Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Gee, the heart is a symbol in a story about love? Could we get anymore clichéd?
We probably could. Because the heart in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is not scribbled in a teenager's notebook, it's not plastered on the front of a Hallmark card, and it's certainly not filled with chocolate. It's a living, beating organ, and it's very, very breakable. Hmm. That's not so clichéd, now is it?
And that's where Mel comes in, too. We learn right away, thanks to Nick, that Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist. He quite literally fixes hearts for a living. There are all the normal ways a heart can go wrong: heart attacks, angina, clogged arteries, you name it. Mel can fix those, no problem.
But can he fix the more metaphorical broken hearts? If the heart stands in for love, can Mel fix a broken love? He certainly helped Terri out of a bad relationship, which shows he knows his way around a fix-it situation.
But what of their relationship? Is everything good in the McGinnis household? Should the doctor be looking inward, to his own heart?
In the final lines of the story, Nick listens to the heartbeats of everyone in the room, as they sit silently in the dark. We could go the cheesy route and say that if a heart symbolizes love, then Nick is sitting there, listening to the love pulsing through the room.
But that doesn't sit quite right with us. And Carver's aversion to symbols (in a Carver story, things just are what they are) makes us think that he's quite literally talking about their hearts. And boy, are those things noisy.
We think Nick is noticing the racket because he's noting how very alive he and his friends are. Sure, their hearts may be metaphorically broken, or metaphorically ticking away. At the end of the day, part of being alive is experiencing both those things; heartbreak and love go hand-in-hand.
That's something Mel seems to understand, too. The heartbreak his patient feels when he can't look at his wife is a mark of that man's love for her. See? Heartbreak and love: strange bedfellows.
But wait a minute. That sounds eerily similar to Terri's version of love, too. After all, Ed was surely experiencing some kind of heartbreak when she kicked him to the curb, and maybe that's what drove him to stalking and eventual suicide. So is Ed's abusive behavior all part and parcel of the heartbreak-love connection?
No seriously; we're really asking.