At the beginning of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Mel McGinnis—a heart surgeon—insists that love and violence cannot coexist: “The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people,” he says. But the remainder of the story contradicts him. As the couples discuss love, they constantly invoke violence: Mel’s wife, Terri, believes that violence can prove the existence of love; Mel reveals his own violent fantasies toward his ex-wife; and Terri talks about her ex-boyfriend who killed himself when she didn’t reciprocate his love. Throughout the story, Carver suggests that violence and love are not as different as they may seem: they’re emotionally linked, arising from intense feelings for another person, feelings that these characters cannot rationalize or fully control.
At the beginning of the story, the characters openly debate whether love and violence can coexist. Terri sets the stage for this debate when—after describing how her abusive ex-boyfriend would beat her while telling her how much he loves her—she asks, “What do you do with a love like that?” Instead of answering her question, Mel rejects the premise: “My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love and you know it,” he says, implying that real love cannot be violent or abusive. Over the course of several pages, Terri and Mel continue to disagree, with Terri insisting that this man did love her. She momentarily offers a compromise—that love means different things to different people—but neither one of them seems to accept this. Mel won’t concede that anyone could call this behavior love, while Terri continues to ask Mel to agree with her: “You can grant me that, can’t you?” she pleads. That this debate is so prolonged and emotional hints at its stakes: Terri and Mel seem unsettled that, despite believing themselves to be in love with each other, they have radically different definitions of love. Perhaps they wonder if, since they each understand love so differently, their shared love is shakier than it once seemed.
Mel and Terri never resolve their disagreement, but as the story progresses, Mel’s behavior suggests that he doesn’t separate love and violence as neatly as he claims. For one, Carver portrays Mel as demeaning and hurtful to Terri, linking her ex-husband’s physical abuse with Mel’s emotional cruelty. As Terri expresses concern about how drunk Mel is getting, for instance, he tells her to “Just shut up for once in your life.” Afterward, Nick observes that Terri “seemed anxious,” but then, moments later, she accepts her husband’s behavior: “‘I love you, hon,’ she said.” Terri’s willingness to quickly forgive Mel echoes how she forgave her ex-boyfriend’s physical abuse, writing it off as an expression of love. Mel’s mixing of violence and love isn’t only emotional: several times, he implies that he has physically violent fantasies that are tied to love. The first instance of this is easy to miss. When Mel imagines being a medieval knight, he describes how he could carry a woman with him everywhere. Laura’s playful yet cautious response (“Shame on you”) emphasizes that Mel’s fantasy reduces women to objects. And this objectification is arguably violent, given that in his fantasy, Mel is physically forcing a woman to accompany him. Later, after drinking more gin, Mel says that if he weren’t married to Terri, he would abduct Laura under the guise of love. Needless to say, he never asks Laura what she thinks about this. Mel’s imaginary scenario echoes something Terri described about her ex-boyfriend: that he would physically drag her around a room while telling her that he loved her. This conflation of love and violence, coupled with Mel’s sudden resemblance to the ex-boyfriend, suggests that Mel’s clean separation of love and violence is false.
Without resolving the debate between Terri and Mel, the story does suggest that violence and love are linked. This is consistently apparent in Mel’s erratic behavior toward Terri. For instance, after Mel berates Terri for interrupting him, she interrupts him again. Instead of snapping at her, as he did previously, Mel responds by kissing her and declaring his love. That these two back-to-back interruptions are met first with hostility then with love suggests that Mel’s angry and loving reactions are related—or even interchangeable. Mel’s feelings for Terri are intense; sometimes they manifest lovingly, other times with a hint of violence. The blending of love and violence is even clearer in Mel’s confusion over his love for his ex-wife, which suddenly transforms into hatred without him understanding why. He says, “There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that?” What links this love and hatred is intensity of emotion; one replacing the other so quickly suggests that they are, in some way, two sides of the same coin. Carver later makes this link even more explicit when Terri describes Mel’s two desires for his ex-wife: “he wishes she’d get married again,” Terri says. “Or else die.” Mel’s wish that his ex-wife would remarry is somewhat selfish (he wants someone else to financially support her), but it’s still revealing to see love and death directly juxtaposed, as though they’re similar fates.
Near the end, there’s a moment that encapsulates the story’s attitude toward love and violence. As Mel describes his violent fantasy of killing his ex-wife with a swarm of bees, he moves his buzzing fingers around Terri’s throat, explicitly blending Mel’s violent fantasies toward his ex-wife, his playful love for Terri, and the violence toward her that has been simmering throughout the story. It’s a confusing image, but one that suggests the ease with which love and violence can mix. The story does not end with a moral about violence and its connection to love, nor does it judge or condemn the characters. It does, however, suggest that love and violence—which are linked by an intensity of feeling—cannot be neatly separated.
Love and Violence ThemeTracker
Love and Violence Quotes in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
“He was dangerous,” Mel said. “If you call that love, you can have it.”
“It was love,” Terri said. “Sure, it’s abnormal in most people’s eyes. But he was willing to die for it. He did die for it.”
“I sure as hell wouldn’t call it love,” Mel said. “I mean, no one knows what he did it for. I’ve seen a lot of suicides, and I couldn’t say anyone ever knew what they did it for.”
Mel put his hands behind his neck and tilted his chair back. “I’m not interested in that kind of love,” he said. “If that’s love, you can have it.”
“But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too. But I did, I know I did. So I suppose I am like Terri in that regard. Terri and Ed.” He thought about it and then he went on. “There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone could tell me. Then there’s Ed. Okay, we’re back to Ed. He loves Terri so much he tries to kill her and he winds up killing himself.”
“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.”
“Mel, for God’s sake,” Terri said. She reached out and took hold of his wrist. “Are you getting drunk? Honey? Are you drunk?”
“Honey, I’m just talking,” Mel said. “All right? I don’t have to be drunk to say what I think. I mean, we’re all just talking, right?” Mel said. He fixed his eyes on her.
“Sweetie, I’m not criticizing,” Terri said.
She picked up her glass.
“I’m not on call today,” Mel said. “Let me remind you of that. I am not on call,” he said.
“If I could come back again in a different life, a different time and all, you know what? I’d like to come back as a knight. You were pretty safe wearing all that armor. It was all right being a knight until gunpowder and muskets and pistols came along.”
“Mel would like to ride a horse and carry a lance,” Terri said.
“Carry a woman’s scarf with you everywhere,” Laura said.
“Or just a woman,” Mel said.
“Shame on you,” Laura said.
“There isn’t a day goes by that Mel doesn’t say he wishes she’d get married again. Or else die,” Terri said. “For one thing,” Terri said, “she’s bankrupting us. Mel says it’s just to spite him that she won’t get married again. She has a boyfriend who lives with her and the kids, so Mel is supporting the boyfriend too.”
“She’s allergic to bees,” Mel said. “If I’m not praying she’ll get married again, I’m praying she’ll get herself stung to death by a swarm of Ricking bees.”
“Shame on you,” Laura said.
“Bzzzzzzz,” Mel said, turning his fingers into bees and buzzing them at Terri’s throat. Then he let his hands drop all the way to his sides.