In Carver's "Cathedral," how does the point of view contribute to the effectiveness of the story?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Carver’s choice of first-person point of view for the narrator in “Cathedral” provides a clearer portal of view into the feelings, attitudes, and isolation of the narrator, who is never named aside from the nickname of “bub” given him by Robert. When the narrator “speaks,” his mood and inner traits are revealed by his tone of “voice.” This adds to the effectiveness of the story because we hear things he doesn't directly or intentionally reveal; as a result, we know him at a deeper level.

For instance, the narrator’s resentment of others’ close relationships with his wife, who is also never named, is apparent from comments he makes. For example, his remarks, “we didn’t ever get back to the tape. Maybe it was just as well. I’d heard all I wanted to. … Now this same blind man was coming over to sleep in my house,” are bitingly negative when he speaks of the tape recording they listened to (but during which they were interrupted) and of Robert’s upcoming overnight stay: the narrator is bristling with resentment that is indirectly revealed in his tone.

In another instance, the narrator’s fear of unknown people is unintentionally made apparent in other comments he makes, such as the way he always makes references to Robert as blind:

“I don’t have any blind friends,” I said.
She had this blind man by his coat sleeve.
The blind man let go of his suitcase and up came his hand.

The fear of others that the narrator unintentionally reveals adds to the effectiveness of the story by drawing us deeper into an experience of his psyche since his feelings, though unintentionally revealed, are as veiled for us as they are for him. Incidentally, the reference to Robert’s blindness is a metaphor for the narrator’s general isolation, which he and Robert dissolve together when they move hand-in-hand through the motions of drawing the cathedral--a spiritual sanctuary.

If a third-person narrator had told us the character is resentful and fearful--and had named him--the perception of his isolation would be reduced. In other words, the narrator would be connected in some degree to the character in order for him/er to reveal the character to us. Also, if a third-person narrator were narrating the crucial climactic moments of the story, the immediacy and sense of participation would be reduced. In other words, being told about their two hands moving together by a third-person witness reduces our own experience of the moment, whereas a first-person narrator allows us the parallel experience of having our minds move together with the narrator’s while his hand moves together with Robert’s.

As a result of this parallelism, this unity of movement, which is created by the first-person narrator, we feel for ourselves the possibility of connectedness with others--the possibility of deliverance from isolation--as the narrator discovers it. This imparts and empowers Carver’s message rather than merely tells it as a third-person narrator would do. These are some important ways in which the first-person point of view contributes to the effectiveness of Carver’s story.

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