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In Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," the narrator and his wife welcome Robert, who is blind. The narrator is not happy that Robert is coming, but his wife conveys the importance of his visit so soon after losing his wife. (His wife once worked for Robert.)
The narrator grudgingly agrees. He has never known anyone who is blind and the man's presence in his home makes him uncomfortable. He sense of "blindness" is limited (as may be the case with most people)—consisting mostly of assumptions he has heard. For example, he believes that blind people don't smoke because they cannot see their smoke. This is not the case, as the blind man does smoke.
Soon the three have eaten dinner and sit down in front of the TV. The narrator's wife falls asleep, and the narrator tries to describe cathedrals to Robert from a program on the TV, thinking the blind man might not have a sense of what they are.
The blind man cannot see the world, but he "sees" more than the narrator. He seems to understand the narrator's inability to understand and/or feel comfortable with a blind person. In understanding the sighted man, Robert's vision—intellectually speaking—is quite clear. And it is not until Robert convinces the narrator to try to draw the cathedral for him, that we really find how "sighted" Robert is. He leads the narrator first to draw the cathedral. Then he tells the narrator to close his eyes and keep drawing. This is certainly an unexpected turn of events on the narrator's part, but surprisingly, he agrees.
[Robert] said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
The narrator draws on, and blind before to the experiences of Robert, the narrator also seems to become sighted: he feels something he has never felt before, as he draws and the blind man's hand follows the movement of the narrator's hand. Instead of sitting in his self-imposed "darkness" and fearing or resenting it, the narrator has experienced something life-changing. Robert's "vision," which goes beyond one's eyesight, is symbolic of opening your heart and mind to the world in whatever way it comes to you. Having sight does not guarantee "vision," as seen with the narrator. More than seeing, the narrator is able to better understand Robert's world, which he never could have before. This understanding is a form of enlightenment, "seeing" the world in a new way, as it must be for Robert.
Robert tells the narrator to open his eyes and tell him how the picture looks, but the narrator does not. He knows where he is physically, but his mind has be transported to another plain that has nothing to do with sight, nothing to do with those things that confine the body, and certainly no longer that which entraps the mind. The narrator is in awe.
Then [Robert] said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.
The eNotes summary states:
No longer hostile to Robert, no longer aware of Robert's blindness, the narrator experiences the possibility of change in his life.
The change is in how the narrator perceives the world and himself.
Robert’s blindness in Carver’s “Cathedral” has great significance. It is the doorway to the message of possibility of finding connectedness amidst isolation that Carver is drawing. In the story, the narrator is grumbling about the visit of his wife’s old friend, Robert, who is blind. The narrator, who never has a name--a point of characterization that puts him at a distance from us, the reader, and isolates him from us--resents Robert’s intrusion in his home because he does not look favorably upon the tape recordings his wife and Robert have exchanged for ten years after only one summer of acquaintance. He also doesn’t look forward to the presence of a debilitated blind man in his home: “the blind moved slowly and never laughed. [that] was not something I looked forward to.” These two points of characterization of the narrator combine with his tone to indicate the narrative significance of Robert’s blindness and what it represents.
The narrator’s tone is abrupt, curt, and cut-off. This tone comes across to the reader because his narrative is interspersed with a combination of irregularly constructed sentences, short sentences, and complaining sentences. Some examples of each are:
Irregular: “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way ….”; “A beard on a blind man!”
Short: “His wife had died.”; “Pathetic.”; “She agreed to this.”
Complaining: “[My] wife filled me in with more detail than I cared to know.”; “Her officer—why should he have a name?”
When these elements of characterization are added to indirect characterization from the narrator’s self-directed comments and from what his wife says about him, the full picture of significance and representation emerges. For instance, first, she says, “You don’t have any friends. … Period.” Second, he says, “I felt sorry for the blind man for a little bit. And then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life ….” With all the elements of characterization, an image develops of an angry, bitter narrator who is isolated and cut off from the world of other people--either because he chooses it to be so or because some past circumstance compels him to make it so.
The significance of Robert’s blindness is that it develops a kind of narrative chiasmus: a crisscrossed parallelism between what Robert is expected to be and what the narrator really is. In rhetoric, this sort of crisscross parallelism is developed in a single sentence by inverting parallel parts. For example, what Robert’s blindness represents can be shown in a chiasmus sentence: The blind may see, and the seeing may be blind. This chiasmus (crisscross parallelism) shows precisely what Carver is representing in this story: the narrator is blind in his soul and inner self, while Robert sees clearly with his soul and inner self. Further, the narrator’s inner blindness distances and isolates him from people, while Robert’s inner vision--attained in part through his hands--unites and incorporates him with people. It is thus that Carver suggests that it is the ability to see from within--like drawing a cathedral sightlessly--that allows for human connectedness--like drawing sightlessly with two people’s hands moving together.
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