What are the comparisons between "Cathedral" and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?
One major similarity between the two stories is an anxiety about the difficulty of true communication and understanding (especially in terms of language). In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the four characters try to pin down exactly what love is over the course of their conversation. Each character gives different examples in an attempt to illustrate the concept of love, but no one is able to give an actual definition. Readers can sense the anxiety these characters feel at not reaching a shared understanding of love when Terri pleads with Mel: “He did love me though, Mel. Grant me that.”
When language fails, it appears as though physical intimacy could perhaps emerge as a shared definition of love. Laura explains that she knows what love is, and as a way of explaining it, the narrator kisses Laura’s hand. However, immediately, Terri dismisses that as not an act of real love, explaining that this is just what new lovers do, and they’ll grow out of it.
The anxieties about communication are made more explicit in “Cathedral” because the narrator has to figure out a way to explain visual stimulus to a blind man. Interestingly, language fails again in this story. The narrator is unable to describe what a cathedral looks like to the blind man using words. As another way of communicating the image, the narrator and the blind man draw a cathedral together. Unlike the physical intimacy of the first story, this actually does seem like it’s at least somewhat successful. The blind man gets excited, and while drawing with his eyes closed, the narrator explains, “I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” Perhaps not using language is a freeing sensation as he is truly able to connect with another person.
The stories can be discussed in terms of the themes of isolation, communication, and transcendence. In “Cathedral,” the protagonist is unable to feel in a genuine way: he is distant from his wife, and he’s unsure how to act when the blind man comes to visit. As a result, he is isolated. Similarly, the couples in “What We Talk About” do not allow themselves to (or are unable to) feel, which is why they drink excessively. Laura and Nick (the narrator) say they love each other, and they touch each other throughout the conversation to reassure each other they do, but the fact is they need gin to hold their lives together. As that story comes to a close, the conversation ends because the gin runs out. Laura says “I don’t think I’ve ever been so hungry in my life,” and she is as hungry for human connection as she is for food. The room goes dark, and that, together with the absence of gin, signifies the isolation of each the friends around the table. Nick says he “could hear [his] heart beating” and “the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving.” He senses their desperate humanity in the dark. In “Cathedral,” when the narrator closes his eyes and holds the hand of the blind man to draw a cathedral, he loses sense of place altogether: “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything at all.” Like Nick, he senses something profound and sacred about the experience of isolation