Cathedral by Raymond Carver Essay

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Raymond Carver, "Cathedral"

Raymond Carver's short story "Cathedral" is narrated in the first person by the unnamed protagonist, and tells a deceptively simple story: the narrator's wife (also unnamed) has invited her former employer Robert, an older blind man recently widowed, to come for dinner and stay the night. The husband is resistant to the social occasion, but goes through with it -- although his narration makes us privy to his thoughts (which are occasionally marked by a low-level hostility) or else offers wry and laconic descriptions of his own statements and behavior. Eventually after consuming several scotches and some "dope you can reason with," the wife falls asleep on the sofa leaving the protagonist in conversation with the blind Robert, eventually leading to the muted but bittersweet conclusion of the story. Yet Carver carefully employs the first-person perspective of the narrator to demonstrate -- almost beyond his own self-awareness -- to dramatize the protagonist's evolution over the course of the story. I hope to demonstrate the ways in which Carver uses the devices of fiction within the difficult feat of allowing the protagonist to tell (if not fully comprehend) his own story.

The opening paragraph demonstrates that Carver's narrator may be somewhat ungracious, but he is also possessed of a mordant wit. After a few sentences sketching the basic premise of the story's plot, we are faced with details of language that beg the question of whether the narrator is being consciously witty, or merely self-conscious. The very idea of his wife's reunion with the blind Robert seems to provoke in him phrases which at first glance seem like plain idiomatic speech but which may very well be more pointed: he notes that his wife "hadn't seen" Robert in a long time but "she and the blind man had kept in touch." Although he resists making these jokes more obvious -- to suggest that his wife hadn't seen Robert in a long time, but Robert hadn't seen her at all, or to point out that "keeping in touch" is an appropriate idiom for a man who once groped his wife's face (and will engage the narrator in a similarly tactile encounter before the story's end) -- I think the buildup in the opening is deliberate. The language of friendship here calls attention to Robert's disability, and the husband's half-suppressed jealous reaction to his wife's attentiveness to Robert, but it is followed immediately by the blunt admission that "his being blind bothered me" but excuses it by suggesting that "my idea of blindness came from the movies." Again, I think this is meant to conjure the sensation of inappropriate behavior: do blind people go to the movies? (We will learn in the course of the story that Robert does in fact own a television.) Carver closes this flurry of images with the curtly dismissive closing line of the paragraph, "A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to." Again, the simple word "look" is unremarkable in most contexts, but when describing the narrator's anxiety about socializing with a man who is unable to "look" at all, it leaps off the page as an indicator of either inadvertent or nervous comedy. Since Carver is careful to depict the narrator as being relatively intelligent -- enough to use words like "cannabis" or "cowls," "gargoyles" and "frescoes" or even the self-conscious if slightly archaic euphemism like "enjoyed her favors" while making small-talk -- I think we can rule out the notion that Carver's narrator is unaware.

His awareness does increase, though, over the course of the story as the narrator's awkwardness begins manifesting itself in more obviously disruptive comments or behavior. When the wife remarks that Robert's widow was named Beulah, the narrator asks "Was his wife a Negro?" The implication here seems to be that perhaps the blind man might not have actually known. But when Robert actually enters and the narrator must greet him, the narrator discovers that his own anxieties about communication with this stranger are tripped up by an accidental panic over saying the wrong thing. In the midst of pleasantries about Robert's five-hour journey north from Connecticut to the narrator's home, the narrator, groping for small talk, immediately thinks to ask the one thing about which he feels knowledgeable: "Which side of the train did you sit on, by the way?" But he must cut short this line of inquiry when he realizes that the chief advantage -- a view of the Hudson river as one rides either north or south -- is lost on a blind man. This leads to more open and obvious misbehavior on the part of the narrator, who immediately begins making faces ("my wife…looked at me. I had the feeling she didn't like what she saw"), turns on the TV, and seemingly goes out of his way to discomfort Robert, out of a seeming jealousy over Robert's former attachment to his wife. The strange intimacy of the facial touching haunts him, but it should be plain that the narrator may very well be right that Robert was flirting: he did, after all, end up married to the woman who replaced his wife as Robert's secretary. He certainly behaves as though he is jealous of Robert, when he describes his wife's simple recounting of her (entirely chaste) employment with Robert as "more detail than I cared to know." The turning on of the TV seems particularly passive-aggressive in the context of the wife's long conversation with Robert about their past history: "they talked of things that had happened to them -- to them! -- these past ten years." The rhetorical repetition of the phrase "to them" not only sums up the narrator's sense of exclusion, but also encapsulates his paranoia that in some way his wife and Robert comprise a couple on their own -- perhaps they are, with all the force of the narrator's incredulous and dismissive exclamation mark, a "them."

Yet the climactic event to which the story builds is one that will permit the narrator to overcome his waspish territoriality and experience to some extent the connection that his wife had felt with Robert. The aggressive maneuver of turning on the TV turns into an experience of "watching" television with a blind man. But as the narrator gapes at the images of vast and complicated cathedrals, it suddenly strikes him that he is having this experience alone -- Robert is content to listen to the program and "learn," but he does not actually know what a cathedral looks like. The narrator does, but soon realizes that a cathedral represents something that Robert will never see. Yet the TV's voiceover has proved, in a neat reversal of the way images of sight and insight are presented here, that to some extent the cathedral is a thing that the narrator will most likely never experience firsthand either: the narrator suddenly works up his courage to ask Robert if he even knows what a cathedral is: "Do you know the difference between that and a Baptist church, say?" But Robert's response is hauntingly evocative: "The men who began their life's work on them, they never lived to see the completion of their work." Yet soon Robert asks -- in the most delicate way possible -- whether the narrator is "in any way religious." The narrator responds laconically to us: "I shook my head. He couldn't see that, though." However Robert's elaborate mannerliness seems to thaw the narrator somewhat, who finally admits his lack of faith.

This results in the strange and almost religious revelation of the story's closing pages. Robert suggests the narrator get "some heavy paper" (he uses a brown paper bag) and a pen in orer to draw a cathedral, and Robert will put his hand on the…[continue]

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