What is the significance of Carver's choice of a cathedral as catalyst for the narrator's learning experience, and what dimension does it bring?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver , there are many references to religion and faith throughout the story. However, the cathedral itself is not brought up until near the end of the story. Prior to this, the narrator shows both ignorance and prejudice towards blindness, as well as a...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver, there are many references to religion and faith throughout the story. However, the cathedral itself is not brought up until near the end of the story. Prior to this, the narrator shows both ignorance and prejudice towards blindness, as well as a lack of faith that borders on mockery. When he has an epiphany of sorts—of wondering whether Robert understands what people mean when they say "cathedral"—he and Robert engage in an activity of drawing a picture together. Though the cathedral itself is not the deciding factor in the narrator's learning experience, it is nonetheless the catalyst for the transformation.

Throughout the story, the narrator makes many negative comments about the blind. He mocks Robert for having a beard, contemplates the "pathetic" nature of Robert's wife "who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one," and seemed amazed that Robert was able to complete a task as simple as using a knife and fork correctly. He also mocks the act of praying, which showcases the difference between himself and Robert: "'Now let us pray,' I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. 'Pray the phone won't ring and the food doesn't get cold,' I said." While it is not faith or religion by itself that leads to the narrator's learning experience at the end of the story, this difference in attitude towards religion highlights the initial disconnect between the narrator and Robert.

When Robert asks for a description of the cathedral, the narrator comes to the realization that he cannot adequately describe it. After mockingly commenting on all the things that blind people can and cannot do, this is a major moment for him. However, having learned to 'see' with his hands—which is where the significance of his request ten years prior to touch the narrator's wife's face comes into play—he helps the narrator experience what it is like to be blind. This is the first and only real bond shared between the two men in the story, and it has a lasting effect on the narrator: "But I had my eyes closed. I thought I'd keep them that way for a little while longer . . . 'It's really something,' I said."

In short, the cathedral by itself does not symbolize the narrator's transformation, but its connection to faith and religion—a major difference between the two men—turns it into a catalyst for both creating a bond between them as well as giving the narrator the chance to learn from his ignorance and prejudice against the blind.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One answer is that there is no significance to the cathedral. It was just what happened to be on TV at the time, and after a night of heavy drinking and dope smoking drawing one just seemed the right thing to do. The husband makes a point of saying so: “The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV. That’s all they are.”

But the experience of drawing the cathedral for Robert is meaningful. Not only does it allow the husband to get over his jealousy of Robert, it is a moment of genuine connection. In that sense, the cathedral is symbolic of a kind of faith. Just as the cathedrals were started by workmen who would never live to see their completion, Robert encourages the husband to draw the cathedral even though Robert of course cannot see the drawing. The end of the story, when the husband keeps his eyes closed, suggests that the cathedral has been a way for the husband to understand in some small way Robert’s blindness.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It isn't explicitly shown in the story, but the cathedral suggests a religious or spiritual experience. The cathedral symbolizes the themes of the story. Change and transformation can occur in a religious, holy place such as a cathedral, and it is a place where humans can connect with God and with each other. The major themes of the story deal with the alienation and loneliness of the narrator and his wife. Through the experience with Robert, it's suggested that both the narrator and his wife have a chance of perhaps connecting with one another and with other people by the end of the story. The world opens up for the narrator once he closes his eyes and imagines the cathedral, suggesting perhaps a transformation in his life, even if it is a small one. In order to reach that point, the narrator must use his imagination and creativity, suggesting the power that imagination can have in helping people to overcome difficulties in their lives. Many times, a person can experience an epiphany, or great insight, in a religious service, and the narrator has such an epiphany at the very end when he's able to "see" the cathedral with his eyes closed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team