“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a short story by Raymond Carver where four friends gather for drinks. As the conversation progresses, the couples settle on the topic of defining love. Each one of them tries to articulate what they believe love to be, yet words continuously fall short in describing this feeling. This story explores the paradoxes of love through its representation in the character Mel, a cardiologist who approaches love very rationally, yet is met with the complications that emotions bring to such a stance.
The very first line of the story is “My friend Mel McGinnis is talking,” thus establishing the importance of Mel in this piece. While he is not the narrator, he continuously takes control of the conversation and seeks to uncover what love is. He draws the conversation back to his personal experiences, and we know more about him than any other character. He tells of the rocky start to his relationship with Terri where they were being threatened by her ex, as well as his bitterness and hostility towards his ex-wife whom he claims to have once loved. Mel understands not only what it is like to love someone but also what it is to hate someone. His first marriage began happily, but affection has turned to anger to the point where Mel states he wishes his ex-wife would die. This makes us wonder if Mel ever did truly love his first wife or if it truly is possible for these opposite but equally intense emotions to have a connection.
When Terri describes the abuse she faced with her ex-boyfriend, Mel continually states that this cannot be love, whereas Terri defends that it was. He plainly states, “If you call that love you can have it” (Carter 174). In this, Mel reveals that he does not believe love to be violent, yet he wishes violence against his ex-wife whom he loved. Additionally, if he were to harm his ex-wife, he would be affecting the wellbeing of his children, and he does still love them. Mel’s words and actions do not align. He loves his children, but if he harmed their mother, he would harm them. His hatred has blinded his judgment and his love. Love is not just a band aid for pain, and no matter how he feels towards his children, it does not change his feelings towards their mother.
Mel is a cardiologist whose life revolves around fixing people’s hearts. In hand, this represents his role in the story as the character driving the conversation about what love is. He approaches the topic in a very matter of fact way and views love through a lens of practicality where quantity equates quality and where after you fall out of love, you simply find someone else to be with. When he talks about his relationship with Terri, the first thing he mentions is how long they have been together rather than an emotional connection they share. His education has caused him to view life as a series of questions that need answers and problems he must solve. He presents his beliefs in a very blunt and logical manner, yet his bizarre speech ends with him stating that he knows nothing. He brings up this topic of discussion because he is searching for an answer to his question. Despite his apparent knowledge from experience, Mel is able to recognize that there is a side of love he does not understand.
The duality of love is that it is both an action and an emotion, but Mel is only able to understand that which he can physically observe. He knows that love comes with long marriages and facing hard things together such as he and Terri have, yet he does not understand the true love that Laura and Nick share that is demonstrated in their actions and language throughout the story. In a speech filled with facts, he describes their love as having a “glow”, and this language presents a sense of warmth, curiosity, and happiness that contradicts his otherwise cool and collected manner. The “glow” of love is a mystery to him especially in a couple that has only been together a mere eighteen months. If this “glow” is true love, then Mel has never experienced the emotion of being in love with someone. With that being said, he will never be able to fully understand what love is since he has never experienced it. Also, this may mean that what he shares with Terri is not actually love. Mel states, “… if something happened to one of us-excuse me for saying this-but if something happened to one of us tomorrow, I think the other one, the other person, would grieve for a while, you know, but then the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else soon enough” (Carter 177), causing us to further question his true feelings for Terri as he is comfortable with the idea of losing her and loving another.
Mel’s inability to experience true love after the dissolution of his first marriage along with his obsession for discovering what love is demonstrates the incomprehensibility of love as it often contradicts itself. You can go from being willing to die for someone to wishing they themselves would die. Love can dissolve to hate leaving only shared children as a reminder of what was. For some, love is expressed through actions, but for some, love is a “glow” that is unexplainable yet unignorable. Everyone experiences and perceives love differently, and love is too big of an idea to be put into mere words. Mel embodies this mystery of love as he himself is searching for an answer. At the end of the story, the drinks are gone, and Mel has an outburst of hatred toward his ex. His frustration with love builds and erupts in hate. Mel cannot discover an answer to his question, so he gives up on the conversation. The story ends with the couples left in dark both physically and mentally as they do not find a definite answer for love. Yet, in their discussions, they have revealed what they personally believe love to be showing that while love can be complex and unsolvable as it is for Mel, it can also be a warmth and happiness that needs no further explanation as experiencing it brings in itself satisfaction.
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