In one of Raymond Carver’s classic stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” two married couples sit around a kitchen table, drinking gin, talking about what they really mean when they use the word “love.” Three of the four have been married multiple times, and they’ve got some disagreements on the subject.
By the story’s end, Carver manages to say something deeply profound, in his ever-subtle, ever-brilliant way, about both what love is and how stories, themselves, share something essential with it. The end of the story throws into sudden relief a defining element of both—Action.
Just as stories must manifest characters, events, and ideas in action to feel real, so too love—to be real—must manifest itself in action. As these characters talk, they primarily try to explain what they think love is by telling stories. They tacitly acknowledge that love, like narrative, only works when it’s shown, demonstrated outwardly, in action. But these characters are also in a story of their own. Let’s see what Carver—through the distinct medium of story—shows us about them, about their collective understanding of love, and about love itself.
Early in the story, the narrator, Nick, tells us that the other man at the table, Mel, “thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love.” This turns out to be far more significant than it looks. When I first read it, I thought, okay, sounds good I guess. But at the same time, if you think about it, it’s also kind of weird. “Spiritual love?” What exactly is that? What would it actually look like?
Next, we hear of Mel’s newest wife, Terri, that “the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her . . . ‘He beat me up one night,’” she says. “‘He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you . . .’ What do you do with love like that?’”
No kidding, we think. That’s crazy. And we’re right on the same page with Mel when he shoots back, “My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it.” They go back and forth, arguing about whether Ed really loved her, and Mel concludes, “I just wouldn’t call Ed’s behavior love. That’s all.”
And Mel has, perhaps unknowingly, just hit on the key.
Carver goes on to develop the idea, pretty ingeniously, through the rest of the conversation, the rest of the story—ultimately, using the form of the story itself, its plot, to show us something about the nature of real love.
Meanwhile, the narrator Nick, listening to all this, thinks of his own affection for his wife, Laura. Holding her hand as they listen, Nick thinks proudly, “In addition to being in love, we like each other . . . She’s easy to be with.”
That’s a telling way to put it.
Nick’s impression of real love constitutes what seems to be the mainstream definition of it in our own contemporary world: Love is about ease, personal gratification, our own needs being served, nothing too strenuous, nothing too costly.
“Well, Nick and I know what love is,” says Laura. At the time of the story, they’ve been married about a year. “For us, I mean,” she says. Then she bumps his knee under the table. “You’re supposed to say something now,” she says. So as evidence of their love, Nick “took Laura’s hand and raised it to his lips . . . made a big production out of kissing [it]. Everyone was amused.”
While the gesture may not say much of substance about their love, it does recognize—just as all their storytelling recognizes—that there must be some kind of evidence, some outward manifestation of love, or it’s not believable, it’s not real. Like the author of the book of James says about “faith without works”—it’s “dead.”
Soon after this, Terri says, “Poor Ed,” bringing up how her abusive ex had died—by self-inflicted wounds—to which her current husband, Mel, replies, “Poor Ed nothing. He was dangerous.”
“I still feel sorry for him,” Terri says. Then Mel says, “Terri wanted to go in and sit with him when she found out about it. We had a fight over it. I didn’t think she should see him.”
“Who won the fight?” says Laura.
“I was in the room with him when he died,” Terri says. “He didn’t have anyone else.”
It seems as if Terri, among all these characters, has the truest understanding of love. Despite looking like the craziest one at the table—her husband thinks she’s an idiot and her two friends gape at her in disbelief, unable to fathom how she could speak with compassion about a man who used to abuse her—she sat at this man’s deathbed, because he didn’t have anyone else.
Her story shows us a picture, an image, an action. It puts the idea of love on display, real love: other-focused, self-sacrificing compassion, given without regard to the recipient’s merit, and literally divine.
But then Mel, seeming more and more agitated, starting to insist that no one truly knows how to define love, tells another story, one that’s still unfolding, as they sit there, back at the hospital where he works. His final story simultaneously displays deep, real love and somehow confuses everyone—Mel most of all.
A man in his seventies lies in a hospital bed. The old man and his wife are both in full body casts after an accident. And the man has become severely depressed, causing his overall health to decline. Not because of his own state. But because the cast prevents him from looking over at his wife. He can’t physically touch her, or even see her, and it’s literally “killing him,” Mel says.
Everyone at the table is silent, uncomfortable, reeling from several healthy portions of gin and this new picture of what love might be.
Mel in particular is deeply puzzled. He can sense in this unfolding story something of real, deep love. But he just can’t understand it. It doesn’t quite make sense to him.
And this seems to get at another profound truth revealed in Carver’s story. Maybe it’s impossible to grasp real love until you’ve actually experienced it, until someone loves you that way—until you see it, feel it, through actions, through story.
This kind of love, real love, actually changes people. When you see and feel a man losing his own life for the love of his bride, it transforms your heart, it enables you, it incites you to go love others in the same way. But it also, interestingly, makes you fall in love with the one you see doing it.
At the end of Carver’s story, all of a sudden, we realize that the whole tale has consisted of four people sitting around a table, drinking gin, and talking: the sun is sinking, they’ve talked about dinner, they’ve talked about snacks, they’ve talked about more drink, they’ve talked about getting up and turning on the lights, they’ve talked about love. But none of them has done a thing.
At the very end, Mel turns his glass over, spilling his drink on the table. “Gin’s gone,” he says. Terri, at his side, his second wife, says, “Now what?”
And then the story concludes with a picture. Nick describes the scene: “not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
This was the essence of the story, of these characters’ lives, of the way they basically understand love: people talking, people drinking, no one acting, but everyone feeling drunk. And when the feel-good stuff runs out, the love is over. When the feel-good stuff runs out, the question becomes: “Now what?” It’s the perfect image. It leaves readers with a tangible experience of the idea.
Carver shows, through story, that it’s perhaps impossible to explain what love is outside of a story, outside of some narrative context, a narrative that displays action. He shows how fiction, narrative, story—among all methods of communicating ideas—is uniquely positioned to talk about love. Love itself is most clearly communicated, made real, when it’s shown, when it’s incarnated, when Word becomes Flesh.
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[i] This is an action, and the story of an action. As John the Apostle further puts it, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us . . . We love because God first loved us.”[ii]
And God said to Abraham, just before providing a substitutionary sacrifice for the son Abraham had laid on the altar before him: “Now I know you love me because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.”[iii]
And Christ Himself—the ultimate Son who would be given, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross”—said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”[iv]
Later, the Apostle Paul would use this same true story, this outward action of God’s toward man, to encourage true love in others, defining marriage most essentially as a picture of Christ, of God, and his love for his own bride, for us: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”[v]
These are pictures, tangible examples, of love in its real form, its divine form.
And like the ultimate example of love, found in God himself, stories that truly demonstrate love follow God’s pattern revealed in Christ. The same goes for people who truly demonstrate love. This kind of love, when experienced, when seen and felt, changes us. We go and love others the same way, not because we think they’ve earned it, not because it makes us feel nice, not because we know they’ll pay us back, or even love us back, but because it’s been done to us. And because we recognize there’s nothing more beautiful in the world.
This is how the best stories talk when they talk about love, the way God talks—through incarnation, through manifestation, through action.
Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at Houston Baptist University and for Writers in the Schools, and has taught previously at the University of Houston-Downtown. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, writes regularly on contemporary literature, and is currently touching up his first novel.