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 December 15, 2018. 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 December 15, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Love/.

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



A first-person male narrator describes what happens after a man with chrome hooks for hands comes to the door to sell him a Polaroid photo of his suburban homes. Curious about the hooks, the narrator invites the photographer in. Upon seeing the photograph the narrator addresses the reader: "So why would I want a photograph of this tragedy?" In the photo the narrator sees his own head in the kitchen window, from where he had been watching the photographer. "It made me think, seeing myself like that," he remarks.

As the two men drink coffee, the narrator struggles to "make a connection" through small talk. The photographer intuits the man has been left by his family. He comments it "happens all the time" and explains he lives alone, traveling from town to town photographing people's houses. "Hey, I had kids once. Just like you," he tells the narrator and says his kids are the reason he has chrome hooks for hands. When he offers his sympathy to the narrator, the narrator urges him to act upon it: "Show me ... Take more pictures of me and my house." The photographer agrees but warns the narrator, "It won't work ... They're not coming back."

Outside, the photographer takes 20 more photos of the narrator and his house from all angles. Unsatisfied, the narrator suggests he photograph him on the roof. Delighted by the strange impropriety of this suggestion, the photographer agrees. On the roof the narrator finds a pile of rocks covering the chimney screen, thrown there by mischievous kids. He directs the photographer to shoot as he throws "that son of a bitch as far as [he] could throw it". Taken aback, the photographer says he doesn't "do motion shots." The man picks up another rock and screams, "Again!"


"Viewfinder" is about the need to process crisis and loss rather than remain stuck inside it. The characters are both men who have been left by their families. The photographer, however, has also lost his home—and his hands. He has devoted his life to photographing other people's homes. Through the act of photography, he not only achieves a sense of purpose and emotional release for himself, he also offers the chance for this catharsis to his subjects. The narrator in the story is one such subject who, stuck in grief and passivity, is desperately in need of such catharsis.

The camera's viewfinder and the photographs it produces initiate catharsis, both for the photographer and the man being photographed. Through the viewfinder the photographer literally and figuratively "sees" his subjects. By deliberately looking at the exterior of the subject's life and isolating it within the viewfinder, he bears witness to what is subjective and hidden within the objective exterior. For the narrator the photograph is not only evidence he has been seen by another, it also affords him the ability to literally and figuratively see himself from a new point of view. There is nothing dramatic or objectively emotional about the photograph; it is merely a picture of an ordinary home with a small head visible in a window. It is this very quality that allows the narrator to see himself from an observer's point of view, to contemplate and therefore begin to detach from his inner anguish. The act of photography therefore becomes a tool for healing. The photographer "sees" his subject, which is cathartic for him. The subject is "seen" by the photographer and also "sees" himself.

The photographer no doubt understands the healing value of exposing one's tragedy. His chrome hook hands have left him no other option. The narrator, however, has become stuck in his grief, which hides in him just as he hides in the house he used to share with his family. But the man's chrome hooks, his sympathy, and his photographs have the effect of empowering the narrator. By ascending to the roof of his home, he figuratively rises above his grief. By hurling rocks from the roof, he symbolically hurls his pain away from him. Not content to be frozen in grief any longer, he challenges the photographer's understanding of catharsis as well as his technical skill at photography by demanding he take "motion shots." The photographer's uncertainty hints that he, too, may have more personal grief to process—a deeper grief that can only be released through violent, primal action.

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