What are some of the connecting themes in Raymond Carver's short stories "Cathedral," "Fever," and "Where I'm Calling From"?

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One of the prominent themes running across the three short stories by Raymond Carver mentioned here is the loss of masculine power in the male protagonists. Unlike traditionally “heroic” men, Carlyle in “Fever” and the unnamed narrators of “Cathedral ” and “Where I’m Calling From” are struggling to find...

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One of the prominent themes running across the three short stories by Raymond Carver mentioned here is the loss of masculine power in the male protagonists. Unlike traditionally “heroic” men, Carlyle in “Fever” and the unnamed narrators of “Cathedral” and “Where I’m Calling From” are struggling to find their place in the world. Will they be able to reclaim this power? Or will they finally understand that true masculine power lies in change, acceptance, and empathy? These questions form the other major theme common to the stories.

In "Fever," Carlyle’s wife of eight years has left him for a colleague, leaving him to care for their two preschool-aged children. Not only does Carlyle miss his wife fiercely, he struggles to cope with raising his children. It is ultimately a woman who comes to his rescue in the form of the older, kind housekeeper, Mrs. Webster. Carlyle’s fever becomes a symbol of his inability to manage his life. All through the story, most of the women seem more put-together than the men, whether it be Carlyle’s wife, Mrs. Webster, or Carlyle’s girlfriend, Carol. Like Carlyle, Carol too is a single parent; however, she manages her life with greater ease than him. The story suggests that Carlyle needs to accept his vulnerability and reality in order to move on.

Similarly, the narrator of “Where I’m Calling From” is at a rehabilitation center of sorts, trying to recover from alcoholism. His life has broken down to an extent that he uses alcohol as a coping mechanism. His wife is estranged from him, as is the wife of JP, his friend in the rehab. As JP tells the narrator, he and his wife got into progressively worse fights over his drinking, with his wife breaking JP’s nose at one point and JP dislocating her shoulder at another. Strikingly, like Mrs. Carlyle in “Fever,” JP’s wife also has an affair. Further, JP works for his father-in-law, which the text suggests makes him feel emasculated. The narrator, on the other hand, is paralyzed by the state of his life. He wants to communicate with his wife or his girlfriend, but is unable to make even a phone call, trapped in his own powerlessness.

Meanwhile, the male protagonist of “Cathedral” is consumed with jealousy about his wife’s friendship with Robert, a visually impaired man. He also struggles to make social connections and affects a cynical demeanor to hide his unhappiness and loneliness. He repeatedly mentally runs down Robert, as if to neutralize the threat he presents. Although he ridicules Robert’s disability in his empty machismo, he is paradoxically also intimidated by Robert.

In each of these stories, the men need to accept either their situation or their empathy and vulnerability to break free from their stasis. Carlyle in “Fever” seems closest to such a transformation. The breaking of his fever is symbolic of his acceptance of the end of his marriage. Though Mrs. Webster is leaving his employment, Carlyle has the sense that he will be able to manage his life better from this point. Something has shifted within him. In “Cathedral,” the narrator gradually lets down his guard against Robert. To explain to Robert the shape of a cathedral, he draws one on a piece of paper, Robert’s hand cupped over his. Strikingly, he closes his eyes while doing so. Therefore, while he is illustrating his experience of the sight of a cathedral for Robert, he tries to mimic his idea of Robert’s reality. Thus, he makes tentative steps towards a more empathetic mode of existence, cracking the hold of toxic masculinity.

The narrator of “Where I’m Calling For” is in the most precarious position. He longs for an experience that will bring him back to the vivid world, but he is unable to find a break. A recovering alcoholic, he represents the death of the American Dream and modern life’s ennui. When Tiny, a fellow resident of “Frank Martin’s drying-out facility,” has a seizure, the narrator is part of a bunch who simply goggles at him without helping. Although the sight of Tiny’s seizure makes him afraid, the narrator cannot bring himself to take any action. Later in the story, he asks JP’s visiting chimney-sweeper wife for a kiss, invoking the tradition of a chimney-sweep’s kiss bringing luck. After she kisses him, the narrator finds himself at a crossroads. As the story ends, he is considering reaching out to his wife or girlfriend. Although we don't know if he is able to make that crucial phone call, it is suggested that the narrator is beginning to realize that change only comes with action and the acceptance of one's flaws.

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In all these stories, there is a recurring theme of isolation and the need to reconnect with loved ones. In “Fever,” the main character, Carlyle, suffers heartbreak after his wife of eight years leaves him for another man. Carlyle, a high school teacher, tries to overcome his pain by spending more time with his children and tending to them as a single parent: “His days and nights were passed in the company of his children.” Sometimes, he so misses his wife that he yearns to call her but does not do so for fear of chancing on her new lover. However, towards the end of the story, Carlyle comes to grips with his difficult circumstances and finally lets go of the pain he has held on to for so long.

In “Where I’m Calling From,” the main character is estranged from his wife. He has been admitted for the second time in a rehabilitation facility for alcoholics and desperately longs to call either his wife or girlfriend, perhaps to escape the loneliness that overwhelms him. Towards the end of the story, he seems to overcome his fears and resolves to move towards reconnecting with those he loves.

In “Cathedral,” the narrator is envious of the friendly love between his wife and the blind man. He wishes to have a stronger connection with his wife but struggles with achieving this. When he hosts the blind man in his home, he observes how close his wife is to their visitor. He listens to their conversations and “waits in vain to hear his name on his wife’s sweet lips” as she talks about the major events of her life. His loneliness is partly resolved when the blind man offers to stay up late with him to talk; he tells the blind man that he is happy for the company. Towards the end of the story, the narrator and the blind man connect at a deeper level when the blind man teaches him how to draw a cathedral with his eyes closed.

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Two of the most obvious themes that can be identified in these tales are the isolation of the main male protagonist and also the epiphany that each protagonist experiences at the end of the tale. Carver's short stories are replete with male figures who are somehow isolated and unable to connect to those around them. The narrator in "Cathedral" freely admits that he is unable to connect to his wife any more, and he seems to do everything he can to prevent developing any kind of relationship with Robert, the blind man who visits them. In the same way, the narrator in "Where I'm Calling From" is estranged from his wife and has not been in contact with his girlfriend, and in addition has no interest in hearing from her and finding out about the results of her medical tests. In "Fever," the protagonist, Carlyle, has been abandoned by his wife for another man and, at the beginning of the story, is only enjoying a superficial relationship with another woman. In all three stories, the main male protagonist is presented as being unable to connect with those around him.

However, by the end of the story, all three protagonists experience some form of epiphany or sudden realisation about themselves that is shown to benefit them. In "Fever," through his narration of the story of his relationship with his wife, Carlyle is able to find hope for the future and put his past behind him. In "Where I'm Calling From," the narrator's reminiscences of Jack London's fiction helps prompt him to determine to contact his wife and then his girlfriend and to reach out to somebody else. In "Cathedral," drawing a Cathedral with Robert's hands on top of his helps the narrator experience an epiphany that enlarges his view of the world:

So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.

Robert helps the narrator experience something completely different that in turn helps him to see his life differently, and this epiphany is shared in different ways by all of the characters in these short stories.

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