Raymond Carver 1981
The first publication of the short story “Cathedral” was in the March, 1981, issue of Atlantic Monthly. It was selected to appear in The Best American Short Stories, 1982, and became the title story in the 1983 collection, Cathedral. This volume was very well-received by critics and readers alike, receiving nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Many critics note a shift in Carver’s work between the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral, and many believe that Carver reached the zenith of his career with this collection. Adam Meyer, in his book, Raymond Carver, argues that “Carver is at the height of his powers here, having arrived at his full maturity, and Cathedral as a whole is certainly the most impressive of his collections.”
“Cathedral,” like many of Carver’s other stories, portrays individuals isolated from each other for a variety of reasons. The narrator drinks too much and seems unable to adequately communicate with his wife. The wife has earlier tried to commit suicide because of loneliness. Only the blind man, Robert, seems able to form lasting human connections. Unlike Carver’s other stories, however, “Cathedral” ends with hope; although there is no proof that the narrator will overcome his isolation, for the moment, he is in communion with himself and another human being.
Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, on May 25, 1938, to laborer Clevie Raymond Carver and home-maker Ella Beatrice Carver. At an early age, Carver moved with his family to the working-class town of Yakima, Washington. Throughout his life, he drew on his experiences in the Pacific Northwest as settings for his stories.
Carver graduated from high school in 1956 and took a job working at a sawmill. In 1957, he married Maryann Burk, who was pregnant with their first child. By the time he was twenty, Carver was the father of two children. He and his wife worked menial jobs in order to pay their bills. Like many of the couples in Carver’s short stories, he and his wife lived a hand-to-mouth existence, always in fear of some catastrophe that would upset their fragile solvency.
Carver, who wanted to write, studied under novelist John Gardner at Chico State in California. Still working low-paying jobs to support the family, he managed to take enough classes to graduate from Humboldt State University in 1963. After briefly attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he moved to Sacramento, California, where he became a hospital custodian for three years. During this time, he began writing seriously and publishing his stories.
Carver suffered personal turmoil in 1967, both losing his father and filing for bankruptcy. However, in the same year, his story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” was chosen for The Best American Short Stories, 1967. Carver met with increasing success publishing his stories during the next few years. As a result, he was offered a number of teaching positions at universities. At the same time, alcohol increasingly began to affect his life. In 1976, unemployed and bankrupt, he began to drink very heavily. Carver and his wife separated and he underwent repeated hospitalizations for alcoholism.
In 1977, Carver met poet Tess Gallagher, and by 1979, the two were living together and teaching creative writing at Syracuse University. Carver’s well-received collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love appeared in 1981. With his writing flourishing and his personal life with Gallagher happy, Carver brought his drinking under control. He and his wife Maryann finally divorced in 1983.
In September of 1983, Carver published the collection Cathedral. The book marked a shift in Carver’s fiction away from the bare minimalist prose of his earlier work toward a fuller, more detailed style. Critics hailed the book as a transition in Carver’s work, singling out several stories, including the title story, “Cathedral,” for praise.
Carver began battling cancer in 1987. Nevertheless, he continued to write, publishing his last major collection, Where I’m Calling From, in 1988. He married Gallagher in June, 1988, and died at their home in Port Angeles, Washington, on August 2, 1988.
“Cathedral” opens with the narrator telling the reader in a conversational tone that a blind friend of his wife’s is coming to visit them. The narrator is clearly unhappy about the upcoming visit. He then flashes back to the story of how his wife met the blind man when she worked for him as a reader. At the time, she was engaged to marry an officer in the Air Force. When she tells the blind man goodbye, he asks if he can touch her face. The touch of his fingers on her face is a pivotal moment in her life, something the narrator does not understand.
Although his wife has maintained contact with the blind man for ten years, this will be the first time she has seen him since her marriage, subsequent divorce, and remarriage. Robert, the blind man, has just lost his wife and will be traveling to Connecticut to visit with her family. Along the way he will spend the night at the home of the narrator and his wife. His wife tells the narrator that Robert and his wife, Beulah, were inseparable. The narrator further denigrates the blind man by considering how dreadful it must have been for Beulah not to have been seen by the man she loved.
When Robert arrives, he visits with the narrator’s wife; the narrator observes them, but only occasionally joins in on the conversation. They all drink heavily and eat a large dinner, complete with strawberry pie. After dinner, they drink more, and the narrator continues to observe. Finally deciding that the blind man is “beginning to run down,” the narrator turns on the television set, much to his wife’s dismay. She leaves the room to get on a robe, and Robert and the narrator share a marijuana cigarette, again much to his wife’s dismay.
The narrator’s wife falls asleep and the narrator is left with Robert and the television. The narrator
attempts to describe what he sees on the television; however, when a cathedral appears in a documentary, the narrator is unable to find the words to describe it.
Robert asks the narrator to get some paper and a pen so that they can draw a cathedral together. The narrator does as he is asked. When he returns, he gives the paper to Robert who feels the size of the paper. Then Robert places his hand on the hand of the narrator that holds the pen. “‘Go ahead, bub, draw, “he said. ‘Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you.’”
The drawing goes on and on. Finally, Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes, and continue to draw. At this moment, something strange happens to the narrator. “It was like nothing else in my life up to now,” he tells the reader. Even when Robert tells him to open his eyes, he keeps them closed. Something has happened to him that has changed his understanding of life. “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” No longer hostile to Robert, no longer aware of Robert’s blindness, the narrator experiences the possibility of change in his life.
The unnamed male narrator, called “Bub” by Robert, the blind man, is the protagonist of the story. The story unfolds through the narrator’s point of view. “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night,” announces the narrator conversationally in the first line of the story. The narrator is jealous of his wife’s friendship with the blind man. He is unhappy in his work and isolated from others. According to his wife, he has no friends.
The narrator is unhappy about the blind man’s visit. He seems to be uncomfortable with the notion of blindness, with his wife’s connection to the man, and with his own inability to relate to other human beings.
After an evening of heavy drinking and pot smoking, the narrator turns on the television and begins to describe what he sees to the blind man. When clips of a cathedral appear on the screen, the narrator, ever inarticulate, is unable to describe a cathedral. The blind man teaches the narrator to “see” the cathedral through drawing.
Although she is never given a name in this story, the narrator’s wife is an important character. It is her earlier friendship with Robert that provides the catalyst for the story. As a much younger woman, she went to work as a reader for Robert in order to earn money so that she and her childhood sweetheart could be married. As an airforce officer’s wife, she moved frequently and lived in difficult conditions. Over the years she kept in touch with Robert; the connection between the two seems to be an important constant in her life. At one point after her marriage to the airforce officer and before her marriage to the narrator, she tried to commit suicide because she felt lonely and isolated. Her correspondence with Robert through the exchange of tapes continues into the present and appears to be her only outlet for her feelings.
The visit from Robert is important to her and she requests that her husband be polite. Although Page 41 | Top of Articlethe woman falls asleep before the climatic moment of the story, her earlier encounter with Robert makes possible a life-changing epiphany in her husband’s life.
Robert is the blind friend of the narrator’s wife. He is well-traveled and well-educated. Some years before, the narrator’s wife worked for him as a reader and they became good friends. As the story opens, Robert has just lost his wife and is traveling across the country to see his wife’s family. He arranges to spend the night with the narrator and his wife. While at the narrator’s house, Robert reveals himself to be a patient, kind man, someone who cares deeply for the narrator’s wife. Even when the narrator is rude to him, Robert continues to be pleasant and outgoing.
Robert and the narrator share many drinks and smoke marijuana together. After the narrator’s wife falls asleep and the narrator turns on the television set, Robert asks the narrator to describe a cathedral to him. When the narrator is unable to do so, Robert asks him to draw one for him. Robert places his hand on the narrator’s hand as he draws, and in so doing, teaches the narrator how to experience a cathedral. By so doing, Robert facilitates growth in the narrator.
Alienation and Loneliness
Like the characters in many of Carver’s works, the main characters experience, or have experienced, alienation and loneliness. The narrator is unhappy in his work, jealous of his wife, and unconnected to other human beings. In addition to not being connected to others himself, he seems to resent his wife’s connections to other people as well. When he speaks of the impending visit by the blind man he states, “I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. . . . A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.” Further, once Robert arrives at the narrator’s home, the narrator makes no special effort to engage him in conversation. He prefers to remain isolated and observe. Indeed, as the conversation lags, the narrator turns on the television, an act that is not only rude, but one that provides evidence of the narrator’s complete disengagement with his wife and her friend.
The narrator’s behavior can be judged not only through his own responses to his wife, but also through the responses he reports his wife makes to him. For example, when the narrator says to his wife that he doesn’t have any blind friends, she snaps at him, “‘You don’t have any friends. . . . Period.’”
It also seems clear that the narrator’s wife has suffered through long periods of isolation and loneliness in the past, before her current marriage to the narrator. In the days just after she worked for Robert as his reader, she was married to an Air Force officer and was forced to move from base to base as he followed his career. At one point, she tried to commit suicide because, as the narrator reports, “. . . 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 on another step.” Her correspondence with Robert via tape recordings seems to have provided her with healing. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that her current marriage to the narrator provides her with the human contact she so obviously yearns for. As she tries to prepare the narrator for the impending visit she pleads, “‘If you love me . . . you can do this for me. If you don’t love me, okay.’” There seems to be little certainty that she feels loved or needed by the narrator.
Of the three characters in the story, Robert, the blind man, seems to be the only one who does not suffer from alienation and isolation. This is ironic because not only is he blind, something which Carver seems to imply could stand in the way of forming human relationships, he has just lost his beloved wife. Certainly, one would assume that such a loss could engender great loneliness. However, there is no evidence for this in the story. Robert is out-going, polite, and interested in others. Although his journey is one of sadness and mourning, he nevertheless reaches out to both the narrator and his wife in an altruistic gesture of human kindness.
Change and Transformation
Both the narrator and his wife undergo change and transformation through their direct contact with Robert. Some years before the story opens, as the narrator’s wife left the employ of Robert, he asked if
he could touch her face. The narrator’s wife tries to tell the narrator the importance of this event, and even shows him the poem that she has written. Even the fact that she has written a poem about the event suggests the transformative power of the touch; the narrator says, “She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her.” The narrator, however, is unable to understand the importance of the event to his wife; he rejects her poetry, saying, “I didn’t think much of the poem. . . . Maybe I just don’t understand poetry.”
During Robert’s visit to the narrator and his wife, however, a similar circumstance seems to break through the narrator’s isolation and at least open the possibility of change and transformation in his life. The moment occurs as the blind man asks the narrator to draw a cathedral for him. Robert places his hand on top of the narrator’s as the narrator draws, and Robert encourages him every step. Finally he asks the narrator to close his eyes, and tells him to continue drawing. The narrator reports, “It was like nothing else in my life up to now.” The narrator is not an articulate man; yet his final words, “It’s really something,” at least suggest that the world has suddenly opened for him.
Creativity and Imagination
In “Cathedral,” Carver explores the role that creativity and imagination can play in the reduction of isolation and alienation in a character’s life. Early in the story, the narrator reveals his own creativity. He imaginatively describes his wife’s employment with the blind man, his wife’s attempted suicide, even the relationship between Robert and Beulah, Robert’s wife. However, although imaginative, this monologue is only shared with the reader, not with the other characters who people the story.
The narrator’s wife reveals that she values creativity and imagination as she tries to write her one or two poems a year. She has, however, found an appreciative audience for her work. She reaches out to Robert and sends him her poetry. It is as if through the figurative language of poetry, she is able to reveal to him some important truths about the life she lives.
In the final, climatic scene of the story, Robert asks the narrator to employ his creativity and imagination in drawing a cathedral. By complying with Robert’s wishes, the narrator finds himself in physical, intellectual, and emotional touch with the blind man. Through their shared imagination, the cathedral Page 43 | Top of Articlegrows under their hands and behind their closed eyes.
Narration and Point of View
One of the most interesting features of “Cathedral” is Carver’s construction of the narrative point of view. The story is told by the unnamed, middle-aged, white male narrator, and the point of view is limited to him. The reader learns of the blind man’s upcoming visit, the narrator’s wife’s previous life, and the course of the visit through the senses of the narrator. The narrator is not an articulate man; consequently, the narration is filled with gaps that the reader must fill in. In spite of the fact that the narrator controls what information the reader has, Carver provides plenty of clues to the personality of the narrator. That is, by carefully reading the story, the reader can discern things about the narrator that remain hidden even to himself. For example, although the narrator never mentions loving his wife, his jealousy is clear; he does not even want to name her first husband. In addition, it is possible to surmise that the narrator is uncomfortable with the whole notion of blindness, although he never states this directly. Finally, the use of a first-person, limited narrator allows the story to focus on the change in the narrator that occurs in the last few lines. This story is not only told by the narrator, it is also about the narrator. The change occurs almost without warning; certainly the narrator does not anticipate the epiphany that ends the story. Readers, too, are caught by surprise. Such surprise is only possible in a story where the narrative and the point of view are both tightly controlled.
In literature, an image is a device which provides a concrete, sensory description of an idea, object or character. It is also possible for an image to become symbolic in a story. In “Cathedral,” the controlling image is the cathedral. The cathedral moves from the title of the collection, to the title of the story, to the flickering image on the narrator’s television, to the brown paper bag on which the narrator draws a cathedral, to finally, the wide screen of the narrator’s imagination. A cathedral is a human construction, but a construction designed to provide a space for communion between humans and the sacred. While Carver never goes so far as to make this connection explicitly, it seems clear that his selection of a cathedral as the controlling image at least points to some religious significance. At the very least, a cathedral is an image that invites awe in viewers and readers. At the most, the image of the cathedral suggests the transformative powers that such a structure holds.
William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman in A Handbook to Literature define epiphany as “Literally a manifestation or showing-form, usually of some divine being.” They further explain that the word “epiphany” was first used as a term in literary criticism by James Joyce, “who used it to designate an event in which the essential nature of something . . . was suddenly perceived. It was thus an intuitive grasp of reality achieved in a quick flash of recognition in which something, usually simple and commonplace, is seen in a new light. . . .”
In “Cathedral” the narrator experiences such a flash of insight in the last few lines of the story. With his eyes closed and with the blind man’s hand on his own, he suddenly “sees” the cathedral he has been attempting to draw. What he sees, however, is far greater than the image under his hand. Rather, the cathedral opens the possibility of transformation in the narrator’s life. The epiphany in the story is indeed a small one; and the narrator seems unable to articulate it well. However, Carver’s style is also spare, and lean, and the epiphany he offers is in keeping with this style. Further, one of the characteristic responses to an encounter with the sacred is speechlessness, the inability to adequately put into words the reality of the experience. Consequently, the narrator’s final utterance, “It’s really something,” while nonspecific and general, points to some larger and greater intuitive leap. It is as if the narrator suddenly realizes that through contact with another person, he somehow encounters the divine.
The characters who people Carver’s short stories, including “Cathedral,” find themselves in times of diminishing expectations. In 1978, only
about 11.7 percent of the United States population was considered “poor” by government standards. The rate had steadily fallen since 1960. However, in the decade beginning in 1978, poverty once again increased. Further, in the early years of the Reagan administration, high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment reflected the recession that slowed American economic hopes. The unemployment rate in 1982, for example, was 10.8 percent. Ironically, the wealthy became wealthier during this period, while the gap between rich and poor steadily widened.
Even more disturbing, during this period those workers who were employed often earned wages that were not sufficient to raise them out of the poverty level. These people became known as “the working poor.” In 1988, 40 percent of all poor people worked without raising themselves above the poverty line. Consequently, for large numbers of Americans, the 1980s were a time of fear and trepidation: problems such as sickness, lack of transportation, or other hardship could knock an entire family into extreme economic difficulty.
Carver and his family were members of the working poor themselves. Married with two children by the time he was twenty in 1958, Carver continually found himself in poor-paying, low-status jobs. Although both he and his wife worked, their joint income barely kept the family afloat. Their problems exacerbated by Carver’s alcoholism, the family twice had to declare bankruptcy and start over.
Likewise, the characters in Carver’s short stories lead lives of near-panic. If they have work, the are generally unhappy with their jobs. Many critics describe Carver as a “blue-collar realist.” In other words, Carver’s characters are often modeled after people like himself, struggling to make relationships, break through isolation, and find hope in times of despair.
In times of recession and falling expectations, stress levels rise, alcoholism increases, and marriages falter. In Carver’s stories, disaster always seems to be just outside the pages of the book. His characters generally have jobs, although they are jobs that do not contribute to their emotional or intellectual well-being. The characters seem to float in existential despair through their lives, unable to identify why the American Dream seems to have passed them by. Certainly, alcohol and alcoholism play important roles in Carver’s stories. Like Carver himself, his characters often use alcohol as a means of escape from the stresses of their lives. Like Carver, his characters often find that alcohol renders them inarticulate and speechless.
In addition, although Carver does not generally refer to the social class of his characters, the lives they lead suggest that they are not wealthy people. Indeed, Carver has often been referred to as a “spokesperson” for blue-collar, working class people. Certainly, this is the milieu in which he himself grew to adulthood. As blue-collar, working class people, Carver’s characters often lack both financial and emotional resources. They are also people who often lack the resources to express their feelings. As Lorna Sage points out in a discussion of Carver’s prose, “Brevity was the name of his game: the people he spoke for, the white working-class Americans whose voices come over on the page haven’t got too many words, or too much of anything else.” They struggle with the minutia of daily life, trying to maintain their precarious hold on their lower middle class existence. Often their marriages are troubled. Certainly, in the United States of the 1980s, many marriages ended in divorce as a result of an easing of divorce laws in many states. In addition, the extra tension placed on individuals by recession and high unemployment rates also contributed to a rising divorce rate among the lower middle class during the time Carver was writing.
The short story “Cathedral” first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1981. The story was very well-received and was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories, 1982 before appearing as the title story in the 1983 collection, Cathedral. The story became the most widely anthologized story by Carver, and critics continued to find reasons to discuss its merits during the years following its publication.
Early reviewers of the collection singled out “Cathedral” as a story that broke new ground for Carver. Bruce Allen, for example, in a review for The Christian Science Monitor argued that the story was “the best example so far of the way Raymond Carver’s accomplished miniaturist art is stretching itself, exploring new territories.” Likewise, Josh Rubins in The New York Review of Books found, that unlike many of Carver’s earlier stories, “‘Fever’ and ‘Cathedral’ are tales of salvation, uplift wrested from the most unpromising human materials.”
Not all reviewers found Carver’s spare style to be appealing, however, in spite of the shifts they noted in Cathedral. Anatole Broyard, for example, gave the volume faint praise while identifying the “problem” with Carver’s style: “The trouble with this school of writing. . . is that it obliges the reader to be something of a semiologist, an interpreter of the faded signs of culture. The drama is always offstage, beyond the characters.”
Carver himself viewed “Cathedral” to be different from his earlier work. In a 1983 interview with Mona Simpson and Lewis Buzbee, he told his interviewers about not writing for six months after What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He continued, “And then the first story I wrote was ‘Cathedral,’ which I feel is totally different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before. I suppose it reflects a change in my life as much as it does in my way of writing. When I wrote ‘Cathedral’ I experienced this rush and I felt, ‘This is what it’s all about, this is the reason we do this.” ‘Indeed, reviewers and critics alike found that Carver’s style deepened and enlarged in the stories collected in Cathedral.
In the months and years that followed the publication of “Cathedral,” the story took on ever-greater importance with academic scholars and critics and generated a variety of critical readings.
Ewing Campbell, for example, agreed with earlier reviewers that “Cathedral” represented a “new” Carver. In a book-length study of Carver’s fiction, Campbell argued that in “Cathedral,” Carver used a “rarely seen opposite of an archetypal pattern.” He further maintained that “Cathedral” “provides the rare opposite of this familiar type: a narrator who discovers a life-affirming truth without the pain.”
Kirk Nesset, in a 1994 article appearing in Essays in Literature also read “Cathedral” as the story of a man who undergoes a change. In an expanded and revised version of this essay appearing in 1995, Nesset continued to explore the way the narrator breaks through his self-isolation through the shared, non-verbal collaboration with the blind man. As Nesset argued, “It is through our collaboration with others, Carver implies, that we free ourselves from the slavery of self-absorption.”
Some critics, such as Jon Powell, focused on the hint of menace in Carver’s short stories, the sense that everything is about to fall apart from some unknown and unnamed threat. Still others found Carver’s style worthy of close study; Michael Page 47 | Top of ArticleTrussler, for example, examined Raymond Carver’s stories in the light of a larger discussion of minimalism. Finally, in a 1998 article, Bill Mullen emphasized the role that television played in the short stories of Raymond Carver. He argued that criticism of Carver’s work tends to fall into two camps: one that concentrates on Carver’s minimalism, and another that “emphasizes the social and economic milieu of Carver’s stories.” Mullen argued in his article that “a bridge may be built between the two prevailing critical views of Carver by concentrating on the ways television may be read as both a subject of and an influence on his stories.”
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is an associate professor of English at Adrian College who regularly writes and publishes critical essays for a variety of educational publishers. In the essay below, she uses reader response theory to demonstrate how readers use their imaginations to “see” the short story, “Cathedral,” just as the narrator learns to “see” a cathedral through his collaboration with the blind man.
“Cathedral” first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1981, before Carver chose to make it the title story of his 1983 collection, Cathedral. The collection, and most notably the story, was well-received by both readers and reviewers. Subsequently, the story has become one of the most frequently anthologized and most frequently taught short stories of Carver’s body of work.
The success of the story can be accounted for in several ways. A number of reviewers (and Carver himself) identify the story as a transitional moment in Carver’s career. As Adam Meyer suggests, ‘The notion that Carver’s writing underwent a shift between What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral has become a critical commonplace in Carver studies.” The bleak, bare-boned minimalist prose of his earlier work gives way to a fuller, slightly more hopeful outlook. Carver attributes the change to a change in his life. Further, virtually all reviewers laud the shift.
Anatole Broyard, who suggests that a reader must be “something of a semiologist” to understand Carver, also links him with “strong American literary traditions.” Carver’s stories, he argues, “summon remembrances of Hemingway and perhaps Stephen Crane, masters of tightly packed fiction.” Broyard, while not a fan of minimalist prose, nonetheless offers a clue as to how a reader could approach the short story, “Cathedral.”
“Cathedral” can be called an “open text.” That is, the story is a text that encourages its readers to actively participate in meaning-making; in other words, readers must act as semiologists, reading the signs that Carver leaves. The meaning of the story is not explicitly put before the reader, but rather is often hidden in the gaps of a story. The reader, by working collaboratively with the text, arrives at understanding through a cyclic process of reading and rereading the signs, trying to fill in the open spaces that are at the heart of such fiction. This kind of approach is sometimes called “reader response criticism.”
The use of a first person limited narrator is one of the ways that Carver opens the text to multiple interpretation. Although the narrator speaks conversationally to the reader, his monologue clearly is constructed through both inclusion and exclusion of details. For example, the narrator tells the reader about his wife’s past; through his inclusion of certain details, such as her suicide attempt, and the exclusion of others, such as his own feelings for her, the narrator constructs the character of his wife for the reader. However, the reader actively participates in the construction of the narrator’s wife by “reading between the lines.” Although the narrator never explicitly states that his wife is exasperated and angry with him, he gives enough details so that the reader can make that assumption. “My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn’t like what she saw,” he reports.
A second way that Carver works collaboratively with the reader in building the text is through his parallel rendering of Robert, the blind man, and the narrator, a sighted man. The rendering is, of course, ironic. Robert clearly is a man who is educated and who has traveled extensively. He has friends all over the world. In addition, he has had a deep and meaningful relationship with his wife. Although he is blind, he “sees” how to get along with others in profound and important ways. By contrast, the narrator, although sighted, does not see how his isolation damages himself, his wife, and their relationship. He is metaphorically blind to his own human relationships. When his wife drives up with
the blind man, the narrator reports, “I got up from the sofa with my drink and went to the window to have a look. I saw my wife laughing as she parked the car. I saw her get out of the car and shut the door. She was still wearing a smile. Just amazing.” In spite of the repeated references to sight in these lines, the narrator obviously is unable to see his wife in any other than the most basic, physical sense of the word. This is particularly ironic in that the narrator has just provided a long passage describing how sad it must have been for Beulah, Robert’s wife, that her husband never saw her. “. . . 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. A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved.” Although the narrator believes that he is describing the relationship he imagines existed between Robert and Beulah, the reader knows that the description more accurately describes the relationship between the narrator and his wife.
Further, later in the evening when the three characters are having conversation, the narrator decides that the blind man is “beginning to run down,” so he turns on the television. Television, of course, does not demand active participation in the same way that face-to-face communication does. The narrator prefers passively to receive impersonal visible information from a television screen than actively to participate in the two-way communication his wife and Robert share. While the narrator’s wife and Robert enjoy a rich, interpersonal relationship, the narrator excludes himself from any such relationship. He is not a willing collaborator in the human project unfolding in his living room.
The limited point of view and the ironic parallels between the blind man and the narrator set up the final scene, the moment when the narrator, Robert, and the reader work together to create a moment of meaning. The phrase, “The blind leading the blind,” seems to best describe the action of this scene. When a television documentary begins showing pictures of cathedrals, Robert asks the narrator to describe them to him. Because the narrator is unable to adequately use language to create meaning, Robert asks him to draw a picture of the cathedral on a large piece of paper. Robert places Page 49 | Top of Articlehis hand over the narrator’s as he draws. Significantly, while the narrator draws, the television goes off the air. At this moment, perhaps for the first time in his life, the narrator is actively participating in meaning-making. As Robert tells him, “‘Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub? Well, it’s a strange life, we all know that. Go on now. Keep it up.”
With Robert’s encouragement, the narrator continues to draw, finally adding people to his drawing at Robert’s insistence. “What’s a cathedral without people?” the blind man asks him. And then, surprisingly, the blind man tells the narrator to close his eyes as he completes the drawing. “It was like nothing else in my life up to now,” the narrator reports. Even when Robert proclaims the cathedral completed, the narrator keeps his eyes closed. It is as if in the darkness created by his closed eyelids that he finally “sees” the essence of the cathedral, and by extension, the essence of human life. In a moment of quiet epiphany, the narrator appears to make a shift toward active participation in life, made possible by the sightless communication he shared with Robert.
In this moment of epiphany, the reader’s experience of reading “Cathedral” suddenly seems to parallel the narrator’s experience of drawing the cathedral. Although the narrator has limited what the reader knows, the reader nonetheless actively uses imagination to construct the meaning of the story by filling in the gaps of information left out by the narrator. The details of the story such as the dinner menu, the wife’s background, and Robert’s beard, parallel the details of the cathedral such as flying buttresses, great doors, and windows with arches. And just as a cathedral becomes more than the sum of its parts, the story “Cathedral” becomes more than the sum of its details. The collaborative imaginative effort undertaken by the reader, the text, and Carver himself produces a moment of human understanding, a moment when options and possibilities open suddenly before the narrator, and before the reader as well.
“Cathedral” is a story that can be read and read again. Subsequent readings will never produce the same effect as the initial, naive reading; however, the act of rereading the text over time is much the same as the long, slow process of cathedral building. Each layer of bricks contributes to the transformation of hard marble to glorious transcendence. Each reading makes possible the rediscovery of the
divine in the everyday world of Carver’s working-class characters.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Chris J. Bullock
In the following essay, Bullock argues that many of Carver’s protagonists are concerned with dilemmas of masculine identity, most notably the narrator in “Cathedral.”
In “The Castle of the Self,” a chapter of his popular psychoanalytic study of the myths of masculinity, What a Man’s Gotta Do, Antony Easthope (1990) explores the way that “in the dominant myth the masculine ego is generally imaged as a military fortification, especially in the last four hundred years of Western culture.” Easthope argues that the view of ego as castle is comforting to men, because it fosters the belief that the ego can “master every threat.” Defending the castle is not the satisfactory solution it seems, though, for, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the ego is an empty place, constructed only from the “continual effort” of defending “against hostile troops and treacherous members of the garrison.”
It may seem strange to link the English cultural critic Easthope with the contemporary American short story writer Raymond Carver, who is most often discussed not in terms of sexual politics but in
terms of the virtues or vices of his allegedly “minimalist” style of writing, his “flatness of narrative tone, extreme spareness of story . . . [and] general avoidance of extensive rumination on the page.” However, when we shift the focus from Carver’s style to his characterization, we notice, I would argue, that many of his heroes are concerned with dilemmas of masculine identity readily illuminated by the psychoanalytic perspective that Easthope employs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Cathedral,” his best-known story, published in a volume with the same title in 1984.
“Cathedral” is a story in three sections. In the long first section, the unnamed male narrator describes awaiting a visit from Robert, a blind male friend of his wife’s; Robert’s arrival; and the progress of an evening’s eating and TV watching, up to the point at which the wife goes upstairs to change into her robe. In the brief second and longer third sections of the story, the narrator goes on to describe the development of an unexpected rapprochement between himself and the blind man, a rapprochement that concludes with the narrator drawing a cathedral on a shopping bag, with Robert’s hand riding his. The particular interest of “Cathedral” is that Carver, like Easthope in “Castle,” is portraying the masculine ego through the metaphor of architecture. Three architectural metaphors illuminate the action of the story: in the first section, the metaphors are the masculine ego as castle and as the less familiar Panopticon; in the second and third sections, the metaphor is the masculine self as cathedral. The first two metaphors I take to be implied; they seem to inform the story’s detail even though they are not explicitly used in the way that the third metaphor is. In this article I will examine the use of each of these metaphors, and then bring together the understanding of masculinity and its possibilities that they convey.
If “a man’s house is his castle,” as the popular saying goes, then in “Cathedral” the narrator’s castle is his living room, where he spends all his non-working time watching television and smoking marijuana. To understand his life there, let us return to Easthope and note his argument that
The castle of the [masculine] ego is defined by its perimeter and the line drawn between what is inside and what outside. To maintain its identity it must not only repel external attack but also suppress treason within. It will not be surprising. . . if the enemy within the masculine individual turns out to be his own femininity.
Each of the features of ego as castle mentioned here can be found in the “living room” of the narrator’s psyche.
First, the narrator’s powerful need to draw the line “between what is inside and what outside” is revealed by the anxiety and aggression the narrator displays about having a “blind man in [his] house,” a “blind man . . . coming to sleep in [his] house.” The narrator’s readiness to “repel external attack,” to make himself the sole occupant of his “living room,” has left him friendless, as we learn from his wife’s riposte when he asserts that he doesn’t have any blind friends: “‘You don’t have any friends, “she said. ‘Period.’”
The narrator’s lack of relationship extends to the relationship with his wife, as is evident not only in their sparring in the narrative present, but also in the remoteness of perspective as he tells the story of her attempted suicide a few years before:
. . . 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.
But instead of dying she got sick. She threw up. Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart and what more does he want?—came home from somewhere, found her and called the ambulance. In time, she put it all on a tape and sent the tape to the blind man. . . . Next to writing a poem every year, I think it was her chief means of recreation.
This is an account written without relationship and without feeling, an account that dismisses poetry—a form of writing likely to contain feeling—as a trivial feminine recreation. In light of Easthope’s comments on the castle, it seems plausible to read this account as a defense against “treason within,” the feminine side of the narrator.
The peculiar irony of all this defensiveness is that only emptiness is being defended. As Easthope, Page 51 | Top of Articlefollowing Freud, puts it, “The ego has no energy or libido of its own and so must draw it from its reservoir in the unconscious, the id.” In consequence
The castle of the ego depends on what is other than itself, not vice versa. Although the castle meets attacks, its only aim is to do that, so it is in the end defined by what attacks it.
The emptiness of the narrator’s living room is evident in his description of his life in it:
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.
Suppressing “treason within,” the narrator will have no relation with the unconscious, so that its energy can only find an outlet in his terrifying dreams.
Through the implied metaphor of the castle, then, “Cathedral” portrays what we might sum up as the isolation of the masculine ego, its pushing away of relationship with others and with other parts of the psyche. This portrayal of isolation is extended, qualified, and enriched by the second implied architectural metaphor in the story, a metaphor evoked by the story’s emphasis on sight and vision.
For the ego as castle, any visitor may be a potential assailant, but a blind visitor seems to pose a particularly intense threat. The narrator goes to such lengths to dissociate himself from knowledge of or acquaintance with the blind that we must suspect the presence of what psychoanalysis calls denial, the attempt to push away things that feel like “threats from the inner world.” What is it that the narrator fears about the condition of blindness? We receive an important clue when he records his failure to understand how Robert and his recently deceased wife Beulah can have been “inseparable . . . my wife’s word, inseparable”
They’d married, lived and worked together, slept together—had sex, sure—and then the blind man had to bury her. All this without his having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding. . . . Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. . . . She could, if she wanted, wear green eye shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks and purple shoes, no matter.
In this passage the narrator is claiming sympathy with the blind man’s wife, but more evident is the unconscious fear that a woman unseen has escaped control and can express herself in whatever way she pleases.
The narrator’s fear of blindness, then, suggests that control through vision is an important part of the functioning of the masculine ego. The architectural metaphor that perhaps best expresses this kind of control is the Panopticon, or “inspection house” prison, proposed by Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s proposed Panopticon consisted of a circular building with many separate rooms, all of which could be surveyed continuously by the inhabitants of a tower in the middle of the circle. Michel Foucault (1979) describes the working of the building in the following way: “in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen without ever seeing; in the tower one sees everything without ever being seen.” To me the Panopticon is a wonderful metaphor for the position from which the narrator provides the account of his wife’s attempted suicide. The figures in the story—the wife, the officer, the blind man—seem a long distance away, tiny separated figures, observed by a detached, all-seeing eye. They might as well be figures on the screen of the television, which is the narrator’s own “chief means of recreation.”
As implied metaphor for the masculine ego, the Panopticon, like the castle, suggests the isolating tendency of that ego, here represented by the distance between observer and observed. The Panopticon suggests even more powerfully than the castle does the problematic nature of the power achieved by living in this masculine “building.” Foucault describes the Panopticon as a machine, a “mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form.” The tower is part of the machine, part of the prison, and the mechanism “also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers.” As implied metaphor in the story, the Panopticon suggests the imprisoning quality of the masculine attempt at control through vision. The tiny figures on the television may seem at the narrator’s beck and call, but he spends every evening observing them, trapped in a mechanism of which he is unaware.
If the first section of “Cathedral” develops a portrayal of the isolating tendency of the masculine ego and its attempt at a power that is really more an imprisonment, the remainder of the story signals a shift in direction. The narrator, apparently reassured by Robert’s failure to fit his stereotypes of the blind, admits that he is “. . . glad for the company” of the man. Late at night, the only entertainment the television offers is a program on cathedrals, and when the narrator tries to explain what a cathedral looks like, Robert suggests the narrator draw a cathedral and he will follow the narrator’s hand with his own. The narrator is reluctant at first but eventually Page 52 | Top of Articledraws with an energy leading him to acknowledge that “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” Our earlier discussion of the narrator’s house and living room as metaphors for the masculine ego makes it clear that here, at the end of the story, the narrator is acknowledging a moment of release from living according to the dictates of the isolating ego. Drawing a cathedral, then, becomes a metaphor for building, or at least designing, a kind of masculinity different from the masculinity of the castle or the Panopticon. As we follow the unfolding of the third section of the story, we can see each element required in the design of this piece of Utopian architecture.
The first thing that the two men see on the television at the start of the third section is
a group of men wearing cowls . . . being set upon and tormented by men dressed in skeleton costumes and men dressed as devils. The men dressed as devils wore devil masks, horns and long tails. This pageant was part of a procession.
This procession is itself a very rich metaphor. For one thing, it picks up the repeated emphasis that on the outside of the cathedral there are “Gargoyles. Little statues carved to look like monsters” and that “Sometimes the cathedrals have devils and such carved into the front. Sometimes lords and ladies.” The struggle between the “men wearing cowls” and the “men dressed as devils” depicts the struggle between light and dark, conscious and unconscious. The cathedral’s gargoyles and devils act as reminders that the building of a valid masculinity cannot go on without the acknowledgment of the dark, of the unconscious. This is a necessary reminder to a narrator whose unconscious can only try to break through in terrifying dreams.
It may not simply be the unconscious that the narrator is denying however. The “men dressed in skeleton costumes” suggest that denial of death may also be part of the ego as castle; thus, acknowledging death may be a necessary part of the new building, the new masculinity, which the men will design. This interpretation is supported by the blind man’s response to the scene the narrator describes to him: “Skeletons,” he said. ‘I know about skeletons.’” Because Robert has recently experienced the death of his wife, he can be seen as bringing an awareness and experience of death that the new building requires.
If a connection with the unconscious and an awareness of death imply the need for the narrator to connect with rather than defend against his inner life and the physical world, the movement beyond the castle also involves regarding others as more than sources of potential assaults on the ego’s stronghold. That the narrator is making this movement is indicated by the moment of empathy when he, for the first time, betrays an interest in what is in someone else’s head. He asks the blind man
Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? If someone says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about?
The blind man responds by telling him what he has just heard on television: that “generations of the same families worked on a cathedral” and that the “men who began their life’s work on them . . . never lived to see the completion of their work.” Both the narrator’s empathy and Robert’s response indicate the obverse of the ego ideal of tightly defended, self-sufficient masculinity that Easthope criticizes so effectively; they indicate a communal and historical project. To put the point in its simplest form, the very fact that the narrator needs the blind man as a catalyst for his development proves that men, like cathedrals, “have to have these supports. To help hold them up, so to speak. These supports are called buttresses.”
Why do men and cathedrals need supports? Because, as the narrator puts it, “They reach way up. Up and up. Toward the sky.” And they reach “toward the sky” because “In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life.” Presenting the designing of an alternative masculinity through the metaphor of a religious building indicates the need for a religious or spiritual dimension to this design. But the presentation of this need is non-doctrinal; we are merely aware that the blind man is ready to bow his head when he expects grace and that he agreed to a church wedding with his wife.
Before the drawing, the designing of an alternative masculinity, can begin, the narrator must change his isolating orientation by finding, metaphorically of course, his connection to his inner life, to mortality and the physical world, to others, and to a spiritual dimension. For the drawing itself one more thing is required: a relation to the feminine. I noted earlier, following Easthope, that the narrator’s suppression of inner life was also a suppression of femininity and poetic expression, regarded as feminine. To speak of the drawing in relation to the feminine may seem curious, since Carver makes a point of indicating that the narrator’s wife is asleep Page 53 | Top of Articleas the process of drawing begins. However, he also notes that the narrator has no pen of his own to draw with and thus must use his wife’s pen, found “in a little basket on her table.” This is a marvelous image of finding expressive potency in the “little basket” of the feminine; furthermore, this image is not incompatible with that of the sleeping wife. The idea seems to be that the narrator must rely on his own access to the feminine rather than have his wife carry out the expressive and feeling side of life.
The conditions for the drawing are, as I have shown, extensive. Finally, in the last two pages of the story, it does begin. The drawing soon acquires a wonderful momentum of its own: “I put in windows. I drew flying buttresses. I hung great doors. I couldn’t stop. The TV station went off the air.” The narrator then pauses. The blind man feels the picture with his hand, then finds the narrator’s hand again. The drawing continues. In its final stage the blind man asks the narrator to close his eyes and continue drawing; at the end of the process, the narrator, feeling he is no longer “inside anything,” thinks he will keep his eyes closed “for a little longer.”
It seems clear from this ending, in which the narrator refuses both enclosure and panoptical vision, that Carver is using the metaphor of the cathedral to present a possibility beyond the confines of the conventional socialization of the masculine ego. The message is that by moving towards the unconscious, the recognition of death, empathy with others, acknowledgment of the value of the dimension of spirit, and acceptance of the aid of the feminine, it seems possible to glimpse a masculinity that is based neither on enclosure nor on control by continual vigilance.
How attainable is the new masculinity imaged in the cathedral? Treating masculinity as architecture emphasizes the importance of socialization, of that which is built rather than simply given. In both Easthope and Foucault, the constraining aspect of the metaphor predominates; there seems little chance of breaching the modern fortress-prison. Carver offers a more optimistic vision. His narrator, initially presented as firmly under the constraint of castle and Panopticon, receives the help of a mentor and is able to take one of the mechanisms of constraint—the television—as the source of an image of alternatives. Carver’s point seems to be that what is built can be differently built, however constrained the conditions. Thus “Cathedral” offers an encouraging lesson for modern men struggling themselves with the architecture of masculinity.
Source: Chris J. Bullock, “From Castle to Cathedral: The Architecture of Masculinity in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’,” in The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 2, No. 4, May, 1994, pp. 343-51.
In the following excerpt, Cushman compares “Cathedral” to D. H. Lawrence’s “The Blind Man,” discussing the manner in which Carver’s work is influenced by Lawrence and how Carver “rewrites” the ending of “The Blind Man,” allowing a “communion” between the blind and the sighted to take place.
Anyone who reads Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” the title-story of his 1983 collection, with a knowledge of D. H. Lawrence’s short stories might easily conclude that “Cathedral” is a shrewd, intriguing rewriting of “The Blind Man.” Carver’s tale presents a scrambled reprise of the crucial elements of Lawrence’s great story. Lawrence’s triangle of characters consists of a blind husband (Maurice Pervin), his wife (Isabel), and the wife’s sighted friend (Bertie Reid). In “Cathedral,” the unnamed husband and wife are sighted, but the wife’s visiting friend (Robert) is blind. The interplay of husband, wife, and visitor comprises the slight action of both stories. Both “The Blind Man” and “Cathedral” conclude with a potentially transforming act of ritual communion between the two men. The husband in “Cathedral” genuinely enters Robert’s world of blindness; Maurice Pervin does not realize how badly his attempted communion with Bertie has failed. The evidence seems clear: Carver uses Lawrence’s story as the scaffolding for his own.
“Cathedral” is typical of Carver’s stories in presenting trapped characters leading lives at once banal and nightmarish. As in W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “the crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” Carver is a master at presenting what Gary L. Fisketjon has called the “terrifying implications of Normal Life.” As Joe David Bellamy has put it, “[b]eneath the surface conventionality of [Carver’s] salesmen, waitresses, bookkeepers, or hopeless middle-class ‘occupants’ lies a morass of inarticulated [sic] yearnings and unexamined horrors; repressed violence, the creeping certainty that nothing matters, perverse sexual wishes, the inadmissible evidence of inadequacy.” With failed communication and missed connections so ubiquitous in Carver’s stories, the mysterious but unmistakable oneness experienced by the husband and Robert at the end of “Cathedral” has a powerful impact,
especially since the story concludes the collection. Indeed, beginning with “Cathedral,” Carver’s work became somewhat less bleak and chilly.
In “Cathedral,” Carver enigmatically dramatizes the possibility of human change and redemption. This element of “Cathedral” is made all the more compelling by the awareness that Carver is rewriting the end of Lawrence’s story, where no real communion takes place. One story resonates against the other. “Cathedral” offers a complex critique of “The Blind Man” even as it draws upon it. Chalk up one more striking example of Lawrence’s influence on contemporary fiction writers.
This argument is vitiated by one major flaw. Raymond Carver wrote me in autumn 1987 that though he “had read those three or four stories of [Lawrence’s] that are always anthologized—The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” and ‘Tickets, Please’ and one or two others,” he had not read “The Blind Man” when he wrote “Cathedral.” Carver does acknowledge that when he read “The Blind Man,” not long after writing “Cathedral,” he liked Lawrence’s story “a good deal.” He even had his students at Syracuse read “The Blind Man” “in the fall term of 1982 (when [he] first read the story).” Still, he does not “recall noticing any, or many, similarities” to his own story when he read “The Blind Man.” He also supplies a fascinating account of the genesis of “Cathedral”:
The thing that sparked the story was the visit of a blind man to our house! It’s true. Well, stories have to come from someplace, yes? Anyway, this blind man did pay us a visit and even spent the night. But there all similarities end. The rest of the story was cobbled up from this and that, naturally. . . .
Though Carver had not read “The Blind Man” when he wrote “Cathedral,” he nevertheless produced a story that resides within the intertextual orbit of “The Blind Man.” The stories speak to and illuminate one another. Fredric Jameson, commenting on Lawrence Kasdan’s movie Body Heat (which he sees as a new version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice), notes that “our awareness of the pre-existence of other versions, previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself, is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure.” “The Blind Man” is similarly present in our response to “Cathedral”—and vice versa.
Both “The Blind Man” and “Cathedral” associate blindness with a greater depth of being than is possible in the rational, limited sighted world. Over the centuries, the blindness trope has importantly signified the distinction between sight and insight. In classical mythology, the blind seer Tiresias perfectly embodies this tradition. When Oedipus gouges out his eyes, he is violently dramatizing his hard-won knowledge that all along he had been “blind.” His decision literally to blind himself contains a triumphant element, for the deeper understanding associated with blindness is to be preferred to the superficial grasp of reality associated with sight. The blinding of Gloucester in King Lear follows the same paradigm: paradoxically, Gloucester can “see” only after being blinded. Mr. Rochester is temporarily blinded at the end of Jane Eyre while selflessly trying to rescue his mad wife from the burning Thornfield Hall. Again blindness is associated with greater insight.
“The Blind Man” and “Cathedral,” each in its own way, draw on this blindness trope, for Lawrence’s blind Maurice and Carver’s blind Robert see more deeply than their sighted counterparts. In “The Blind Man,” blindness is associated with instinct and the unconscious; in “Cathedral,” it finally represents an experience of self-abnegation and shared transcendence. Both tales rewrite a story central to the Western tradition. Both are rooted in the same cultural and literary heritage. . . .
“The Blind Man” is actually a parable of unintegrated being, of the impossibility of bringing together body and mind, darkness and light.
Carver’s “Cathedral” lacks such allegorical resonances, but it reads like a dream-image of Lawrence’s story. As in “The Blind Man,” the intrusion of a visiting outsider breaks an imperfect marital equilibrium. As in Lawrence’s story, Carver’s characters eat together and talk inconsequentially while the husband grows jealous and uneasy. The husband is insecure; the wife feels that something is lacking in her marriage. The Page 55 | Top of Articletension generated by “Cathedral,” like that in “The Blind Man,” is resolved by a surprising ending. Carver’s story is also like Lawrence’s in developing a fundamental dialectic between sight and blindness.
The husband narrates “Cathedral,” providing the story with the off-hand, colloquial texture characteristic of Carver’s fiction. Robert, the blind man who is an old friend of the narrator’s wife, does not conform to stereotypes of blindness. He has a beard and a booming voice, his clothes are “spiffy”; he does not use a cane or wear dark glasses; he owns two television sets. Like Bertie Reid, the husband is uncomfortable with the other man’s blindness: “his being blind bothered me.” The narrator perceives the visitor as a threat.
The three people drink lots of scotch, they eat dinner, they smoke marijuana, they watch television (though of course the blind man cannot see). The wife falls asleep on the sofa as her husband and the blind man watch a late-night television program about medieval cathedrals. Robert asks the narrator to describe a cathedral to him—not an easy task. The narrator soon gives up, remarking that “cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing.” Robert then suggests that they “draw [a cathedral] together”: “He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. ‘Go ahead, bub, draw,’ he said.” Though the narrator is “no artist,” he starts drawing and can’t stop. “You got it, bub,” encourages the blind man. The wife awakens, but the husband continues to draw. Robert asks him to close his eyes, and he does. The blind man’s “fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.” The story ends enigmatically:
I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.
The submerged erotic tension of Lawrence’s story is closer to the surface in “Cathedral.” The narrator, emotionally estranged from his wife, is unable to make human contact with anyone. He conceals his self-pity behind cynical humor, meanwhile keeping everyone at a distance. Jealous of his wife’s first husband, the “man who’d first enjoyed her favors,” he is also jealous of her blind friend, who years ago had said goodbye to her by touching “his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck!” The husband’s jealous feelings are probably not misplaced: “My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn’t like what she saw.”
The husband attempts to deaden his inner pain by pursuing various forms of sensory oblivion with his wife: the heavy drinking, marijuana smoking, and “serious eating”: “We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed that table.” Bertie Reid is effete and intellectual, the husband in “Cathedral” is crude and unintellectual, but both reveal the limitations of sightedness.
The wife also seeks oblivion, for she too finds herself in a bad way emotionally. Like Isabel in “The Blind Man,” she is an in-between character. This different woman suffers from aimlessness and anomie. Her suicide attempt at the breakup of her first marriage tells us that, unlike her husband, she at least does not hide from her emotions. She also writes poetry in order to confront and examine her life. (In contrast, the husband remarks sourly that poetry is not “the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read.”) Her happiness over her old friend’s visit also demonstrates her openness to human contact. The husband notices that she is “wearing a smile” when she returns from the train depot with the blind man. “Just amazing,” he says. She is one of the walking wounded, whereas her husband is one of the living dead. . . .
Raymond Carver has said that “Cathedral” is “totally different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before.” When he wrote the story, he “experienced this rush and I felt, ‘This is what it’s all about, this is the reason we do this’.” The “opening up” Carver experienced in writing the story is most strikingly reflected in the conclusion, which, as I have shown, powerfully rewrites the communion scene in “The Blind Man.”
The details of touch in the two stories are similar. Maurice Pervin covers Bertie Reid’s hand with his own, pressing the “fingers of the other man upon his disfigured eye-sockets,” and Bertie stands “as if in a swoon, unconscious, imprisoned.” In contrast, in “Cathedral” when Robert’s fingers “rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper,” “[i]t was like nothing else in my life up to now.” Though the end of Carver’s story is cryptic, there is no denying the oneness experienced by the two men in their community of touch and darkness.
It is no accident that the narrator and Robert draw a cathedral—a fact beautifully underscored by Carver’s choice of title—for the implications of the story are somehow religious. Tellingly, the blind man asks if the husband is “in any way religious.” Page 56 | Top of ArticleHe responds, “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard.” Yet the shared experience at the end of the story offers a glimpse of religious belief. When the two men draw together, making physical contact, one blind and the other with his eyes closed, the narrator experiences transcendence, an experience “like nothing else in my life,” an experience in which he does not “feel like I was inside anything.” The story even conjures up a vision of lost religious community when the blind man tells the narrator: “Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?”
Lawrence’s world of darkness is sacred but insufficient, for the darkness cannot be reconciled with its necessary antithesis. When Maurice forces the sighted Bertie to enter his all-encompassing darkness, he destroys him. In contrast, the narrator of “Cathedral” truly enters Robert’s darkness, and that darkness is redemptive.
“The Blind Man” communicates the unavoidable separateness between people. Sixty-five years later, Carver reimagines the story and finds a way to dramatize the possibility of renewed, revitalized human contact, to suggest that the barriers between self and self can be broken down. The story perfectly embodies Carver’s remark that though he was not religious, he had to “believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection.” At the end of “Cathedral,” the bruised, strung-out, cynical narrator has reentered the human community. Lawrence may have considered himself a “passionately religious man,” but he believed in struggle and commitment, not miracles. Resurrection never comes easily in Lawrence’s works.
No doubt “Cathedral” had a personal dimension for Raymond Carver. He had much to overcome en route to becoming one of America’s best, most influential short story writers: estrangement from wife and children, long years of dreary jobs, difficulty in getting established as a writer, a terrible history of alcoholism, before lung cancer finally killed him at the age of 50. The haunting affirmations of “Cathedral” reflect the hopeful upswing in the last decade of Carver’s life as much as the change in his way of writing. These affirmations connect with the sense of moral certitude he articulated in 1981, proclaiming that “in the best novels and short stories, goodness is recognized as such. Loyalty, love, fortitude, courage, integrity may not always be rewarded, but they are recognized as good or noble. . . . There are a few absolutes in this life, some verities, if you will, and we would do well not to forget them.” Such absolutes and verities were unavailable to the author of “The Blind Man” two generations earlier, no matter how strenuously he sought them. “Cathedral,” which yearns for absolutes, contains “The Blind Man,” which denies that absolutes are possible.
Both “The Blind Man” and “Cathedral” are spun out of one of the hoariest cliches of our culture: love is blind. In “The Blind Man,” Maurice Pervin’s blindness finally convinces us of our irredeemable loneliness. But to love in “Cathedral” is to become blind: to enter the darkness, to respond instinctively, to abnegate self. Though Carver had not read “The Blind Man” when he composed “Cathedral,” how brilliantly he has rewritten Lawrence’s story.
Source: Keith Cushman, “Blind, Intertextual Love: ‘The Blind Man’ and Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’,” in D. H. Lawrence’s Literary Inheritors, edited by Keith Cushman and Dennis Jackson, Macmillan, 1991, pp. 155-66.
Arthur M. Saltzman
In the following excerpt, Saltzman discusses the development of the narrator in “Cathedral.”
[“Cathedral”] opens with the narrator explaining his consternation at learning that, following the death of his wife, a blind man is coming to stay at his home. His resistance to the idea is partly due to the awkwardness he anticipates—he has never known a blind person, and “in the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed”—and partly due to the fact that the man, an old friend of the narrator’s wife and with whom she has conducted a longstanding relationship of mailed tape recordings, represents a part of his wife’s life that excludes him. She had been a reader for the blind man during the time of her relationship with her childhood sweetheart, a United States Air Force officer-in-training, which ended in his departure and her bungled suicide attempt. Both her lover and Robert, the blind man, were incorporated into poems that her husband cannot appreciate. Now the narrator is reluctant to endure the intrusion of a man who represents a competitive part of his own wife’s life—a man who “took liberties” with her by reading her face with his hands! The awakening of his own selfishness makes the narrator sullen. He tries in vain to imagine how Robert’s wife could have stood living with a man who could never see her, and in doing so exposes his own rather repellant insularity and lack of compassion.
However, Robert turns out to be a natural-born confounder of stereotypes. He is a robust, broad-gestured Page 57 | Top of Articleman who easily gets his bearings in new surroundings: he ravages his dinner, readily accepts his host’s offer to smoke some pot, and even proves quite comfortable “watching” television. The combined influence of these activities inspires unaccustomed ease in the narrator; when his wife’s robe falls open after she falls asleep, he cavalierly reasons that the blind man is unaware, of course, and does not bother to cover her up again.
As the two men turn their attention to a television documentary about cathedrals, the narrator tries to approximate what they are like for the sake of his guest, but “It just isn’t in me to do it. I can’t do any more than I’ve done. . . . The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV.” At Robert’s suggestion the narrator gets pen and paper and together, and with Robert’s hand riding on top of the narrator’s they begin drawing a cathedral. In this way the amenities of keeping company evolve into a communal ceremony comparable to that which closes “A Small, Good Thing.” With Robert’s encouragement—“Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub? Well, it’s a strange life, we all know that. Go on now. Keep it up”—the narrator is able to let go of his inhibitions and collaborate in an expressive vision. “It was like nothing else in my life up to now,” he confesses to himself.
Eyes closed now, the narrator surrenders himself to Robert’s gentle guidance, much as Carlyle gave himself over to Mrs. Webster’s care in “Fever.” Both stories, along with “A Small, Good Thing ” and “Where I’m Calling From,” emphasize the abundant compensations of shared experience. The protagonists of these stories are not necessarily more articulate than their precursors—the narrator of “Cathedral” can only come up with “It’s really something” to appreciate the spiritual climax of the story—but they are available to depths of feeling they need not name to justify. If the images that conclude the richest stories in Cathedral are gestures by heavy hands—the breaking of bread against suffering or the unblinding of the blind—they begin to establish a basis for conduct beyond the limits set by stylistic austerity or introversion clung to like some ethical stance. A blind man whose wife has died and a man who admits that he does not believe in anything join together to create a cathedral. It is neither perfect nor complete, but the process is encouraging and adequate for now. Robert’s belief in the concluding story is known throughout the volume: it is a strange life. The most sympathetic, most human of Carver’s characters “keep it up” anyway.
Source: Arthur M. Saltzman, Understanding Raymond Carver, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 152-54.
Allen, Bruce. A review of Cathedral. The Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1983, p. B4.
Broyard, Anatole. A review of Cathedral. The New York Times, September 5, 1983, p. 27.
Howe, Irving. A review of Cathedral. The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1983, pp. 42-3.
Meyer, Adam. Raymond Carver, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995, pp. 182-183.
Mullin, Bill. “A Subtle Spectacle: Television Culture in the Short Stories of Raymond Carver.” Critique, Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 99-114.
Nesset, Kirk. “Insularity and Self-Enlargement in Raymond Carver’s Cathedral.” Essays in Literature, Volume 21, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 116-29.
Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study, Ohio University Press, 1995, p. 71.
Powell, Jon. “The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty.” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 647-56.
Rubins, Josh. A review of Cathedral. The New York Review of Books, November 24, 1983, p. 40-2.
Sage, Lorna. A review of Elephant. The Observer, August 14, 1988, p. 41.
Simpson, Mona, and Lewis Buzbee. An interview with Raymond Carver. In Conversations with Raymond Carver, Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull, editors, University of Mississippi Press, 1990, pp. 31-52.
Trussler, Michael. “The Narrowed Voice: Minimalism and Raymond Carver.” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 23-37.
Barth, John. “A Few Words About Minimalism.” The New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1986, pp. 1-2, 25.
In this brief article, Barth offers a definition for minimalism and attempts to place it within a social and cultural context.
Runyon, Randolph Paul. Reading Raymond Carver, Syracuse University Press, 1992.
A chapter-length discussion of the collection, Cathedral, with a section dedicated to the short story “Cathedral.” Runyon argues that the stories of Cathedral need to be read together, as a whole, because they “create together what they could not have done by themselves.”
Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Raymond Carver. University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
A good introductory critical survey of Carver’s work; contains a chapter-length discussion of Cathedral as well as a useful annotated bibliography.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2695300014