“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver

Cathedral is a short story by an American short story writer and poet Raymond Clevie Carver, Jr. It was first published in Atlantic Monthly in March 1981. In 1982 it appeared in The Best American Short Stories and in 1983 it became the title story in the Cathedral collection. The volume was highly appreciated by readers and critics and received nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

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Raymond Carver admits that Cathedral was “totally different in conception and execution from any stories that [had] come before.” Further, he says:

There was an opening up when I wrote the story. I knew I’d gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that direction and I’d be at a dead-end (Carver b, 204).

The change in Carver’s style that the story symbolizes is called a movement away from the “existential realism” which characterizes Carver’s earlier stories toward “humanist realism” (Stull 7). The main difference between these two styles Stull sees in the approach that each of them has: existential realism is “studiously objective, impersonal, and neutral”, whereas “humanist realism, in contrast, takes a more expressive, more “painterly” approach to its subjects […] Such realism treats reality metaphysically, theologically, and subjectively.” (Stull 7)

What unites this Carver’s story with the previous ones is that it also portrays individuals who are isolated from each other. The couple described in the story though lives under the same roof do not seem to be a single unity as a family should be, rather, the wife and the husband live in separate worlds as the story suggests. Only the blind man, the wife’s close friend that arrives to visit her after the death of his wife, appears to save their relationship.

But unlike other Carver’s stories, the one under consideration leaves some hope for the reader. The latter are encouraged to believe in the main character’s resurrection: though there is no evident proof that the barrier of isolation is broken, the main character starts to hear himself and the people around. The blind man manages to involve him in communication and this may be regarded as the first step to overcoming his isolation.

When the story starts the narrator has a lot of stereotypes towards the blinds: “He also had a full beard. But he didn’t use a cane and he didn’t wear dark glasses. I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind”, he even calls Robert eyes “creepy” (Carver). What strikes him is that the blind man carries himself well. Actually, the husband’s stereotypes about the blinds were grounded on the movies he saw: “My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed.” (Carver) This quotation points at the husband’s moral blindness. He cannot even assume that a blind person can significantly differ from those described in the movies. The husband’s closed mind is more obvious when he reveals his racial prejudices towards the blacks.

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From the very beginning of the story he does not like the idea of Robert’s staying in his house: “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.” (Carver) The narrator has created a sheltered world for himself:

Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I fell asleep. My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the same time. When I did go to sleep, I had these dreams. Sometimes I’d wake up from one of them, my heart going crazy (Carver)

And with the blind man’s appearance in his house, he seems to fear that this shelter will be ruined. But as the story goes on the narrator eases into comfort with Robert and teaches the lesson from him.

To show the husband’s evolution Carver reveals his attitude to reading. When his wife creates a poem in which she tells what she felt at the time when the blind man touched her face and demonstrates it to him, he does not think much of the poem. He goes on to say: “Maybe I just don’t understand poetry.” (Carver) But by the end of the story at first sight heartless narrator seems to be capable of understanding poetry. The blind man helps him to realize the importance of listening and hearing one’s own heart and the people around him. The narrator seems to understand that he is not the only one in this world, human life is impossible without communication and proper understanding of each other.

Arthur Brown (1990) admits that “the blind man’s touching the face of the narrator’s wife is almost itself an act of reading and writing, as though one human being is reading and writing another.” (134) He claims that “the blind touching can be seen as a metaphor for postmodern fiction.” (134) This metaphor implies that all people are capable of getting the intimate knowledge of others and of themselves. The blind man from the story can see and establish another person’s identity. Brown states that “it is a human knowledge, simply a human connection.” (134) So, why cannot the narrator establish it?

One can name several reasons to explain it. Maybe, this was mere jealousy of the blind man. It is quite natural that a male does not want to see a strange man as his wife’s companion. Moreover, the narrator was aware of the fact that their friendship dates back to the time when his wife experienced serious problems with her first husband. Still, jealousy does not seem to be the main reason for the main character’s isolation. The thing is that blindness is too strange for him and he tries to deny it in all possible ways. The blind man’s coming to his place changes his domestic life and he does not seem willing to adjust to these changes. What deepens his isolation is a lack of marital intimacy. A person who does not find support with others is destined to become lonely if he or she is not of those who find happiness in the loneliness.

In this respect, the title of the story seems very symbolic. The thing is that a cathedral is a place where one can feel absolutely alone and at the same time in close relation with those who share his or her ideas. Cathedrals are magnificent buildings that make everyone admire their beauty and greatness. The latter cannot be explained by words, especially if the person who describes a cathedral is not a very religious one.

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Still, the husband from the story under consideration should describe a cathedral to the blind person, but soon realizes that it is too difficult for him: “I’m not doing so good, am I?” (Carver) To approach his and the husband’s understanding of what cathedral is, the blind man asks him to draw it. While drawing the cathedral together the two men teach each other: Robert understands the structure of the cathedral and the husband understands what it is to be blind. It was difficult for the husband to communicate with Robert until they started drawing. Art turned out to be an alternative way to communicate for them. It helped them to learn more about themselves and about each other. The exchange of words while drawing grew into the exchange of worlds and the cathedral becomes a symbol of communication without prejudice and hatred between people.

Thus, Carver incorporates the story of a psychologically blind husband and a physically blind Robert into one piece of literary work that depicts the change in the husband. Robert’s stereotypes towards the blinds are changed. He himself learns how to see without eyes. People with the ability to see often take this ability for granted and see only the outside remaining blind to what happens inside of them and others. The author admits that vision is not the only right tool to rely on to experience the world. Listening to one’s heart can also be a helpful means to achieve this purpose.

There is one feature of the story that deserves special consideration. This is the author’s construction of the narrative point of view. At the beginning of the story, the reader does not know much of the narrator: he or she understands that the story is told by the middle-aged white male narrator. But as the story proceeds the reader is able to get a general view of the narrator. Carver provides a lot of clues to his personality. Therefore, reading the story carefully the reader can find a lot about the narrator. Some things that the reader gets to know about the narrator are not obvious to him even.

Carver said that it was possible to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language and endow these things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power (Carver a 134).

This is especially true with the story of Cathedral in which he has successfully managed to show how dangerous emotional blindness may be and, what is more important, how the wall of this blindness may be ruined. His story encourages the reader not to be restricted to their sheltered worlds only but to listen and to hear others’ feelings and emotions. I suppose that in the author’s appeal not to be emotionally blind the main value of the story is rooted. While reading the Cathedral we are made to reconsider some of our views thus changing ourselves for the better.

Works Cited

Brown, Arthur A. “Raymond Carver and Postmodern Humanism.” Critique 31.2 (1990): 125-136.

Carver, Raymond a. “Foreword.” We Are Not in This Together. William Kittredge. Washington: Graywolf Press, 1984.

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Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. Web.

Carver, Raymond b. Fires. New York: Vintage, 1984.

Mojtabai, A.G. “A Missed Connection.” The Wilson Quarterly Spring 1995: 8.

Powell, John. “The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty.” Studies in Short Fiction 31.4 (1994): 647.

Stull, William. “Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver”. Philological Quarterly 64 (1985): 1-15.

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