Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
A blind man named Robert is coming to have dinner and stay overnight. The narrator’s wife worked for him for one summer about ten years earlier. The two became friends and have continued to correspond by using cassette tapes. The narrator, who lacks social graces, is apprehensive about having to entertain Robert. He does not know what he should do or say. Jealous of the former relationship between his wife and Robert, he is suspicious. He knows that his wife has told Robert about him and has probably complained about his faults. This makes him feel guilty, insecure, and somewhat hostile toward both his wife and Robert.
The blind man proves to be such an outgoing, amiable person that one can understand why he made such a strong impression on the narrator’s wife that she has corresponded with him for years. Despite the narrator’s conversational blunders, the two men get along well; they drink together and smoke marijuana together after dinner. Under the influence of the drugs, the narrator lets down his guard with Robert.
Robert’s handicap has compensations: It has made him compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded. Being dependent on others has made him trusting, and this trust leads him to reveal intimacies that he might otherwise not share. As the evening progresses and the narrator’s wife falls asleep on the sofa, he and his guest grow closer. Finally he finds himself describing a documentary about cathedrals being shown on the television screen. Robert admits that he has no idea what a cathedral looks like, although he knows they required hundreds of people and decades to build. He persuades his host to sketch a cathedral while he holds the hand moving the pen. Through this spiritual contact with the blind man, the narrator discovers unsuspected artistic gifts.
The narrator sheds his inhibitions and sketches an elaborate cathedral with spires, buttresses, massive doorways, gargoyles, and a throng of worshippers. It is a unique and memorable experience that forms the story’s climax. The narrator not only shares his vision with the blind Robert, but he simultaneously shares Robert’s inner vision. At the same time, both share the spiritual vision of men who lived centuries earlier and collaborated to build the beautiful, mystery-laden Gothic cathedrals of Europe.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The title story of Carver’s third collection is typical of how his technique and thematic concerns changed after his personal life became more stable. The story contains much more exposition and discussion, more background and efforts at clarification, than the stories in Carver’s first two cryptic collections. “Cathedral” is told by a first-person narrator, a young man who resents the visit of an old friend of his wife—a blind man for whom the wife once read.
Unlike Carver’s earlier stories, which focus primarily on the immediate situation detached from its background, the first quarter of “Cathedral” recounts the narrator’s knowledge of his wife’s previous married life, her friendship with the blind man (especially the fact that they have sent audiotapes back and forth to each other), and even of the blind man’s wife, Beulah, who has recently died. Although the relevance of all this information to the final, epiphanic revelation of the story is not made clear, it does reveal the cynicism of the narrator, who obviously resents his wife’s relationship with the blind man. It also reveals him as an insensitive character who has prejudiced notions about a variety of subjects. For example, his only notion of blind people comes from films, and he asks if the blind man’s wife was “a Negro” only because her name was Beulah.
The conversation among the narrator, his wife, and the blind man that makes up the center of the story is inconclusive, mainly devoted to the blind man’s dispelling many of the prejudiced expectations the narrator has about the blind. The climax toward which the story moves—a confrontation between the narrator and the blind man—begins when...
(The entire section is 699 words.)