Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” looks at love through two very different lenses. In conceiving the story, Carver apparently assumes that many of his readers were raised on the notion of fairy tale love. In this regard, love is the ultimate dream because it is so frequently associated with self-completion. Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” however, causes the reader to reconsider this notion and instead consider the possibility that there is also an evil, empty type of love that counters the positive. By juxtaposing Terri and Ed’s past relationship with Laura and Nick’s current one, Carver demonstrates that the right kind of love can both create good feelings and fill in the gaps that abusive love has caused.
The story begins as four friends sit around a table, downing cheap gin and engaging in a discussion about their relationships, both past and present. The first account comes from Terri, who had at one point been the victim of an abusive relationship. In a detailed account, Terri describes the way Ed, her “ex,” would beat her and drag her around the room, all the while professing his love for her. More important, Terri attempts to convince Mel, her new husband, that her past marriage to Ed was actually based on real love: “Sure, sometimes he acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me. In his own way, maybe, but he loved me” (138). Terri tries to justify the negative aspects of a relationship long since passed by insisting that it had been founded on love. As the text demonstrates, however, Terri can support her argument only through a series of unconvincing “okays” and “maybes”— both of which point more to doubt than to the affirmation that Terri so obviously and so desperately seeks. The fact that this abusive relationship occurred in the past further augments its negative impact on Terri, because it shows the continuous nature of her emotional deficit.
Directly juxtaposed to Terri’s abusive relationship with Ed is the far more fulfilling and presumably romantic one shared between the narrator, Nick, and his wife Laura. By portraying their physical interaction with each another, Carver introduces Nick and Laura as a loving couple. Nick notes, “I picked up Laura’s hand. It was warm, the nails polished, perfectly manicured. I encircled the broad wrist with my fingers, and I held her” (139). This image demonstrates Nick’s feelings of love and respect for his wife. Almost immediately after this disclosure, Laura fills in the first “gap” of the text: “Well, Nick and I know what love is” (143). Significantly, this statement fills in gaps on two distinct levels. Until this point in the story, “Nick” has been little more than a nameless, first-person narrator. In this statement, however, Laura uses his name, thereby defining Nick in our eyes and giving him an identity. By so doing, Laura helps to make him more of a concrete being, thus eliminating a physical deficit that existed in the story. Moreover, Laura’s avowal that she and Nick “know what love is” demonstrates the way in which their relationship fills an emotional void. This line provides a voice of hope for both Terri and the reader, who at this point may feel somewhat jaded or dispirited after reading Terri’s account of the “love” she shared with Ed. Laura is essentially suggesting her ability to educate and illuminate Terri (and perhaps Mel) as to the real nature of love, the sort that can fill in the void that Terri experiences because of Ed’s abased version of love.
In “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” Carver takes two very different relationships and places them side by side in order to expose the paradoxical nature of love. Initially, the reader cannot help but question Terri’s sanity when she tries to convince Mel that love existed in her abusive relationship with Ed. As the story unfolds, however, the reader begins to sympathize with her and understand that the “love” she had with Ed served not to fulfil her but to empty her. Laura and Nick stand in direct contrast to this deficient sort of love. Theirs is the kind that people dream about attaining. Laura obviously completes Nick; by helping to name and define him, she helps him become a concrete identity and more than just another first-person narrator. Because of the bond she shares with Nick, it is also Laura who directly addresses the deficit in Terri and implies that it can be fixed or filled as her relationship with Mel develops.
Whereas Terri and Ed’s relationship was one founded on pain and abuse, Laura and Nick’s is based on a love that mutually fills in their individual voids and helps them become complete together. Terri and Ed’s relationship shows the deficit that love can create, while Nick and Laura’s demonstrates the fulfilling potential of love. In the end, then, the reader feels cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for Terri and Mel.
Carver, Raymond. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” In What We Talk about When We Talk about Love: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1989, 137–154.