What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Elusive Nature of Love
The nature of love remains elusive throughout “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” despite the characters’ best efforts to define it. Mel tries again and again to pinpoint the meaning of love, but his examples never build up to any coherent conclusion. For example, he tells his friends about an elderly couple who nearly died in a car crash, but the conclusion of the story—the old man depressed by not being able to see his wife—merely confuses everyone. When he asserts that he’ll tell everyone exactly what love is, he instead digresses into a muddled meditation about how strange it is that he and the others have loved more than one person. His attempts to clarify the nature of love eventually devolve into a bitter tirade against his ex-wife. He seems much more certain about what love is not and tells Terri several times that if abusive love is true love, then she “can have it.”
Laura and Nick believe that they know what love is, but they never really provide a clear definition or explain why they’re so certain in their convictions. They merely demonstrate their love for each other by blushing and holding hands, but these actions simply support the mystery of love rather than unmask it. Terri, of all the friends, seems to be most certain about the meaning of love and repeatedly claims that her abusive ex-boyfriend, Ed, truly loved her, despite his crazy way of showing it. The examples she provides of this love—beating, stalking, and threatening—are disturbing but serve as proof in her mind. Like the others, however, she cannot translate her certainty into any kind of clear explanation of the nature of love.
The Inadequacy of Language
Although the four friends talk for a while about love, the fact that they never manage to define it suggests that language can’t adequately describe emotional, abstract subjects. Mel does the most talking, but his bloated stories and rambling digressions show that he has trouble conveying his thoughts and feelings, despite how much he talks. Terri speaks a great deal about her former lover Ed, but when Mel challenges her, she turns to intuition to prove her point. She believes that Ed loved her no matter what Mel or the others think, demonstrating that gut feelings about love can be more powerful and accurate than words. Laura and Nick, meanwhile, say very little about the nature of love and instead rely on physical gestures to clarify what language cannot: they hold hands, blush, and touch each other’s legs. Carver indicates that words simply aren’t enough when talking about love, which is probably why all four friends have fallen silent by the end of the story.
Nick, Mel, Terri, and Laura consume copious amounts of alcohol during their discussion about the nature of love, and their increasing intoxication mirrors their growing confusion about love and inability to define it. The friends have gathered to talk and drink gin, and the pouring, stirring, and sipping of drinks punctuates their conversation. As the friends get drunk, their conversation grows blurry and incoherent and finally stops completely. Drinking also serves as a kind of ritual in the story as the friends pass the bottle of gin around the table and make toasts to love. At the end of the story, as the friends discuss going out to dinner, Mel says they must finish the gin first, as though only finishing the bottle can free them from the discussion.
The sun in the story, which is bright at the beginning and gone by the end, represents the loss of clarity and happiness as the friends grow increasingly confused about the meaning of love. At the beginning of the story, Nick notes that the kitchen is bright and compares the friends to giddy children who have “agreed on something forbidden.” The talk is light and hopeful, just a friendly conversation on a gin-soaked afternoon. However, as the conversation about love becomes increasingly dark and complex, the sun in the kitchen slips slowly away. Nick notes that the sun is “changing, getting thinner,” and, not long after, that the sun is “draining out of the room.” As the sun disappears completely, the conversation devolves into Mel’s drunken threats against his ex-wife, including a fantasy of murdering her. At the end of the story, the friends are sitting in complete darkness. The sun has gone, as have their rosy, hopeful perceptions of love.