Cathedral by Raymond Carver Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Raymond Carver wrote mostly about the joys and sorrows of politically powerless and socially insignificant working-class people. In this respect he resembled John Steinbeck, whose best-known work is the Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Carver differed from Steinbeck, however, in having no political agenda. Steinbeck was a socialist for most of his life, believing that the lives of the masses could be improved by government and by substituting faith in socialism for faith in God. Carver was apolitical in his writings but seems to have had a working-class distrust of politicians and people who did not work with their hands.

Like many contemporary minimalist writers of his era, Carver displays a nihilistic view of life. His favorite theme in his stories and poetry is alienation or anomie. The latter is the feeling that many people have of being only half alive, of being on a treadmill or in a rat race, of being trapped in meaningless jobs, of not being able to love and not being able to relate to others—perhaps especially of not being able to see any higher meaning to life.

After shedding his inhibitions through liquor and marijuana, and feeling somewhat invisible in the presence of his sightless house guest, the narrator confesses that he does not believe in religion or anything else. “Sometimes it’s hard,” he says, “You know what I’m saying?” Robert replies: “Sure, I do.” Although the narrator knows that cathedrals are products of a great religious faith that existed during the Middle Ages, he confesses that “cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me.”

The cathedral that the narrator and Robert draw on the side of a shopping bag might be seen as symbolizing the vestiges of religious faith in the Western world. It is significant that the men copy a cathedral seen through the modern medium of television, because science and technology have been particularly responsible in undermining traditional religious faith since the Middle Ages.

The joint artistic creation of these late twentieth century men represents their pathetic wish for a spiritual life that is an unavoidable part of their humanity. These hapless strangers—one a man who hates his job, drinks too much, has no friends, and seems on the verge of divorce, the other a blind widower, a former Amway distributor with a bleak future—come together momentarily because of their common yearning for a more fulfilling and spiritually more meaningful life. The epiphany described in this story is of the smallest possible kind—a sort of “mini-epiphany” appropriate to a minimalistic story. The narrator concludes with the ambiguous understatement of an inarticulate man: “It’s really something.”

Cathedral Themes

Alienation and Loneliness
Like the characters in many of Carver's works, the main characters experience, or have experienced,...

(The entire section is 963 words.)

Cathedral Themes

The stories in Cathedral mark a departure from those in his two previous collections. The greater length of these later stories allows...

(The entire section is 338 words.)