What does the cathedral symbolize in Raymond Carver's story "Cathedral"?

The cathedral in Raymond Carver's story "Cathedral" symbolizes an opportunity for the narrator and his guest to discover common ground and "see" things in a new light. While Robert gets a clear impression of what a cathedral looks like, the narrator gains an understanding of what it means to be empathetic.

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I would argue that the cathedral in Raymond Carver's great story symbolizes the discovery of empathy, the discovery of common ground, and the loss of inhibitions.

At the start of the story, the narrator is suspicious and jealous of Robert after learning that Robert (who is blind) has been corresponding with his wife by means of cassette tapes.

After sharing dinner and smoking some marijuana together, the two men start to bond. When a documentary about cathedrals comes on the television which is on in the background, the narrator shows empathy and compassion for Robert by describing the buildings for him. This leads to the decision to work together to draw a cathedral, which allows Robert to get a real idea of what the cathedral looks like and gives the narrator an opportunity to experience something of what it is like to be blind.

For the narrator, who lacks social graces and has experienced jealousy towards Robert, the cathedral symbolizes an opportunity to put somebody else's needs ahead of his own and think about life from a different perspective. It also symbolizes the discovery of artistic talent and the desire to open up to somebody. As he leaves his reservations behind him, the narrator helps Robert to create a sketch that is, for different reasons, enlightening to both men.

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There is presumably a contrast between the towering cathedrals built in medieval times by devoutly religious men collaborating on a beautiful building, on the one hand, and two blind modern agnostics collaborating on a drawing of a cathedral on a big piece of brown wrapping paper while they are both high on marijuana. Carver's stories often reflect the anomie and pointlessness of modern life. The story is characteristically sad and funny at the same time. He often built his stories and poems on a single object, such as a bridle in one of his other late stories. He saw a lot of significance in simple, ordinary things. His unique sense of humor is the only thing that provides a ray of hope. His people have the courage to go on, in spite of the fact that they have no idea where they are going.

One of Carver’s distinguishing traits as a writer is his astonishing candor, and anyone who reads a dozen of his short stories will get a good idea of what his life was like for nearly two decades. His drinking caused serious domestic and financial problems, which led to feelings of guilt and more drinking. Amazingly, his strong constitution and unwavering motivation enabled him to continue producing stories and poems.  Quoted from eNotes Study Guide

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Cathedral is a short story by Raymond Carver. The story develops an ironic situation in which a blind man teaches a sighted man to truly “see” for the first time. Near the end of the story, Carver has these two characters work together on a drawing of a cathedral, which serves as the symbolic heart of the story.

To fully understand the symbolism of the cathedral, it is necessary to understand the characters involved. The blind man, Robert, is a friend of the narrator’s (the sighted man) wife. He has come to visit them for a night after his own wife dies.  

The narrator reveals early on that he does not particularly want the blind man in his house—it makes him feel uncomfortable. For most of the story he makes one observation after another that reveal his shallowness. In the following excerpt he is imagining how the blind man’s wife must have felt on her death bed:

And then to slip off into death, the blind man's hand on her hand, his blind eyes streaming tears--I'm imagining now--her last thought maybe this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave. Robert was left with a small insurance policy and a half of a twenty-peso Mexican coin. The other half of the coin went into the box with her. Pathetic.

The use of the word "pathetic" demonstrates the narrator's inability to see the beauty of the situation he is describing. 

However, late in the story, they begin to discuss what a cathedral is. Robert asks the narrator to draw one for him as he puts his hand over the narrator’s drawing hand. At first the narrator is hesitant and uncomfortable, lacking confidence. Eventually he begins to become engrossed in the process. Finally, at the end, the blind man tells him to continue, but with his eyes closed:

I did it. I closed them just like he said.

"Are they closed?" he said. "Don't fudge."

"They're closed," I said.

"Keep them that way," he said. He said, "Don't stop now. Draw."

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. 

Thus, the narrator has finally “opened his eyes” in the sense that he can see beyond his previously superficial outlook. The blind man, by getting him to physically close his eyes while his imagination was at work made the change possible.

The cathedral itself could be said to symbolize the power of the imagination or the knowledge that life is more than the day to day events that take up most of our time. There is something rare and beautiful that we can only access through our minds. Before the experience the narrator was unimaginative and self centered. The drawing of the cathedral took him to a new place.

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