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“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver


What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a concluding story in a self-titled collection of short stories written by Raymond Carver. It sets to explores various notions humans have about love. The title itself suggests that there are different perceptions people can have about this concept, and their conversations reflect it. Therefore, people often talk about different things while talking about love.

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The setting of the story is rather simple: there are four friends, two married couples in their thirties and forties who sit in the kitchen of one of them, drinking gin and talking. The story is dialogue-based, and, at some point, the conversation comes to the subject of love. The host, Mel McGinnis, a surgeon, seems to be a romantic at heart – he has very lofty ideas about love and believes that the only true love is a spiritual one. He had studied in a seminary before entering medical school, and this experience seems to have shaped his perceptions to a large extent. He disagrees with his wife, Terry, who states that her first husband, Ed, who abused her, sincerely loved her.

However, Mel himself also has a very complicated relationship with his ex-wife. He claims that he loved her more than his life at some point, but he hates “her guts” now (R. Carver 136). Mel and Terry are now have been together for five years, married for four, while the other couple has only been married for a year and a half (R. Carver 136). The narrator, Nick, and his wife Laura, a legal secretary, met in “a professional capacity”, but fell in love with each other, and it seems that their romance has developed quite fast (R. Carver 134). The narrator states that “in addition to being in love,” they enjoy each other’s company and feel comfortable around each other. They seem to be rather content with their relationship at this yet fresh and romantic stage. It is hard to tell, however, to what extent their behavior is genuine. For instance, at some point, when Laura states that they know what love is and encourages Nick to comment, he picks up her hand and kisses it as an answer. However romantic, this gesture can both show a sincere affection and represent a desire to convince others (or even oneself) that the feelings are genuine.

According to Mel’s thoughts, they all are still “just beginners at love” (R. Carver, 136). To illustrate his argument, he tells a story about two old spouses who got in a road accident, were severely injured, and nearly died. The doctors did everything in their power to help the patients, and they started to show signs of recovery. However, even after learning that his wife was going to survive, the old man still felt depressed. He was upset because due to the casts all over his body he could not turn his head and see her. It seems that, in Mel’s point of view, that is what real love is – after many years of being together, a person cares not only for their partner’s well-being, but genuinely wants to see them, hear them, spend time with them them them. It is, therefore, understandable, why for Mel, it is unimaginable to assume that the feelings which imply abuse and mistreatment can be called love.

It seems interesting to look at this with regard to Raymond Carver’s personal life: in his relationship with his first wife, Maryann, he was violent and possessive. A heavy drinker, while he was infidel himself, the thought of his wife flirting with another man-made him furious (King). Drunk and angry he was dangerous to her and nearly killed her with a wine bottle once (M. Carver 287). Thus, while some people can claim that Carver loved his wife, very passionately even, others would insist that love has nothing in common with violence and abuse. It is interesting that Terry, as Maryann did, seems to accept the idea of love taking such a form and justify her ex-husband’s actions.

The main conflict of the story lies in the different perceptions people have about love. Some people, as Terry’s ex-husband, believe that they are in love, and, yet, can approach the person they claim they have feelings for with violent means, others, like Mel, preach idealistic, perfect spiritual love. Nick and Laura seem to be more down-to-earth people, who seek comfortable relationships and do not feel inclined to judge others. However, there is a difference between what people preach and what they do, and Mel’s life seems illustrative enough. He, himself, states that love is not something eternal, that he, as well as his friends, had previously been in love before entering the current relationship. He also emphasizes that if something happens to one of the pair, the other person will eventually be able to move on and love again. Therefore, love for him seems dualistic – it is both an ideal and a fleeting feeling of passion or fondness.

The role which alcohol plays in the story is also worth noticing. Gin is repeatedly mentioned in the text, creating an atmosphere of a drunk conversation. It is often the case that at a certain stage of drunkenness, people start to talk on lofty matters such as love. This can explain the dualistic nature of Mel’s attitude towards this concept since there is an apparent difference between absolutes people talk about when they are drunk and the life they actually live. It is worth mentioning that at the time he wrote this piece, Carver had been sober for three years, having given up drinking in 1977. He once even stated that quitting alcohol made him prouder than anything else he had done in his life (Sklenicka 268). Therefore, while working on this story, he was able to see the events of his previous life, including heavy drinking and being violent towards his wife, from some distance. That may explain why he was able to write so critically about some notions of love.

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While discussing this story, it is necessary to pay attention to the fact that the version that was published in the self-titled collection was changed by Carver’s editor Gordon Lish and differs quite drastically from the original Carver’s draft. The “minimalism and colloquial roughness” of What We Talk About When We Talk About Life is clearly a result of the editor’s work (Tracey). The original version titled Beginners, published by The New Yorker in 2007, is much more descriptive with “dense blocks of narration”, while the edited version is more concise and dialogue-based (King). Tracey claims that while Lish’s editing indeed has undoubtful benefits, it has also considerably changed the original mood of the piece. In Beginners the story of the old couple is depicted in greater detail, there is more information on their life before and after the accident. The love of the old man is demonstrated in a number of ways. In Beginners the spouses are placed in different hospital rooms, and when the surgeon comes to visit the old man, he tells him how he felt during the accident. “He said nothing flew into his mind, his life didn’t pass before his eyes,” he just felt incredibly sorry that he would never see his wife again (R. Carver “Beginners”, 2007). Their touching reunion is also described in a detailed way, further expanding the idea of love as an absolute the majority of people have not experienced.

Yet, it is the edited version that was used in the 2014 movie Birdman, or, (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) by Alejandro González Iñárritu. In the movie, the main character Riggan Thompson, a fading superhero actor, aims to revive his career by directing and starring in a Broadway production based on Lish’s version of Carver’s story. The interesting element of the movie is that it also depicts an example of a relationship that involves violence. At some point, Riggan asks his ex-wife about the reasons behind their breakup. She answers, “Because you threw a kitchen knife at me. And an hour later you were telling me how much you loved me.” (Birdman 0:29:43-0:29:51). She also adds that he confuses love for admiration. This is another illustration of how differently the concept of love can be understood and how mistreated it can be.


Love can have different meanings for people with different backgrounds, personalities, and beliefs. During a lifetime, a person can experience this feeling in various forms. However, in some cases, people can be cruel and possessive, and, yet, talk about love; they can use this word to justify interference, they can cover with it their own selfishness. Some people, on the contrary, perceive love as something unattainable and perfect, but their ideals are merely empty rhetoric if they do not try to pursue them. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love encourages its readers to reflect on the extent to their deeds reflect their ideals.

Works Cited

Carver, Maryann. What It Used to Be Like: a Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Carver, Raymond. Beginners. The New Yorker. 2007. 

Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Random House, 2016.

Birdman, Or, (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2015. Film.

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King, Stephen. “Raymond Carver’s Life and Stories.” The New York Times. 2009.

Sklenicka, Carol. Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life. Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Tracey, Janey. “Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish, and the Editor as Enabler.” Ploughshares, 2017. 

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