Realism, Comedy, Postmodernism
When the story is over, we might feel like something mystical has happened. Indeed, it has, but all within the confines of what reads a lot like reality. "Cathedral" builds around a familiar scenario – a dinner among middle-class, middle-aged people in a New York home. And seeing the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary is what realism is all about.
As you know, a "comedy" doesn't have to be funny, and not all funny stories are considered "comedies." If a story begins in confusion and separation, and ends in unity and clarity, it's a comedy. "Cathedral" fits that definition and is humorous to boot. Admittedly, some people might find the humor crude, sad, or even sick. For those readers, the narrator's transformation might be in his ceasing to make offensive wise cracks as he connects meaningfully with Robert.
Not all postmodern works deal in realism, but postmodernism and realism complement each other nicely. While realism tries to show regular people living their lives, postmodernism interrogates reality. Now, don't be daunted by postmodernism. It can get very complicated, but a basic knowledge of postmodernism doesn't have to hurt. Here's a little history, and some of the key ideas that we see playing out in "Cathedral."
Postmodernism literally means "after Modernism." What's known as "High Modernism" was in large part a response to the devastating events of World War I. Similarly, postmodernism is a response to the events of World War II – particularly to the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as other instances of genocide and horror. The magnitude of these catastrophes caused many artists and philosophers to question all their previously held assumptions, including ideas of what is real and what is imaginary. In spite of these somber themes, postmodernism is playful, fun, experimental, and loaded with contradictions, parody, surprises, and games.
The expansion of information through the communication technologies is a big focus of many postmodern dialogues. It observes how we process information, how we sort through the huge amounts of information coming at us to decide what to keep and what to throw out. "Cathedral" was written in 1981, when these technologies were just picking up speed. Carver looks at newspapers, audiocassettes, television, and movies, while later postmodern writers might look at cell phones, and personal computers as well. It often engages heavily with popular culture, drawing commercials, movies, television, etc. into the dialogue. Here we see that the story's biggest moment is a result of watching TV.
Postmodernism also resists moralizing or instructing. This might be helpful if you're struggling with the themes of drugs and alcohol in the story. Notice how no judgment is passed on either one. The drinking and marijuana smoking are presented as both possibly debilitating for the characters, and as possibly opening them to new ways of "seeing" their lives. It's interesting to think about the fact that Carver, a notoriously heavy drinker, had permanently stopped drinking when he wrote the story. And while you're doing that, you can look at a few fun elements of postmodernism we see running through "Cathedral."
The first concept we want to look at is bricolage. It is similar to the word "collage" but focuses on resourcefulness in gathering and using materials, rather than on the materials themselves. In literature, it refers to a literary work created from diverse resources.
The most obvious example of bricolage in "Cathedral" is when Robert and the narrator use an ordinary ballpoint pen and a paper grocery bag to create a mutual understanding of a cathedral. This understanding is tailored to their own personal and joint needs. They take the idea of a cathedral, which holds little personal value for either of them, and form it into something they can use. They don't need to go shopping for the perfect piece of paper and the best pen. They find what they need in what they already have.
The second postmodern concept to explore is simulation. Postmodern philosopher Jean Paul Baudrillard is a big player in postmodern theory. In Simulacra and Simulations he observes that in the age of information technology, copies of things (particularly media images – which are copies of "real" things) have become indistinguishable from their originals. Or, in some case, the copies have become more powerful than their originals.
In "Cathedral," neither the real cathedrals featured on the television, nor the originals themselves hold much meaning for Robert or the narrator. The copy they create together with pen, paper, and imagination will likely change their lives forever. At the same time, the copy is an original, too, an original experience which might be impossible to repeat or copy.
If you want to learn a little more about postmodernism, check out of discussion of "Writing Style."