Love is one of the only words in this world that can’t be adequately described in words. Yet it is the strongest human emotion and most powerful force in the universe that conquers all, makes our lives worth living, and chooses our direction. In the two short stories the authors use their style, symbolism and point of views to best portray two different scenarios that both revolve around love. In “Good People” by David Foster Wallace 19 year old college student impregnates a girl he’d been seeing and is plagued with many uncertainties of life and love and is forced to make a difficult decision in the case of an abortion. In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver two couples sit around a table and attempt to discuss which knows more about true love while they drink gin. In the end, they both share a common theme; that love is ambiguous. In the stories, the author’s style of writing delivers the tones for which the characters are feeling.
Effectively you also share some of the same emotions the characters are facing. In “Good People” there is a dense and intentionally clumsy style which adds to the story’s depth to portray the uncertainty and anxiousness that Lane is feeling. This style greatly immerses you into the circulating mind of teenaged Lane’s ambivalence of his love, religion, and self. Wallace uses the means of a third person narrator telling the story to capture Lane’s struggle and introverted thoughts. It is when he first told his girlfriend Sheri that he would go to the appointment with her to console her that his guilt starts to eat away at him… “The worse he felt, the stiller he sat. The whole thing felt balanced on a knife or wire; if he moved to put his arm up or touch her the whole thing could tip over. He hated himself for sitting so frozen.” (Wallace 891). In the other story the authors tone is one of a darker, more mature subject matter with a feel of “dirty realism”. Carver uses mainly dialogue to tell the story in a way that feels like an ordinary conversation but at the same time pries deeper into the unpleasant truths of the mundane world.
Half way through the story, Mel makes a comment which changes the direction from the casual to the more dense subject matter. “And the terrible thing, the terrible thing is, but the good thing too, the saving grace, you might say, is that if something happened to one of us tomorrow, I think . . . the other person, would grieve for a while, you know, but then the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else soon enough.”(Carver 852) In the first story, Lane is constantly beating himself up and questioning himself of whether or not he’s making the right decision throughout the story at every turn.
He even asks “What would even Jesus do?” (Wallace 893), revealing that this dilemma is one too complex for a mere human to make a proper judgment. The story is almost one long repeated question, where at the end even still the answer isn’t definitively answered. In the second story, Mel stumbles over his words often when discussing “love” not from the gin but from the complexity of pinpointing the meaning of love. When he tries to come to a coherent conclusion to the meaning of love he instead digresses into a convoluted meditation and becomes angered in trying to wrap his head around it. He too looks towards a higher power for guidance due to a lack of comprehension.
Symbolism comes into play within these two stories where the adequacy of words isn’t enough. It gives more depth to the stories without being too blatantly obvious, keeping the reader thinking. In “Good People” there is symbolism carefully hidden throughout which Lane notices but doesn’t quite seem to entirely pick up on, it is more there for the reader to make an inferred decision at the end. The geography around him and the lake are the symbols which apply to his life and relationship with God, himself, and Sheri. It is when they are both sitting on the picnic table at the park near the lake when after realizing he was unintentionally praying with his hands that he notices the lighting has changed and it resonates with him. “…everything seemed distinctly lit, for the circle of the pin oak’s shade had rotated off all the way, and they sat now in sun with their shadow a two-headed thing in the grass before them” (Wallace 893).
Likewise in the second story, symbolism is used for the same reason to enhance the plot, except in a more negative way. When the story begins the bottle of gin is full and the sun is bright and everyone is in a great and giddy mood. As the story progresses, the bottle of gin diminishes along with the brightness of the sun, leaving them at the end with a complex and increasingly dark conversation figuratively and a dark room literally. “He’s depressed,” Terri said. “Mel, why don’t you take a pill?” “Listen,” Mel said. “Let’s finish this fucking gin. There’s enough left here for one shooter all around. Then let’s go eat. Let’s go to the new place.” (Carver 853) Mel sees finishing the bottle of gin as a way to finally end the conversation brought up on love and get him out of the frustration that the conversation had provoked within him. In this story the sun set and the gin was all drank yet they still hadn’t been able to conclude the true meaning of love from a relationship standpoint. In “Good People” the symbolism leads me to decide that Lane didn’t go through with the abortion, however in the end the two are still unsure whether or not things will work out for them and if it was the smart choice.
The personal point of views of the authors feelings on love are reflected through the mediums of the characters in their stories. For example, in “Good People” Lane is a kid who is struggling with the challenge of understanding his place in the world and is constantly questioning the unknown. He wants to think of himself as a good person, but his skepticism of his belief in God, the questioning of his morals, and his “love” for Sheri weighs him down. Similar to the story, David F. Wallace was a writer known for taking the challenge of communicating what it meant to be human through writing whilst battling clinical anxiety and depression. When in deep thought, Wallace’s personal views and struggles with the belief in God are voiced through Lane’s inner thoughts… “He promised God he had learned his lesson. But what if that, too, was a hollow promise, from a hypocrite who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve?” (Wallace 894).
Likewise in the second story, some of the rougher experiences of Raymond Carver’s life shine through directly in parallel to the story. Carver presents Mel’s heavy drinking in an understanding way, the way that only one who has witnessed the inner workings of alcohol and how it unknowingly deteriorates oneself can. Mel represents Carver in the story, his second wife Terri represents Raymond Carver’s real second wife (Tess Gallagher) who had a first husband herself both in the story and in real life, only in the story his name was Ed and in life was (Larry Edward Gallagher).
In the story Terri claims Ed and she loved each other, Mel claims she is wrong, but Terri persists despite the fact he hit her sometimes and was disturbed and shot himself. In real life, Larry was MIA in the Vietnam War as a pilot and must have meant a lot to his wife seeing how she kept his last name. The bigoted representation of Ed in Carver’s story represents the jealousy he had of his wife’s never ending love of her first husband. Carver’s first wife is also presented abstractly into the story. Carver had two kids with his first wife, (MaryAnn), who he later fought with and disliked. In the story MaryAnn’s name is Marjorie and he voices his dislike for her while still wanting to see his kids. As you can see the author’s lifetime experiences greatly influence their perspectives which is presented and passed down through their works of literature.
Both writers struggle to capture the meaning of love in their own sentimental ways, however neither come up with a definitive answer. How true it is today that love really is ambiguous no matter how well we try to capture it in its natural human habitat. No matter how many years go by or how technologically advanced a society we become, the question will always at its roots remain.
Courtney from Study Moose
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