In the words of Raymond Carver,
Tone is a very hard thing to talk about objectively, but I feel that a writer's tone is his signature, not just the way he crafts his stories. I can tell you what my tone isn't. It's never satirical. And it isn't ironic, clever, or glitzy. The tone is serious, by and large, though obviously some of the stories are humorous in places. I don't think a tone is just cobbled up by a writer. It's the way the writer looks at the world, and he brings his view to bear on the work at hand. And it can't help but infuse nearly every line he writes. (Source.)
Did you notice that Carver talks a lot about what his tone is not? He isn't trying to be tricky or pull any punches. He isn't trying to get fancy or come up with complicated plot twist. That tells us that when he looks at the world, he sees it for what it is, and then writes it. So what world is he seeing in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?
Carver also tells us that his "stories often have to do with loss, and as a result the tone is, well, not somber, but severe. Grave, maybe, and somewhat dark […]." And why wouldn't he think that? As he puts it, "Life is a serious business, isn't it? It's grave, life is, tempered with humor" (source).
Carver was trying to echo the tone of life, as he saw and experienced it, in his stories, and this one is no exception. Considering how much violence is packed into it (beating, stalking, rat poison-drinking, highway crashes, and more), we'd say, yes, the tone is serious and even grave.
But let's take a closer look. Take, for example, this scene between Mel and Terri:
"Honey, I love you," Mel said.
He leaned across the table. Terri met him halfway. They kissed. (73)
This is a loving moment, right? Then why so serious? Mel's words are loving, but the description of his actions is blunt, to the point, and unadorned. That description takes this loving moment and turns it into something serious, somber, and grave.
This is serious stuff, folks, and it's as real as it gets. We've got two families (in the form of married couples) grappling with love in all its messy glory. Back stories of abusive relationships bump up against tales of true love grown old. Add some gin and you've got a recipe for a good night of drama, complete with bickering, swear words, and anti-depressants. Ah, family.
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.
The ending has even less action than the rest of the story. The sun sets. The conversation stops. Terri says she'll get Laura some cheese and crackers, but she stays put in her chair. The bottle of gin runs dry. Nick becomes a human stethoscope.
Seriously, that's what happens. Let's take a closer look:
"I'll put out some cheese and crackers," Terri said.
But Terri just sat there. She did not get up to get anything. (141)
Maybe it's because we've been talking about dark things, like suicide, violence, and horrible accidents. Maybe it's because Mel and Terri's bickering has made us a little tense. Maybe it's because it's getting dark. Nothing really scary happens, but we still feel a little scared, scared for Mel and Terri.
We just get this feeling that Terri is sad, that this conversation has either shown or created a problem in their relationship. Sure, Terri is drunk, and her behavior isn't all that odd considering this fact. Still, something about the way Nick delivers the information leaves us with a nagging, bad feeling.
We've seen the darker side of love, and it seems that that darker side is all too present in Mel and Terri's marriage. What's next for these two, do you think?
If Carver has anything to say about it, nothing good:
The world is a menacing place for many of the people in my stories, yes. The people I've chosen to write about do feel menace, and I think that many, if not most people, feel the world is a menacing place. (Source, p. 102.)
We've been sensing this menace all along, in Terri and Mel's bickering. Plus, we've got that rather alarming story of the elderly couple, who had their whole lives turned upside down, all thanks to a careless drunk driver.
As Terri sits there, not getting the cheese and crackers, we get the sense that all this has taken some kind of toll on her. She can't even bring herself to get up and go to the kitchen.
I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark. (145)
Oh Nick. You didn't tell us you were a human stethoscope! Well, now that we have that handy bit of information, we can use these lines to help us understand the conversation that preceded them. Maybe it was just a conversation, but it was a powerful one, and intimate, too. The two couples are all sitting in a room together, sharing a deep sense of connection in their heartbeats, no matter how much they might disagree about love on the surface of things.
And no matter what we talk about when we talk about love, at the end of the day, it's all about heartbeats, isn't it?
"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is set entirely in the Albuquerque apartment of Mel and Terri McGinnis. It takes places over the course of an afternoon, in late summer or early fall. Not only do the characters never leave the apartment, they never leave the kitchen table. This bare-bones setting is perfect for the story. It's a story where two couples (Mel and Terri and Nick and Laura) talk about love while polishing off two bottles of gin.
This isn't some fancy dinner party. This is four friends drinking cocktails in their apartment, and you don't need much detail to get that point across. There's no need for Carver to get all fancy here. Although it's set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it could be set almost anywhere—anywhere, that is, where people can sit around drinking in their apartments and talking about affairs of the heart. Nick drives this point home when he mentions, early on, that "we were all from somewhere else" (1).
Even though all that really goes down in this story is a lot of drinking, a whole lot of talking, and even more drinking, the apartment does become a more complex setting as the story unfolds. We learn that Mel and Terri were living here when Mel was going through an ugly divorce, and so it was probably the site of lots of anxiety, phone-call fighting, and frantic calls to Mel's lawyer. To make matters worse, Ed was stalking Mel and Terri, who were living together at the time.
The apartment is quiet and peaceful now, but it used to be a place of fear and conflict. It was also probably a place of refuge. Mel and Terri got through it after all. They've been married for five years. At that early point in their relationship, when both of them were suffering from both of their exes, they were still able to stick together and build a relationship.
Sure, the apartment has changed a lot over the years, but it also changes, in small ways, over the course of the evening. In the beginning, "Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink" (1). Later, the sunlight takes on a strange quality, almost becoming a character in the story: "The afternoon sunlight was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity." As their conversation flows, so does the sunlight—making them cozy and comfortable as they chat with friends.
But then, at the end, the sunlight disappears, and with it the "ease and generosity." As the conversation turns colder and darker, so do their surroundings: "The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from. Yet nobody made a move to get up from the table to turn on the overhead light."
Finally, at the end of the story, the light disappears completely, and, while everyone sits there silently, Nick tells us that "the room went dark."
We don't know about you, but Shmoop thinks there's something to that sunlight, and its slow, gradual disappearance throughout the story. As the tension between Mel and Terri rises, the light slowly disappears from the room, taking with it the comfort and joy one might find in friends. By the end of the story, when they're all sitting in a dark room, making no effort to turn on the light or head out to dinner, we can't help but assume that they're all feeling, well, depressed. Or at the very least, changed.
The hospital where Mel works as a heart surgeon is the major setting for both the story of Ed (Terri's example of true love) and for the story of the old couple (Mel's example of true love).
Like Mel and Terri's apartment, the hospital is a generic hospital with nothing to distinguish it from any other hospital in America. Readers can easily fill in the details, based on reruns of ER.
So why bother paying attention to the hospital? For one reason, and one reason only: it connects love with violence. Ed is in the hospital because he did violence to himself in the name of love. Terri shows her love for him by staying with him in the hospital, even though he has done violence to her, in the name of love. The old couple are victims of a drunk driver and are experiencing extreme physical injury, but they stick together in the name of love. Geez, where's Bono when you need him?
Readers immediately notice that this story is made up of big chunks of dialogue with almost no description or commentary from our dear narrator, Nick. When it comes to interpreting, we readers are left to our own devices. Lucky us.
But that's fine. With all this dialogue, we've got plenty of material to work with. We can learn a ton about our man Mel and his wife Terri. Just look at the way the guy talks.
In the beginning, he's familiar, a little snarky, but also friendly and full of fondness. He says of his wife, "Terri's a romantic. Terri's of the 'Kick-me-so-I'll-know-you-love-me' school. Terri, hon, don't look that way" (5). He's not deep into the gin, so he has control over his words, and is nice to his wife.
But later, after a few more gins and tonics, he's not so nice. Here's Mel, speaking about his ex-wife: "She's allergic to bees, […] If I'm not praying she'll get married again, I'm praying she'll get herself stung to death by a swarm of fucking bees."
While we think Mel should probably lay off the gin for a while, we can't help but admire Carver's skill with words. In just a subtle change in conversation, he manages to show us a huge transformation in character.
The afternoon sun was like a presence in the room, the spacious light of ease and generosity. We could have been anywhere, somewhere enchanted. We raised our glasses again and grinned like children who had agreed on something forbidden. (54)
Don't you just feel all warm and cozy? Don't you just want to be a part of this conversation? Shmoop definitely does. Who wouldn't want to have a conversation about love with friends, in an enchanted place.
Even though they've been talking about really heavy stuff—suicide, stalking, and other violence—these characters are sharing a moment, and the sunlight helps them do that. This might not be the most pleasant conversation, and it definitely has its awkward moments, but it is intimate.
One way people become intimate with each other is by sharing the darker, more private aspects of their lives with each other. Maybe that sunlight (and the gin, of course) helps them feel a bit more comfortable with their surroundings, a bit freer with their secrets. Light has a way of revealing things, you know.
So then this raises the question: what do you think of the complete lack of light in the story's last paragraph? What does the fact that the characters sit there in the dark without turning on the lights say about their moods?
For more on this, be sure to check out our discussion of sunlight in the "Setting" section, too.
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.
Think of gin as a clock in this story. The story of Ed ends when the first bottle of gin reaches empty. And the story of the elderly couple at the hospital ends when the second bottle of gin is drained.
Of course, the more gin these folks drink, the drunker they get, and that helps mark the passage of time, too. But it also helps loosen them up—Mel in particular. The more gin he drinks, the more honest he is about his feelings, and the harsher he grows as well.
It's classic, really. Alcohol is a social lubricant. It makes folks say things they wouldn't ordinarily say, reveal things they wouldn't ordinarily reveal, and do things they wouldn't ordinarily do. What was that you were saying about bees, Mel?
Meet Nick. He's our narrator. We say he's peripheral, or on the sidelines, because, although this is his story, he's not the main character in it—Mel is. Mel, Nick's best friend, is the one doing most of the talking, and he is the major focus of Nick's, well, focus.
In fact, although we have a narrator who drops in every now and then, much of the story comes straight out of Mel's mouth, and it's Mel's point of view on life that we know best by the time the story is over.
Nick, on the other hand, is suspiciously silent. He doesn't reveal how he feels about Terri's controversial example of what love is (Ed's abusive behavior). And he doesn't ever reveal how he feels about Mel's example of the elderly man's heart breaking because he couldn't turn his head to look at his wife in the hospital bed next to him. He just listens.
Nick doesn't tell any stories himself, but he does show us what he thinks love is. For example, Nick makes a point to show affection for Laura by touching her, kissing her and, it seems, by avoiding conflict. If they have issues, bitterness, or resentment, Nick isn't bringing it into the drinking party, or into his descriptions to the reader of their relationship.
Nick also tells us what he thinks love is, in asides that the reader reads, but that the other characters aren't aware of. He tells us, "In addition to being in love, we like each other and enjoy each other's company. [Laura] is easy to be with" (30). So love is more than just enjoying someone else's company. But that's part of it, too.
For Nick, the best example of love is what he has with Laura. It's easy—not hard. There isn't a bunch of drama and complications. For him, talking about love isn't really talking at all; it's listening.
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.
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.
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?