How does alcohol abuse and its destructive effects play upon characters' judgments, physical and psychological health, and marriages (and other relationships) in "The Swimmer" and "Cathedral"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly, alcohol figures in the lives of the main characters in "Cathedral," less as more as a depressant, and in "The Swimmer" as a physical stimulant while blurring reality, and so a depressant, too. 

The real drama of "Cathedral" is "off-stage" as the narrator's wife has tried to commit suicide during her former marriage to a military man because she was lonely in such a transient life. But, she has corresponded with a blind man for whom she once worked; as a result, they became friends and she sends him tapes with recorded poems composed about her feelings.

With her husband, apparently, it has not been so easy for her to communicate. For, years before as she tries to read her poem to him, the narrator remarks, "I didn't think much of the poem...Maybe I just don't understand poetry." That they are alienated from one another is revealed in their conversation when she invites her friend Robert to visit and the narrator sarcastically suggests that he take the man bowling. Angered, she asks him, "Are you drunk?"  Further in the narrative, Carver's narrator mentions that he goes to his wife's bedroom, not their bedroom. Frequently in the course of telling the story, the narrator mentions drinks that seem to have the effect of distancing him from relationships. For, when he sees his wife return from picking up her friend at the train station, he observes as he finishes another drink,

I saw my wife laughing as she parked the car. I saw her get out....She was still wearing a smile. Just amazing.

While his wife's friend visits, the husband has several drinks as the conversation centers upon him, and he is sarcastic after leading Robert to think that he is going to say grace before their meal; instead saying, "Pray the phone won't ring and the food doesn't get cold." After dinner, he narrates,he is unable to communicate, and turns to his drink instead. But, after his wife falls asleep and the television has a program about cathedrals, the narrator becomes involved with Robert, describing what he sees on the screen to the blind man. When Robert asks how a cathedral looks, the narrator and he draw one together, touching hands. This exercise puts the narrator, finally, in communion with someone else. No longer does he need drink to suppress his feelings of alienation:

I was in my house....But I didn't feel like I was inside...."Its really something," I said.

In "The Swimmer," frequently viewed as an allegory, the weekend social drinking and ubiquitous hangovers of the socialites along with the physical optimism of golf, tennis, and other athletic endeavors suggest illusory and superficial lives. In the midst of this meaninglessness, Neddy Merrill undertakes his heroic venture of swimming his way home: he "...had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure." But, his adventure is but a dream vision fueled by his imbibing along the way as he swims toward his home.

Inebriated, Neddy fails to realize he has suffered the great loss of family and home.  At first "after the fourth or fifth drink and he had swum nearly half the Lucinda River," Neddy feels satisfied and empowered. But, as the day wanes and the weather turns to that of autumn and the water of the pools a "wintry green," Neddy's strength leaves him, and he holds the sides of pools as his "obduracy" becomes "connected to common sense," Neddy perceives the weather drastically change and feels he needs a drink to revive his energy. Finally, he discovers a lost home and family gone.