Filed under: book reviews, short stories | Tags: blindness, cathedral, explication, quotes, raymond carver, Short Story
“That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some reason—if the words are in any way blurred—the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved.” – Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” seems to be a long-standing favorite story at my university’s English department. I’ve had it as assigned reading in a variety of courses (Short Story, Modern American Lit, etc.) and a professor/friend of mine is quite the Carver enthusiast and expert.
“Cathedral” is a simple story of a husband and a wife. A friend of the wife’s, a blind man named Robert, is visiting. The husband has a difficult time accepting his wife and the blind man’s relationship and perhaps a harder time understanding/empathizing the blind man’s disability. The story concludes with an epiphany and is narrated through the anonymous character of the husband.
Carver’s writing has a lean quality to it, I suppose minimalist wouldn’t be too inaccurate of a description, and it flows well between the narrator’s internal dialog to actual dialog between the characters. (The first paragraph averages approximately nine words per sentence.) Most of the sentences are short and blunt and any excess description is like a minute of silence at children’s day at the zoo.
I don’t feel that the narrator is so much unfeeling as emotionally oblivious to certain aspects of human relationships and connection. The husband neither understands his wife’s attachment to Robert nor can he understand Robert and his now deceased wife’s Beulah’s marriage. In this sense, “Cathedral” becomes a paradoxical story as Robert cannot physically see but the narrator is inept in seeing emotionally. Through most of the story the narrator remains awkward and inept in his interactions.
In a stupor of alcohol and marijuana, the narrator begins to describe what’s on television to Robert. It happens that it’s a documentary on European cathedrals and the narrator becomes aware of his limitations in explaining what a cathedral looks like to a blind man. However, it’s more significant than this as the narrator seems to also be grappling with explaining the essence and intention of a cathedral as well. Robert suggests that the narrator draws a cathedral and as the narrator performs this task Robert holds the drawing hand and later runs his fingers over the line impressions.
The narrator eventually closes his eyes and keeps them shut despite Robert’s requests that he should open them. When Robert asks “‘Take a look. What do you think?’” the narrator thinks “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” He finally responds, “It’s really something.”