Raymond Carver’s 1984 short story Cathedral follows the unnamed narrator’s actions and thoughts, as he hosts a blind man named Robert in his home. It is a somewhat minimalist story, whose main timeline is an evening in the narrator’s and his (also unnamed) wife’s kitchen and living room. However, the first half of the story provides an overview of the history of the relations between Robert and the narrator’s wife, as well as the latter’s relationships with her former husband. Throughout the plot, the reader witnesses how Robert and the narrator (who is named “Bub” by Robert) are getting closer to each other, a process that ends with a physical bond between the two, when the narrator tries to explain Robert how cathedrals look like.
This paper focuses on the course of change in the narrator’s behavior as the plot progresses. From being close-minded, antisocial and grumpy, the narrator gradually loses the emotional barriers and resentment towards Robert and moves towards trying a bond with the blind man, whose sight is as impaired as the narrator’s social and communications skills. As the two are getting closer, not only the narrator’s approach to the guest is changing, but also some of his views, sentiments, and sympathy.
The Narrator’s Thoughts and Actions during the Narrative
As mentioned earlier, the narrator’s personality before the main plot (i.e., Robert’s visit) revels impaired social, interpersonal and self-awareness skills. The narrator “wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit” (2533), mainly due to a negative sentiment towards blind people and a resentment for Robert’s representation of the wife’s past. One way or another, the narrator’s unaesthetic stereotype of blindness, which “came from the movies,” leads him to the notion that “a blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to” (2533).
The guest is cheerful, romantic and professionally successful, an antithesis for the narrator, who does not respect his wife’s poetry, is not satisfied with his job and has no friends. Moreover, although he feels sorry for the death of Robert’s wife, his account of the relationship between them and Robert’s gesture on her funeral – leaving half of a twenty-Peso coin – is quite cynical.
The first steps in the acquaintance between the narrator and Robert focus on breaking stereotypes about blind people. Robert is the first blind man the narrator has ever met. Suddenly, the blind man has a shape, and the human beyond the blindness begins to reveal. The narrator is surprised by the fact that Robert smokes and enjoys a drink, and is impressed by the way Robert “knew just where everything was on his plate.” (2537)
In the middle of the story, the narrator’s general negative approach approaches its turning point. After a series of rather gloomy observations and actions, the narrator, after learning that Robert has two TV sets at home, has “absolutely nothing to say.” Next, the narrator starts to be friendly, as he offers Robert to smoke dope together. First signs of generosity begin to appear.
When done smoking, the wife falls asleep, and the men continue the storyline without her almost until the end. It is how when the reader sees a significant alteration in the narrator’s mood, as he is now glad for the company. From this point on, the narrator takes the role of his wife as the primary host. While telling to Robert what he sees on the TV, the narrator’s sensitivity and behavior drastically change, and become comprehensive enough to allow the plot and the literary discussion to deal with the differences between the two men (based on their ability or inability to see) and to lead towards a catharsis:
Carver uses the cathedral motif to illustrate the differences in perception between the two men. The narrator investigates Robert’s picture of a cathedral. Robert knows the facts about them (e.g., that it took generations to build them), whereas the narrator’s associations are visual (e.g., their height). Moreover, after the narrator admits that he doesn’t find anything special about cathedrals, Carver takes us to the final journey – showing the experience of temples from a blind man’s point of view.
Towards the end of the plot, the men are drawing a cathedral on a paper shopping bag. The narrator witnesses Robert’s use of touch instead of sight to grasp the appearance of a cathedral, as he did ten years ago to feel the face of the narrator’s wife. Finally, narrator’s newly developed sympathy for the guest peaks when Robert asks narrator to close his eyes and to “take a look” (2543). On the drawn cathedral as a blind man.
The sharp contrast between the narrator’s personality before and after the course of events is a literary tool, which Carter uses to emphasize the effect of a close relationship between people. After going through several emotional stages during the story, the narrator emerges at the end of the story as an empathic person, who sees the unusual beauty of blindness. He is now much more self-aware and drops the arrogance and the cynicism, which characterized him during the first half of the story. Finally, the events are not filtered though pointless criticism, slightly touches the real experience of the moment.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 2532-2543. Print.
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