The central theme of this story is love. The two couples spend the evening drinking gin and discussing the nature of “real love.” The narrator explains that ”we somehow got on the subject of love.” It is Mel who insists on returning to the topic of love. He believes that “love was nothing less than spiritual love.” They then turn to the topic of Terri’s abusive former husband Ed, who eventually shot himself in the head and died. Terri and Mel, both of them married for the second time, debate whether or not Ed really loved Terri. She claims that Ed ”loved her so much he tried to kill her.” Mel insists that “that’s not love.”
Mel eventually describes to them an example of what he considers to be ”real love,” the old couple who had nearly died in a car accident. This conversation about, as Mel puts it, “what we talk about when we talk about love” is many-layered, however. While they discuss the topic, getting drunker all the while, Terri and Mel exhibit an increasingly menacing tone to their interactions with one another. Although they are soft-spoken and civil on the surface, they express a deep-seated anger and resentment toward one another. The narrator, Nick, meanwhile, clearly perceives his relationship with his wife Laura as one of real love, and their warm, affectionate, harmonious interactions with one another seem to demonstrate this. However, as Mel becomes drunker, the atmosphere of subtle but distinct menace seems to pervade the entire room, leaving the two couples sitting in the dark in silence. There is a sense that the dark underbelly of “real love” has been exposed, and the characters are left in utter despair, unable to move or speak.
A central theme of Carver’s stories is communication between people, especially people in relationships. His characters almost universally lack the ability to articulate their true feelings or to effectively make use of language in conducting their relationships. Carver’s minimalist style of writing is especially suited to the exploration of the theme of communication. In minimalist writing, nine-tenths of the story’s meaning is submerged below the surface level dialogue and interactions between the characters. Likewise, for the characters themselves, conversation seems to be a means of masking or evading, rather than expressing, their true feelings. The “action” of this story consists primarily of conversation between the four characters, who never even get up from their chairs over the course of the story. Yet while much of the story is taken up with dialogue, the communication between the members of each couple is indicated by their physical gestures, their silences, and, most of all, what the words that remain unspoken.
Marriage and Divorce
Carver’s characters have often been divorced at least once and are often remarried. Carver himself first married at age eighteen, later divorced, and remarried shortly before his death from cancer. The characters in this story have experienced divorce and remarriage. Mel’s first wife is Marjorie, with whom he has had children, and whom he now supports financially. Terri’s first husband was Ed, an abusive man who eventually shot himself. Mel and Terri are now remarried to each other. Nick, who has also been divorced, is now married to Laura. The subject of divorce and remarriage is an important element of the story’s focus on the theme of love. Mel first brings up the topic of Terri’s abusive former husband, and the two of them debate whether or not Ed truly loved her.
Mel later mentions his ex-wife, whom he once truly loved, but whom he now hates. Mel uses the example of remarriage as evidence of the impermanence of love. He contrasts such short-lived marriages with that of the old couple, who maintained ”real love” for one another even through their hardship. Yet despite this touching anecdote, the story as a whole is pervaded by a tone of pessimism as to the permanence of “what we talk about when we talk about love.”
Alcoholism is a pervasive theme in Carver’s stories. Carver himself was an alcoholic for over ten years. During his final year of drinking, he was hospitalized on four separate occasions for his alcoholism. He took his last drink in 1977, upon which he became dedicated to recovering from his alcoholism. He has stated in numerous interviews that he was more proud of having quit drinking than of anything else he’d ever done. This story is pervaded by alcohol and alcoholism. All four of the characters spend the evening sitting around drinking gin and tonic. The narrator explains that “the gin and the tonic water kept going around.” While they all become drunk, Mel is clearly an alcoholic, and the conversation is most affected by his increasing drunkenness. His interactions with Terri become more bitter, and he becomes even less attuned to those around him. As the story ends, Mel purposefully dumps his glass of gin upside down, allowing it to spill all over the table. He states that the gin is all gone, and it seems as though the conversation runs out with the gin, leaving the two couples in silence and despair.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Raymond Carver, Published by Gale Group, 2001.