What We Talk About When We Talk About Love


Raymond Carver

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, was the son of waitress and retail clerk Ella Beatrice Carver and sawmill worker Clevie Raymond Carver. Carver married his first wife, Maryann Burk, at an early age and supported the couple’s two children by working a wide variety of jobs. After relocating to California with his family, Carver enrolled in Chico State University, where he became interested in creative writing. He published his first short story in 1961. Carver continued his education at Humboldt State University, where he wrote for Toyon, the college’s literary magazine, and earned his BA in general studies. With a glowing recommendation from writer and professor Richard Cortez Day, Carver was then awarded an academic fellowship at the University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop program (though he never completed his MFA). In the years that followed, Carver worked various jobs while continuing to publish his writing and intermittently enrolling in and dropping out of different graduate programs. He began gaining critical acclaim when his stories appeared in well-known publications like the annual Best American Short Stories anthology and Esquire magazine. In the 1970s, Carver also taught at colleges like UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley and was a lecturer at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Carver enjoyed continual success as a writer, publishing over a dozen short-story and poetry collections that garnered him accolades like the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. However, he also began abusing alcohol during this time—an addiction that wreaked havoc on his marriage and lead to multiple hospitalizations before he got sober in 1977. Carver and Maryann divorced in 1982. He married his second wife, Tess Gallagher, in 1988—just six weeks before he died of lung cancer.
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Historical Context of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Although there’s no clear indication of when “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” takes place, it’s likely set around the late 1970s or early 80s. The story focuses on relationship dynamics between men and women, which were was greatly impacted by increasingly liberal social attitudes that became normalized in 1960s and 70s America. For instance, Terri lived with her boyfriend Ed without being married to him, a choice that would have been seen as taboo as recently as the 1950s. Divorce was also becoming more commonplace and acceptable at this time, as reflected by the fact that Mel, Nick, and Laura were all married to other people prior to their current relationships. Additionally, laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Education Amendments of 1972 protected women against discrimination in the workplace or in education, respectively. It thus became more common for men and women to work or study alongside one another, as Laura and Nick do in the story. As the strict gender roles and social norms of the early 20th century fell by the wayside, men and women were navigating a new landscape in terms of how to relate to one another. In a society where two people in love were no longer defined by their marital status or obligated to stay together for life, people like the characters in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” were left wondering what exactly love meant or how exactly one should cope with heartbreak.

Other Books Related to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow” explores love in the context of a lost relationship (Nick’s breaking up with Marjorie but having lingering feelings for her), which loosely echoes Mel’s complex feelings for his ex-wife, who’s conveniently named Marjorie. (And that there’s also a Nick in Carver’s story leads one to wonder if he did, in fact, pull inspiration from Hemingway.) Carver’s technique of using dialogue to indirectly imply his characters’ thoughts and motivations also mirrors that of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a lot like “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in that its two main characters spend the entire story in conversation, alluding to their interpersonal problems with very little exposition on Hemingway’s part. In both Carver and Hemingway’s stories, the audience is left to read between the lines and make their own inferences. Writers like J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey), Anton Chekhov (The Seagull), and Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”) are also known to use dialogue in this way. As a story whose characters are trying to make sense of their romantic relationships, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is similar to Cate Kennedy’s “Flexion” and Edith Wharton’s “The Other Two.” More generally, Carver’s writing style is often described as “dirty realism” in that it depicts mundane or unsavory aspects of live in a candid, straightforward manner. Richard Ford (Rock Springs) and Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life) are two other well-known writers of this genre.
Key Facts about What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
  • Full Title: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
  • When Published: 1981
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Short Story
  • Setting: Mel and Terri’s kitchen in Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Climax: Nick hears his heart beating along with Mel, Terri, and Laura’s as the four friends sit in silence.
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

True to Life. Carver was said to have physically abused his first wife, Maryann, during their marriage. She refused to leave him, however, saying, “I really wanted to hang in there for the long haul. I thought I could outlast the drinking. I'd do anything it took. I loved Ray, first, last and always.” A similarly toxic dynamic plays out between Terri and her abusive ex-boyfriend, Ed, in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”