Literature Analysis: Cathedral by Raymond Carver
“Cathedral” is a short story, written by Raymond Carver in the year 1981. The story is narrated in the first person, by a man whose wife used to read for a blind man, Robert. Carver (1981) says, “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night” (p. 1).” Notably, the story does not reveal the name of the speaker but uses him to reveal a number of issues that can be interpreted by the audience. When the narrator says: “My wife filled me in with more detail than I cared to know” (p. 2370), it clearly shows his endeavor to avoid any engagement with the story in which he plays a key role.
Keen (2006) argues that a first-person narration readily evokes feelings that are actually more convoluted than that of a third person point of view. In this story, the narrator is threatened and jealous of Robert, a blind man, for paying them a visit. This feeling is intensified by the knowledge that his wife used to work for Robert. Changing the narration to another point of view would, firstly, increase the details of the information passed on by the speaker, and probably water down the emotions elicited in the story. For instance, the phrase “She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it…” (Carver, 1983, p. 2371) is an outright indication of jealousy felt by the man in first person narration. It’s possible that these same feelings cannot be elicited in second and third person narrations.
The analysis section looks at the elements used in the story that can be established by the reader. One of the main elements that are critical for weaving a story is the theme, or the main topical issue addressed by the story. The theme is a fundamental factor in a literary work, as it helps the reader understand the message passed on by the author, or the purpose of that piece of writing. In that context, “Cathedral” contains the themes of jealousy, insecurity, equality, prejudice, and relationships or rapport between people.
Sasani (2014; 221) found that jealousy was a profound sentiment, right from the introductory part of this short story. The narrator explains that his wife was working for a blind man known as Robert, whose wife is deceased. The narrator puts on a sarcastic tone while affirming that the blind man is visiting and will spend the night at their home. The narrator further explains that Robert even managed to call the narrator’s wife from her parents’ place and agreed to meet up, even though she stopped working for him ten years ago. There is an all-pervasive displeasure at Robert’s visit; notably, due to the closeness between him and the narrator’s wife. Clearly, the narrator is not warmed up to the fact that Robert is visiting, as he pettily complains, “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to” (Carver, 1981, p. 1). It is evident that the narrator is against the closeness between his wife and Robert, and that he has been displeased by this issue over and over again. Therefore, Robert’s visit is against the narrator’s desire as it threatens the relationship with his wife.
On the other hand, Keen (2006) acknowledges that the narrator may be stereotypical and prejudicial in his judgment and reference to Robert. Firstly, he vehemently refuses to refer Robert by his name but calls him “the blind man”. At the outset, he is completely shocked and a bit upset that this man is going to be staying in his house. The narrator concentrates more on Robert’s disability and does not view him beyond it. He talks of Robert with prejudice and even seem astonished, as supported by the following excerpt.
“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…” (Carver, 1981, P. 4).
A second account of the narrator’s prejudice and stereotypical character is witnessed when he talks of Robert’s wife, asking if she was a “Negro” in a sarcastic tone. He poses this question in a manner that implies that the wife does not matter to him. Similarly, the narrator thinks, “It was a little wedding—who’d want to go to such a wedding in the first place? —just the two of them, plus the minister and the minister’s wife” (Carver, 1981, P. 2). These sentiments show how he belittles Robert’s wife to him, to the extent of calling their wedding disgusting. However, his wife tells him about the blind man wife’s name, Beulah, which makes himretaliate by saying that his wife gave him more details than he cared to know.
Moving on, the theme of relationship is prevalent in the story, as shown by the characters involved. A relationship between married people, colleagues at work, or even other institutions, shapes how people relate with each other. First, there is a strong relationship between the narrator’s wife and Robert. Sasani (2014) says that these two characters are fond of each other to an extent of making tapes for each other. They talk more frequently and are at ease with each other, indicating a strong connection between the two. Actually, the narrator says that his wife was convinced to travel in haste, by the thought of meeting Robert after ten years. He says that his wife was not hesitant; rather, she was readily agreeable to cut short her stay with her parents to meet Robert.
Conversely, the relationship between the narrator and his wife is not very smooth, as observed in the story. In the story, the narrator’s wife made him sit down, so that they may listen to a tape that she had made for the blind man. The narrator agrees to this request, but he is not warm to it. As observed, the wife does not make such tapes for the husband, and vice versa, indicating that their relationship is not well anchored. There are incidences shown where Robert touches the wife’s face, while the narrator leaves an impression that he does not get such an opportunity. Intriguingly, the narrator also wishes for such a rapport with his wife, as noted when they are listening to the tape. He waits anxiously for his name to be mentioned, but they are interrupted by a knock at their door. There is strong evidence that the narrator is detached from his wife and a social life, as he is not open to Robert’s visit.
The story also expresses the theme of equality during a turning point for the narrator after Robert makes his maiden visit. Robert begins by asking the narrator if he is religious, which he confirms he is not. Suddenly, both Robert and the narrator are watching Cathedrals on T.V. but only the narrator has the ability to see them. The narrator tries to explain what Cathedrals are to the blind man, but to no avail. Keen (2006) suggests that the act of making the narrator unable to explain a cathedral insinuates that he is also symbolically blind. Previously, the narrator chest-thumped and proclaimed that he has an upper-hand over the blind man. In a turn of events his weakness is also identified, showing the reader that the narrator has his own flaws. This event belittles the narrator to an extent where he humbles himself and a feeling of equality prevails. They both seat on the ground with the narrator closing his eyes, and with the help of Robert, he is able to draw a cathedral. As observed, Cathedral is an informative story that speaks against prejudice, stereotype, and belittling others because of their perceived or obvious weaknesses. It is important to treat each person equally and with dignity, as outlined by Raymond Carver.
Carver, R. (1981). Cathedral. Retrieved from: http://www.giuliotortello.it/ebook/cathedral.pdf
Carver, R. (1983). Cathedral. In N. Baym (ed), The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vol. E). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2368-2378.
Keen, S. (2006). A Theory of Narrative Empathy. Narrative. 14.3, 207-238
Sasani, S. (2014). Raymond Carver, Male and Female Interventions in “Cathedral. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 217-223. Retrieved from: http://www.academypublication.com/issues/past/tpls/vol04/01/30.pdf