April 8, 2002
"In 'Cathedral' he succeeds, seemingly without effort, in weaving the
--David Lehman, Newsweek
The short story "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver develops characters with a dualistic depth. On the surface they have believable human attitudes and attributes, but there is also a level functioning that offers another interpretation. Carver is not only creating a realistic human picture, he uses the old story of the "deliverer" and reworks it into something unique, fresh. He takes the characters and binds them in the mind of his readers in a way that leads one to feel as though there is a deeper level to his message.
The narrator is quite obviously the character that Carver wants us to see as figuratively "blind." There is a stark contrast in the blind man and the husband from the beginning. The story starts out as the young husband anticipates the arrival of his wife's friend. The reader can sense his disgust and unwillingness to understand what it is like to be blind. He worries only for himself and how uncomfortable he will be in the situation. Mental emphasis is placed on the physical aspects of things and how the narrator cannot understand how the blind man could have a wife and never see her. "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" (214).
This situation is beyond comprehension for him, how to be with someone, "without his having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like" (213) Through his short, somewhat clipped description of his wife's former marriage and attempted suicide it is clear that he is not quite in tune with her emotions. The tone in which he describes her suffering leads us to believe that his connection to her memory is limited. Therefore can he really "see" his wife as well as the blind man can? His character development is negative, and it can be sensed that there is something lacking from his perception.
The wife serves as a catalyst to bring about change in this perception by welcoming her friend into their household. Carver foreshadows that this blind man, Robert, has the power of insight through the detail in which the tape recorded episodes are described. Before Robert is even introduced into the dialogue the reader's view of him is the opposite that of the narrator-- this is emphasized by their separate relation to the woman in the story. She becomes the object from which the two men illustrate their approaches to life. The blind man opens himself up to her words, thoughts, feelings and substance. The husband relies on the surface like visual clues from her and taking things at face value. The poem that she writes about her experience with Robert is dismissed by her husband, "I can remember I didn't think much of the poem" (210). When she shares the poem with its subject communication is opens up between them. However, her role is minor in the underlying conflict of the story, which is the juxtaposition of the values embodied by Richard and by the narrator. Carver molds the husband into a disciple, one who is unwilling at first but gradually shifts his ideology.
The blind man is the classic "unwelcome visitor." The twist in that title is that he is also the prophet or savior in the story as well. His qualities can be associated with that Higdon 3 of Jesus-- kind, patient, wise, fair. He has the ability to break down prejudices with words, but at the same time his character is not unbelievable. The scene in which the two men participate in smoking "cannabis" allows the story to not become too holy to be real. He is not quite perfect, which makes him all the more real in the eyes of the reader. Interspersed in the small talk are lines like, "Learning never ends. It won't hurt me to learn something tonight" (222). It is through these open ended statements that the blind man leads his friend's husband to a realization in his life, a way to look inside himself. The young man even admits, "I guess I don't believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it's hard" (225). The prayer at the dinner table proves the narrator's disconnection with religion and his own spirituality. Much like a Biblical tale the blind man leads him into believing sometimes things can be better seen when you close your eyes and open your mind to emotion. Robert slowly draws the young man into the idea that it is him that wants to learn what a cathedral is like, that he is the one trying to learn or be shown something, but in reality it is the husband that is the object of the lesson.
Carver's style also allows his characters to have real and representative connotations. Although his sentences are seemingly simplistic and his descriptions are straightforward, he shows a conscious effort toward creating an underlying message in this story. The blind man is rarely referred to by his proper name and the narrator is never named, which is an effective technique in creating a disassociation with the characters and a focus on the subject matter or lesson that is to be taught. However, the first person narration offers a closeness to the psyche that is being altered. Therefore the two levels of the story can exist in harmony without one outweighing the other.
Although Carver's technique could be viewed as a cheap
trick, it can also be seen as a brilliant role reversal. Through utilizing
both literal and figurative metaphors, the impact of the story is both
emotional and realistic. Narrative choice is key to the success of the
main character's ultimate revelation and the reader's appreciation of the
Copyright © 2002 by Rachael Higdon. All rights reserved.