I’ve read Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ a few years back and was never really taken by it. As I was going through my box of college things (handouts, prompts, etc.), at ease with my hoarder status, I happened upon the short story handout and thought about giving it another try. Then, I realized that it was part of the course reading so I thought that was quite serendipitous so I decided to write about it here.
It’s not a daunting story—quite the opposite really. I remember we had to write about it in my English 101 class and I was confused about the direction my essay would take. Though it was an easy read, there was something, I suspected, heartily throbbing behind Carver’s clean and simple prose that I could not grasp.
It was the same simplicity that prevented me from enjoying Billy Collins’ poetry when I read him a few years back. Taken by the electric incantations by Neruda, the scholarly brooding of Eliot, and puzzle-plays of Cummings at the time, I was of course to regard ‘simple’ poetry to also be ‘simple-minded’. How wrong I was, I thought, a few year later when I gave Collins another try.
There’s nothing difficult to understand about ‘Cathedral”s plot. A blind man, an old acquaintance of the narrator’s wife, visits. Uneasy with the man’s disability and relationship with his wife, the narrator finds it difficult to entertain due to his asocial and disregarding nature—we also find a less severe form of this as he discusses his wife’s past. As the night pressed on, the narrator and the blind man find themselves watching a special about cathedrals. The narrator realizes that the blind man might never know what a cathedral really is besides being a conceptual word. The blind man asks the narrator to describe cathedrals to him.
Reluctant, the narrator tries to describe cathedrals to him. Feeling that he was doing an unsatisfactory job, the narrator apologizes to the blind man. The blind man pays no mind and instead asks for a pen and paper. He tells the narrator that they will draw a cathedral together. He will place his hand on the narrator’s as he draws a cathedral. And as they draw a cathedral together, the narrator experiences an epiphany.
From what we knew about the narrator, who’s apathy seems to be alienating, it comes as a surprise when he “kept [drawing the cathedral]”. It was unbecoming of him. The narrator was enjoying an intimate moment—perhaps the first such moment in his life—letting himself drown in this unfamiliar feeling, keeping his eyes closed although the blind man told him to assess their scribble. He describes it as “really something”.
At this moment, I remember that the essays we had to write back in my English 101 class dealt with epiphanies. This was paired with Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and I suspect some other short story, but I cannot for the life of me recall it. I digress…
The final statement of the short story—where the narrator says their drawing is “really something” even though he kept his eyes shut all along—seems simple but it actually acts as both climax and dénouement. If there is one thing I have to praise in ‘Cathedral’, it is this final moment. It’s a technical feat that inspires jealousy in me. But of course, the whole story set itself up for that moment.
The characterization in ‘Cathedral’ lays the groundwork for the potency of its ending. It seems to be explained too simply but this is actually impressive—it shows how tightly structured this deceptively simple story really is. The narrator is unenthusiastic in how he describes his relationship with his wife, his wife’s history, the blind man, and all other things he pays attention to—as if narration was a job he didn’t care for; something he was ordered to do.
The narrator of ‘Cathedral’ has a mocking tone; one doesn’t feel he takes anything seriously. When his wife fell asleep while the three of them were in the living room, he closes her robe only to open it again for a little chuckle—what can the blind man do? But he also doesn’t seem to be one who likes stepping on others’ toes. He does try to suppress himself during the whole of the blind man’s visit. He even seems apologetic that he may be offending the blind man. So I would posit that he is really just world-weary; there is nothing for him to enjoy.
It is a surprise then, for him, that the blind man is so optimistic and full of life, interested about every thing. It wasn’t that the narrator is on the flip-side; he is not a pessimist. He is simply a realist. He expects someone who has a disability to be depressed—this is simply what he expects to be true. If the blind man’s disability doesn’t hamper his ability to enjoy life, what does this mean for our narrator?
Nietzsche’s accused poets of being “shameless” because they exploit their experiences. Our narrator then is shame-full because he doesn’t exploit life to the fullest—he admits he does not “understand” poetry. In this way, he does not understand how to take advantage of life, live it to the fullest. And if this is true, then despite his physical well-being, is he not in ways crippled, even more so than this blind man who dons a “full beard”?
It is here when we realize that the point of ‘Cathedral’ is likely the idea of empathy and being sensitive to the world. Through the fight against being world-wearied, we can experience a rebirth, an epiphany, that could help us understand the world better—through the eyes of others.