The title “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” implies that language will play a central role in this story: for its duration, the four characters are in conversation with one another, trying to define the meaning of love. However, they struggle to clarify what love means—it’s a complex phenomenon, and language seems inadequate to describe love (or anything else). Over the course of the story, language continually fails: the characters misspeak, miscommunicate, or find themselves at a loss for words altogether. This is not, however, a bleak picture of social isolation. By paying attention to other kinds of communication (body language, for example), Carver demonstrates that spoken language is just one of many ways to communicate—and often, other forms of communication are more effective at conveying complex ideas or deep emotions.
Throughout the characters’ conversation, they fail to properly express themselves or understand one another through language. Mel McGinnis is adamant that he knows the definition of love, and in a moment of vulnerability, he rambles out loud about what love is and what happens to love when a couple separates. He then asks the others to evaluate his thoughts: “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 is trying to convey something profound about love to the other characters, and he’s clearly worried that they won’t understand where here’s coming from. Indeed, they are confused about what Mel is trying to say: after Mel candidly shares his thoughts, his friends Nick and Laura are unsure of how to respond. Mel’s wife, Terri, asks him, “Are you getting drunk? Honey? Are you drunk?” Mel replies, “Honey, I’m just talking […] I don’t have to be drunk to say what I think.” Terri seems to be embarrassed of Mel, and so she tries to distance herself from what he’s just said. Mel, however, doubles down on his points and insists that he was being honest. Though his diatribe wasn’t particularly lucid or logical, he spoke at length about a topic he deeply cares about. Now, he’s hurt that his wife and close friends don’t understand him and so can’t share in his emotions. This exchange thus shows how language can easily be muddled and misconstrued (especially when alcohol is involved). In this instance, it’s an insufficient way to communicate profound truths about love.
While words tend to mislead or confuse, other forms of communication, like body language, can offer better ways of demonstrating things like love. While Nick and Laura discuss their love, Mel believes that the couple’s body language tells a fuller story. “You guys have been together eighteen months and you love each other. It shows all over you. You glow with it.” Language sometimes deceives, but outward signals like a body’s “glow” are harder to fake. Indeed, although Mel and Terri speak to each other throughout the story, readers don’t get a sense that there’s deep understanding or intimacy between them. Nick and Laura, on the other hand, express their affection nonverbally—by holding hands, for instance, or exchanging smiles. Their love for each other is made clear in these simple moments of touch or eye contact, their bond transcending words. Communicating through body language strips away the variables associated with speech—like tone of voice or word choice—allowing Nick and Laura to express themselves without the pitfalls of spoken language. When Mel eventually tells a story about an elderly couple involved in a car crash, he explains why the husband became depressed: it wasn’t trauma over the accident, but rather that he “couldn’t see [his wife] through his eye-holes” while he was in a full-body cast. The elderly man survived against all odds and could talk to his wife, but he clearly felt like he’d lost something more important than language: the ability to make eye contact with his wife. This further implies that nonverbal, bodily communication can be more meaningful than speech. Such an unspoken connection, Mel believes, is “what we’re talking about when we talk about love.”
As the story draws to a close, the characters fall silent. Nick hears all of their hearts beating as though united, an image which suggests that deep human emotions, like love, are universally felt even though they can’t always be described. The anatomical heart has long been used as a symbol of love, a parallel that’s particularly ironic given Mel’s career as a cardiologist. He’s an expert at heart surgery, yet he doesn’t have any more clarity about the figurative heart—that is, love—than other people do. No one, it seems, can explain love. Indeed, that the story ends with the four friends’ hearts beating together, with nothing left to say to one another, sends the message that matters of the heart are better left unsaid. Love is something that resonates with everyone on a level that transcends language—words don’t do it justice.
The Failure of Language ThemeTracker
The Failure of Language Quotes in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
“Well, Nick and I know what love is,” Laura said. “For us, I mean,” Laura said. She bumped my knee with her knee. “You’re supposed to say something now,” Laura said, and turned her smile on me.
For an answer, I took Laura’s hand and raised it to my lips. I made a big production out of kissing her hand. Everyone was amused.
“We’re lucky,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what real love is,” Mel said. “I mean, I’ll give you a good example. And then you can draw your own conclusions.” He poured more gin into his glass. He added an ice cube and a sliver of lime. We waited and sipped our drinks. Laura and I touched knees again. I put a hand on her warm thigh and left it there.
“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.
“Vassals,” Terri said.
“What?” Mel said.
“Vassals,” Terri said. “They were called vassals, not vessels.”
“Vassals, vessels,” Mel said, “what the fuck’s the difference? You knew what I meant anyway. All right,” Mel said. “So I’m not educated. I learned my stuff. I’m a heart surgeon, sure, but I’m just a mechanic. I go in and I fuck around and I fix things. Shit,” Mel said.
“Well, the husband was very depressed for the longest while. Even after he found out that his wife was going to pull through, he was still very depressed. Not about the accident, though. I mean, the accident was one thing, but it wasn’t everything. I’d get up to his mouth-hole, you know, and he’d say no, it wasn’t the accident exactly but it was because he couldn’t see her through his eye-holes. He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? I’m telling you, the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”
Mel looked around the table and shook his head at what he was going to say.
“I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman.”
We all looked at Mel.
“Do you see what I’m saying?” he said.
“I’ll put out some cheese and crackers,” Terri said.
But Terri just sat there. She did not get up to get anything. Mel turned his glass over. He spilled it out on the table. “Gin’s gone,” Mel said.
Terri said, “Now what?”
I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.