What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
by Raymond Carver
Analysis: What's Up With the Title?
This longish title does a nice job of describing the story – a story in which two married couples sit around drinking gin and talking about… wait for it… love.
That sounds pleasant enough, but what comes out in their conversation might surprise us a little. It isn't all hearts and flowers and romance here. They talk about domestic abuse, stalking, rat poison, suicide, car accidents, surgeries, hospitals, knights, and—how could we forget?—bees. When love is the topic, you never know what's going to come up next.
So why isn't this story called "Knights and Bees"? Probably because the title comes from a line in the story itself, when Mel McGinnis introduces his example of true love, the story of an elderly couple who survive a car accident. He says:
You see, this happened a few months ago, but it's still going on right now, and it ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we're talking about when we talk about love. (66)
This isn't the nicest thing in the world to say, because belittles everything everybody else has said about love so far. He's basically telling his friends, and his wife, that they have absolutely no clue what they're yammering on about.
But to be fair, Mel isn't in the nicest mood at this moment. He's frustrated. He intends his story, in part, as a direct counterpoint to his wife Terri's claim that she and her violent ex Ed had true love. Violence and abuse are not what we talk about when we talk about love, at least according to Mel.
We're going to let you in on a little secret: the original title of the story was "Beginners," but Carver's editor changed it to its current version. "Beginners" references a totally different line in the story:
"What do any of us really know about love?" Mel said. "It seems to me we're just beginners at love." (56)
That seems pretty straightforward. Mel is admitting his own ignorance when it comes to matters of the heart, and he's making sure everyone else admits their ignorance, too. Everyone is always a beginner at love, because love changes from person to person, and each new love is different.
But that simple, straightforward title isn't the title we are ultimately given. We're given the vaguer, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." And maybe that vagueness is precisely the point. We don't actually know what we talk about when we talk about love because we're all just… beginners.