Study Guide

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Themes

  • Love

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is about what we talk about when we talk about love. Be honest; you saw that one coming, right? But here's the thing: as the story shows us, what we talk about when we talk about love isn't quite what we might expect. Our main characters talk about car accidents, gin, domestic abuse, bees, and of course, cheese and crackers. What would love be without cheese and crackers? Love, it seems, is messier, darker, and way more complicated than your average greeting card.

    Questions About Love

    1. What do you think Mel means by "spiritual love" (3)? Is that for another person? For God?
    2. What do you think: did Ed love Terri? Does Terri still feel love for Ed? Or is it something else?
    3. Okay, Shmoopers. Here comes the big guy: what is your definition of love? Do you think the story comes up with its own definition of love? If so, what is it?

    Chew on This

    Laura and Nick haven't been together long enough to know if their love is real. It's just like Terri says: they're in the honeymoon phase.

    Mel and Terri don't actually love each other. They're just fond of each other, and very very loyal.

  • Language and Communication

    In a story with an awful lot of chatting, nothing much actually gets said in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Sure, we've got the stock and standard kissing, holding hands, saying "I love you." All of these are ways in which our characters use the language of love to communicate their affections. But somehow, this language all seems inadequate as the darkness falls on the two couples and the gin slowly disappears. At the end of the day, words fall short of defining love, and our characters struggle to say just what they mean, if they even know what they mean in the first place.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How do Nick and Laura communicate their love to each other? Is it true love, or just physical affection? And how does this communication compare to that which goes on between Terri and Mel?
    2. How does Mel communicate his dislike for his ex-wife Marjorie?
    3. Are Mel and Terri bickering or fighting? Will this night weaken or strengthen their relationship? 
    4. How might alcohol influence this conversation about love?

    Chew on This

    Just as the couples are learning about love, they are learning to communicate. The story argues that success in love comes from learning to communicate love in a healthy way, which is a whole lot harder than it looks.

    Mel and Terri communicate in an unhealthy way in this story, which means that there are rough waters ahead in their marriage.

  • Marriage

    "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" features two married couples having a conversation about love. Nick and Laura are newlyweds and have been together about a year and a half. Mel and Terri have been together five years and they've been married for four. The two couples' married lives are compared and contrasted subtly. Laura and Nick's marriage is shown as easy, joyful and uncomplicated. Mel and Terri's is loving, but also a lot messier. But whether happy or unhappy, no two marriages look alike, especially in a Raymond Carver story.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Do you think Laura and Nick's marriage will stand the test of time? Mel and Terri's?
    2. How does Mel's relationship with his ex-wife influence his ideas about love? How does it affect his marriage with Terri?
    3. In this story, what does marriage have to do with love, if anything? Do they go together like a horse and carriage

    Chew on This

    In this story, love and marriage have nothing to do with each other. It's clear that Mel never loved Marjorie, but he married her anyway.

    The lesson of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is that without good communication, a marriage won't last. Which is why Terri and Mel's marriage won't last.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    A former alcoholic, Raymond Carver knew well what alcohol can do to personal relationships. We'll give you a hint: nothing good. And "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is no exception to that rule. We've got drunk driving, drunk arguing, and drunk sitting in silence, stewing. As the characters grow more and more drunk, their conversations become more incoherent and frustrating. Mel, of all the characters, struggles the most with his gin-soaked words, and the more he tries to explain love, the more we think that alcohol has nothing to do with it.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Does the fact that the characters are drunk limit their credibility in your eyes? Why or why not?
    2. Mel has a drinking problem, but do the other characters? How do you know?
    3. Does this story show any positive effects of drinking? Or only negative ones?
    4. How does alcohol affect the relationships in the story? Does it help? Hurt?

    Chew on This

    By lowering their inhibitions, alcohol allows the characters to have an intimate conversation about love, something they might not ordinarily feel comfortable talking about.

    Alcohol is nothing but bad news in this story, because it causes Mel to become less coherent and more belligerent. The harder he tries to define love, the farther away he gets from an actual answer, and the gin is to blame.

  • Violence

    Murder by Bees. Knights in armor getting trampled. Suicide. A highway crash. Operations. Stalking. These are all things the characters in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" talk about during their conversation on love, and they all have one thing in common: violence. Love, this story suggests, often intersects with violence, and often in surprising ways. Characters hurt each other in the name of love, love can turn to hate, and violence can, at the end of the day, reinforce love, too.

    Questions About Violence

    1. How does Mel's fantasy of murdering his wife by unleashing a swarm of bees on her influence your idea of his character?
    2. Can aspects of Mel and Terri's conversation be considered violent, such as when he tells her to shut up? Why or why not? 
    3. What are the different types of violence listed in this story? Do they have anything to do with love?
    4. Can violence bring about or reinforce love? Or does it only destroy it in the story?

    Chew on This

    Ed's violent actions and Mel's dream of violence towards his ex show us that love and hate aren't all that different. In fact, they're closer together than we might like.

    In "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," violence and love are completely separate, and real love doesn't ever include violence.