Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Carver is generally considered the leading writer of the school of fiction called minimalism, which—as its name implies—eliminates all but the most important details. Minimalists are noted for using simple language and focusing on factual statements, implying rather than attempting to explain precisely what is going on inside their characters. The reader of a minimalist story is forced to make inferences from what the characters do and say. For example, it can be inferred that the narrator of “Cathedral” and his wife are not getting along well and might be on the verge of divorce. Indeed, the most striking thing about “Cathedral” is its simplicity of language. This type of narration from the viewpoint of a simple, uneducated man creates an impression of truthfulness, as the narrator seems too naïve to be dishonest or evasive.
Characteristically, Carver neither names nor describes the two principal characters and does not even reveal where the story takes place. Like other minimalist fiction writers, such as Ann Beattie, Carver deletes every word that he possibly can and even deletes punctuation marks whenever possible. The effect of minimalism is to engage one’s imagination, forcing the reader to make guesses and assumptions and thereby participate in the creative process.
In “Cathedral,” as in many of his other stories, Carver uses a narrator who is a faux naïf, like the narrators of Mark Twain’s Adventures of...
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Cathedral (Magill's Literary Annual 1984)
Raymond Carver’s decision to dedicate Cathedral to the memory of John Gardner, from whom Carver took a writing course in the fall of 1958, may seem rather odd to many readers. Gardner’s expansive stories and novels sprawl across page after page as the author seeks to affirm the eternal verities of moral fiction. Carver’s fiction is written in an entirely different mode: concise, elliptical, and tightly controlled, suggestive rather than (as with Gardner) exhaustive. This style, which several reviewers have inaccurately termed minimalist, is as clipped as Ernest Hemingway’s and as incisive and emotionally detached as Joan Didion’s. Nevertheless, Carver and Gardner do resemble each other in one most important way: their shared commitment to “values and craft,” as Carver phrases it in his foreword to Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1982).
Since the publication of his first collection of stories in 1977, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Carver’s distinctive prose style and commitment to the craft of fiction have provoked widely divergent critical judgments. Although his work has been richly and deservedly praised—his first collection was nominated for a National Book Award, while his second, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), helped Carver win the prestigious Mildred and Harold...
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The characters who people Carver's short stories, including "Cathedral," find themselves in times of diminishing expectations. In 1978, only about 11.7 percent of the United States population was considered "poor" by government standards. The rate had steadily fallen since 1960. However, in the decade beginning in 1978, poverty once again increased. Further, in the early years of the Reagan administration, high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment reflected the recession that slowed American economic hopes. The unemployment rate in 1982, for example, was 10.8 percent. Ironically, the wealthy became wealthier during this period, while the gap between rich and poor steadily widened.
Even more disturbing, during this period those workers who were employed often earned wages that were not sufficient to raise them out of the poverty level. These people became known as ''the working poor.’’ In 1988, 40 percent of all poor people worked without raising themselves above the poverty line. Consequently, for large numbers of Americans, the 1980s were a time of fear and trepidation: problems such as sickness, lack of transportation, or other hardship could knock an entire family into extreme economic difficulty.
Carver and his family were members of the working poor themselves. Married with two children by the time he was twenty in 1958, Carver continually found himself in poor-paying, low-status jobs....
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Narration and Point of View
One of the most interesting features of ''Cathedral'' is Carver's construction of the narrative point of view. The story is told by the unnamed, middle-aged, white male narrator, and the point of view is limited to him. The reader learns of the blind man's upcoming visit, the narrator's wife's previous life, and the course of the visit through the senses of the narrator. The narrator is not an articulate man; consequently, the narration is filled with gaps that the reader must fill in. In spite of the fact that the narrator controls what information the reader has, Carver provides plenty of clues to the personality of the narrator. That is, by carefully reading the story, the reader can discern things about the narrator that remain hidden even to himself. For example, although the narrator never mentions loving his wife, his jealousy is clear; he does not even want to name her first husband. In addition, it is possible to surmise that the narrator is uncomfortable with the whole notion of blindness, although he never states this directly. Finally, the use of a first-person, limited narrator allows the story to focus on the change in the narrator that occurs in the last few lines. This story is not only told by the narrator, it is also about the narrator. The change occurs almost without warning; certainly the narrator does not anticipate the epiphany that ends the story. Readers, too, are caught by surprise. Such surprise is...
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Technique for Carver is largely a matter of craftsmanship, of attending to a story's details of language, action, rhythm and characterization. His best stories transcend conventional symbolism while employing it. In "The Bridle," for example, a bridle represents the simple former way of life that a farmer and his family have lost. The bridle is also associated, however, with his gamble on a race horse he bought, a horse, that like its owner, never wins. The predicament of the characters allows the bridle's symbolic significance to resonate even further, suggesting that the farmer is held in harness, pulled by the reins of fate.
In addition to symbolism, Carver designs his stories to move toward moments of recognition. "Cathedral" and "A Small Good Thing" provide dramatic examples. Both stories contain recognitions at once beautiful and strange. The unexpected happens, but its occurrence is both natural and inevitable. Carver's best stories, are fictional performances, feats of skill carried off with daring and grace.
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Raymond Carver's fiction has been praised for its stunning depiction of the cultural and moral climate of contemporary America. His stories mirror lower-middle-class American lives, particularly their loneliness and desperation. Marriage is a central subject, with divorce and separation its frequent consequences. Carver has said that his fiction is not designed to change things, nor to improve the lot of suffering humanity. Instead he offers it "to allow certain areas of life to be understood a little better than they were understood before." His method for achieving this is to make his stories sharply referential.
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Compare and Contrast
1980s: Marijuana use, reaching a high point in the late 1970s, begins a decade long decline. Reported use among high school students in 1989 is half that reported in 1979.
1990s: Marijuana use appears to once again be on the rise, as does the cultivation of marijuana in the United States. The long term effects of marijuana use are still not known.
1980s: In the first year of the decade, Ronald Reagan is elected president. A Republican, Reagan institutes tax cuts and increases military spending.
1990s: In 1992, Bill Clinton is elected president. Clinton is a moderate Democrat interested in social reform. However, personal indiscretions lead to his impeachment.
1980s: Television use increases. It is estimated that by 1980, over 100,000,000 television receivers are in use in the United States. Approximately 82 percent of American households have at least one color television at the beginning of the decade.
1990s: Television use expands greatly. Cable stations multiply, and direct link satellite receivers are not uncommon. By 1995, 98 percent of American households have television sets. This averages to a set for every 1.2 persons in population.
1980s: Although the rampant inflation of the 1970s is brought under control, the trade deficit continues and the national debt grows quickly. Some industries come out of the recession of the previous decade,...
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Topics for Further Study
Critics often comment on the influence Ernest Hemingway had on Raymond Carver. Read several stories by each writer. How are their works alike? How are they different? Consider such items as dialogue, detail, characterization, and plot.
Find several pictures of different cathedrals and study them carefully. Then shut your eyes and try to draw one of the cathedrals. How close is your rendition? How is the idea of the cathedral you have in your mind different or like the drawing you make? What did you "see" when you had your eyes closed?
Try to find several accounts written by blind people about how they "see" the world. If possible, conduct an interview with a blind person and try to describe something that you see. Does doing this change the way you see the object? If so, why do you think the change occurred?
Raymond Carver's work seems to change between the stories found in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and those found in Cathedral. Read several stories from each. What differences do you detect? What might account for the change in Carver's style?
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Carver has expressed admiration for previous masters of fiction such as Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Chekhov; Hemingway, Joyce, and Durrell. He has praised contemporary storytellers such as Updike, Beattie, Mason, and Tobias Wolff. His literary precedents include these and other writers whose fiction exhibits a respect for nuances of spoken discourse, an eye for incongruous detail, and a meticulous care for design. Like Hemingway, Carver relies heavily on dialogue to carry meaning. Like Chekhov, he exhibits a finely modulated balance of sympathy and judgment for his characters. And like the Joyce of the Dubliners stories, Carver's best stories are epiphanic.
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What Do I Read Next?
Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories (1988), is the last collection published by Carver during his lifetime. The collection offers readers the chance to compare early and late Carver.
Bobbie Ann Mason's collection of short stories, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), is another example of well-written short stories. Mason, like Carver, has been labeled a ''Kmart realist'' by a number of critics.
The American Short Story: Short Stories from the Rea Award (1993), edited by Michael Rea, provides students with a fine collection of short stories and minimalist prose. Rea has selected stories by Anne Beattie, Charles Baxter, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley, among others.
Conversations with Raymond Carver, edited by Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull (1990), offers twenty-five interviews with the writer, conducted during the years from 1977 to just before his death in 1988.
Ultramarine (1986), is Carver's final volume of poetry, offering students a chance to see Carver the poet in addition to Carver the short story writer.
The important Carver essay, ‘‘On Writing,’’ appears in a notable collection of Carver's short stories, poetry and essays, Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (1983).
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Allen, Bruce, A review of Cathedral, The Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1983, p. B4.
Broyard, Anatole, A review of Cathedral, The New York Times, September 5, 1983, p. 27.
Howe, Irving, A review of Cathedral, The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1983, pp. 42-3.
Meyer, Adam, Raymond Carver, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995, pp. 182-183.
Mullin, Bill, ‘‘A Subtle Spectacle: Television Culture in the Short Stories of Raymond Carver,’’ Critique, Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 99-114.
Nesset, Kirk, ''Insularity and Self-Enlargement in Raymond Carver's Cathedral,’’ Essays in Literature, Volume 21, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 116-29.
Nesset, Kirk, The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study, Ohio University Press, 1995, p. 71.
Powell, Jon, ''The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty,’’ Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 647-56.
Rubins, Josh, A review of Cathedral,The New York Review of Books, November 24, 1983, p. 40-2.
Sage, Lorna, A review of Elephant, The Observer, August 14, 1988, p. 41.
Simpson, Mona, and Lewis Buzbee, An interview with Raymond Carver, In Conversations with Raymond Carver, Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L....
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Christian Science Monitor. November 4, 1983, p. B4.
Library Journal. CVIII, September 1, 1983, p. 1719.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 2, 1983, p. 3.
The New Republic. CLXXXIX, November 14, 1983, p. 38.
The New York Review of Books. XXX, November 24, 1983, p. 40.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, September 11, 1983, p. 1.
Newsweek. CII, September 5, 1983, p. 66.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, July 8, 1983, p. 58.
Saturday Review. IX, September, 1983, p. 61.
Time. CXXII, September 19, 1983, p. 95.
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