Some of Raymond Carver's best later short stories and poems had single nouns as titles and focused on a single symbol. These include "The Bridle," "Boxes," and "Feathers." But this is nothing new in literature. Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" and Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" are good examples. Keats' poem obviously only uses a bird as a symbol from which he extracts a whole cornucopia of imagery, as does Shelley with the west wind.
"Cathedral" is narrated by a typical Carver character, a man who is shy, awkward, and self-conscious but intelligent, perceptive and burdened with a wry sense of humor. The narrator's bad jokes reveal his insecurity and lack of social graces.
"Maybe I could take him bowling," I said to my wife. . . . She put down the knife she was using and turned around.
"If you love me," she said, "you can do this for me. If you don't love me, okay. But if you had a friend, any friend, and the friend came to visit, I'd make him feel comfortable."
The narrator is uncomfortable even with himself. He doesn't relate well to his own wife. He actually dreads the arrival of this "blind man" his wife has invited to spend the night with them.
When Robert arrives, the narrator finds him surprisingly easy to get along with. The two men hit is off immediately. The fact that Robert is blind seems to make no difference either to Robert or to the narrator's wife, so the narrator himself relaxes. And naturally, being Carver's alter ego, he resorts to liquor to help him in the process.
I said, "Let me get you a drink. What's your pleasure? We have a little of everything. It's one of our pastimes."
The narrator is surprised to find how well he relates to this blind man, who likes to drink, smoke, and eat, just like himself, and who doesn't feel sorry for himself because he can't see. As the evening progresses, the narrator introduces another element to the entertainment.
I asked him if he wanted another drink, and he said sure. Then I asked if he wanted to smoke some dope with me. I said I'd just rolled a number. I hadn't, but I planned to do so in about two shakes.
Robert has never smoked pot in his life, but he is a man after the narrator's own heart.
"I'll try some with you," he said.
The two men are getting along like old friends. This being typical "Carver Country," the television is always going whether anyone is watching it or not. The narrator becomes interested in a program about the church and the Middle Ages. At Robert's request he begins describing what he is seeing on the screen. Then he tries to describe he cathedrals in France, Portugal, Italy, and Germany--but he finds it impossible.
"You'll have to forgive me," I said. "But I can't tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn't in me to do it.
Robert persuades the narrator to attempt to draw a cathedral on a piece of paper while he keeps his hand on the narrator's hand. The narrator has never tried to draw anything before but is surprised by his own talent. Two men who were strangers a few hours before are sharing the religious experience of craftsmen who cooperatively build the cathedrals of Europe many centuries before. The reader understands this, although the narrator himself might not. The story concludes with a characteristically Carveresque understatement.
"It's really something," I said.
The reader feels that the alienation of modern man is due to the absence of the spiritual unity which men shared in the Middle Ages and have somehow lost.