Literature Study GuidesWhat We Talk About When We Talk About LoveWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love Summary

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



The narrator, Nick, is sitting at his friend Mel McGinnis's kitchen table along with his wife, Laura, and Mel's second wife Terri. They are drinking gin and talking about the meaning of love. Terri says her ex, Ed, "loved her so much he tried to kill her." When Terri left the abusive relationship, Ed made two grisly suicide attempts and succeeded on the second. Terri insists Ed loved her because he "was willing to die for it." Mel vehemently disagrees. He was in the seminary before he became a cardiologist and feels true love is spiritual and absolute, rather than terrifying and life-threatening.

Nick and Laura refrain from passing judgment, but Laura tells the group, "Nick and I know what love is ... for us." Nick dramatically kisses Laura's hand and tells the reader that "in addition to being in love," he and Laura "like each other and enjoy one another's company." Terri scoffs at them and tells them their relationship will deteriorate in time. Mel proposes a toast to true love. The vibrant afternoon sunlight makes the room feel enchanted.

Mel says he's going to tell them "what real love is" but instead addresses love's propensity to fade into nothing or turn to hatred, as well as the capacity of each of them to love someone other than their current partner. When in the end he claims not to know anything, Terri suggests he is drunk. Laura diffuses the couple's tension by saying, "Mel, we love you."

Mel announces he is about to tell them something that ought to make them all feel "ashamed," pretending they know what love is. Mel works at the hospital and has been working furiously to save the lives of an elderly couple who were critically injured in a car crash with a drunk teenager. After weeks of intensive care, it finally became clear they would survive. Mel interrupts himself to talk about his fantasy of being a knight. "They had that suit of armor, you know, and they couldn't get hurt very easy," he says. Terri corrects him when he mispronounces a word, and Nick points out the ways knights, too, died horrible deaths. Finally, Mel returns to the story about the old couple. He describes how the news both he and his wife would survive did nothing to cheer the old man, who was deeply distraught because his full-body cast prevented him from turning his head to look at his wife. "I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn't look at the fucking woman," Mel marvels.

The room is growing dark; they are all hungry and drunk. Terri says Mel is depressed and should take a pill. Mel announces he wants to call his kids, and then begins to fantasize about killing his ex-wife by filling her home with bees, to which she is allergic. Mel announces the gin is finished, and Terri says, "Now what?" The room is so still, Nick "could hear everyone's heart."


In this story two couples drink and contemplate what is meant by the word love. Laura and Nick are happy in their relationship, which Laura offers to the group as her own personal definition of love. Neither she nor Nick says more about it to the group, but Nick tells the reader he and Laura both love and like each other. Throughout the evening Nick and Laura touch one another's hands, and this hand imagery becomes symbolic of their love.

Unlike Nick and Laura it is clear Mel and Terri are not happy with each other. Their quarreling and constant jabs at one another signify beyond their disagreement about what love really is the two don't actually like each other. In turn both Terri and Mel describe examples of what, for them, constitutes true love. They do not consider their own relationship as such an example. Instead, each presents an image of love that is more closely connected to suffering and death than to health and vitality. Terri's example of true love is Ed, whose suicide attempts disfigured his body, turning his teeth into fangs and swelling his head to enormous size. These horror-movie images are the symbolic representation of Terri's version of love.

Mel's version of love is also connected to death and disfigurement, although the context is quite different. His story of the old man who despaired because his body cast wouldn't let him look at his wife is quite sweet, despite its sadness. But for Mel and Terri both, love is something that can only be discerned against a backdrop of crisis, pain, and death, and which is symbolized by the human body in a disfigured, unhealthy state. This imagery contrasts sharply with the hand imagery of Laura and Nick's love. Similarly, Terri and Mel's unhappiness with themselves and with each other is drawn out in the presence of Laura and Nick's calm, affectionate contentment.

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