of sight to express tension and signify judgment. "You old fart. I've seen you someplace," Charles tells Albert, who responds, "I've seen you too." Each judges the other, claiming sight as the evidence behind his judgment. They are referring to the sense of vision but more importantly to the figurative sense of sight as understanding. After they leave, sight becomes a significant part of the tender, transformative moment the barber and the narrator share. The barber spins the narrator in the chair toward the mirror, so that "I was looking at myself, and he was looking at me too." The narrator makes a distinction between seeing, or grasping something significant, and looking, or focusing one's attention on something with or without the accompanying understanding: "If the barber saw something, he didn't offer comment." For the narrator it is not significant whether the barber's gaze is the sight that understands; the act of being looked at and not judged is enough to induce in the narrator a sense of peace he recalls years later.

In "The Bath" Carver paints a world where people not only fail to see, they refuse to even look around them, at each other, and at themselves. The accident has happened because "at an intersection, without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb." It is plain to see the boy is in a coma, but the parents try to ignore what they see (and know) and attempt to believe the doctor who tells them the boy is only sleeping. Mother and father sit with their son, but they do not look at him. This is clear because Carver describes what happens when the father finally does look at his son: "The father gazed at his son ... He felt more fear now. He began shaking his head." Later, the mother literally closes her eyes as she tries to push away her knowledge her son is in a coma. With eyes shut she lands upon a comforting delusion: "Maybe if I'm not here watching, he'll wake up. Maybe it's because I'm watching that he won't."

But while looking is risky because one might see something frightening, there is also a chance one might see something whose beauty transforms its viewer. In "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off" the sight of the bass-filled pond at Dummy's is one of Carver's most beautiful images. In response to the sight Del calls out "Great God!" Jack does not use religious terms to describe the spiritual experience he has here in nature; instead, he focuses on the fish's eyes. "I could see their big, heavy lidded-eyes watching us as they went by," he notes. The indifference in these eyes, which look at Jack and his father and register neither terror nor awe, is profoundly moving to Jack. "They were asking for it," Jack remarks, marveling at how "the fish just didn't think a thing about us. I tell you, it was a sight to behold."

The Destructiveness of Love

In these stories Carver's attention to love is matched by his attention to violence and betrayal between romantic partners. This communicates the idea what people call love is not the ideal of love they each hold. Instead, it is a dysfunctional relationship in which the participants act in ways that are destructive to themselves and their partners. This emotional and physical violence is sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional, but it is always reflective of a lack of self-awareness.

InGazeboHolly's distress over Duane's adultery with a cleaning woman prompts her to attempt suicide by jumping out the window. Duane has hurt her with the fact of his betrayal as well as refusal to admit a betrayal has occurred. In "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" Terri's ex-boyfriend Ed drags her around the room, hitting her head on things as he repeats, "I love you, you bitch." When Terri leaves, Ed kills himself. Terri's husband Mel condemns Ed as a dangerous man, but after he drinks some more, Mel expresses his violent fantasy of killing his ex-wife with bee stings. In "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off" Dummy's murder-suicide is a response to his wife's adultery and the loss of the fish he dearly loved. All these situations, the outward violence, whether directed at self or other, is an attempt to express the state of despair that has arisen from a context labeled "love." Carver renders love as an experience that is inherently violent because it produces psychic and emotional wounds. The human reaction to being wounded is primal: retaliation, and the cycle of pain continues.

Questions for Themes

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What is the difference between male and female? when it comes down to communication?
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Most of us have received a business letter, a memo, or an e-mail before. Although these documents may not seem like traditional forms of technical communication, they actually possess or should posses
This assignment is due on Friday. can somebody analysis this document In this paper, your task is to analyze the peculiar properties of the language used by professionals in your chosen field. You do
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