A 1,000 Word Critique of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” [66%, 2004]

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A 1,000 Word Critique of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

{Essay CONTENTS: INTRODUCTION – characters, themes, analytical framework; Rapport: Mel-Terri; Rapport: Nick-Laura; Kinesics: Mel; Kinesics: Terri; Kinesics: Nick, Laura; Gaze behaviour: Mel; Gaze behaviour: Terri; Gaze behaviour: Laura; Narrative perspective – Nick as artistically visual individual; Tonality, linguistic register, and Satir Category: Mel; Tonality, linguistic register, Satir Category: Terri; Tonality, linguistic register, and Satir Category: Nick; Tonality, linguistic register, and Satir Category: Laura; CONCLUSION.}

In this critique of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, I aim to demonstrate that Mel McGinnis cathartically releases his views on love onto an educated threesome (his wife, Terri, his friend, Nick, and Nick’s wife, Laura). Mel has been deeply considering the nature of love; by the end of the critique I hope to illustrate how Mel totally dominates the conversation to get his ideas across by closely analysing the following constructs in relation to each individual: rapport; kinesics; gaze behaviour; tonality and linguistic register; and by placing each character within one of the five Satir Categories.[^]

Rapport is built in several instances in this story. Mel uses rapport-building and maintaining techniques to ensure his wife isn’t too offended when he dismisses her ideas or makes personal comments that don’t flatter her. An example of this comes when he unequivocally declares, “Terri’s of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school.” By reaching “across the table” and touching “Terri’s cheek with his fingers”, Mel helps maintain a good relationship between them. Thus, Mel makes the effort to build and maintain rapport so he can air his otherwise insulting views.[^]

The rapport between Nick and Laura, on the other hand, seems naturally strong and can be seen when neither is verbally attacking the other. For example, following Laura’s liberal comment on not judging Ed’s situation, Nick “touched the back of Laura’s hand.” Laura returns this gesture with “a quick smile”. Further highlighting the easy and comfortable nature of their relationship, Nick “made a big production out of kissing her [Laura’s] hand” when urged to back up Laura’s declaration that they “know what love is”. Thus, it can be observed that the rapport between Nick and Laura is deep and strong, unconditional.[^]

Kinesics is in evidence throughout the story. Mel’s dominant, controlling personality is reflected by the fact that he uses a good deal of body movements in an assertive, active fashion. The fact that he is the one in control of the situation is highlighted by the fact that he dictates what pace they drink at, reaching “for the gin bottle” whenever he wants to.[^]

Terri’s kinesics are more defensive, reflecting the fact that Mel is in charge and she has to dance to his tune to a large extent, as she does not want to upset anybody. Whenever she is uncomfortable at the turn the conversation has taken under Mel’s leadership, Terri “raised her glass and drank from it” before attempting to change the subject.[^]

As Nick and Laura are guests in Mel’s house, their use of kinesics is largely centred on keeping each other aware of their love while Mel forcefully directs the conversation. Little gestures, such as when Laura “bumped my [Nick’s] knee with her knee”, help them achieve this.[^]

Mel’s ‘I’m in charge’ attitude is further demonstrated by his use of gaze behaviour. If Terri dares to challenge his opinions, impinging upon his belief that he’s the one with all the power, he will frostily stare her down. This can be seen when Terri wonders whether the gin is affecting his judgment and he “fixed his eyes on her”: a typically aggressive and assertive gesture.[^]

Terri’s use of gaze behaviour gives us an insight into her rounded, mature, and quietly playful nature. This can be seen when she suggests that Nick and Laura’s ‘honeymoon period’ will end sooner or later: she “held her drink and gazed at Laura” before laughingly admitting that she was “only kidding”.[^]

Laura’s open, frank personality is also conveyed through her gaze behaviour. Upon hearing Mel’s relation of the ‘Ed incident’, she “glanced from Mel to Terri and waited with a look of bewilderment…” – this shows that she is not one to hide emotions such as astonishment.[^]

Because the story is told through Nick’s first-person narration, it is not made clear as to the patterns of his gaze behaviour. It would, however, be fair to say that Nick is an artistically visual individual. This can be seen through his awareness and description of apparently minor changes in the situation: “The leaves of aspen that leaned past the window ticked against the glass. The afternoon sun was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity.”[^]

The protagonists’ tonality and linguistic register can be used as evidence regarding their position within the Satir Categories. Mel’s dictatorial nature is highlighted by the fact that he dominates the conversation, with the other characters struggling to add their own comments and thoughts. His self-important, ‘I’m in charge’ mentality is illustrated when he pours yet more gin into his glass, proceeding to add “an ice cube and a sliver of lime”, before embarking on a staggeringly long sermon on the nature of love: “What do any of us really know about love? … I mean, I don’t know anything, and I’m the first one to admit it.” Despite the fact that he begins and ends that passage with humble lexis, the bulk of the sermon is a self-opinionated exploration on the intricacies of love. His self-empowered, ‘me-me-me’ personality is further highlighted by the fact that he begins many of his lectures with statements similar to the classic, “I’ll tell you what real love is”. Mel’s verbal and physical habits are typical of Virginia Satir’s ‘Blamer’ Category.[^]

On the other hand, Terri appears more concerned with ensuring everybody is enjoying the social gathering. She can choose a serious register when she wants to make a point, for example when she won’t let Mel speak ill of Ed: “People are different, Mel. Sure, sometimes he may have acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me.” If the conversation is threatening to turn too serious, however, she is able to employ a lighter, more flippant tone: “How’d we get started on this subject, anyway? Mel always has love on his mind…” This desire to keep everybody happy through language – coupled with her regular visual checks to ensure everyone is fine, “Terri looked at us and then back at Mel” – suggests she falls within the ‘Placator’ Satir Category.[^]

Nick appears to fall into the ‘Computer’ Satir Category, as he carefully considers his responses to Mel’s interrogatives based on the facts available to him. Thus, when Mel asks him to judge the ‘Ed incident’, Nick demonstrates that he’s been following the conversation but doesn’t rush to condemn: “I’m the wrong person to ask. I didn’t even know the man… You’d have to know the particulars. But I think what you’re saying is that love is an absolute.”[^]

Laura’s frank personality, exemplified by Nick’s “open face” description, and the fact that she takes pride in announcing that she and Nick have been married for “going on a year and a half”, suggests she falls into the genuine ‘Leveller’ Satir Category.[^]

In conclusion, I believe I am justified in stating that Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love sees Mel McGinnis purposefully directing the conversation between him, Terri, Nick, and Laura to get his long pent-up musings on the nature of love off his chest. Through close analysis of the following inter-personal communication tools: rapport; kinesics; gaze behaviour; tonality and linguistic register; and the use of Satir Categorisation, it becomes apparent that every action this dominant, dictatorial alpha-male character takes, each comment he makes, is done to justify his end goal of cathartically releasing his deep thoughts on this subject.[^]

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34-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, being a bit of a geek, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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