The tone of the unnamed first-person narrator in Raymond Carver’s short story “The Cathedral” (1981) masks itself as jealousy and contempt but has more to do with emotional numbness and the discomfort arising from it. The narrator is aware that he cannot feel much or connect with other human beings, let alone his wife’s blind friend, Robert, with whom he has little in common. Thus, he is threatened by the prospect of Robert’s impeding visit and of sharing his physical space with him.
I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
What makes the narrator uncomfortable about Robert's presence is his own fixed notion about Robert’s perceived disability. But bizarrely, his response is negative even when Robert’s “blindness” is revealed not to fit these preconceived notions. Logically, Robert disproving stereotypes should make the narrator breathe a sigh of relief. However, when Robert shows up at his house without dark glasses or a cane, the narrator gripes:
I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind.
This contradiction makes sense when we consider the possibility that what scares the narrator the most is actually change. Static and limited in empathy at this point, he is also unable to understand what he has not experienced first-hand. This inability he disguises under contempt, repeatedly referring to Robert as “the blind man” and finding the very idea of his marriage to his late wife, Beulah, laughable.
Pretty soon Beulah and the blind man had themselves a church wedding. It was a little wedding—who’d want to go to such a wedding in the first place?—just the two of them, plus the minister and the minister’s wife.
The fact that a blind man can do something as "normal" as get married especially confronts the narrator. This discomfiture extends to Robert's close friendship with the narrator's wife and his ability to lead an empowered existence. It is almost as if the narrator is aware of the real reason he is angry at the "blind man:" because the blind man can live a full, meaningful life while he, the “whole” person, is emotionally incapable, numb, or cauterized. (Earlier in the story, the narrator's wife notes that he doesn't have "any friends.")
This self-aware anger foreshadows the shift that occurs in the narrator’s tone towards the end of the story. The metaphor for this shift, of course, is the "cathedral" of the title. Raymond Carver often used objects and images to trigger a moment of revelation or momentous change in his stories. In this context, the shift begins after his wife falls asleep and Robert and the narrator sit together in awkward silence before the running TV. As the TV shows images of a cathedral, the narrator has a sudden urge to ask Robert if he knows the difference between a cathedral and another kind of church, having seen none?
Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about? Do you the difference between that and a Baptist church, say?
Once Robert suggests the narrator describe a cathedral for him, we see the narrator spark into action, far more animated than we have seen him so far. He strains himself to describe the cathedral to Robert, and in this we can see him trying to break out of his disconnected state of ennui. As he begins to give up, having failed to find the right words to make the cathedral real for Robert, Robert suggests something startling.
“Hey, listen to me. Will you do me a favor? I got an idea. Why don’t you find us some heavy paper? And a pen. We’ll do something. We’ll draw one together. Get us a pen and some heavy paper. Go on, bub, get the stuff,” he said.
As the narrator heads off to get some pen and paper to draw the cathedral, he notes that his “legs felt like they didn’t have any strength in them,” as if after he’d done “some running.” The physical tiredness is a symptom of the thaw in the narrator's frozen emotional state. It also represents the enormous social effort the evening has been for the narrator, habitual as he is to being in his bubble. When Robert and the narrator draw the shape of the cathedral together, hands linked, a certain stillness falls over the story, like a hush. Towards the end of this strangely intimate ritual, Robert asks the narrator to draw with his eyes shut. The narrator’s closing his eyes represents his shift from lack of empathy for Robert to identifying with him. As he closes his eyes, he also gets a fresh perspective on the idea of “blindness.” As much as he has evoked a cathedral for Robert, Robert has evoked his blindness for the narrator. The narrator's mocking, cold tone has been replaced by one of absorption.
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. Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?” But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
The object they are drawing—a cathedral—is also fitting, with its serious, spiritual overtones. Through the drawing of the cathedral, we see the habitually contemptuous narrator come to life for the moment. Ironically, it is the very difference between him and Robert that has facilitated this change.