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“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” is a short story by Raymond Carver where four friends have gathered for drinks. They begin conversing and eventually find themselves debating on what the true definition of love is. Each one of them has a difficult time articulating the meaning of love because they do not know how to explain what they believe. In “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” Carver explores how impossible it is to define love, a concept crucial to the human condition, which means the human condition itself is impossible to fully define.

From the start of this short story, Mel is portrayed as someone who has a significant role in giving his opinion on what love truly is. Although Mel is not the narrator of the story, Mel is the character who kicks off the conversation in describing what love is. Mel takes control of the conversation and proves that his interpretation of love is stemmed back to his own personal experiences. Mel begins to describe how his relationship with Terri began on the wrong foot. In the beginning of their relationship both Mel and Terri were being threatened by Terri’s ex-husband, but on top of this Mel had hostility towards his ex-wife whom he claimed to have loved. Mel has a unique perspective on love because he has experienced the feeling of loving someone but has also experienced the feeling of hating someone. Mel’s first marriage had begun happily, but the affection had turned into anger to the point where Mel wishes that his ex-wife would die. Mel mentioned that his ex-wife was allergic to bees and had said, “I’ll knock on the door and let loose a hive of bees in the house” (Carver 185). The way this is captured makes us question if Mel ever truly did love his first wife or if it truly is possible for these opposite but equally intense emotions to have a connection.

Terri finally gets a chance to express what she thinks love is, but Mel does not agree with her. Terri describes the amount of abuse she had faced with her ex-boyfriend, but even through the abuse in the relationship, she knew he loved her. Mel had strongly disagreed with her and argued that an abusive relationship cannot have any form of love. Mel says, “I sure as hell wouldn’t call it love” (Carver 174). Mel also goes on to say that he is, “not interested in that kind of love, if that’s love, you can have it” (Carver 174). This shows that Mel is contradicting his own meaning of love. Mel is very passionate in expressing that he believes an abusive relationship has no form of love but then on the other hand, he mentioned earlier that he wishes violence against his ex-wife whom he did love prior to Terri.

Mel is said to be a cardiologist whose whole life revolves around fixing people’s hearts. With this being said, it shows that Mel is the character that is leading this conversation about what love is. Mel views love through a lens of practicality where quantity equates quality and where after you fall out of love, you simply find someone else to be with. Due to Mel being a cardiologist his life is viewed as a series of questions that need answers to the problems he is solving. It seems like Mel really does not know how to convey the message he is trying to send about love. He is giving a speech and trying to convey the message of what love is to him but he does not know how to deliver it. He realizes that he is not making any sense and ends off with, “Am I wrong? Am I way off base? Because I want you to set me straight if you think I’m wrong. I want to know. I mean, I don’t know anything, and I’m the first one to admit it” (Carver 177). Mel is an expert on the physical heart due to his profession, but he cannot quite seem to understand love or even communicate what it means to him. Mel is too profession focuses on the physical and that in term creates a problem in terms of him being able to understand emotional human connection.

Laura and Nick are the two characters in this short story that really exemplify true love throughout their actions and language. The love that Laura and Nick share is hard for Mel to understand. Mel can only understand love in which he can physically observe. Laura and Nick’s relationship can be described using the word “glow.” Mel does not fully understand how Laura and Nick’s relationship can “glow” if they have only been together for eighteen months. Mel thinks their relationship is still in the honeymoon phase and no real problems have occurred for them to encounter any issues. On the other hand, Mel’s relationship with Terri is rocky because it seems like they are happy together, but in reality they would not mind losing each other. Mel says, “Terri and I have been together five years, been married for four. And the terrible thing, the terrible thing is, but the good thing too, the saving grace, you might say is that if something happened to one of us—excuse me for saying this—but if something happened to one of us tomorrow, I think the other one, the other person, would grieve for a while, you know, but then the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else soon enough” (Carver 177). With Mel saying this, it shows that him being exposed to death and grief in his professional life, would make it easier for him to get through losing a wife. Mel’s approach is cold and practical because many people think they fall deeply in love before eventually leaving that person. And many people are in love and lose that person but chose to move on.

Throughout “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” Mel is unable to experience true love and convey what true love means. Mel was determined to define what love truly is but throughout all of that, he just showed that he is incapable of describing love. Laura and Nick’s relationship was represented better then Mel’s throughout the story because Laura and Nick had a better understanding of what love is. Although Laura and Nick seemed to have a better understanding of what love is, they were not able to explain the meaning behind love clearly. Everyone experiences and perceives love differently but it is one of those ideas that you cannot describe correctly. With Mel not being able to answer what love truly is he builds up a lot of frustration. The frustration that Mel has built up turns into a form a hate. The story ends with the couples left in dark both physically and mentally as they do not find a definite answer for love.


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Carver, Raymond. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” Sakai, ENGL 105.025.SP21, posted by Paul Blom, 7 January 2021. Originally published in The Paris Review, Spring 1981.


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