Carver is best known for his minimalist writing style, as embodied in a sparse use of language and paired down prose. He is also known as a neorealist, capturing the working class milieu of blue-collar America with his mundane, naturalistic, everyday dialogue. Nevertheless, he does make use of figurative language throughout “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by exploring its central themes of love, relationships, communication, and alcoholism. Through the imagery of the knight’s armor, the beekeeper’s protective clothing, the “pill” and the word “heart,” Carver demonstrates that the surface level conversation of his four characters is only the tip of an emotional iceberg.
Since the character of Mel dominates the conversation, much of the figurative language is expressive of his own feelings about the subject of love. The image of the human “heart” takes on figurative connotations in the story, as it is referred to both in the mechanical sense, of the functioning of the human heart, and the symbolic sense, as the organ of love. Mel is a cardiologist, a doctor who operates on people’s hearts. The opening sentences of the story, in retrospect, play on the irony of Mel, a heart doctor, claiming to be an expert on matters of the heart: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, so sometimes that gives him the right.” Mel even describes his own work as that of “just a mechanic,” marking the difference between expertise in heart surgery and knowledge of “true love.” When he tells the story of the old couple injured in the near-fatal car accident, the word “heart” again takes on a double meaning. Mel concludes his story, in which the old man and woman are so bandaged up that they cannot see each other even though their beds are next to each other in the same hospital room, by stating that “the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.” Mel is using the word “heart” in the figurative sense here, but it also refers back to the fact that Mel himself had been the attending cardiologist for the old couple in the aftermath of the car accident.
Another central element of figurative speech in this story revolves around Mel’s mention that, if he could come back in a different life, he would want to be a “knight.” Mel’s fascination with the armor worn by a knight is perhaps a heavy-handed image of Mel’s need to protect himself emotionally against the ravages of love. Mel explains that ”you were pretty safe wearing all that armor.” The image is extended to suggest that Mel’s protective emotional armor has failed to protect him against the dangers of new love: “It was all right being a knight until gunpowder and muskets and pistols came along.” Mel goes on to expand upon his fascination with the protective armor of knights: “what I liked about knights, besides their ladies, was that they had that suit of armor, you know, and they couldn’t get hurt very easy.” Mel is expressing a desire to be protected from getting ”hurt” at an emotional level in his relationships with others.
At this point, the discussion of the knight turns on a pun that comes out of Mel’ s misuse of the term “vessel” when he means “vassal.” A vassal is a servant to another, and Mel, using vessel by accident, attempts to point out that even knights were subservient to others. The idea of servitude is extended symbolically when Mel points out, “But then everyone is always a vessel to someone.” At this point Terri corrects him, supplying the proper term, vassal for vessel.
Mel’s incorrect use of vessel has further figurative implications. Mel is an alcoholic, and a vessel is an object designed to contain something, usually in reference to a liquid, as a cup or chalice. Through this play on words, the connection is made to Mel’s use of alcohol, which he drinks out of a vessel, or glass, as his means of protective armor against emotional injury. Furthermore, a vessel, such as an “empty vessel” may be read figuratively to indicate that everyone is a vessel to be filled with the love, false or true, of another.
Nick, the narrator, points out to Mel that the armor worn by knights had its drawbacks. Nick’s comment extends the metaphor of the armor as emotional armor in explaining that one’s emotional defenses, or armor, can end up suffocating the knight in the name of protecting him from harm:
“But sometimes they suffocated in all that armor, Mel. They’d even have heart attacks if it got too hot and they were too tired and worn out.”
The image of the heart comes up here, implying that the armor Mel uses to protect himself from emotional suffering in the name of love (a ”heart attack”) can be the very cause of his suffering. In reference to Mel’s alcoholism, his use of alcohol to protect himself from heartache may actually lead to a heart attack in terms of the demise of his marriage and other personal relationships, as well as some form of heart attack in the sense that alcoholism can be fatal. (This may seem like a leap of logic, but, given that this story was written not long after Carver nearly died from alcoholism and eventually quit drinking, it is not an unreasonable interpretation.) Mel’s interest in armor as a means of protecting himself from love is made clear when he adds that, were a knight to be made vulnerable by the weight of his armor, “Some vassal would come along and spear the bastard in the name of love.”
The imagery of “taking a pill” combines several figurative themes in the story. As Mel becomes more clearly drunk, his conversation acquires an antagonistic edge.
“’He’s depressed,’ Terri said. ‘Mel, why don’t you take a pill?’ Mel shook his head. ‘I’ve taken everything there is.”We all need a pill now and then,’ I said. ‘Some people are born needing them,’ Terri said.”
Here, the characters themselves are consciously using the phrase “to take a pill” in a figurative sense. But the pill imagery also echoes with the fact that Mel is a doctor, whose job is, in general terms, to give people pills to make them feel better. Mel’s own pill is clearly alcohol, and his comment that “I’ve taken everything there is” expresses a deep despair at ever finding a cure for his personal heartaches.
The figurative language combining the use of alcohol, as contained in a vessel, or the swallowing of a pill, as administered by a doctor, as a means of curing the emotional pain caused by love, is also expressed in Terri’ s explanation that her abusive ex-husband, Ed, drank rat poison when she left him. Like Mel’s consumption of alcohol, or his figurative need “to take a pill,” Ed’s consumption of rat poison is his own self-destructive attempt to medicate his own emotional pain in the face of his “love” for Terri. Terri explains the effect of the poison; Ed’s life was saved at the hospital,’’but his gums went crazy from it. I mean they pulled away from his teeth. After that, his teeth stood out like fangs.” The image of Ed’s teeth turning into fangs symbolizes the fact that Ed, an extremely violent and abusive man, is akin to a beast who threatens Terri with his fangs. More indirectly, there is a suggestion that, just as Ed’s drinking of rat poison in an attempt to cure his emotional pain turns him into a fanged beast, so Mel’s drinking of alcohol in an attempt to cure his own emotional pain may be turning him into a beast, posing a threat of danger to Terri.
Mel later uses the imagery of a beekeeper’s protective clothing to express a similar desire for some form of protection from love. In discussing his ex-wife Marjorie, he explains that she is allergic to bees, saying that “if I’m not praying she’ll get married again, I’m praying she’ll get herself stung to death by a swarm of f—ing bees.” He then makes what is perhaps his most outwardly menacing gesture toward his wife: “‘Bzzzzzzz,’ Mel said, turning his fingers into bees and buzzing them at Terri’s throat.”
Mel’s expression of hatred for his ex-wife and his wish that she would die is used as a thinly veiled expression of a similar hatred for Terri. The gesture of buzzing his fingers around her neck combines the figurative image of murder by bee sting into a more literal physical gesture threateningly aimed at Terri’s throat. The armor imagery is echoed here in his description of the beekeeper’s protective clothing:
“Sometimes I think I’ll go there dressed like a beekeeper. You know, that hat that’s like a helmet with the plate that comes down over your face, the big gloves, and the padded coat? I’ll knock on the door and let loose a hive of bees in the house.”
The double implications of the word heart come back into play in the closing image of the story. As the two couples sit in the dark in silence, the narrator explains, “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart.” The narrator uses the literal image of a silence so profound that he can actually hear the beating of his own and the others’ hearts to express a symbolic feeling that he can “hear everyone’s heart.” It is as if the excess of human emotion aroused by the discussion of true love hums about the room without any hope of articulate expression between the two couples. The term vessel, mentioned earlier, is also echoed with Mel’s enigmatic gesture in the closing moments of the story, when he turns his glass of gin upside down on the table. Mel has emptied his vessel of alcohol, the “gin’s gone,” and they are left with nothing but an ominous feeling of emotional emptiness.
Although Carver is considered a minimalist writer, whose stories take on meaning more in what is not said than what is said, his use of figurative language gives depth to his stories by expanding upon their central themes.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Raymond Carver, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Liz Brent, Critical Essay on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.