Cathedral


Author Raymond Carver (1938–1988)
First Published 1981
Locale New England
Time of Plot c. 1980
Type of Plot Domestic realism

Principal characters:

THE NARRATOR,a shy and awkward but sensitive blue-collar worker
HIS WIFE, who once worked for Robert as a reader and secretary
ROBERT, their overnight guest, a blind man in his late forties

The Story

The narrator describes a small incident in the lives of ordinary people. A blind man named Robert is coming to have dinner and stay overnight. The narrator’s wife worked for him for one summer about ten years earlier. They became friends and have continued to correspond by using cassette tapes.

The narrator, who lacks social graces, is apprehensive about having to entertain Robert. He does not know what he should do or say. Jealous of the former relationship between his wife and Robert, he is suspicious. He knows that his wife has told Robert about him and has probably complained about his faults. This makes him feel guilty, insecure, and somewhat hostile toward both his wife and Robert.

The blind man proves to be such an outgoing, amiable person that one can understand why he made such a strong impression on the narrator’s wife that she has corresponded with him for years. Despite the narrator’s conversational blunders, the two men get along well; they drink together and smoke marijuana together after dinner. Under the influence of the marijuana and alcohol, the narrator lets down his guard with Robert.

Robert’s handicap has compensations: It has made him compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded. Being dependent on others has made him trusting, and this trust leads him to reveal intimacies that he might otherwise not share. As the evening progresses and the narrator’s wife falls asleep on the sofa, he and his guest grow closer. Finally he finds himself describing a documentary about cathedrals being shown on the television screen. Robert admits that he has no idea what a cathedral looks like, although he knows they required hundreds of people and decades to build. He persuades his host to sketch a cathedral while he holds the hand moving the pen. Through this spiritual contact with the blind man, the narrator discovers artistic gifts that he has never suspected that he owns.

The narrator sheds his inhibitions and sketches an elaborate cathedral with spires, buttresses, massive doorways, gargoyles, and a throng of worshippers. It is a unique and memorable experience which forms the story’s climax. The narrator not only shares his vision with the blind Robert, but he simultaneously shares Robert’s inner vision. At the same time, both share the spiritual vision of men who lived centuries earlier and collaborated to build the beautiful, mystery-laden gothic cathedrals of Europe.

Themes and Meanings

Raymond Carver wrote mostly about the joys and sorrows of politically powerless and socially insignificant working-class people. In this respect he resembled John Steinbeck, whose best-known work is the Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Carver differed from Steinbeck, however, in having no political agenda. Steinbeck was a socialist for most of his life, believing that the lives of the masses could be improved by government intervention and by substituting faith in socialism for faith in God. Carver was remarkably apolitical in his writings; he seems to have had a healthy lower-class distrust of politicians and anyone else who did not work with their hands.

Like many contemporary minimalist writers of his era, Carver displays a nihilistic view of life. His favorite theme in his stories and poetry is alienation or anomie. The latter is the feeling that many people have of being only half alive, of being on a treadmill or in a rat race, of being trapped in meaningless jobs, of not being able to love and not being able to relate to others—perhaps especially of not being able to see any higher meaning to life.

After shedding his inhibitions through liquor and marijuana, and feeling somewhat invisible in the presence of his sightless house guest, the narrator confesses that he does not believe in religion or anything else. "Sometimes it’s hard," he says, "You know what I’m saying?" Robert replies: "Sure, I do." Although the narrator knows that cathedrals are products of a great religious faith that existed during the Middle Ages, he confesses that "cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. . . . They’re something to look at on late-night TV."

The cathedral that the narrator and Robert draw on the side of a shopping bag might be seen as symbolizing the vestiges of religious faith in the Western world. It is significant that the men copy a cathedral seen through the modern medium of television, because science and technology have been particularly responsible in undermining traditional religious faith since the Middle Ages.

The joint artistic creation of these late twentieth century men represents their pathetic wish for a spiritual life which is an unavoidable part of their humanity. These hapless strangers—one a man who hates his job, drinks too much, has no friends, and seems on the verge of divorce, the other a blind widower, a former Amway distributor with a bleak future—come together momentarily because of their common yearning for a more fulfilling and spiritually more meaningful life. The epiphany described in this story is of the smallest possible kind—a sort of "mini-epiphany" appropriate to a minimalistic story. The narrator concludes with the ambiguous understatement of an inarticulate man: "It’s really something."

Style and Technique

Raymond Carver is generally considered the leading writer of the school of fiction called minimalism, which—as its name implies—eliminates all but the most important details. Minimalists are noted for using simple language and focusing on factual statements, implying rather than attempting to explain precisely what is going on inside their characters. The reader of a minimalist story is forced to make inferences from what the characters do and say. For example, it can be inferred that the narrator of "Cathedral" and his wife are not getting along well and might be on the verge of divorce. Indeed, the most striking thing about "Cathedral" is its simplicity of language. This type of narration from the viewpoint of a simple, uneducated man creates an impression of truthfulness, as the narrator seems too nave to be dishonest or evasive.

Characteristically, Carver neither names nor describes the two principal characters and does not even reveal where the story takes place. Like other minimalist fiction writers, such as Ann Beattie, Carver deletes every word that he possibly can and even deletes punctuation marks whenever possible. The effect of minimalism is to engage one’s imagination, forcing the reader to make guesses and assumptions and thereby participate in the creative process.

In "Cathedral," as in many of his other stories, Carver uses a narrator who is a faux naf, like the narrators of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Such "nave" narrators supposedly do not understand the full import of what they are telling. This narrative device enhances verisimilitude, characterizes and creates sympathy for the narrator, and provides a basis for humor. The typical point of stories involving faux naf narrator-protagonists is that they experience events that teach them something about life or about themselves, thereby making them less nave. In identifying with the narrator, the reader vicariously experiences the learning event and feels changed by the story.

Minimalist short-story writers often write about seemingly trivial domestic incidents and tend to avoid what James Joyce called "epiphanies"—sudden intuitive perceptions of a higher spiritual meaning to life. Minimalists have been attacked as having nothing to say because they do not offer solutions to the existential problems they dramatize in their stories. In a typical Carver story, little changes; his endings might be called "mini-epiphanies." This is characteristic of minimalists, who usually display a nihilistic outlook and do not believe there are answers to life’s larger questions, such as Who am I? What am I doing here? Where am I going? Carver’s "downbeat" endings tend to leave the reader depressed or perplexed—and this is the intention. Carver tried to capture the feelings of alienation and frustration that are so much a part of modern life.

Raymond Carver has been credited with single-handedly reviving interest in the short story, a genre which had been perfected by American authors beginning with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe but had been rapidly declining in popularity and social influence with the advent of television after World War II. Some readers dislike Carver’s stories because they seem depressing or pointless. Others appreciate them because they are so truthful. He writes about working-class folk who lead lives of quiet desperation, are chronically in debt, and often drown their sorrows in drink. He tells bitter truths but has an indestructible sense of humor that always shines through. It is impossible to appreciate "Cathedral" without being aware of its offbeat humor, such as in the narrator’s offer to take the blind man bowling and his wife’s reaction to that bizarre suggestion. The subtle humor spicing this poignant story is typically Carveresque.