What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
by Raymond Carver
Dr. Mel McGinnis
Mel is the main character, the guy doing most of the talking in this story. We learn right away that he's is a cardiologist, a heart doctor, a heart surgeon, in fact. He takes his job seriously. He takes it beyond the operating room, into the real matters of the heart—love. (Okay, we admit it. That was cheesy.)
Not only is forty-five-year-old Mel interested in his patients' physical hearts, but also in their love lives. Readers might not agree with all of his thoughts on love, but we can see that he's spent a whole lot of time mulling the subject over in his mind. It's as if he feels like part of his job as a heart doctor is to study love. And he seems to be, on the surface at least, a very loving person.
Mel has very strong beliefs about what is and isn't love, but that's okay, because he thinks love is something we spend our lives learning about. So he's got some time left to brush up on romance. And frankly, he really needs to. He might be an expert when it comes to the physical organ, but he's a still a student when it comes to affairs of the heart—you know, the mushy stuff.
His thoughts and questions on love and his insistence that he and all of us are just "beginners" (56) make him seem deeply romantic and sincere. Even his wife Terri gets that sense, saying, "Mel always has love on his mind […], don't you, honey?" (10). We think this whole story is proof that what Terri says is true. Whether or not he really knows what we talk about when we talk about love, he sure does like to have the conversation.
Still, there is a dark side to Mel, just asking to be explored.
Knight in Shining Armor
Mel says that, if he could be reincarnated, he'd like to come back as a knight in shining armor. It's not because knights get all the ladies, or because he wants to do a little swashbuckling. Nah, his reasoning is much more revealing than all that:
But what I liked about knights, besides their ladies, was that they had a suit of armor […] and they couldn't get hurt very easy. No cars in those days, you know? No drunk teenagers to tear into your ass. (86)
Now we're getting somewhere. Mel seems to be very aware of how dangerous life can be for himself and others. And that's no surprise, really—the guy's a doctor. But he doesn't seem to embrace the danger the way an old-school, brave knight would. It's the protection he's after, not the daring adventure.
That Mel relates to knights, or at least to the popular image of knights, might also give us a clue to his relationship with Terri. When he and Terri moved in together, they were both in dire straits, fleeing Terri's violent ex, and negotiating a messy divorce from Mel's vicious ex, Marjorie. We get the idea that these two may have rescued each other, that they acted as each other's armor through the tough times. Where that leaves them now, when things are safer, is up for grabs.
Knights are also known for rescuing damsels in distress and performing heroic feats. So what does that make Terri? It's true we could think of her as a damsel in distress, and we might think that Mel rescued her and protected her from her abusive ex-husband. There's a little humor here, because Mel whines about how afraid he was of Ed, and doesn't even pretend to be macho about it. Not even close.
At the same time, he does perform heroic feats in his work as a doctor, and is definitely interested in fixing what's broken in the world, like people's hearts. So Mel's interest in knights reveals both his vulnerability (he wants to be protected by armor) and his desire to protect and rescue others from danger. His knight fantasy is where the two sides of his character come together.
Mel and Terri: A Match Made… Somewhere
We're just going to come right out and say that Mel and Terri's relationship is, well, weird. What are we to make of these two? They say they love each other all the time, but they also seem to be smack dab in the middle of one awkward, doozy of a fight.
We're no marriage counselors here at Shmoop, but we think you wouldn't be off base to worry that their marriage is in deep trouble. Mel seems dissatisfied with Terri, and there's some resentment there. For sure, Mel doesn't seem to love Terri the way the old man in the hospital loves his wife. He even admits that he can see both he and Terri loving other people and being happy. That's not exactly the high romance of the oldsters' story.
In Carver's original draft, their relationship is softer, deeper, and more intimate. It's also way more complicated. In that version, Mel leaves to take a shower toward the end, and Terri breaks down in tears and tells Laura and Nick that Mel has a drinking problem, and is suicidal. If possible, that version might be even more of a downer than the final edit.
But it does help us out a bit. For one thing, that original ending shows us that Terri's concern over whether Mel is drunk is actual concern, not just pestering. She's not harassing her hubby. She's worried for him.
In the current version, though, Mel seems more and more bothered by Terri as the story goes on. He uses harsh language with her, asking her to "just shut up for once in your life." Yep, those are not the words of a gentleman, and they're certainly not the words of a doting husband. It's worth pointing out, though, that as the story goes on, Mel gets drunker and drunker. The gin flows, and then so do the swear words.
Of course this raises the question: does the gin bring out the true nature of their relationship? Or just the true nature of Mel? It's possible that these two really are deeply in love, and Mel just can't hold his liquor. But it's also possible that when he's boozing, Mel's more honest than he normally is. He can let it all loose. And what he let's loose is a little vitriol.
Mel and the Man Upstairs
Mel thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love. He said he'd spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He said he still looked back on those years in the seminary as the most important years of his life. (3)
We learn this little tidbit from Mel's past early on in the story. But by the end, we might find it hard to jive this softer side of Mel with his gin-soaked dissatisfaction. In any case, we know Mel is much more than your garden-variety armchair philosopher. He's a smart guy (seminary, and then medical school? That's not child's play), and he thinks deeply about the world around him and the people in it.
Mel's sense of spirituality just might mirror that of his creator, Carver. When asked if he was religious in an interview, Carver famously replied, "No, but I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection. No question about that"(source).
As a surgeon, Mel sees and maybe even performs miracles on a daily basis. Yet, he also sees the flip side of this, the people who can't be saved, no matter how hard he tries. He has to reconcile some pretty conflicting events and emotions all day long, which is exactly what we have to do when we read his character.