By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Cathedral’ is perhaps the most widely studied of all the short stories of Raymond Carver (1938-88). The story is narrated by a man whose wife has invited her friend, a blind man named Robert, to come and stay with them. Although he is initially uncomfortable and even scathing about their guest, the narrator eventually bonds with Robert and comes to realise something valuable.
You can read ‘Cathedral’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Carver’s story below.
‘Cathedral’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a man whose wife has been friends with a blind man named Robert for years, even longer than she has been married to the narrator. The narrator tells us that his wife has invited Robert to come and stay with them, after he has visited his late wife’s family in Connecticut.
The narrator outlines some of the history between Robert and his wife: how she had taken a job which involved reading to a blind man, in order to earn some extra money while her boyfriend, who later became her first husband, was going through officers’ training school. Then he tells us how, when his wife’s first husband graduated and was posted to various places around the country, his wife kept in touch with Robert, with the two of them sending audio tapes to each other which shared their latest news.
He also tells us how, in time, his wife’s first marriage broke down and she got divorced from her army husband. He also hints at a home-administered abortion, which implies that his wife was already having doubts about her long-term future with her husband. She also wasn’t enjoying the places where her husband was being posted to, and life as an army wife clearly didn’t suit her. Eventually, she met the narrator and now they are married.
Meanwhile, her friendship with Robert became stronger and stronger. Robert himself married a woman named Beulah, who died. The narrator is quite naïve and mocking about Robert and his blindness; he appears to be jealous of the close bond Robert and his wife have shared over the years. When Robert shows up, his wife is very friendly and welcoming towards him but the narrator doesn’t quite know how to interact.
However, during the course of the evening, over dinner and whiskey, the narrator and Robert slowly start to bond. When his wife goes upstairs, the narrator offers to roll a joint for himself and his guest, and Robert, keen to try something new, agrees to smoke with him. When a documentary programme about European cathedrals comes on the television, the two of them start to discuss it.
The narrator tries to describe a cathedral to Robert, who, being blind, has never seen one. But he realises that he cannot find the words to offer a good description. Robert proposes that the narrator get a sheet of paper and a pencil and that he tries to draw a cathedral. The narrator agrees to this, and as he is drawing, his wife returns downstairs and asks that they are doing.
Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes as he finishes his drawing, and then to open them and tell him what he sees. But the narrator suddenly feels different and doesn’t open his eyes. When Robert asks him if he is looking, the narrator keeps his eyes closed, but replies, ‘It’s really something.’
Raymond Carver’s work is often associated with the term minimalism, a literary technique marked by a simple descriptive style (often utilising short, clipped sentences) and spare dialogue. Carver himself expressed a dislike for this term, but we can certainly see a line between someone like Ernest Hemingway and Carver’s own short stories. And ‘Cathedral’ is as notable for what it doesn’t tell us as for what it does, and the narrator’s account of his evening spent with Robert and his wife invites us to ponder further questions.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the ending to the story, which is where most critics and students of ‘Cathedral’ focus the majority of their analysis (and speculation). While watching the programme on cathedrals and talking to Robert, who cannot see the images on the screen, the narrator comes to realise how little he has observed of the world around him. His moment of deepest insight comes at the end of the story when he closes his eyes while finishing the drawing of a cathedral.
Obviously this drawing cannot be for Robert’s benefit, as he cannot see it. Instead, inspires the narrator to realise how little he really sees of the world he lives in. Ironically, it is only by closing his eyes and ‘seeing’ as Robert does that he can realise this: it is only by closing his eyes, in other words, can he truly ‘see’.
The final words of the story, ‘It’s really something’, are neatly double-edged: on the face of it, the narrator is lying to Robert and pretending to be looking at the picture he has drawn, but of course the words carry another meaning. There is a suggestion that the narrator, having bonded with Robert and then closed his eyes, has had some sort of epiphany: a realisation or sudden coming-to-consciousness, whereby he comes to recognise something new about himself and the world.
In this case, then, what he has recognised is what it must be like for Robert. Or at least, that is one way to analyse and interpret the end of Carver’s story. But although epiphanies in fiction often involve characters reaching beyond themselves and discovering a new sense of connection and empathy with others, sometimes they are more complex and ambiguous than this.
In James Joyce’s fiction, for example, characters’ epiphanies are often more undecidably poised between generosity and self-absorption; between realising one’s connectedness to the rest of the world, and merely self-dramatising this realisation. In ‘Cathedral’, too, we may question precisely what the narrator has become aware of at the end of the story. Has he realised that he should appreciate things more, including his gift of sight? Has he realised he should be kinder to Robert and respect his wife’s friendship with this man?
There are obviously some interesting parallels between the two men. Robert had a wife he was close to but he lost her; the narrator has a wife, but in many ways he is more lonely than Robert, despite this. Both men like whiskey and, it turns out, smoking weed. They obviously have the narrator’s wife in common as the most important woman – now Robert’s wife has died – in each of their lives.
We might also question the cause of this change in the narrator. It’s possible that it’s through talking to Robert and realising how his blindness has shut out so many experiences from him that the narrator gains an awareness of how lucky he himself is to have sight, and how far he has fallen short of using the sense he is lucky to have. What point is there having sight when you are happy to go through life without ever noticing or appreciating the beauty and majesty of a medieval cathedral?
Alternatively, and perhaps more probably, it is not just Robert’s blindness – and the narrator’s realisation of how little he himself has appreciated his gift of sight – that causes this shift in the narrator at the end of the story. The narrator tells us that he does not enjoy his job. His wife reveals that he doesn’t have any friends. He is, in short, quite a lonely figure who spends his nights sitting by himself watching television and smoking weed.
It is also clear that, his own initial mockery of Robert’s disability notwithstanding, his wife is not especially sensitive to his insecurities regarding her close and longstanding friendship with Robert. It seems likely, then, that Robert is the first person in the narrator’s life, at least for a long while, who actually takes an interest in him and treats him kindly and encouragingly. The act of drawing the cathedral at the end of the story is the pinnacle of this.
In summary, then, all that is clear from Raymond Carver’s story is that the narrator undergoes some kind of change at the end. But how generous and outward-facing, as it were, and how introspective and self-motivated, this change is, remains to be decided. Carver deliberately leaves it open to us to decide.