A Serious Talk by Raymond Carver

In A Serious Talk by Raymond Carver we have the theme of conflict, control, jealousy, acceptance, separation, letting go and moving on. Taken from his What We Talk About When We Talk About Love collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on the reader realises that Carver may be exploring one of the main themes of the story, the theme of separation. Burt, the main protagonist, is separated not only from his wife (Vera) and family but from a home that he considers to be his. The fact that Burt considers the home to be his (and not a family home) is significant as it suggests that Burt is having difficulty in moving on from his separation from Vera. He still believes that things (like the house and later the ashtray) are his and he remains unable to let go. Carver also appears to be exploring the theme of jealousy. There is the fact that Burt resents that he is out of his marital home, while another man (Charlie) gets the chance to spend time there. Not only is Burt resentful of this but it is also possible that he is jealous of the relationship that Vera is having with Charlie. Carver also uses symbolism to suggest the theme of jealousy. While Burt is sitting at the kitchen table drinking vodka, he notices all the cigarettes in the ashtray, particularly the ones that he knows are not his. Again this suggests that Burt may be jealous of another man, coming into an environment which he still believes is his.

It is also significant that Burt considers not only the house to be his, but the ashtray too. In an effort to control the situation, Burt cleans the ashtray and stubs out one of his own cigarettes into the ashtray. Symbolically Burt is trying to remove Charlie’s presence, to regain control over what he believes is his (not only the ashtray and house but Vera too). There is a further example of Burt trying to control things. When Vera gets the phone call for Charlie, Burt cuts the telephone line. This suggests that Burt is trying to control who Vera speaks to and also he appears to be attempting to remove any presence of Charlie from Vera’s life. It is also while Burt is sitting by the fire on Christmas Day that the reader further realises that he is unable to accept the position he finds himself in (separated from Vera). The narrator tells the reader that Burt ‘liked it in front of the fireplace, a glass in his hand, his house, his home.’ This statement is important as it suggests that, unlike Vera who has started a new relationship, Burt is still unable to move on or let go. Again he believes things are his.

Carver also uses symbolism in the story to suggest that Vera and Burt will remain apart or that their relationship will remain strained or broken. There is the bicycle in the yard. The reader is aware that the front wheel is missing. This mirrors Burt’s relationship with Vera, it too is broken (or going nowhere). It is also interesting that Vera doesn’t see things the way that Burt does. If anything she appears to have accepted her new life, if not embraced it. This can be seen by the fact that she has started a new relationship with Charlie. How much Vera has moved on can also be seen from the two telephone calls that Burt answers. The caller asks for Charlie. This is significant as it suggests that the caller expects Charlie to be in the house. There is a strong possibility that Charlie spends most of his time in Vera’s home. Hence his friends calling her house.

Carver also uses symbolism again in the story to suggest the idea of control. Burt imagines that Vera’s robe catches fire and he throws ‘her down onto the floor and rolling over her and over into the living room, where he would cover her with his body. This action (or imagined action) by Burt is important as not only is he attempting (in his mind) to put out the flames but he is also more importantly dominating Vera by lying on top of her. There is also other possible symbolism in the story. When Vera bangs the phone onto the kitchen counter it makes a ‘ding.’ This sound is similar to that found at boxing matches to signify the start of a round (or to resume fighting). It is interesting that Vera is screaming at Burt at the time and that she tells him she will call the police. Right till the end of the story, Burt and Vera remain in conflict (or are still fighting each other).

The ending of the story is also interesting as Carver appears to be again highlighting the theme of control and moving on (or letting go). Burt before he leaves the house believes that he and Vera ‘they had to have a serious talk soon.’ This statement suggests that again, Burt hasn’t moved on. It is also possible that there may not be anything left to say and that his relationship with Vera has already reached a conclusion, even though Burt hasn’t accepted this. Also by taking the ashtray at the end of the story, Burt is again exerting a level of control. He doesn’t want others to use it. It symbolises what is his, just as he believes that the house is still his. Despite Vera telling him ‘That’s our ashtray.’ Burt still leaves with it. It is also interesting that Burt reverses out of the driveway when he leaves the house. Symbolically this could again suggest that Burt has not moved on or let go, if anything he appears to be going backwards unable to accept that Vera has moved on with her life.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "A Serious Talk by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • Hello. Nice post. I’ve just read the story. There is something else I noticed. It seems that Burt was always very jealous when still with Vera, and he only does messy things: physically and emotionally, like the pie, the key broken in the front door and all the jealous stuff. It is like if the messy emotions drove him to messy attitudes etc. What do you think?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Hi Lucas. I like what you’re saying and hadn’t noticed how deep the impact was on Burt when it came to his jealousies. It is also possible that Burt is emotionally insecure and how he reacts at times is based on these insecurities. His reactions do appear at times to be as you suggest messy.

  • What about the many times Vera has betrayed Burt? Burt may feel that he is a victim and she should be the one leaving?

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