Despite its prominent placement in the title of the story, the cathedral in Raymond Carver's short story "Cathedral" takes quite a while to make its appearance. The story instead is about a marriage -- a husband and wife have a guest to dinner. Carver's story is narrated in the first person, from the perspective of the husband, so to some extent the symbolism of the story is constructed with a sort of irony: the narrator himself is not explicitly aware of the symbolism, nor does he comment upon it directly. As a result, the relationship of the central symbol of the story is more or less oblique: its significance is signposted by the story's title, but is otherwise withheld from the reader for what seems a very long time until it makes its appearance. However, I hope that, with some close reading of the story as a whole, the meaning of the story's central symbol will become apparent.
"Cathedral" is about a marriage that is fraught with rather ordinary tension. Part of the central conceit of Carver's story is that, in telling it through the voice of a first-person narrator, the reader is put in the position of having to evaluate the story as it is told, and decide the extent to which the narrator is, in fact, reliable. In other words, it might be easy to miss the full meaning of the story upon a cursory first read, if the reader is merely taking the narrator at his word. The real issue, of course, is that the narrator's denials and asides eventually begin to add up -- after so many claims that his wife's "blind man" is unimportant and that "he was nothing to me" (1), the reader eventually realizes that we should not be trusting the narrator. In reality, the narrator's attitude toward the blind man is one of suppressed jealousy: in some sense, "Cathedral" is quite nearly a story about adultery, except that the adultery has never taken place. Instead, what the blind man and the narrator's wife have shared is intimacy without sex: we learn this in the story's second paragraph, where the narrator describes how his wife's first acquaintance with the blind man (she had worked for him reading out loud) had ended with a weirdly intimate encounter, in which the blind man "asked if he could touch her face." The significance of this event -- or at least the indication that the relationship between the blind man and the narrator's wife had passed from one of co-workers to something more like an intimate friendship -- is marked by the wife's decision to memorialize the event in a poem. As the narrator says, dismissively, "she was always trying to write a poem…usually after something really important happened to her." This indicates the distance between how the narrator couches the story, and the actual significance: the fact that the wife had turned the event into a poem certainly indicates its importance to her, but what that importance might be is never examined by the narrator, who prefers at the story's opening to downplay any meaning or significance to the blind man's visit.
And yet to a certain extent we are certainly aware that the structure of the story and of the relationship between the three central characters is one that suggests a tale of adultery. This is made clear even in the earliest paragraphs of the story, when the narrator describes the wife's means of communication with the blind man. They communicate by means of tapes: "next to writing a poem every year, I think it was her chief means of recreation," he states dismissively. Yet we have already learned that the poems are used by the wife to mark important occasions in her own life, and we now have some glimpse of what meaning the exchange of tapes might have. This is not about sex, but rather about intimacy -- as the sexless intimacy of the blind man physically experiencing the wife's face earlier might indicate, what the wife enjoys with the blind man is a sense of sympathetic conversation. Because he cannot see, he is more than willing to listen. This is brought home by the narrator's account of actually listening to one of the tapes with his wife (after she volunteered it):
After a few minutes of harmless chitchat, I heard…