In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” two married couples spend an afternoon together drinking gin and debating the nature of love. Initially, they all believe that they know exactly what love is, and they feel certain that their own marriages are loving. However, as they struggle to define and defend their ideas about love, the conversation devolves into uncertainty and disagreement. Their heated (and at times cruel) debate, along with their collective inability to separate violence from affection, point to a darkness at the heart of love—but the story’s mysterious ending seems to suggest something more positive. The couples’ conversation about love is a failure, but once they fall silent, their beating hearts are all audible. Perhaps, then, Carver proposes that love cannot be understood or explained but instead must simply be felt and appreciated. Love, in other words, might reside more in the body than in the mind.
At the beginning of the story, when the characters begin discussing love, they seem confident that they know what love is. Mel McGinnis is the first to weigh in on the topic, saying that he believes “real love [is] nothing less than spiritual love.” While it’s hard to say what this vague statement actually means, the fact that nobody disagrees or asks him to explain further leaves the impression that what he said is clear and true. Likewise, the story’s other couple seems initially confident about their understanding of love. Laura tells everyone that “Nick and I know what love is,” and while Nick doesn’t elaborate on this, he previously thought to himself that, “In addition to being in love, we like each other and enjoy one another's company. She's easy to be with.” This points to his belief that their love is clear and straightforward—that he understands what it is and how it works. Furthermore, even when the couples begin disagreeing, everyone initially maintains their confidence. Mel’s wife, Terri, describes a man who “loved her so much he tried to kill her,” and Mel pushes back, saying, “I sure know you wouldn’t call [that] love.” He and Terri arrive at an impasse: Terri insists that this was love, and Mel insists that it wasn’t, but both of them remain clear about what they themselves believe.
This clarity dissolves quickly: the more the two couples talk about love, the more confused and agitated they all become. Mel, for instance, initially had the clearest ideas about love—but as the story progresses, he becomes uncertain. “I love Terri and Terri loves me,” he says. “But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too […] What happened to that love?” Mel never answers this, but the question points to his growing awareness of love’s complexity. Furthermore, Mel contradicts his initial certainty that love can’t involve cruelty or violence. Once, when Terri gently points out that he’s drunk, Mel tells her—in front of the others—to “shut up for once in your life.” Later on, as he describes his fantasy of killing his ex-wife by letting a swarm of bees into her house, he pretends that his fingers are bees and he buzzes them by Terri’s throat. Mel clearly loves both of these women in some way, but this love is entangled with violence and cruelty. The truth of his relationship to love is much darker and more complex than his initial clarity let on.
The couples’ failure to arrive at a definition of love is partially due to their inability to grapple with its darkness. But Carver also suggests that it’s impossible—and maybe even undesirable—to talk about love, since love is primarily felt rather than understood. Throughout the story, the warmest moments between characters are unspoken: Nick touches the back of Laura’s hand, or Mel reaches for Terri’s cheek. Once, when Laura tries to goad Nick into defining what love means for the two of them, his response is purely physical: “For an answer, I took Laura’s hand and raised it to my lips.” It’s possible to interpret this as Nick deflecting attention from his inability to answer, but perhaps he’s being honest: what love is, to them, is something bodily and unspoken. Carver also suggests that love is physical rather than verbal when Mel tells a story about an elderly couple who miraculously survived a car crash. Afterward, the husband became depressed, but Mel clarifies that this wasn’t because he was traumatized over the accident: the man was upset because his full-body cast made it so he couldn’t “turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.” The man could speak to his wife (his cast had a mouth hole, and his wife was in the same room), so it’s significant that what he really cared about was seeing her. This suggests that the power of their love is physical and intuitive—it cannot be spoken.
At the end of the story, the gin runs out, and the couples—exhausted and confused by their conversation about love—fall silent. They’re drunk and sitting in darkness, likely stewing about all the frightening aspects of love they’ve just discussed. It’s certainly possible to see this ending as a pessimistic commentary on how little they understand about the darkness and uncertainty of love. But there’s also an optimistic interpretation: the story ends with Nick hearing everyone’s hearts beating, which seems to mark a transition from talking to feeling. As Nick listens to the heartbeats, he calls them a “human noise,” and the word “noise” is conspicuous. Unlike “sound,” “noise” suggests unintelligibility. Maybe feigning certainty about love and trying to define it leads only to confusion and dismay; maybe the heart simply can’t be understood.
The Nature of Love ThemeTracker
The Nature of Love 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.”
“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.”
“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.