Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Loneliness and Other Tragic Themes
Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is not pleasant to read. This uneasiness of this collection of stories can easily cause one to cringe and re-examine his or her choices in life in order to avoid those tragic narratives. I couldn’t help to characterize the tragedy found in many of Carver’s stories as a tragedy of loneliness and isolation, one that is also often dominated by alcoholism. In many of the stories, there was a pervasive atmosphere of individuals who were in close relationships with each other, but found only vast gaps and distances in those relationships. In others, people had absolutely no relationships or companions at all.
Loneliness is most often associated with a lack of meaningful, intimate relationships. Throughout Carver’s collection of stories, that traditional characterization does not necessarily reflect what all the characters were experiencing. Some were evidently living a solitary life, desperate for some type of companionship, while some were still engaged in certain relationships, but were equally desperate and helpless in trying to make sense out of them, in trying to believe, and in combating the loneliness and isolation infesting those very relationships. The man selling his furniture in “Why Don’t You Dance” is a typical victim of loneliness. The story hinted at the fact that at some point of time he used to have a woman in his life, an intimate companion of some sort, but she was no longer with him by the time of the yard sale, for reasons unknown. Little was said of her importance to the man, but his acknowledgement of the division of the bed into his side and her side suggests that the woman had a role in the man’s life (Carver 3). In her absence, the man’s life had changed dramatically in a mostly negative fashion, and his act of moving the furniture sets outside for a half-hearted yard sale was both disturbing and puzzling (Carver 4). Was he trying to procure a sum of money for more alcohol, or was he trying to overcome something so devastating that can only be achieved by disposing of everything that was physically attached to it? To me, the man’s act seems much more straightforward and practical. Perhaps he was just simply seeking companionship, and being a lonesome, isolated drunkard as he was, the best way to do so was to put up a ragtag yard sale and hope that people would stumble upon it. The most significant indication of his purpose of seeking companionship through the yard sale lies in his lack of efforts in bargaining the prices with the young couple who came across him. Twice he conceded to the couple’s proposed prices, which were considerably lower than what he initially suggested, and in the sale of the desk, he did not even bother naming a price (Carver 6, 7, 8). Apparently, the man did not wish for any tensions with the buyers in these lukewarm, run-of-the-mill transactions. It is possible that the sales themselves did not matter that much, and only served as means for the man to be temporarily free from his alcoholic loneliness and isolation. On the contrary, he only wished to gratify them, all the while trying to extend their presence on his yard by luring them into taking one or two drinks and dancing to his old records (Carver 8, 9, 10). He was desperate for human company, and he was able to procure it through selling his furniture at a heavily discounted rate and indulging his customers with alcohol and music. Similarly, the man in “Viewfinder” was also a person living alone in his house, although, with a cup of coffee in his hand instead of a whiskey bottle, he was surely more sober and composed than the one in “Why Don’t You Dance”. The first surprise that came from this character was his act of inviting the bizarre, handicapped photographer into his house for coffee. He treated this person with an air of hospitality that is normally not even accorded upon mannerly strangers, much less solicitors, and especially solicitors who have hooks instead of hands (Carver 11, 12). Although the man did explain to the reader, in first person narrative, that he only invited the stranger inside to see how the handicapped photographer would maneuver holding a cup of coffee, this gives the impression that the man’s curiosity was only a pretense for him to invite the stranger inside, because later on he implored the stranger to stay and take more pictures (Carver 11, 14). Arguably, what the man in “Viewfinder” actually sought was, once again, human company, and he procured it in a manner somewhat more dignified than the man in “Why Don’t You Dance Did”. He also seemed to pay little attention to the role money played in all this, a trait also shared by the character in “Why Don’t You Dance”.
In “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit”, there is a different type of loneliness. Here we have a 65-year old lady kissing her boyfriend on the couch, and her son whose wife was having some type of an affair with a man called Ross (Carver 17, 18). Certainly, things seemed to be out of place, but no one was estranged, or isolated, or living in solitude. Everyone had someone. But even then, they were still lonely in their own relationships, and isolated from each other in a way. Although very little was mentioned of the narrator’s mother, who was a widow and former wife of a possibly alcoholic husband who never said goodnight, it was noted that she belonged to a singles club, and in spite of this, she was still struggling (Carver 17, 20). One can only conclude that this old lady, who had a boyfriend of some sort and was a singles club member, was suffering from the affliction of loneliness, something her son might have acknowledged and implied when he remarked that “even so, it was hard” (Carver 17). Myrna, the narrator’s wife, was previously engaged with a man named Ross (Carver 18). Although the narrator and Myrna were married to each other, they seemed to be drifting apart and isolated from one another, as evidenced by the alcohol abuse that both were suffering from (Carver 19). Thus it can be said that they were lonely in their own marriage, which might have been one of the main reasons why Myrna came to Ross. The third victim of loneliness in this story is no one else than the narrator himself. Perhaps more than anyone, he was well aware of the loneliness that infested his family, and this would have possibly made him the loneliest of the trio. He saw his mother’s struggle, witnessed his wife’s blatant infidelity, and accepted both. He wasn’t even aggressive towards Ross, which might indicate that he was willing to accept a third person in the marriage as long as Myrna stays with him. If he had pushed hard, Myrna might have left him, and then he would become even lonelier. Moreover, the narrator’s loneliness also emanated from his own daughter, whose hostility towards Ross was not meant to look out for her father, but rather for money. This too, the man was aware of (Carver 18). “I Could See The Smallest Things” presents a similar loneliness, in which the narrator – Nancy, was married to a presumably alcoholic Cliff. The narrator woke up to the sounds of her gate unlatching and went outside to investigate, where she came across her neighbor Sam and a conversation ensued (Carver 32, 33). It appears to me that whether her gate was unlatched or not was of little significance. There was a feeling that she wanted to go outside and away from the bed where Cliff was snoring for a moment, regardless of the gate. This proved correct when she headed back to the house and discovered that she had forgotten to latch the gates, but went back to sleep nevertheless (Carver 36). Given the late hour of the night, Nancy’s act of agreeing to follow Sam in her nightgown and robe and let him show her something was also curious, if not completely out of place. Nancy herself admitted the strangeness of that action (Carver 33). Admittedly, there was less explicit evidence of loneliness in this story, but there was still a sense that there was a gap in Nancy’s marriage to Cliff, that somehow she was isolated from her husband. It feels as if Nancy was unhappily confined to the marriage, and craved an outlet for companionship. Needless to say, Sam Lewton was not that outlet, but Nancy’s brief venture out into the night and her conversation with him were a testament to her appreciation of an opportunity to be talking to people while away from Cliff. In this case, like the man’s curiosity in “Viewfinder”, the unlatched gate was once again nothing more than just a pretense. However, although the constrained length, crypticity and limited background information of the story leave possibilities difficult to contemplate, Nancy’s behavior towards the end vaguely illustrates her insecurity and lack of resolve in confronting her loneliness in the household with Cliff, when she decided to quickly return to him, although even in bed, part of her mind still remained devoted to the outside world even (Carver 33, 34).
Leo Tolstoy once said in “Anna Karenina” that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The stories by Carver examined above all included the theme of family, and although the families (or what remained of the former family) in those stories owed their state of unhappiness to different root causes and circumstances, they all suffered from a common affliction: loneliness and isolation. Carver’s stories suggest that relationships do not constitute a promise of exemption from loneliness and isolation, as they have pointed out that loneliness and isolation are not found exclusively in solitary individuals, but also extend to those with ongoing relationships. The role of alcohol in these tragedies of loneliness and isolation is also noteworthy. Whether its omnipresence in Carver’s stories was intended for or not, it seems to be one of the hallmarks of loneliness and isolation that is strikingly relevant to the audience.
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