What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
by Raymond Carver
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Gin and Tonics and Love
Two couples are drinking and talking about love. In fact, in many ways, this is the beginning, the middle, and the end of Raymond Carver's story. The characters never move from the kitchen table, and they never run out of things to say. After all, their topic is a most fascinating one: love. That's what's on the table when we first meet the foursome.
Bad News Ed
Terri, wife of heart surgeon Mel, gives an example of one kind of true love, but it's not without controversy. In fact, her belief that her abusive ex, Ed, truly loved her stirs up a disagreement between Mel and Terri. See, Mel thinks Ed's feelings for Terri were nothing like love. Come on—the guy hit her, threatened her, stalked her, and then committed suicide because he couldn't have her.
Ah, but that's precisely the point, says Terri. He died for her—that's love, whether you like it or not. Love doesn't have to be all good. As we watch the two duke it out (rather civilly), we're forced to ask ourselves the same question: was what Ed felt for Terri love? Or something else entirely?
After Terri and Mel tell the story of Ed, Mel says he has a story of what love really looks like, as a contrast. The story is about an elderly couple injured in a car accident whom Mel operated on. That all sounds perfectly normal, but twice, when Mel tries to start his story, Terri accuses him of talking like a drunk man. Why? Well, maybe because Mel is using the story to try to prove her wrong, to try to prove to her that what Ed had for her was not love. Or maybe she's worried that he actually is drunk, and this story will wind up being rambling nonsense. It's hard to say, but this new dynamic definitely throws a wrench in the dinner party.
Finally, Mel gets to the end of his story. Both couples survived the awful accident and were recovering in the same hospital room. Both were bandaged up like mummies, with holes cut for their eyes and mouths. Mel notices that the man is depressed and learns that the cause of the man's depression is his not being able to turn his head. Why's that so depressing? Well, because it keeps him from being able to look over and see his wife. Aw.
So why is this the climax? For one thing, it's Mel's triumphant moment. He finally gets to show the other three what true love is (at least to him). But for another, this love story stands in stark contrast to Terri's. There are two conflicting versions of love here (from two people in a committed relationship with each other, no less), and the end of Mel's story is the ultimate clash between their two definitions.
Explanation/Discussion: The suspense in this story is built around Mel and Terri's bickering or fighting or arguing or whatever you want to call it. You know how it feels to be around people who are arguing—tense, awkward. We don't know who will say or do what next. We don't know if this argument is a serious incident in their relationship or a fairly ordinary occurrence. And we're never quite sure what to say. We're on our toes.
Dinner's Done For
If you thought nothing was happening before, well, in this stage the action (if you can call what happens in this story action) completely grinds to a halt. There is no more gin to drink, no more talk to talk. Something about the dramatic way we are told that Terri doesn't get up to get the cheese and crackers—which she says she's going to get—makes us feel like something serious has happened, but it's hard to say what. It could be that she's just drunk like the rest of them and it'll take her a minute to get to the snacks. Or it could be much more serious than that.
As Nick sits there, listening to everyone's heart beating, we can't help but at least be grateful for that fact. Hey, if everyone's got a heart, then they've got love, right?