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How does medieval architecture bring two completely different—nay, polar opposite—men together? In Raymond Carver's most popular short story, the answer is all in the cathedrals. In "Cathedral" (1983), the cynical, blue-collared narrator connects with a blind middle-aged man by describing the intricacies of a cathedral to him. Packed with themes like intimacy and isolation, art as a source of meaning, and perception vs. sight, this short story details how two men connect with one another and share a transcendental experience despite their vast differences.
Raymond Carver was born in 1938 in a small town in Oregon. His father worked in a sawmill and drank heavily. Carver's childhood was spent in Washington state, where the only life he knew was the struggles of the working class. He married his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 18 and had two kids by the time he was 21. He and his family moved to California, where he started writing poetry and short stories while working at a variety of odd jobs to support his family.
Carver went back to school in 1958 and published his first poetry collection, Near Klamath (1968), a decade later. He began teaching creative writing at a few colleges nearby while he worked on his own poetry and short stories.
In the 70s, he began drinking excessively and was hospitalized on numerous occasions. Alcoholism plagued him for years, and it was during this time that he began cheating on his wife. In 1977, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Carver finally stopped drinking. Both his writing and teaching careers took a hit due to his alcohol abuse, and he took a brief hiatus from writing during his recovery.
He started publishing his works again in 1981 with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, followed two years later by Cathedral (1983). Cathedral, in which the short story "Cathedral" was included, is one of Carver's most famous collections.
The short story "Cathedral" includes all of Carver's best-known tropes, such as working class struggles, degrading relationships, and human connection. It is a great example of dirty realism, which Carver is known for, that showcases the darkness hidden in mundane, ordinary lives. "Cathedral" was one of Carver's personal favorites, and it is one of his most popular short stories.
Dirty realism was a termed coined by Bill Buford in Granta magazine in 1983. He wrote an introduction to explain what he meant by the term, saying dirt realist authors
write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwanted mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy."¹
Carver and his first wife divorced in 1982. He married poet Tess Gallagher, whom he had been in a relationship with for years, in 1988. He died less than two months later from lung cancer at the age of 50.
"Cathedral" begins with the matter-of-fact unnamed narrator explaining that his wife's friend, Robert, who is blind, is coming to stay with them. He has never met Robert, but his wife became friends with him ten years before when she answered an ad in the paper and started working for him. She had a transformative experience when he asked to touch her face, and the two have kept in contact via audio tapes since. The narrator doesn't trust his wife's friend, especially because he is suspicious of the man's blindness. He makes jokes about Robert, and his wife chastises him for being insensitive. Robert's wife has just died, and he is still grieving for her. Begrudgingly, the narrator accepts that the man will be staying with them, and he will have to be civil.
The narrator's wife goes to pick up her friend, Robert, from the train station while the narrator stays home and drinks. When the two arrive at home, the narrator is surprised that Robert has a beard, and he wishes that Robert wore glasses to hide his eyes. The narrator makes them all a drink and they eat dinner together without talking. He gets the feeling that his wife doesn't like how he's behaving. After dinner, they go into the living room where Robert and the narrator's wife catch up on their lives. The narrator barely joins the conversation, instead turning on the TV. His wife is annoyed at his rudeness, but she goes upstairs to get changed, leaving the two men alone.
The narrator's wife is gone a really long time, and the narrator is uncomfortable being alone with the blind man. The narrator offers Robert some marijuana and the two smoke together. When the narrator's wife comes back downstairs, she sits on the couch and falls asleep. The TV plays in the background, and one of the shows is about cathedrals. The show does not describe the cathedrals in detail, though, and the narrator asks Robert if he knows what a cathedral is. Robert asks if he will describe it to him. The narrator tries but struggles, so he grabs some paper and the two draw one together. The narrator falls into a sort of trance and, although he knows he's in his house, he doesn't feel like he's anywhere at all.
Let's take a look at the few characters in Carver's "Cathedral".
The narrator is a lot like other protagonists in Carver's works: he is a portrait of a middle-class man living paycheck to paycheck who has to face the darkness in his life. He smokes marijuana, drinks heavily, and is deeply jealous. When his wife invites her friend to stay with them, the narrator is immediately hostile and insensitive. Over the course of the story, he connects with her friend and rethinks his assumptions.
The narrator's wife is also an unnamed character. She was married to a military officer before she met her current husband, but she was so lonely and unhappy in their nomadic lifestyle that she attempted suicide. After her divorce, she worked with Robert, her friend who is blind, by reading to him. She invites him to stay with them, and chastises her husband for his insensitivity. Her frustration with her husband underscores their communication problems, even as she is incredibly open with Robert.
Robert is the wife's friend who is blind. He comes to visit her after his own wife dies. He is easygoing and empathetic, putting the narrator and his wife at ease. The narrator comes to like him despite his best efforts not to. Robert and the narrator connect when Robert asks the narrator to describe a cathedral.
Beulah was Robert's wife. She died from cancer, which devastated Robert. He is visiting the narrator's wife to find some companionship after Beulah's death. Beulah, like the narrator's wife, responded to an ad about a job and worked for Robert.
Carver uses first-person narration, irony, and symbolism to show the narrator's limitations and how connection transforms him.
The short story is told through first-person point of view which gives readers an intimate look into the narrator's mind, thoughts, and feelings. The tone is casual and cynical, which is evident through the narrator's assumptions about his wife, Robert, and Robert's wife. It is also apparent in his speech, as the narrator is incredibly self-centered and sarcastic. Although readers are given an intimate look into his mind, the narrator is not a very likable protagonist. Consider this conversation with his wife:
I didn’t answer. She’d told me a little about the blind man’s wife. Her name was Beulah. Beulah! That’s a name for a colored woman.
'Was his wife a Negro?' I asked.
'Are you crazy?' my wife said. 'Have you just flipped or something?”'She picked up a potato. I saw it hit the floor, then roll under the stove. 'What’s wrong with you?' she said. 'Are you drunk?'
'I’m just asking,' I said."
At the beginning of the story, the narrator is a kind of anti-hero, but because the story is told in first-person, readers are also given a front-row seat to witness his emotional awakening. By the end of the poem, the narrator has challenged many of his own assumptions about Robert and about himself. He realizes that he does not truly see the world and he lacks deep understanding. At the end of the short story, he reflects, "My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything" (13). From a man who was closed off and crude in the first few pages of the short story, the narrator transforms into a blue-collared figure of enlightenment.
An anti-hero is a protagonist/main character that lacks the qualities you would typically associate with a hero. Think of Jack Sparrow, Deadpool, and Walter White: sure, they might be lacking in the morality department but something about them is just so compelling.
Irony is also a major force in the poem. The irony is apparent in the context of blindness. In the beginning, the narrator is so biased against the blind man, believing he can't do simple things like smoke and watch TV, simply because of things he's heard from other people. But it goes deeper than that as the narrator states that he doesn't like the idea of the blind man in his house, and he thinks the blind man will be a caricature-like the ones in Hollywood. What is ironic is that it is actually the blind man who helps the narrator see the world more clearly, and when the narrator is seeing the most clearly is when his eyes are closed. As they near the end of the drawing the narrator closes his eyes and reaches enlightenment:
'It’s all right,' he said to her. 'Close your eyes now,' the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
'Are they closed?' he said. 'Don’t fudge.'
'They’re closed,' I said.
'Keep them that way,' he said. He said, 'Don’t stop now. Draw.'
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, 'I think that’s it. I think you got it,' he said. 'Take a look. What do you think?'
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do."
As a realist, Carver's work can be read exactly as it is on the page and figurative language is scarce. There are, however, a few symbols in the poem that represent something greater than themselves. The major symbols are the cathedral, the audiotapes, and blindness. The cathedral is a symbol of enlightenment and deeper meaning. Before he starts drawing the cathedral with the man who is blind, the narrator says,
'The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV. That’s all they are.'"
The narrator has never truly considered cathedrals or the deeper meaning of things. It is not until someone else shows him the way that he becomes much more aware of himself and others. The cathedral itself isn't as important as the connection and awakening that it brings through its deeper meaning.
Blindness is symbolic of the narrator's lack of perception and awareness. Although Robert is physically blind, the true lack of sight in the story is found within the narrator. He is blind to other people's plights and his own lack of connection. Robert, of course, doesn't gain a physical sight at the end of the story, but the narrator gains immense emotional insight.
Finally, the audiotapes are a symbol of connection. They represent the emotional bonds tying the narrator's wife to Robert. She sent him audiotapes instead of videos, photos, or letters because that was how the two of them could effectively communicate in a way that was accessible to both of them. It would have been easier for the narrator's wife to forget about Robert as she moved through different seasons of her life, but she kept in touch. The tapes are a symbol of purposeful, loyal human connection.
The major themes in "Cathedral" are intimacy and isolation, art as a source of meaning, and perception vs. sight.
Both the narrator and his wife struggle with conflicting feelings of intimacy and isolation. Humans often have a desire to connect with others, but people also fear rejection, which leads to isolation. The battle between these two conflicting ideals is apparent in how the characters deal with issues in their relationships.
Take the narrator's wife, for example. She was so starved for intimacy after moving around with her first husband for years that:
...one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She got to feeling she couldn’t go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine chest and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got into a hot bath and passed out."
The wife's feelings of isolation took control and she attempted suicide so she wouldn't have to be alone. She kept in contact with Robert for years, developing an intensely intimate relationship with him. She becomes so dependent on connecting with her friend through audiotapes that her husband says, "Next to writing a poem every year, I think it was her chief means of recreation." The wife craves intimacy and connection. She gets frustrated with her husband when he doesn't attempt to connect with others because she thinks it will ultimately isolate her as well. In a conversation with the narrator, his wife tells him
'If you love me,' she said, 'you can do this for me. If you don’t love me, okay. But if you had a friend, any friend, and the friend came to visit, I’d make him feel comfortable.' She wiped her hands with the dish towel.
'I don’t have any blind friends,' I said.
'You don’t have any friends,' she said. 'Period'."
Unlike his wife, the narrator isolates himself from people so that he doesn't feel rejected. This isn't because he doesn't care about other people. In fact, when he imagines Robert's dead wife he sympathizes for both of them, though he hides his sympathy behind a protective layer of snark:
...I felt sorry for the blind man for a little bit. And then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one."
The narrator may seem insensitive and uncaring, but apathetic people don't consider others' pain. Instead, the narrator hides his true desire for connection behind his sarcasm and cynical nature. When he meets Robert he reflects, "I didn’t know what else to say." He attempts to isolate himself from the blind man as much as he can, but his vulnerability and desire for connection appear when he apologizes for simply switching the channel on the TV.
The narrator's true desire for intimacy occurs with Robert when he profusely apologizes for not being able to describe a cathedral:
'You’ll have to forgive me,' I said. 'But I can’t tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn’t in me to do it. I can’t do any more than I’ve done.'"
He feels so badly that he can't describe it in words that he agrees to draw a cathedral together with Robert, showing unity and deep intimacy. The two men's hands become one and they create something entirely new. The experience of connection, something the narrator had been running from, was so freeing that he says, "I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything." Intimacy set the narrator free from the walls he allowed isolation to build around him.
Art enables the characters in the story to better understand the world around them. First, the narrator's wife finds meaning in writing poetry. The narrator states,
She was always trying to write a poem. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her.
When we first started going out together, she showed me the poem... I can remember I didn’t think much of the poem. Of course, I didn’t tell her that. Maybe I just don’t understand poetry."
Likewise, the narrator relies on art to connect with Robert and to discover deeper truths about himself as well. The narrator goes through an awakening, realizing that looking inward will allow him to build a greater relationship with the world and find meaning in himself. He is so consumed by the experience that he notes, "I put in windows with arches. I drew flying buttresses. I hung great doors. I couldn’t stop. The TV station went off the air.". It's not just the physical act of making art that has seized control over the narrator, but rather it's the feeling of connection and meaning that he finds for the first time while using a pen and paper.
The final theme in the story is the distinction between perception and sight. The narrator is condescending towards the blind man and even pities him because he lacks the physical ability of sight. The narrator makes assumptions about Robert purely based on his inability to see. He says,
And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to."
Of course, Robert turns out to be much more emotionally capable and perceptive than the sighted man. As opposed to the narrator who struggles to make conversation, Robert is very conscientious of his hosts and does everything in his power to make certain that both the narrator and his wife have an enjoyable night. He is aware of other people's perceptions of him, and he also understands much more about the world than the narrator does. When the narrator tries to rush him off to bed, Robert says,
'No, I’ll stay up with you, bub. If that’s all right. I’ll stay up until you’re ready to turn in. We haven’t had a chance to talk. Know what I mean? I feel like me and her monopolized the evening'.
Although the narrator has physical sight, Robert is much better at being perceptive and understanding people. The narrator comes to learn much about himself, life, and Robert through Robert's guidance when they are drawing the cathedral together. This short story is considered one of Carver's more hopeful ones because it ends with the protagonist better off than he was at the beginning of the story, which is not typical of Carver's stories. The narrator has gone through a transformation and is now more perceptive of his place in the world around him.
(1) Granta Magazine, Summer 1983.
"Cathedral" by Raymond Carver is about a man confronting his own insecurities and assumptions and connecting with a blind man over a transformative experience.
Themes in "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver include intimacy and isolation, art as a source of meaning, and perception vs. sight.
In "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver the cathedral symbolizes a deeper meaning and perceptiveness. It represents seeing below the surface to the meaning that lies beneath.
The climax in Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" occurs when the narrator and Robert are drawing the cathedral together, and the narrator is so caught up in drawing that he cannot stop.
"Cathedral" by Raymond Carver is about looking beyond the surface level of things and knowing that there is more to life, others, and ourselves than meets the eye.
What is "Cathedral"?
"Cathedral" is one of Raymond Carver's most popular short stories. It is included in his 1983 collection Cathedral.
Who was Raymond Carver?
Carver was an American short story writer and poet. He was known for his depiction of working class people living ordinary lives and dealing with every day darkness.
How is "Cathedral" an example of dirty realism?
Dirty realism attempts to uncover the darkness and grit hidden within ordinary lives and mundane people. "Cathedral" does this by its discussion on drinking, marijuana, relationship problems, isolation, and jealousy.
What is the central conflict in "Cathedral"?
The narrator is jealous of his wife's blind friend. He is suspicious of his blindness and doesn't want him to stay with them. He does his best to isolate himself from the man, but the two bond over cathedrals.
How did the narrator's wife met Robert?
She answered an ad in the paper and took a job reading aloud to him. They kept in touch via audio tapes over the years. He is a source of emotional intimacy for her and she details everything that's happening in her life in the audio tapes.
How does the narrator attempt to avoid conversation with Robert?
He is very abrupt when Robert asks him questions and turns the TV on when they go into the living room. His wife thinks he is rude, but the narrator is actually just scared of connection. He cares deeply and feels pity for Robert and his dead wife, but he hides his feelings behind his sarcasm and snark.
What point of view is the story told in and why is this important?
The story is told in first person point of view. This is important because it gives readers an inside look inside the narrator's mind. Readers witness his transformation from a judgmental, sarcastic anti-hero into an enlightened, transformed man.
What does the cathedral symbolize?
The cathedral symbolizes a deeper meaning and enlightenment. It is only when the narrator looks deeper into the cathedral that he realizes truths about life, others, and himself.
What are the main themes in "Cathedral"?
The main themes are intimacy and isolation, art as a source of meaning, and perception vs. sight
How does "Cathedral" use irony as a literary device?
At first, the narrator is biased against the blind man for his lack of sight. But the narrator himself lacks perceptiveness and emotional sight. At the end of the story, it is the blind man who helps the narrator to see the world more clearly.
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