by Raymond Carver
The narrator is a bit of a bad boy. That's why antihero is a word that comes up frequently in connection with him. The unnamed narrator of "Cathedral" drinks lots of scotch and smokes marijuana. He makes jokes about blind people, and can get downright mean when he's jealous.
Stories in the realist tradition often have characters meant to reflect "regular" people. Carver is known for his portraits of working-class people, people living paycheck to paycheck, and people, like the narrator, stuck in jobs they don't like but can't see how to quit. The narrator of "Cathedral" is a classic Carver hero in that respect – he's a flawed human being, trying to get by. At the same time, critics argue that he's unique character for Carver because he seems better off at the end of the story than at the beginning, unlike many Carver's other characters.
For example, critic Michael W.M. Gearhart says, "The typical Carver characters" show "an inability to articulate their frustration in words which causes their social, moral, and spiritual paralysis" ("Breaking the ties that bind, inarticulation in the fiction of Raymond Carver," Studies in Short Fiction, Fall, 89, Vol. 26 Issue 4, p 43). Sounds like the narrator of "Cathedral" – he's frustrated and having difficulty communicating in a way that can help him be happy. He's paralyzed, stuck in a destructive way of living in and seeing the world. You might even say that, at the start of the story, he's "blind."
It sometimes seems like the narrator doesn't get much love from readers and critics. He's in a rut and he has some ideas about misguided assumptions about blind people. Yet, he's being honest with us.
He stresses that his "idea of blindness came from the movies" (1.1), and that he's "never met, or personally known, anyone who was blind" (1.31). He does come right out and say what's really bothering him – jealousy – but this information gets obscured by his obsession with Robert's blindness. Most readers are quick to point out that the narrator is figuratively blind at the beginning of the story. He can't see who Robert is, who his wife is, or who he is. He's blind to the possibilities of his life. And then, as Carver explained when discussing the story,
The sighted man changes. He puts himself in the blind man's place. The story affirms something. It's a positive story and I like it a lot for that reason. People say it's a metaphor for some other thing, for art, for making . . . But no, I thought about the physical contact of the blind man's hand on his hand. (source)
As you can see, Carver stresses empathy (putting yourself in another person's shoes), and the physical intimacy involved in the drawing scene. We think the narrator's change was long coming. He's in a rut, and he's afraid that when Robert shows up, he'll see Robert and his wife are more than friends. But, he doesn't pursue this instinct. Part of this is because when he meets Robert he sees how silly he's been being. Not because his wife couldn't be attracted to Robert, but because they are clearly just friends.
Once the threat is removed, the narrator gradually opens up to Robert, and does so from a place of love. He's motivated by a desire to show his wife he loves her by being nice to her friend. The only way he can do this is to stop competing with Robert. He also sees an opportunity to test his assumptions about blind people. The narrator begins to empathize with Robert well before they begin drawing the cathedral. This is most visible in the moment when the narrator begins considering whether Robert can imagine a cathedral (3.8).
The drawing seems like a reward for that. And as a result, he learns to see in a new way, and gets to experience a deeper empathy with Robert than he probably bargained for.
The narrator is extremely focused on his wife throughout the story, and seems grounded in the role of husband. While he doesn't seem happy in his marriage, he does seem to love and admire his wife. He tells us the intimate details of her life, but he doesn't tell us anything that would make us not like her.
Notice that the narrator tells us about his wife before we meet her that first time in the kitchen. In that way, he's a lot like her. He tells us about his wife before we meet her, just as she tells the narrator about Robert before Robert arrives. She makes sure the narrator understands that Robert is vulnerable, that he's grieving for Beulah. In the same way, the narrator makes sure we understand that his wife is vulnerable, that she's sensitive, a poet, a people person, perhaps prone to depression, with a suicide attempt in her history.
In any case, he gets us to sympathize with her, and then proceeds to not be such a nice guy in the kitchen. This urges the reader to see him through her eyes. At the same time, we have information she doesn't. Like the fact that he's jealous of Robert. Robert's blindness is a red herring, a distraction from the real issues. We can tell by the arrangement of his narrative that jealousy over Robert is a big part of his mistrust of blind people. Look at the pattern of the text. First the narrator describes a facet of his wife's relationship with Robert. Then he shares an assumption he has about blind people.
Extreme jealousy, we know, is not a sign of a healthy relationship. But, the narrator seems to want to please his wife. In his own way, he tells her he loves her. She says:
"If you love me, you can do this for me. If you don't love me, okay. But if you had a friend, any friend, and the friend came to visit, I'd make him feel comfortable." (1.8)
He delivers. He shows her he loves her by making Robert feel comfortable. So, the narrator shows his wife that he loves her in the way that she asks him to. The passage also suggests that she loves the narrator. She's saying because I love you I'd be nice to your friends. So, we can say that they have a loving marriage, but that there are serious issues. It looks like the narrator's jealousy over Robert, and his inability to talk about this with his wife is one rather large problem. First, check out these lines:
When we first started going out together, she showed me the poem. In the poem, she talked about what she felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips. I can remember I didn't think much of the poem. (1.4)
Let's do a little role reversal, to freshen our vision. Say he had showed the woman a poem about his blind ex-boss that touched his face. And say that blind boss was also his most intimate confidant. She might be jealous too. Anyhow, her friendship with Robert might not have bothered him all that much at the time when they were in the throes of new love. Over time, Robert and his blindness perhaps became a scapegoat for other problems that developed in the relationship. If the narrator and his wife aren't getting along, but she and Robert are (as illustrated by the constant exchange of tapes), the narrator can blame Robert. Meanwhile, the narrator's wife misunderstands his disdain for all things Robert-related as a rejection of her. And it goes on and on like that, coming to a head now that Robert is actually coming to visit.
At the end of the story, Robert has become an ally, no longer a threat or a enemy. Learning that Robert is a nice guy, and that his wife and Robert are "just friends" does at least three things for the narrator in terms of his marriage. 1) It shows that she's been telling the truth about her feelings for Robert. 2) It also shows the woman that the narrator does love her. 3) It also gives them a friend in common, which is something they seem to be missing. In other words, in addition to gaining a friendship with Robert at the end of the story, the narrator might also gain a better relationship with his wife.
"Cathedral" was Carver's favorite of his stories, and he was inspired by a quote from Russian author, poet, and playwright Anton Chekhov:
[Carver:] I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: "... and suddenly everything became clear to him." I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. […] There is a bit of mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What's happened? Most of all – what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings. (source)
We think these are some great questions. Each reader will find his or her own answers. One thing we wonder is if the experience with Robert will change the narrator's life in some lasting way. How will the narrator feel after he goes to sleep and wakes up again? Was this experience just a momentary high or will it have lasting positive effects on his life? In other words, will he be able to translate the experience to his real life? What are the consequences of such an experience?