What is the main theme of "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver?

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The main theme of “Cathedral” is that human connection occurs in various forms and degrees. The characters illustrate that people have different ways and abilities to connect and relate to others; some are more successful than others.

Connections between spouses may be expected to be stronger than connections between non-related people, but Carver illustrates this is not necessarily and consistently true. The married couples—the narrator and his wife as well as the wife and her first husband, an officer—do not seem to have particularly strong, close relationships. The narrator cannot understand his wife’s enduring friendship with the blind man Robert, for whom she read one summer ten years ago. He doesn’t “think much of” or even seem to try to understand her poetry she wrote regarding her bond with Robert. Before Robert visits them, the narrator expresses his reluctance to host his wife’s longtime and long-distant friend. In fact, he himself doesn’t “have any friends”.

On the other hand, the narrator’s wife and Robert share a close platonic relationship that has lasted years over geographic distances. The wife confided in Robert about her unhappiness as an officer’s wife during her first marriage and even her attempted suicide. Robert revealed to her intimate details of his marriage to his wife Beulah. Interestingly, the wife and Robert’s communication sustaining their connection actually revealed their own contrasting marriages. The wife could not connect with the officer when she was married to him, but Robert and his wife Beulah were “inseparable for eight years.”

The narrator himself seems unable to connect to others. He is distant from his wife and remains untouched by his wife’s description of Robert’s devotion to Beulah when she was dying in the hospital. He can’t connect with Robert beyond eating, smoking, and sharing small talk with him. When the narrator tries to describe to Robert what a cathedral looks like, he offers a few superficial details (big, massive, carved, stone, marble) but then 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.” Robert tries to bridge this gap in communication with an idea: he’ll rest his hand on the narrator’s hand sketching a cathedral. This way, Robert can learn about and feel what a cathedral is through touch in addition to the narrator’s verbal description.

Robert ultimately feels a connection with the narrator and understands the meaning of a cathedral as a place for human connection (“What’s a cathedral without people?”). He declares, “I think that’s it. I think you got it.” The narrator, however, feels nothing. He seems to realize that he cannot connect, but wants to maintain an appearance of connection out of politeness—or to save face. When Robert asks the narrator, “What do you think?” the narrator lies with, “It’s really something.”

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The main theme of the story is that intimacy involves much more than surface interaction and that it is the act of active listening which inspires understanding and devotion.

In the story, the narrator finds it perplexing that his wife is so attached to her blind friend, Robert. He is bewildered that her relationship with Robert has endured through her previous divorce and has even now encroached upon their marriage.

So, when the narrator's wife tells him that Robert is visiting, the narrator isn't especially enthused about admitting such a character into their home. After all, his wife shares an emotional intimacy with Robert that troubles him. The narrator doesn't understand why his wife finds Robert so fascinating, and it irritates him.

Awkwardly, he offers to take Robert bowling when he comes to visit, but his wife thinks that he is being patronizing. So, his offer falls flat. In fact, he and his wife seem to be at odds regarding Robert's impending visit, and this leaves him feeling helpless. The narrator decides to bide his time. When Robert arrives, the narrator is surprised when he notices how uncharacteristically cheerful his wife is in Robert's presence. Earlier in the story, the narrator tells how affected his wife was when Robert touched her face intimately all those years ago. Even now, he has no idea how the tapes his wife exchanged with Robert led to such enduring warmth and affection between the two of them.

When the narrator muses about Beulah, Robert's deceased wife, he imagines himself feeling pity for her. After all, Robert never saw what Beulah looked like, so how could he compliment her and make her feel good? The narrator is genuinely perplexed about how a blind man could have any sort of satisfying relationship with a woman under the circumstances of his disability. Here, it is clear that the narrator is oblivious to the true nature of intimacy. This brings us back to the main theme: true intimacy involves much more than surface interaction; in fact, intimacy itself is fostered by active listening and open communication. In such an atmosphere, mutual understanding is fostered.

The narrator discovers this by the end of the story when Robert guides him in drawing his personal idea of a cathedral. Before the narrator begins, Robert asks him whether he is religious. Embarrassed, the narrator admits that he is unsure about God. For his part, Robert just encourages the narrator to draw and promises that he will be there to help him. The narrator begins to draw, and he eventually becomes fascinated with the act of producing his vision of a cathedral on paper. Essentially, Robert's open acceptance of the narrator is what inspires the narrator to delve deeper into his own insecurities about faith. Robert's attentiveness to the narrator's emotions fosters an atmosphere of understanding and camaraderie, essential elements of intimacy. His ability to listen to and not to judge the narrator underlines the main theme of this short story.

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The short story "Cathedral" has several main ideas or themes. One theme in the story is the effects of loneliness and isolation on the individual. The characters in the story feel alone and cut off from others. This leads to a desperate depression.

Another theme of the story is that of the trans-formative power of art. Poetry helps the narrator to work through her isolation and change.

A third theme, directly tied to the other two, is the power of the human imagination. This power is what allows the narrator to change her life of isolation and misery. 

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