What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

by

Raymond Carver

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator (whose name is later revealed to be Nick) is listening to his friend Mel McGinnis talk—others often let Mel speak simply because he’s a cardiologist. Sunlight streams in through the big kitchen window at the home of Mel and his second wife, Terri, in Albuquerque. They’re sitting around the kitchen table with Nick and his own wife, Laura, drinking gin and tonics and discussing of love. Mel is adamant that real love is spiritual in nature. Before going to medical school, he’d spent five years in seminary—the most important years of his life, in his estimation.
As a cardiologist, Mel is an expert on the anatomical heart—a traditional symbol of love. The fact that Mel seems certain about what “real love” is suggests that he believes he’s an expert on the figurative heart—that is, love—as well. Yet he doesn’t give a solid definition of love here, only alluding to the fact that it’s related to the spirit. The reader can infer, then, that the four friends’ conversation about love won’t be as clear and definitive as Mel hopes. This opening passage also introduces the symbol of sunlight, the brightness and directness of which mirrors Mel’s initial certainty about love.
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Terri shares that her ex-boyfriend, whom she lived with before Mel, tried to kill her because he loved her so much. One night, the boyfriend beat Terri up and dragged her around by her ankles, knocking her head into furniture while telling her that he loved her. “What do you do with a love like that?” she asks the others at the table. Mel tells Terri not to be silly—what she’s describing isn’t love. But Terri disagrees: while it may not sound like love to Mel, she’s adamant that her ex did love her in spite of his violent behavior.
Terri’s story about her ex-boyfriend indicates that the dividing line between love and violence isn’t as clear as Mel would like to think. That Terri’s ex simultaneously abused her and professed his love for her perhaps implies that expressions of love and violence, though very different, are derived from a similar emotional state of passion. Although Terri can’t explain Ed’s love for her, it’s clear that she felt it on a deep level. And while Terri and Mel disagree about what constitutes love, they’re each certain that their respective opinion is correct—both are confident that love can be concretely defined one way or another.
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Mel tells Nick and Laura that Terri’s ex-boyfriend threatened to kill him. Finishing his drink, Mel reaches for the bottle of gin and says that Terri is a romantic who interprets violence as affection. At this, Terri shoots Mel a look, and he grins back at her and tenderly touches her cheek. Terri sips her drink and wonders aloud how they arrived at this topic; Mel is always thinking about love, she says. Mel retorts that Terri’s ex, Ed’s, behavior hardly qualifies as love.
Whether intentionally or not, Mel misconstrues Terri’s point that love and violence can exist concurrently, instead claiming that Terri mistakes violence for love altogether. It’s rather hypocritical that Mel insults Terri in this moment, as this suggests that Mel’s own love for her is tinged with animosity, if not physical violence.
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Mel asks Nick and Laura what they think, and Nick replies that he wouldn’t know—he never met Ed. He says that he believes what Mel is trying to say is that “love is an absolute,” and Mel agrees that the kind of love he’s talking about is absolute and nonviolent. Laura chimes in that she can’t judge Ed’s situation either. Nick reaches out to touch Laura’s hand, and she smiles at him.
Again, Mel is adamant that “love is an absolute,” meaning that it’s something definite with no grey area. Meanwhile, Nick and Laura’s wordless exchange of affection subtly implies that love is something that’s felt emotionally and expressed nonverbally rather than something that can be understood through language.
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Terri recalls that, when she broke up with Ed, he’d tried to kill himself by drinking rat poison. He survived but had permanent gum damage. Mel adds that Ed is dead now, and Terri remarks that Ed also botched his second suicide attempt, when he’d shot himself in the mouth. She expresses sympathy for Ed, which Mel objects to—Ed was dangerous, he reminds her. At this, Terri implores Mel to at least admit that Ed loved her. Nick interjects to ask how, exactly, Ed botched his suicide. Laura looks at Mel and Terri with a bemused expression, as though she’s shocked that people she knows could have been impacted by such a tragedy.
Ed’s suicide attempts after the breakup further support the idea that love and violence can be intertwined, despite Mel’s objections to this idea. That Ed harmed himself as well as Terri further complicates the conversation about love, since Ed’s suicidality indicates that he was likely suffering from mental illness alongside the strong feelings he had for Terri. In this situation, then, the exact nature of Ed and Terri’s love for each other is difficult to determine, challenging Mel’s opinion that there’s a universally applicable definition of love. Terri’s pleas with Mel also suggest that their differing views of love are a source of anxiety for her, as disagreeing about something so fundamental could certainly cause conflict within their relationship.
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Mel tells Nick and Laura that Ed had used a .22 caliber pistol to shoot himself—the same one he’d used to continuously threaten Terri and Mel. The couple had lived in fear while this was going on, and Mel went so far as to purchase his own gun for self-defense. Mel kept the gun in his car’s glove compartment, terrified that Ed would ambush him when he was walking to his and from his car for his nighttime call shifts at the hospital. Ed was crazy, Mel says—he knew how to make bombs, and he used to call Mel at work to threaten him. Terri repeats that she feels sorry for Ed.
Though Ed and Mel’s motivations for carrying guns are certainly different, the fact that Mel was seemingly willing to kill Ed to protect Terri and himself suggests that he doesn’t actually view love and violence as entirely separate. Clearly, he believes that violence is sometimes a necessary element of protecting one’s romantic partner—and it’s possible that Ed, though obviously mentally unstable and unjustified in his actions, similarly saw Mel as a threat to Terri. Terri’s sympathy is further evidence that love and violence aren’t always neatly separated—she still clearly feels affection for Ed despite his threatening behavior toward her and Mel.
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Laura urges Mel to get back to the topic of the botched suicide. At this point, Nick gives a brief aside that Laura is a legal secretary. The two of them met through work and quickly developed a romantic relationship. Nick and Laura are in love; they enjoy each other’s company, and Nick finds Laura easy to be with.
Though not as outspoken as Mel, Nick seems to have his own definition of what love is: he and Laura enjoy being with each other, and their relationship doesn’t take much effort. These qualities, to Nick, are what characterize romantic love.
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Mel continues his story: Ed shot himself in mouth in the hotel room where he was staying. The manager came in, saw what happened, and called an ambulance. Mel was working at the hospital when Ed was brought in. Ed lived for three days, but his head swelled up to twice its normal size—a sight that disturbed Mel. Terri had wanted to visit Ed in the hospital, which she and Mel got into a fight about.
Again, Ed’s self-destruction after his breakup with Terri suggests that the line between love and violence can be blurry, particularly for people who aren’t emotionally stable. Meanwhile, Terri and Mel’s fight over Terri visiting Ed in the hospital is another way in which they disagree over how people should navigate love. Terri thought it was acceptable to remain supportive of (and perhaps even to love) Ed in spite of his erratic behavior, as well as the fact that Terri had moved on and was in a relationship with someone else. Mel, however, thought that Terri’s desire to visit Ed was inappropriate—it doesn’t fit into his definition of a loving relationship.
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Laura asks who won the fight, and Terri answers that she was in the room with Ed when he died—no one else was there for him. Mel repeats that Ed was dangerous, but Terri insists that she knows Ed loved her because he was “willing to die for it.” Mel insists that he’s not interested in that kind of love. Terri admits that Mel is right—they were afraid of Ed, and Mel even wrote a will in case Ed killed him. Terri says that she called the police at one point, but they couldn’t do anything until Ed actually committed a crime. Presently, Terri pours the last of the gin into her glass, prompting Mel to go get another bottle from a cupboard.
Terri’s adamance that Ed truly loved her because he was “willing to die” over losing her further polarizes Mel and Terri’s respective views of love. Terri readily admits that they felt afraid and helpless while Ed was threatening them—yet in her mind, this violent and erratic behavior doesn’t negate Ed’s genuine love for her. Mel, on the other hand, still staunchly believes that violence doesn’t fit into his understanding of love. Meanwhile, that the four friends are already moving onto a second bottle of gin suggests that they’re likely drunk. As the conversation progresses, then, using language to arrive at a mutual agreement about love will only become more difficult.
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Laura says that she and Nick know what love is—for them, at least. Smiling, she bumps Nick’s knee with hers and tells him that he’s supposed to say something. In response, Nick takes her hand and makes a show of kissing it. Terri goodheartedly tells them that they’re making her sick—they’re still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. Laura says that they’ve been together for a year and a half. “Just wait,” Terri jokes. Just then, Mel returns and opens the new bottle of gin, fills everyone’s glasses, and leads them in a toast “to true love.”
Laura, like her friends, is confident that love can be defined and understood. But while Laura claims that she and Nick know what love means for their relationship, neither of them use language to describe it. Here, they show their love for each other with displays of physical affection rather than telling Terri about it in words, which implies that love is something that is deeply felt rather than understood intellectually. Laura and Nick’s relationship seems to transcend words—instead, they express their love through nonverbal communication like body language and physical touch.
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As the four friends clink glasses, the afternoon sun floods the McGinnises’ kitchen like a warm presence, making them feel lighthearted and relaxed. Mel declares that he’ll tell the others “what real love is,” and then they can come to their own conclusions. He pours himself more gin, and the others sip their drinks as they wait for him to speak. Nick rests his hand on Laura’s thigh.
Here, the warmth and brightness of the direct sunlight mirrors the friends’ relaxed attitude and certainty about their conceptions of love—this is particularly evident in Mel’s self-assured declaration that he’s going to teach the others “what real love is.” That this arrogance is juxtaposed with Nick’s subtle gesture of touching Laura’s leg perhaps implies that Mel’s words will fail to properly convey what love is. Instead, the essence of love is found in simple moments of nonverbal affection and communication.
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Finally, Mel goes on a long diatribe about love. He says that he loves Terri, and Nick loves Laura, both sexually and emotionally. But he struggles with how to reconcile the love he had for his ex-wife, or that of Terri and Ed—he wonders where that love has gone. Mel points out how Nick and Laura glow with affection for each other, yet they’ve both been married and loved other people before. He says it’s both terrible and wonderful that if any of them were to die, their respective spouse could probably move on from their grief and find someone else. Then, Mel says, the love they’re discussing would just become a memory. He then asks the others if he’s making sense and to correct him if he’s wrong.
Despite Mel’s adamance that he knows the definition of love, his ramblings in this passage are incoherent and his logic is circular. His musings about lost love are clearly meaningful to him, but he doesn’t say anything conclusive about what love is. His self-doubt at the end of his rant indicates that even he isn’t really sure if what he said makes sense. The extent to which Mel’s drunkenness is obscuring his underlying point is unclear, but regardless, language fails to convey what he’s trying to express.
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After Mel finishes rambling, Terri grasps his wrist and asks him if he’s drunk. Mel snaps back that he’s just talking; he doesn’t have to be drunk speak his mind. Terri assures Mel that she’s not criticizing him, and she sips her drink. Mel fires back that he’s not on call at the hospital today. Laura chimes in that they all love Mel, and for a moment, Mel looks at her as though he can’t recognize her. Then, he replies that he loves Laura and Nick too, and he picks up his glass.
Terri seems to be embarrassed of Mel in this moment, distancing herself from him and invalidating what he’s just said by pointing out his intoxication. But regardless of the others’ confusion and concern for him, Mel is adamant that he’s just being honest. Having just tried and failed to communicate something that’s clearly important to him, he now feels alienated by his inability to express himself through language. On another note, the argumentative way in which Mel responds to Terri demonstrates that love isn’t as clear-cut for Mel as he’s let on—clearly, he feels some level of animosity alongside his affection for Terri.
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Next, Mel declares that he’s going to tell them all a story from a few months ago, in hopes of proving the point he was trying to make. He says it’ll make them realize that none of them know “what we’re talking about when we talk about love.” Terri tells him not to talk like he’s drunk when he’s not, and Mel snaps at her to shut up. He begins his story of a couple, a husband and wife in their mid-70s, who were injured in a terrible car accident on the highway. Terri looks anxiously at Nick and Laura, and then back at Mel. Mel passes the gin around the table.
Mel contradicts himself here: he claims that none of them know “what we’re talking about when we talk about love,” yet he implies that his story will provide a understanding of what love is (or, at least, what it isn’t). Despite Mel’s failure to articulate his point during his rant, he’s still confident that he can use language to formulate a definition of something as profound and elusive as love. Terri and Mel’s tense exchange, meanwhile, further indicates that there is some level of violence (albeit verbal) in their relationship, as they’re willing to embarrass and demean each other in front of their friends. And again, Terri’s anxious look implies that her and Mel’s disagreement about love is high stakes, as such a rift could completely disrupt how they relate to each other as a couple.
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Mel continues that he was on call at the hospital on the night of this accident. A drunk teenager in a pickup truck had plowed into the couple’s camper. The teenager was killed in the accident, while the couple was in critical condition: broken bones, internal injuries, and severe cuts and bruises. What saved them, Mel says, was their seatbelts. At this, Terri interrupts to joke that Mel is speaking on behalf of the National Safety Council. She says that Mel is too much sometimes, but that she loves him anyway. Mel says that he loves her too, and they lean across the table to kiss each other.
The gruesome nature of the couple’s injuries is presumably just one of many horrible sights that Mel has witnessed as a surgeon. It makes sense, then, that he’s eager to compartmentalize love and violence in his mind—he doesn’t want to associate the terrible suffering he’s seen with the more innocent and joyous aspects of romance. Yet there is a confusing blend of violence and love in Mel and Terri’s own relationship. Here, just moments after Mel snapped at Terri, the couple reconciles and shares a moment of genuine fondness. This again makes the case that love and violence can mix, as Mel and Terri are both cruel and loving toward each other almost simultaneously. With Terri’s past in mind, this also might raise a red flag for the reader: Terri is just as quick to forgive Mel’s cruel words as she was to forgive Ed’s physical abuse.
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Getting back to his story, Mel says that when he arrived at the hospital, he and a group of other doctors performed intensive surgery on the couple for the rest of the night. The husband and wife both miraculously survived, and after two weeks in the ICU, they were moved to their own room. Suddenly, Mel diverts and suggests that they all finish the gin they’re drinking so they can go to dinner at a new restaurant. He comments about how much he loves food and says that he’d be a chef if he could go back and choose a different path. He asks, “Right Terri?” But before she can answer, Mel affirms that Terri knows this is true.
Mel’s diversion at this crucial moment in the story shows that language isn’t always the most efficient way of communicating one’s thoughts, particularly when trying to convey profound truths. Whereas nonverbal forms of communication (like body language or physical touch) are more clear and direct, speech can be subject to endless distractions or misunderstandings. Additionally, Mel asking for Terri to affirm what he’s saying—but not allowing her to answer—shows how language can be manipulated to subtly dominate others and validate oneself.
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Switching to a different tangent, Mel shares that if he could live in a different time, he’d be a medieval knight. Laura jokes that he could carry a woman’s scarf with him, along with a lance. Mel suggests that he could carry a woman with him instead, to which Laura replies, “Shame on you.” Terri asks Mel what would happen if he came back as a serf instead, and Mel says that even the knights were “vessels” to someone. Again, he asks Terri if this is right, but he continues speaking before she can answer. Mel shares that his favorite thing about knights (besides their women) is that they had armor to protect them. There were no cars and no drunk teenagers to hit you, he reckons.
Here, Mel complicates his own notions of the relationship between love and violence. His fantasy of carrying women with him on horseback would likely involve taking those women by force—which is presumably why Laura says “Shame on you.” This suggests that objectification and violence aren’t off the table in Mel’s romantic fantasies, contradicting his previous statements about love being wholly separate from violence. Mel’s musing about being a knight in protective armor and living in an era free of car accidents further situates romance as a kind of escape from pain and suffering. It’s seemingly too difficult for Mel to acknowledge that love and violence can coexist, even within his own mind.
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Terri interrupts to point out that Mel said “vessels” when he meant “vassals.” Irritated, Mel rebuts that they all knew what he meant. He’s not educated, he says annoyedly—he’s a heart surgeon, but really, he’s just a mechanic who fixes things. Terri tells him that he’s unsuited for modesty. Changing the subject, Nick says that knights sometimes overheated in their suits of armor, dying of suffocation or exhaustion-induced heart attacks. Mel reckons that another vassal would come along and spear the dying knight “in the name of love,” and Terri and Laura observe that nothing has changed—people still fight over the same things today. Mel pours himself another drink.
Mel’s insistence that he doesn’t need to use the correct word to get his point across once again showcases his frustration with language. This is further emphasized when he compares heart surgery to mechanical repair. Mel seems to be suggesting that the two jobs are essentially the same: mechanics and surgeons both fix something that’s broken, the only difference being what it is they’re fixing. With this in mind, he feels that it shouldn’t matter how he speaks, as long as his underlying point is conveyed—but in reality, the manner in which people communicate can sometimes obscure or alter their message. Meanwhile, the friends’ conversation about knights killing each other “in the name of love” once again suggests that love and violence are interconnected—something that Terri and Laura recognize is still true today.
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The sunlight in the room has grown dimmer. Laura and Nick urge Mel to continue his story, and Terri jokes that the old couple is just “older but wiser” now. Mel doesn’t think this is funny. Laura again asks Mel what happened, and Mel suddenly declares that if he didn’t love Terri and if Nick weren’t his best friend, he would fall in love with Laura and “carry her off” instead. Terri tells Mel to get back to the story so that they can go out to eat.
The fading sunlight mirrors the friends’ diminishing clarity as they stray further off topic and continue to be distracted by tangents, offensive comments, and personal attacks. It seems that the more they discuss love, the less they understand it, perhaps implying that love cannot be neatly analyzed or defined. Mel’s aside about Laura here is also telling: he declares that he would “carry her off,” meaning that he would forcibly take her as his lover. And, importantly, he doesn’t seem concerned about what Laura (or Terri) thinks about this, or whether she’d consent to such a thing. This again shows that violence and love aren’t as neatly compartmentalized for Mel as he’d like to think—both his fantasies and his real-life relationship with Terri are tinged with violent impulses.
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Finally, Mel relents, telling everyone how he would check in on the old couple every day while they were recovering. Both the husband and wife were in full-body casts with holes cut out for their eyes, noses, and mouths. The husband grew depressed, but not solely because he was traumatized by the accident—what really got him down was not being able to turn his head to look at his wife. Mel is clearly moved by this, repeating that the man’s heart was broken simply because he couldn’t see his wife. “Can you imagine? […] Do you see what I’m saying?” he asks the others—but they just stare at him.
The anecdote about the depressed husband drives home the story’s message that love is emotional and even bodily in nature—it’s something unspoken but deeply felt. This is made especially clear by the fact that the man could still speak to his wife and hear her reply, yet what really upset him was not being able to look at or nonverbally communicate with her. With this, Mel seems to suggest that love transcends language. Yet, ironically, words fail to sufficiently convey his point about language—once again, his wife and friends fail to grasp what he’s saying.
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Nick thinks that perhaps he and are his friends are a little drunk by this time. The sun has dissipated out of the kitchen, yet no one gets up to turn on a light. Mel encourages everyone to take a shot of gin so they can finish the bottle and go to dinner. Terri says that Mel is depressed and suggests that he take a pill, but Mel replies that he’s already tried every medication there is. Nick comments that everyone needs a pill on occasion, and Terri adds that some people hardwired to need them.
Again, the diminishing sunlight symbolizes the friends’ gradual loss of clarity about love, particularly as they grow drunker and the conversation becomes more heated. That no one turns on a light perhaps suggests that the friends have lost any hope or will to seek out a clear definition of love. Importantly, Terri’s comment about Mel’s depression links him to the depressed husband in his story: it seems that both men’s unhappiness is rooted in the inability to deeply and meaningfully connect with people they love.
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Mel abruptly asks whether the others mind if he calls his children. Terri asks what he’ll do if his ex-wife, Marjorie, answers the phone, reminding him that he’ll only feel worse if he talks to her. Mel agrees that he doesn’t want to speak to Marjorie, but he does want to talk to his kids.
Mel’s wife and close friends haven’t understood him when he’s tried to express himself verbally, and his communication with his children also seems to be limited. In this way, Mel’s efforts to be understood and to understand others through language only alienate him, further emphasizing the story’s message that nonverbal forms of communication can be more effective.
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Terri shares that Mel constantly talks about how he wishes Marjorie would either remarry or die, since Mel’s alimony payments to her are bankrupting them. Marjorie has a boyfriend who lives with them, so Mel is supporting him as well as Marjorie and the children. Mel says that Marjorie is allergic to bee stings, and he wishes she’d get stung to death. (“Shame on you,” Laura says again.) Mel makes buzzing sounds and moves his hands toward Terri’s throat, pretending his fingers are bees. He says that he wishes he could dress up in a beekeeper’s protective gear and let a hive of bees loose in Marjorie’s house.
Again, it’s clear that Mel’s romantic and violent impulses are more interrelated than he likes to admit. Mel previously acknowledged his love for Marjorie and wondered where their love went when they separated—he still feels sentimental about her to some extent. It’s significant, then, that he simultaneously harbors such violent thoughts about her. Mel’s wish for Marjorie to die is likely an exaggeration, but he nevertheless associates marriage and death closely, as though the two fates aren’t so different. The image of Mel buzzing his hands around Terri’s throat is unsettling and confusing, as it blends together Mel’s violent fantasies about his Marjorie, his playful affection toward Terri, and the intermittent hostility that he’s hurled at Terri throughout the story. Again, love and violence seem to be linked by their emotional intensity, and this moment illustrates that they can’t be neatly separated.
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Then, Mel slowly crosses one leg over the other, props his elbows on the table, and rest his head in his hands. He admits that it might not be a good idea to call his kids, and he suggests that the four of them go to dinner instead. Nick says that sounds fine—whether they eat or keep drinking, he’ll be content either way. “I could head right on out into the sunset,” he says, which prompts Laura to ask what he means. Nick says that he just means he could keep going.
Whereas Mel’s thoughts and speech have been rather incoherent and confusing throughout the story, his body language here is clear. His slow movements and slumped posture convey defeat, his former confidence and certainty having evaporated as his wife and friends have continually misunderstood him. Meanwhile, Nick’s comment about being content heading “right on out into the sunset” is symbolically significant, as it implies that he isn’t afraid of the uncertainty that darkness has represented throughout the story. Whereas the mysterious nature of love leaves Mel feeling dejected and paralyzed, Nick (who seems to have a more fluid and emotional understanding of love) is more comfortable with ambiguity.
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Laura says that she’s starving. Terri offers to put out some cheese and crackers, although she stays seated instead of going to get them. Mel flips his glass over, spilling the drink onto the table, and declares that the gin is gone. Terri asks what they should do now, but they all just sit in silence. Nick hears everyone’s heart beating in a chorus of “human noise,” none of them moving even as the room goes dark.
The friends’ silence speaks volumes in this passage: they’ve seemingly given up on language as a means of seeking and expressing truth. The characters’ speech is now divorced from meaning—Terri doesn’t follow through on her offer of getting snacks, and Mel’s spilled drink doesn’t technically count as “finishing” the gin. That the four friends fall into silence suggests that they’ve given up on using language to define love—and that perhaps it’s impossible to do so. That Nick hears all of their hearts beating as “human noise” further supports this idea. The anatomical heart represents love, and “noise” (as opposed to “sound”) connotes unintelligibility, meaning that love is impossible to define or describe. But the story doesn’t end on a pessimistic note, as the image of everyone’s hearts beating together suggests that love is something that resonates with everyone. Love doesn’t need to be analyzed or put into words, since it’s something that people universally experience.
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