In 1981, Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” became an acknowledged classic of American fiction. On the surface, “Cathedral” is a simple story told flatly by a narrator of limited
awareness, both of himself and of others. His misgivings about a visit by a blind man, rooted in his lack of experience with the blind, are clearly spelled out in paragraphs 1, 5, 9, and 17; the fact that his perceptions are veiled by unexamined assumptions is shown further in paragraphs 31 and 44. His blundering attempts at small talk lead to increased discomfort (25), and it seems to be a combination
of thoughtlessness and the wish to cover over the awkward situation that impels him finally to turn on the television set.
Throughout, his wife demonstrates a much more relaxed attitude, seeing Robert not as an abstraction or the representative of an alien group, but as an individual, a valued friend and former colleague—so much so, in fact, that in some ways she seems to have an easier and more intimate rapport with him than she does with her own husband. The narrator initially reacts with jealousy and resentment at his seeming exclusion from this closeness; but as the story proceeds, he slowly achieves an emotional breakthrough.
The story’s theme in different ways: “Barriers tend to break down when people try to communicate with one another,” or “Even those not physically blind sometimes need to be taught to see,” or “Stereotypes render sighted people blind to the common humanity we all share.” Obviously, the story itself is much more effective and affecting than any possible statements of its theme.
The narrator in “Cathedral” is intent on stopping up his senses. He doesn’t want to know any more than he has to, so it seems appropriate that he watches television, drinks, eats, and smokes pot through much of the story. The blind
man, Robert, joins him, but for the narrator this binge seems to be a daily pattern. The emphasis on drinking, eating, and smoking early in the story (drinking is one of their “pastimes”) alleviates some of the tension between husband and wife as
well as the narrator’s discomfort in having “the blind man” in his home. During the meal, the narrator begins to refer to Robert by his name instead of “the blind man.” This marks the beginning of a change in the narrator.
Initially, the narrator seems surprised that other people have experiences and perceptions that are different from his. He even remarks on word choice that he finds unusual: “my wife’s word, inseparable.” It is also “beyond [his] understanding” that Robert was never able to see his wife and that the wife could never be seen by her husband. This remark implicitly invites comparison to the narrator and his wife. How much does he really see of her? Does he understand her at all? Does he try?
Apparently Robert sees his potential and encourages the narrator to start drawing. It’s as if he is coaxing a child through a difficult project. The cathedral could be seen as a symbol of faith both in its function as a place of worship and
also in the way that it was built by successive generations, many of whom would never see the finished structure. The narrator doesn’t see his finished structure either, though he knows that it as well as his sense of not being contained was
“really something.” It is as if the narrator has developed a new sensibility, an emotional and intellectual openness that he didn’t have before.