In “Cathedral,” the narrator’s house is a metaphor for his limited life. In contrast to the blind man’s wonder and curiosity—as symbolized by a cathedral—the narrator’s narrow outlook and lack of curiosity dominate his existence.
The unnamed narrator has no desire to connect with others; he is not interested in meeting new people or learning new things. He is even disconnected from his own wife. For example, when she writes poetry about her longtime friendship with Robert (the blind man), the narrator does not “think much of” or even seem to try to understand her poem. When the narrator expresses his reluctance to host Robert, his wife states,
“You don’t have any friends … Period. Besides … goddamn it, his wife’s just died! Don’t you understand that? The man’s lost his wife!”
I didn’t answer.
The narrator cannot argue his wife’s point and cannot empathize with the widower. He is like a closed house, unwilling to let out emotion or let anyone in. In fact, he complains repeatedly about the man coming to his house, saying,
A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to
Now this same blind man was coming over to sleep in my house.
The house is the narrator’s fortress into which he does not want an outsider—much less a disabled person for whom he feels no compassion—to enter.
On the other hand, a cathedral welcomes strangers in and allows people to connect spiritually. When the narrator and Robert watch a television program on medieval churches, the narrator is indifferent. Robert, however, is interested in the show because he wishes to learn something new; he may not be able to see the program, but he can listen (“I got ears”).
When the narrator tries to describe to Robert what a cathedral looks like, he can offer only limited details (e.g., big, massive, carved, stone, marble). He soon gives up with,
I’m sorry, but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.
After the narrator admits his imitations in imagination, Robert suggests he sketch the cathedral instead with Robert’s hand resting on his drawing hand. Finally, the narrator starts to open up.
First I drew a box that looked like a house. It could have been the house I lived in. Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. Crazy.
The narrator is amazed that his staid house can have “spires” and be something ornate with potential. As he continues to add more detail and collaborate with Robert, the narrator finally attempts to develop some connection with another human. Robert suggests to the narrator,
Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?
Though still inside his house, the narrator feels, no longer confined by a lack of compassion, imagination, or understanding:
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.