Cathedral by Raymond Carver

As I read Raymond Carver’s Cathedral I wondered if I was projecting my own emotions onto each character. The narration is dry and unemotional, characters’ actions are described like a scientific procedure. At time I found myself smiling at the humorous and sarcastic nature of the narration.  By the end of the story I was laughing at the interraction between the husband and wife, especially when they were conversing with the blind man: “Finally, when I thought he was beginning to run down, I got up and turned on the TV. My wife looked at me with irritation. She was heading toward a boil. Then she looked at the blind man and said, ‘Robert do you have a TV?'” (2738).

I also felt that Carver was critiquing various aspects of society in the mid to late 1900s. For example, the continuous growth of technology (2742), drug use (2738-9), stereotypes of the blind (2736), negative view of interracial marraige (2735), disregard for poetry (2734), art, and (2737) religion (2741).

I think that Cathedral most strongly alludes to the way we stereotype and how we view religion. For example, on page 2737 the husband offers to pray before dinner, which throws his wife off, but instead of speaking to God he says, “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold.” Is Carver trying to tell us that many members of society only care about the here and now, or that we can’t see beyond our present concerns?

The stereotyping in the story comes mostly from the husband, but also from the wife. They wonder about why a blind man would want to smoke if he can’t see the smoke he exhales, they catch themselves asking Robert if he would like to do something that requires vision, like watch television. What do you think Carver was trying to tell us about how we use stereotypes? Do they serve to blind us from truly seeing a person beyond their surface appearances?

There is quite a bit of repetition of phrases. For example, the blind man is described to be doing things with his beard throughout the story: “He lifted his beard and he let it fall” (2740), “As he listened to me, he was running his fingers through his beard” (2741). Is it significant that the blind man has a beard, and why does the narrator describe what he does with it?

I thought the narration was especially effective in emphasizing the impatience of the characters in getting an answer from each other: “‘Your bed is made up when you feel like going to be, Robert. I know you must have had a long day. When you’re ready to go to bed, say so.’ She pulled his arm. ‘Robert?'” (2739). It seemed to me that this was a critique of our impatience and desire, as a result of high speed technology, to have an immediate response from each other. Do you agree?

At the end of the story when Robert asks the husband to draw the Cathedral without looking, what do you think the husband learns?

Does the husband have some kind of revelation at the end of the story, is he freed from the boundaries of his home life?

Do you think the husband will open his eyes again?

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5 Responses to Cathedral by Raymond Carver

  1. emcd23 says:

    The question of what the husband learns as they’re drawing the cathedral is an interesting one. Throughout the story (and following a theme that seems prominent in Pynchon as well), we keep seeing the narrator unable to communicate. He doesn’t get his wife’s poetry, at one point on page 2735 his wife responds to a question by asking if he’s craazy or drunk, he barely talks when Robert first arrives, and so on. Finally, on 2741, we find him unable to describe a cathedral. When Robert closes his eyes to draw, then, is he learning to communicate with another human being?

    If this is the message, what’s the significance of this communication not being based on external details? That is to say, communication within this story does not seem based on finding the meaning of the physical outside world; yes, they’re drawing a cathedral, but without looking, so the physical details of what a cathedral looks like hardly seem to matter. This would perhaps suggest that Robert and the narrator are communicating not through any sort of analysis about things that already exist, but through the creation of new meaning. (This thought comes especially from the borderline sexual description of their drawing on 2743: “So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”)

    So what does anybody else think? Is the narrator discovering a truth, or is the meaning he seems to find at the end of the story something that he’s helped to create himself?

    • eveon11 says:

      I think that the ending of The Cathedral could have been interpreted in several different ways. Since the narrator has such a problem communicating with others throughout the entirety of the piece, the end statement was a bit anticlimactic for me, since I was expecting more character growth:
      “I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do…I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.”
      It is obvious that the character doesn’t think he’s feeling the ‘expected’ emotion he should. The very cut and dry way it is presented, it seems as though the narrator is stuck focusing too much on expectation of an experience rather than appreciating his own actual experience, which I agree is the act of creation. We only get a glimpse into what that experience feels like to him, which he describes as “nothing else in my life up to now.”
      Perhaps the narrator does have an intimate experience in which he experiences a deeper and more unique connection with another human, but he is unable to recognize it as such. I read this to suggest that maybe he misinterprets the honest bonding as isolated within himself – once again doubting that he’s just missing the point, which is superficially, explaining what a cathedral is like.

  2. laurawelch8 says:

    I wanted to comment on eveon11’s comment on the quote “I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do…I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” I hadn’t really thought about this line that way, that he wasn’t feeling what he thought he should be feeling, but after I thought about it, this interpretation makes a lot of sense. My initial reaction to this line was that the narrator had found a way to escape all boundaries, physical and mental, by stating “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything”. Maybe through escaping these boundaries, he realizes how empty a moment in time can be. Or maybe he is simply expressing that this interaction hasn’t changed anything and that he is still just as biased and irritated by the blind man’s presence in his house. He concludes saying “It’s really something”, which could be taken as a statement to appease the blind man, sarcasm, or a true expression of what he feels at that moment.

    Since we really don’t know what happens here, I was forced to think back on our discussions of The Crying of Lot 49. In both we get no close to the events that happened, but I reacted very differently to the ending of each piece. I think that because The Crying of Lot 49 ended in the middle of an event, and event that could potentially make a big difference in everything that occurred, it was more relevant to me to have closure. I also think that this work left many more options for interpretation than The Cathedral. In The Cathedral, I felt that the ending closed at an appropriate time, leaving fewer options for interpretation. Did anyone else have a reaction like this? Are they more similar than not by ending with no closure?

  3. youngdrake says:

    “expectation of an event over appreciation of his own experience of it”

    this line form the second comment to this blog struck me as it also seems to resonate with the end of Lot 49 and how people feel about it. Many, including myself seemed to be frustrated, if not surprised, by the lack of an ending. The uncertainty at the end of the book goes against much of what many of us think of as a story/novel. Meaning a work with a beginning, middle, and end. We expect the novel to have a concrete ending and ignore the story in anticipation of its conclusion. The narrator in Cathedral has mad up his mind about his blind guest and so is constantly confronted with his prejudices/stereotypes. The act of drawing the cathedral and the end of Lot 49 are a way to pull the reader out of the normal modes of reading and to reevaluate the purpose of a story/novel.

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