The characters in the Cathedral stories undergo the same anguish and agony as the characters in previous stories. Their prospects for the future, however, are better, largely due to their increased ability to sympathize, empathize, understand, and love. Their emotional resources have grown appreciably. The strongest examples can be drawn from the two best stories in the collection: "Cathedral" and "A Small Good Thing."
In "Cathedral" a blind man visits the narrator and his wife, who had worked for the blind man ten years before. The narrator is unhappy about the visit; he is both self-conscious and jealous. Both feelings recede, however, in the presence of the blind man, particularly in response to his naturalness and geniality. It is not long before the narrator begins to enjoy the blind man's company and becomes worried that he may not be able to visualize a cathedral from a verbal description that the narrator gives him as the two attend to a television show about cathedrals. The narrator's description of the cathedral is inadequate partly because of the blind man's impaired vision, but largely because of the narrator's own blindness to spiritual and human values. In a remarkable moment of imaginative vision, Carver has the blind man hold the narrator's hand as he draws a cathedral. The experience they share involves more than an intellectual comprehension of a cathedral. It evokes a deep, rich joy that transcends the superficial relationship they expected to establish, transforming the narrator from a vain, selfish person into one who, in thinking of another, finds himself.
"A Small Good Thing" portrays a similar but even more astonishing transformation. The plot combines predictability with astonishing surprises. A mother orders a birthday cake for her eight-year-old son, Scotty, who is struck by a car on the morning of his birthday. His parents keep vigil at the hospital, where he lies in a coma, until each independently returns home for a brief rest. Each is called by the baker who unaware of the accident, asks if they have forgotten Scotty. When Scotty dies, his grief-stricken parents return home together. When the baker calls again the wife realizes who it is — but only later. She has her husband drive to the bakery, where she confronts the baker and accuses him of cruelty and vicious insensitivity. Her accusation prompts the baker to realize how lonely he is and to confront the fact of his diminished humanity. In a gesture of contrition and generosity, the baker offers the heartbroken parents some of his hot freshly baked bread. "Eating," he tells them, "is a small good thing in a time like this." His act is beautifully apt and emotionally and artistically necessary. It reduces the parents' animosity, diminishes their sorrow, and helps them at least momentarily, to go on with their lives. The action can best be described as one of healing and communion. In sympathizing with the parents' loss and in breaking bread with them, the baker restores himself fully to the human family.
The unnamed male narrator, called ''Bub'' by Robert, the blind man, is the protagonist of the story. The story unfolds through the narrator's point of view. ‘‘This blind man, an old friend of my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night,’’ announces the narrator conversationally in the first line of the story. The narrator is jealous of his wife's friendship with the blind man. He is unhappy in his work and isolated from others. According to his wife, he has no friends.
The narrator is unhappy about the blind man's visit. He seems to be uncomfortable with the notion of blindness, with his wife's connection to the man, and with his own inability to relate to other human beings.
After an evening of heavy drinking and pot smoking, the narrator turns on the television and begins to describe what he sees to the blind man. When clips of a cathedral appear on the screen, the narrator, ever inarticulate, is unable to describe a cathedral. The blind...
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