Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661

The short story "Cathedral" first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1981. The story was very well-received and was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories, 1982 before appearing as the title story in the 1983 collection, Cathedral . The story became the most widely anthologized story by...

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The short story "Cathedral" first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1981. The story was very well-received and was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories, 1982 before appearing as the title story in the 1983 collection, Cathedral. The story became the most widely anthologized story by Carver, and critics continued to find reasons to discuss its merits during the years following its publication.

Early reviewers of the collection singled out "Cathedral" as a story that broke new ground for Carver. Bruce Allen, for example, in a review for The Christian Science Monitor argued that the story was ''the best example so far of the way Raymond Carver's accomplished miniaturist art is stretching itself, exploring new territories.’’ Likewise, Josh Rubins in The New York Review of Books found, that unlike many of Carver's earlier stories, ‘‘'Fever' and 'Cathedral' are tales of salvation, uplift wrested from the most unpromising human materials.’’

Not all reviewers found Carver's spare style to be appealing, however, in spite of the shifts they noted in Cathedral. Anatole Broyard, for example, gave the volume faint praise while identifying the "problem" with Carver's style: ‘‘The trouble with this school of writing ... is that it obliges the reader to be something of a semiologist, an interpreter of the faded signs of culture. The drama is always offstage, beyond the characters.’’

Carver himself viewed "Cathedral" to be different from his earlier work. In a 1983 interview with Mona Simpson and Lewis Buzbee, he told his interviewers about not writing for six months after What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He continued, ‘‘And then the first story I wrote was 'Cathedral,' which I feel is totally different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before. I suppose it reflects a change in my life as much as it does in my way of writing. When I wrote 'Cathedral' I experienced this rush and I felt, 'This is what it's all about, this is the reason we do this.'’’ Indeed, reviewers and critics alike found that Carver's style deepened and enlarged in the stories collected in Cathedral.

In the months and years that followed the publication of "Cathedral," the story took on ever-greater importance with academic scholars and critics and generated a variety of critical readings. Ewing Campbell, for example, agreed with earlier reviewers that "Cathedral" represented a "new" Carver. In a book-length study of Carver's fiction, Campbell argued that in "Cathedral," Carver used a ‘‘rarely seen opposite of an archetypal pattern.’’ He further maintained that "Cathedral" "provides the rare opposite of this familiar type: a narrator who discovers a life-affirming truth without the pain.’’

Kirk Nesset, in a 1994 article appearing in Essays in Literature also read "Cathedral" as the story of a man who undergoes a change. In an expanded and revised version of this essay appearing in 1995, Nesset continued to explore the way the narrator breaks through his self-isolation through the shared, non-verbal collaboration with the blind man. As Nesset argued, ''It is through our collaboration with others, Carver implies, that we free ourselves from the slavery of self-absorption.’’

Some critics, such as Jon Powell, focused on the hint of menace in Carver's short stories, the sense that everything is about to fall apart from some unknown and unnamed threat. Still others found Carver's style worthy of close study; Michael Trussler, for example, examined Raymond Carver's stories in the light of a larger discussion of minimalism. Finally, in a 1998 article, Bill Mullen emphasized the role that television played in the short stories of Raymond Carver. He argued that criticism of Carver's work tends to fall into two camps: one that concentrates on Carver's minimalism, and another that ''emphasizes the social and economic milieu of Carver's stories.’’ Mullen argued in his article that ''a bridge may be built between the two prevailing critical views of Carver by concentrating on the ways television may be read as both a subject of and an influence on his stories.’’

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