"Cathedral" is American writer and poet Raymond Carver's most famous story. It was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1981. A somewhat revised version is the last story in Carver's 1983 collection of the same name. We are relying on that version for this guide. Carver, often compared to Ernest Hemingway, is known for his bleak and stark portrayals of working-class people trapped in states of isolation.
On the surface, "Cathedral" is a story about a dissatisfied man whose encounter with his wife's blind friend teaches him new ways of seeing. Beneath the surface it's a story about three people who need each other badly, and manage to connect.
Critics and Carver himself see the story as a turning point in his writing because of its happy, hopeful ending. Kirk Nesset describes "Cathedral" as "a light note amid a tide of darker ones" (source). In an interview, Carver said that "Cathedral," one of his favorite stories, "was very much an 'opening up' process for [him] […] in every sense. [It] was a larger, grander story than anything […] [he] had previously written" (source).
Carver died at the age of fifty, in 1988, just a few years after publishing his short story collection Cathedral. His body of work isn't massive, but he did receive lots of recognition when he was alive. In 1983 he became the first winner of Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award, and in 1984 he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He received lots of other honors, fellowships, and awards, which you can read all about in this excellent chronology.
Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" centers around two men, one blind and one who can see. When the sighted man tries to explain what a cathedral is like to the blind man, he finds that words fail him. Though both men speak English, one relies on vision to communicate, the other does not. It's as if they speak different languages.
Have you ever been in a situation where you met a person who didn't speak the same language as you, but you still needed to find a way to communicate? What did you do in that situation? Were you uninterested in finding a way to communicate? Or too shy? Or did you try to form a new way of communicating with hand gestures or drawing pictures?
That's basically what happens here. By being willing to try something new, the men open themselves up to an entirely new experience, a unique way of connecting with another person. This great experience serves as a sort of epiphany. Carver seems to be saying that when we open ourselves to new ways of connecting with others, and new ways of looking at the world, we can have hugely rewarding experiences.
Apparently, there is a ten minute short film based on the "Cathedral," made in the Czech Republic.
This film by Robert Altman is not exactly a film version of "Cathedral," but rather a film based on various Carver stories. If you liked "Cathedral," you might like this movie, too.
"Raymond Carver: A Small Still Voice"
An essay on Carver by Bright Lights, Big City author Jay McInerney, a former student of Carver's.
"Prose as Architecture"
Two great interviews with Raymond Carver.
"Too Close for Comfort"
An essay discussing the similarities between "Cathedral" and the D.H. Lawrence story "The Blind Man."
An Interview with Raymond Carver
Read this interview from 1978 to get a sense of Carver's poetry and prose.
Two Audio Interviews with Carver
You'll need RealPlayer to listen. The page provides a link for a free download.
A Photo of Carver
He's got that dapper yet penetrating look down.
Raymond and Girlfriend Tess Gallagher
This is from 1988, the year of his death.
A Detailed Chronology
Just in case you were looking for a good timeline of Carver's life.
Carver's NY Times Topics Page
This links to lots of reliable sources for your Carver essays, including information about his life.