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SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Time, Vol. 122, September 19, 1983, p. 95.
[In the following review, Gray suggests that Cathedral contains hidden depths of meaning.]
For years now, the demographics of the American short story have been moving up-scale. The line of Hemingway drifters and Flannery O'Connor grotesques seems to be dying out. Characters rarely worry any more about finding God or their next meal. They are likely instead to be well educated, sensitive to a fault, politically liberal, and affluent enough to feel pleasurable guilt in their possessions. They tend, in short, to resemble the stereotypical reader of The New Yorker, which is where the luckiest of these fictional people are chosen to appear. The rejected ones must troop off to the quarterlies and go through their paces (at greatly reduced rates) for smaller audiences composed of people with whom they can feel equally at home. These days a good many characters in short stories are also quarterly readers.
Author Raymond Carver, 45, has successfully bucked this trend toward the gentrification of short fiction. Furthermore, he has done so in part in The New Yorker, where three of the twelve stories in Cathedral originally appeared.
Carver's art masquerades as accident, scraps of information that might have been overheard at the supermarket checkout counter or the local beer joint. His most memorable people live on the edge: of poverty, alcoholic self-destruction, loneliness. Something in their lives denies them a sense of community. They feel this lack intensely, yet are too wary of intimacy to touch other people, even with language. "What's to says?" wonders one man. Another, traveling to meet the son he has not seen in many years, dreads the moment of greeting: "He really didn't know what he was going to say."
Such uncertainty leads to eruptions of inappropriate behavior. In "Feathers," a man named Jack and his wife Fran are invited to dinner at the home of one of Jack's co-workers. They arrive and find a peacock strutting about the front yard, a wife happily domesticated in the kitchen and their host offering them drinks in a room where a TV set is carrying a stockcar race. All of this is too much for Fran, who did not want to come in the first place. She eyes the screen: "Maybe one of those damn cars will explode right in front of us. Or else maybe one'll run up into the grandstand and smash the guy selling the crummy hot dogs." Her aggressive remark is double-honed: it registers Fran's contempt for her enforced surroundings and the notion that there is nothing like violence to break up tedium.
Carver's stories radiate a sense of laconic menace. The worse the fates of his people, the more elliptically they seem to be telegraphed. In "Chef's House," Edna is persuaded to rejoin her husband Wes. He tells her he has stopped drinking and is living in a rented house with a view of the ocean. Together, they happily pass a summer. But then the landlord says his daughter needs the house, and Wes and Edna will have to leave. Edna realizes that his news will send West back to booze and her away from him: "Wes got up and pulled the drapes and the ocean was gone just like that. I went in to start supper. We still had some fish in the icebox. There wasn't much else. We'll clean it up tonight, I thought, and that will be the end of it."
Not all of Carver's surprises are unhappy ones. Much of the vibrancy of his fiction stems from the sense, achieved in offhand cadences, that blessings can fall as unexpectedly and undeservedly as damnations. In "Cathedral," the title story, a husband grudgingly awaits the arrival of a house guest: "This blind man, an old friend to my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died." The narrator's sympathy is initially in short supply: "A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to."
As the evening wears on, though, the husband reflects on changes that he had not intended to undergo. Robert, the visitor, is a hearty eater and drinker; when marijuana is offered, he tries that too. The television is on, flickering out a documentary on cathedrals. The host feels the urge to explain cathedrals to the blind man, but finds that he lacks both the words and the inspiration: "The truth is, cathedrals don't mean anything special to me," he tells his guest. "Nothing. Cathedrals. They're something to look at on late-night TV. That's all they are." The speaker proves himself wrong; he is able not only to draw a passable version of a cathedral on a grocery bag, but also allows himself to be guided by Robert in doing so. Ignorance communes with sightlessness to give, temporarily, a shape to the unknown.
Such transcendent moments glimmer sporadically throughout Carver's spare fiction. To describe him as a minimalist seems fair but misleading. His stories appear much slighter than they really are. They exist, no matter how, casual or slangy their surfaces, in exactly the same spot as the best of their predecessors: the point of the fulcrum where inference tips toward importance.
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SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in America, December 31, 1983, p. 438.
[In the following review, Knapp praises Carver's poignancy and emotional depth in Cathedral.]
Rarely, and at unpredictable intervals, a writer of genius appears on the literary scene, who waves a wand over the relentlessly banal events of everyday life and transforms them. Such a master of the short story form is Raymond Carver. His first two collections of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, announced to critics that an extraordinary talent had emerged from the obscure town of Clatskanie, Ore. In this latest collection of stories the author takes to its ultimate fruition Emerson's dictum that "all matter is emblematic of spirit." For Carver, all material events are evocative of the spirit, and each is crafted from a surprising perspective.
Hawthorne had found that "moonlight in a familiar room" was the requisite blending of reality and fantasy that short story writers needed. Carver does not need the moonlight, nor even dusk; he performs his sleight of hand even under the glare of the strongest sun. The objects can be as grotesque as false teeth enshrined above a television set or as tentative as the artificial community of motel dwellers living around a communal pool. Each story takes the humdrum and distills from it a poignant human emotion, a feeling that something horrible is about to happen.
Cathedral is a collection of 12 stories, each with a different voice and vision. "A Small, Good Thing," which was this year's first-place winner in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, is a subtle combination of human tragedy and human banality. Scotty's mother has arranged for her son's birthday cake on Monday afternoon, but on Monday morning Scotty is struck by a hit-and-run driver on his way to school. The baker is unaware of this tragic event and calls at night about the boy. The parents, physically and emotionally exhausted from their vigils at their son's bedside, think the caller is a crank and are enraged at these obscene calls. This painful babble is echoed on the professional level with the doctor's false assurance that the boy is surely not in a coma; he simply cannot wake up. What ultimately happens to Scotty, his parents and the baker, however, must be left for the reader to discover.
The tour de force of the entire collection is the title story. The narrator's wife has invited a blind man to dinner. The narrator notes that his blind guest smokes, drinks and even "watches" television; he wonders how the blind can fall in love without seeing the beloved. Eventually it becomes so late that the only program on television is a documentary on cathedrals. The blind man suggests that his host draw a picture of what he is seeing, and his hand will ride his host's hand as he draws. The narrator puts in windows with arches, draws flying buttresses and great doors.
"I kept at it. I'm no artist. But I kept drawing just the same. 'Close your eyes now,' the blind man said to me. 'Are they closed?' he said. 'Don't fudge. Keep them that way,' he said. He said, 'Don't stop now. Draw.' So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now. Then he said, 'I think that's it. I think you got it,' he said. 'Take a look. What do you think?' But I had my eyes closed. I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do. 'Well?' he said. 'Are you looking?' My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything. 'It's really something,' I said."
In Carver's craft and vision, even the blind see and even the most obtuse of us are "trembling emblems of immortality."
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SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 71-2.
[In the review below, Grinnell praises Carver's writing, arguing that he has improved on his old style and added new elements.]
Things are finally looking up for Raymond Carver. In a way it is entirely fitting that this, his third volume of short stories is entitled Cathedral and that the collection ends with the title story, for in both Carver's life and writing, as in a Gothic cathedral, all signs are pointing upward.
Such was not always the case. Married at eighteen and burdened at that early age not only with the responsibility of a wife and children but also with a succession of dreary jobs, it is a wonder that he wrote at all. Raised in poor neighborhoods in Yakima, Washington, he somehow was able to attend college, to graduate with a B.A. from Chico State in California, to find his way to the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop where he spent a year just barely surviving financially. He then took to drinking, wasting most of his thirties. He makes no excuses; he did not drink to escape nor for inspiration—he "was into the drinking itself."
Prior to 1983, he produced two books of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Only the titles of the collections are long; the stories themselves are short, averaging fewer than ten pages each. Despite his poverty, which sometimes forced him from an overcrowded apartment to write while sitting in his car, and despite his drinking, he was a careful craftsman. The stories of the first two books are hard, austere little vignettes restricted to the viewpoints of their hard, austere and not-very-articulate characters. It is to these qualities that the stories owe their appeal and to which Carver owes the considerable reputation that they won for him.
And now comes Cathedral a book with a one-word title and a dozen, more fully fleshed-out stories. They are still hard little gems of fiction but they are a few carats heavier than those of the earlier books. Six of the twelve are first person narrations; all are restricted to their characters' stunted perspectives, which is to say, to Carver's tight control. He does not mock his people nor does he suggest that their lives would be improved if they examined them, if they were to expect, inspect and introspect more. A kind of literary minimalist, Carver simply presents his people and their stark lives as if there were nothing richer out there, no American milieu of affluence, of new horizons, of hope. We readers have to carry our own emotional baggage to and from these stories because Carver will not porter for us.
For example, in the opening story, "Feathers," the lethargic routine of the narrator and his wife is broken when a coworker invites them home for dinner. And a strange home it is, furnished with a T.V. upon which sits a plaster of Paris cast of crooked teeth, and before the television a La-Z-Boy chair for the host. This host has an odd little wife, plump and retiring, to whom the crooked teeth once belonged, and together they have a pet peacock and a fat ugly baby. Says the narrator, "Bar none, it was the ugliest baby I'd ever seen. It was so ugly I couldn't say anything. No words would come out of my mouth."
This was not the only time words failed him. As the evening wore on, it became very special for him despite the almost grotesque assemblage. Because he could not quite articulate that special quality, he closed his eyes to freeze a picture of it forever in his memory. It worked but ironically, because that evening was the beginning of an even drabber life for the narrator and his wife. They went home and conceived a child who later developed "a conniving streak in him." They never return the invitation and now "mostly it's just the TV."
So it goes with Carver's characters. Often they experience a special moment which almost affords them a glimpse of something elusive—a better life perhaps. But they cannot quite fathom the experience and so they retreat to drink or to dull routines made somehow even duller by the missed chance.
One of the stories, "The Compartment" is set entirely on a train in Europe and concerns a failed father-son reunion. Another, dedicated to one of Carver's former drinking partners, John Cheever, is entitled "The Train" and is set entirely in a suburban New York train station. In this story Carver seems to be paying tribute to Cheever by using Cheeveresque elements in a way not entirely unlike what John Updike did in the "Bech Wed" section of Bech Is Back.
But for the most part, Raymond Carver sticks with and refines familiar territory and people. Using these familiar elements, he reaches new heights in a story called "The Bridle" and peaks in the title story, "Cathedral." This little masterpiece concludes with its first person narrator trying to describe to a blind man a cathedral that he sees on television. When words fail, he tries to express the experience by holding the man's hand while sketching a cathedral. The blind man, really more perceptive than he, has the narrator close his eyes. He achieves a new dimension of perception. He tells us, "My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything! 'It's really something,' I said."
Raymond Carver's life is coming together and his art is blooming. He recently received a grant from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters that will provide a tax-free income for five years. He also won a 1983 O. Henry Prize Story Award. It is more than coincidental that he gave up alcohol in 1977. It would seem that much of what was is no more. It would also appear that much of what was not is now beginning. Cathedral, I think, is a major part of that beginning.
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SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Western American Literature, Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 168-69.
[In the review below, Schnapp, who is a professor at Bowling Green State University, discusses the significance of the inability to articulate essential truths and beliefs in Carver's characters.]
A red-eyed peacock startles a couple visiting acquaintances who have an extraordinarily ugly baby. A man tells his estranged wife that he's about to go crazy because of his plugged-up ear. A wife comes home to find her unemployed husband unaware that the refrigerator has quit working and the food is thawing out. In Raymond Carver's Cathedral, his third collection of short fiction, stories are pared down to the banal details that compose most of our lives. And yet these very banal details explode in the mind with reverberating and ominous innuendo.
Frank Kermode has declared that Carver is a master of the short form, and Carver's "A Small, Good Thing," which is included in this collection, was this year's first place winner in William Abraham's distinguished annual "Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards."
There is no melodrama in Carver's spare, laconic, but brilliantly evocative fiction. "Vitamins," for instance, begins: "I had a job and Patti didn't. I worked a few hours a night for the hospital." Patti does get herself a job, however, "for her self-respect." She sells vitamins door to door. Eventually the narrator attempts to have an affair with one of his wife's co-workers, but it is aborted by the advances of a black man at a "spade club" the couple goes to. The frustrated narrator returns home. His wife hears him and, thinking she has over-slept, gets up and dresses. The story concludes:
I couldn't take any more tonight. "Go back to sleep, honey. I'm looking for something," I said. I knocked some stuff out of the medicine chest. Things rolled into the sink. "Where's the aspirin?" I said. I knocked down some more things. I didn't care. Things kept falling.
Things do keep falling in Carver's fictional world. With just a few exceptions, he suggests throughout his stories that we are victims of the continuous collapse of our hopes. In "The Bridle," one of the characters says significantly, "Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from."
At times in his fiction adultery or alcoholism or estrangement afflicts a marital relationship, but always there is the problem of communication, for Carver's characters are essentially inarticulate. But it is precisely their inarticulateness that haunts us. It is what they do not say, what the author refuses to divulge, that is nuanced with menace, tinged with sinister suggestion. Under the quiet surfaces of his stories throb foreboding hints of disintegration and disaster. Carver's characters, of course, reflect our own inarticulateness, our inability to tell others of our anxieties and expectations, of the random and confused impulses which determine our behavior. He writes of our silences.
But these silences in Carver are like the ominous silence before a storm. They portend danger. And we read his stories with increasing alertness and mounting apprehension, waiting for and expecting the worst. Only rarely, as in the title story, do we see, and through a most unlikely agent—in this case, a blind man—the towering cathedral of our possibilities.
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SOURCE: "'The Calm,' 'A Small Good Thing,' and 'Cathedral': Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 287-96.
[In the following essay, Facknitz compares "The Calm," "A Small Good Thing," and "Cathedral," arguing that these stories represent unique attempts by Carver to create acceptance, closure, and connection among his characters.]
Raymond Carver is as successful as a short story writer in America can be. The signs of his success are many: prestigious and ample grants, publication in the best literary quarterlies and national magazines, and, from all appearances, an unperturbed ability to write the kind of stories he wishes to write. By contrast, the causes of his success are ambiguous. Carver's writing is often facile, and one might argue that he has chanced upon a voice that matches a jaded audience's lust for irony and superficial realism. Whatever the proclivities of his readers, Carver knows their passions and perversions well. In story after story, in language that babbles from wise lunatics, Carver's penetration of characters is honest and fast. But they compose a diminished race—alcoholics, obsessives, drifters, and other losers who are thoroughly thrashed by life in the first round. Only recently have his characters begun to achieve a measure of roundness, and as they have, the message of his work has shifted considerably. Once all one could draw from Carver's work was the moral that when life wasn't cruel it was silly. In several key stories since 1980, he has revealed to readers and characters alike that though they have long suffered the conviction that life is irredeemably trivial, in truth it is as profound as their wounds, and their substance is as large as the loss they suffer.
In their essay on Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1977), Carver's first major collection of stories, David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips call Carver's world one of "unarticulated longing, a world verging on silence"1 in which people speak with the "directionless quality, the silliness, the halting rhythm among people under the influence of marijuana," (80-81) and they rightly call such speech "realistic language of a different sort—a probe stuck beneath the skin of disassociation itself" (81). Indeed, it is hard for Carver's characters to say what they mean under any circumstances. Often they try to rephrase their ideas for inattentive listeners, who are as likely as they to be dulled by drugs, alcohol, and overeating. Thus speech is stuporous and communication far from perfect. However, for Boxer and Phillips "passivity is the strength of this language: little seems to be said, yet much is conveyed" (81) and they compare the simplicity of Carver's dialogue to Pinter's and write of "emotional violence lurking beneath the neutral surfaces." One could go further and assert that in his early stories Carver's obsessive subject is the failure of human dialogue, for talking fails in all but the title story of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and that story's message is that sometimes the best thing we can say is nothing.
The theme of failed speech is only slightly less domineering in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). An important exception is "The Calm."2 In the story, the narrator watches and listens from a barber chair while a drama unfolds. Its cast is composed of two pairs. In the first pair is Charles, a bank guard, who tells the men in the shop of having wounded a buck the day before, and old Albert, dying of emphysema, who is offended by Charles's brutality. Opposite them is a pair of men without names, the barber and the man with the newspaper. As the owner of the shop, the barber represents order and tranquility, while the other man is a nervous type who exacerbates the tension that develops between Charles and Albert. In allegorical terms the story combines Cruelty (Charles) and Disruption (the man with the newspaper) and makes them the antagonists of Humanity (Albert) and Order (the barber). The plot, then, is very simple: Disruption meddles in the inevitable conflict between Cruelty and Humanity and then step by step Order re-asserts itself. Thus calm is bestowed upon Order's client, the narrator in the barber chair, the witness or internal audience who has played no part in the drama but for whom the moral comes clear.
This primary narrator at moments gives way to a secondary narrator, the guard Charles, as he tells the story of the hunt which he undertook with his hang over son, a young man with a weak stomach and a worse aim. Scarcely a nimrod, Charles is defined by his doltishness and vulgarity. He tells of wounding the buck:
It was a gut shot. It just like stuns him. So he drops his head and begins this trembling. He trembles all over. The kid's still shooting. Me, I felt like I was back in Korea. So I shot again but missed. Then old Mr. Buck moves back into the bush. But now, by God, he doesn't have any oomph left in him. The kid has emptied his goddamn gun all to no purpose. But I hit solid. I rammed one right in his guts. That's what I meant by stunned him. (117)
In fact, the hemorrhaging animal has plenty of oomph left in him. Though father and vomiting son follow a gory track, by nightfall they haven't caught up with the wounded deer and abandon him to slow death and scavengers. Inept and immoral, the two renounce an obligation, one that a man of Albert's fiber would likely call sacred. Charles confuses hunting with war, and in doing so he travesties the deepest symbolism of the hunt and idiotically confuses the archetypes of violence and necessity. Yet one sees a measure of perverse respect in his assumption that a bullet in the intestines amounts to nothing more than stunning. This offends Albert, and he tells Charles "You ought to be out there right now looking for that deer instead of in here getting a haircut" (119). In other words, Albert asserts a principle that ought to be self-evident to an American man: hunting is not war; the animal is not an enemy to be loathed and tortured. Albert reminds him of his duty to administer a coup de grace and then, by butchering and eating the animal, justify the creature's fear and death.
That such a message is implied by Albert's straightforward statement is clear from Charles's retort: "You can't talk like that. You old fart. I've seen you someplace" (119). In a way his indignation is appropriate. Albert breaks a cultural rule as surely as the guard did in letting the wounded buck wander off. Moreover, in an American barbershop an egalitarian law inheres, and on entering one accepts a kind of truce similar to the set of restraints entering a church entails as one puts aside particulars of class and values. American males in their unspoken codes have reserved parking lots, alleys, bars, committee rooms, and the margins of athletic fields for physical and verbal violence, and they are likely to find arguments in barbershops as unsociable as spitting in a funeral parlor. Thus, the greatest deviant is the stranger with the newspaper, for his motive is malicious delight in causing trouble, in particular the disruption of the conventions of order. He is an "outside agitator" who brings out the worst in Charles and Albert, makes them breech the truce implied by the setting, and finally is more culpable than they for theirs are crimes of passion rather than malice. Albert is overpowered by righteous indignation, and Charles by the humiliation of being accused of breaking the masculine code of the hunt. The stranger defends nothing; rather, he seeks pleasure by provoking others.
The argument ends very soon, for once the barber asserts himself he easily vanquishes the man with the newspaper. First Charles leaves, complaining of the company, and then Albert goes, tossing off the comment that his hair can go without cutting for a few more days. Left with no one on whom to work his irascibility, the man with the newspaper fidgets. He gets up and looks around the shop, finds nothing to hold his attention, and then announces that he is going and disappears out the door. What has happened is not clear but the barber is nonplused. Although he sides with Albert, allowing that after all Albert had provocation, the barber was forced to keep the peace and has lost a line-up of clients. Temporarily in a bad humor, he says to the narrator, who has said and done nothing all along, "Well, do you want me to finish this barbering or not?" (121) in a tone that suggests to the narrator that the barber blames him for what has occurred.
The ill-feeling does not last. The barber holds the narrator's head and bends close and looks at him in the mirror while the narrator looks at himself. Then the barber stands and begins to rub his fingers through his hair, "slowly, as if thinking about something else," and "tenderly, as a lover would." The story is close to its end, and suddenly the reader has material before him that in no manner impinges on the events of the story and which, at first glance, appears irrelevant:
That was in Crescent City, California, up near the Oregon border. I left soon after. But today I was thinking of that place, of Crescent City, and of how I was trying out a new life there with my wife, and how, in the barber's chair that morning, I had made up my mind to go. I was thinking today about the calm I felt when I closed my eyes and let the barber's fingers move through my hair, the sweetness of those fingers, and the hair already starting to grow. (121)
Much was transpiring in the heart and mind of the narrator—who is also the internal audience—but in the long run only the general fact that he was coming to an important decision matters. Revealing the particulars of his life that bear upon the decision would shift the focus of "The Calm" from how we receive blessings from others to the use such blessings are to us. This would trivialize and demystify the story, for Carver means to imply that while important gifts can only be given to those ready to take them, we cannot give them to ourselves. They come from outside of us from barbers whose names we never learn, or, as "A Small, Good Thing" and "Cathedral"3 will show, from bakers and blind men whom coincidence brings into our lives. Once we read the final paragraph of "The Calm," we assume that the narrator was in a turbulent state of mind while making an ostensibly objective record, and though we see nothing of the process except the external sequence, we guess that what he witnesses makes him better able to bring order into his life. Hair grows out, and calm does not last, but the barber proves to the narrator that he cannot create order by himself, though, like Albert, who has developed a sour temper and has trouble breathing in old age, he can always let the matter go a few more days.
Procrastination is occasionally impossible. In "A Small, Good Thing," one of the best stories in the most recent collection, Cathedral (1984), Ann and Howard Weiss confront the destruction of well-being. Because they dare to confront the catastrophe of their son's death, they are rescued, in this case by their principal malefactor.
One Saturday Ann orders a birthday cake for a party for her son which will take place Monday afternoon. Monday morning the boy is struck by a car while walking to school. At first he appears little hurt, and walks home, but suddenly he loses consciousness and over several days his condition worsens as sleep subsides into coma and at last he dies. Meanwhile doctors, nurses, and technicians come and go, offering encouragement to the parents and looking for clues to why the boy won't wake. Each time the doctor revises his opinion of the boy's condition, Ann guesses the truth, and the discrepancy between what she is told and what actually happens broadens as the story advances. Yet the doctors are not lying. Their reason and their tests are deceiving them, and all the hypotheses, diagnoses, X-rays, and scans fail to reveal "a hidden occlusion," a "one-in-a-million circumstance," (80) that kills the child. Thus, while all the rational and objective ways of making sense are defeated, the truth persists in the mother's worst intuitions. When the boy dies, the doctors need an autopsy because things need explaining, and they must satisfy the need to know why their minds and machines failed. The parents must make sense in another way. They must voice an unspeakable grief, and they accomplish this by listening to someone else's suffering.
Early in the story Ann goes to the baker, a man who will torment her more than he can guess. Carver develops the scene:
She gave the baker her name. Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child's party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn't like that. While he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he'd ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. (60)
Much later in the story, while Ann sits by the phone after having called relatives to tell them of the boy's death, the baker phones. He has made several calls in the last few days—it was impossible to say precisely how many—and Howard and Ann have taken the calls as perverse jokes on the part of the hit-and-run driver. Through misapprehension, the cake and the boy come to have the same name, and the baker speaks in malicious metaphor when he says to the desperate woman, "Your Scotty, I got him ready for you. Did you forget him?" (83) This is language of an extraordinary kind. No longer "minimum exchange, or the necessary information," such an utterance is a linguistic perversion for it means most when misunderstood.
When it occurs to Ann that the baker is her tormentor, she and her husband rush down to the shopping center and beat on the back door in the middle of the night until the baker lets them in. There she lights into him:
"My son's dead," she said with a cold, even finality. "He was hit by a car Monday morning. We've been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn't be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can't know everything can they, Mr. Baker? But he's dead. He's dead, you bastard!" Just as suddenly as it had welled in her, the anger dwindled, gave way to something else, a dizzy feeling of nausea. She leaned against the wooden table that was sprinkled with flour, put her hands over her face, and began to cry, her shoulders rocking back and forth. "It isn't fair," she said. (86-87)
Nothing here can be misunderstood. The facts are plain and the steps in her understanding of what bakers can and cannot know are clear and logical. Her anger is pure, and purifying: it is as physical and overpowering as the nausea that succeeds it, and the emotion and the sensation are as honest and undeniable as her recognition that her son's death was not fair.
Her speech abolishes the social conventions, suspicions, and errors that brought them to the point of confrontation. Ann, Howard, and the baker are tangled in a subtle set of causes, and Carver suggests again, as he has in many stories (e.g. "The Train," "Feathers"), that through imperceptible and trivial dishonesties we create large lies that can only be removed by superhuman acts of self-assertion. In response to Ann's overwhelming honesty, the menaced baker puts down his rolling pin, clears places for them at the table, and makes them sit. He tells them that he is sorry, but they have little to say about their loss. Instead they take the coffee and rolls he serves them and listen while he tells them about his loneliness and doubt, and about the ovens, "endlessly empty and endlessly full" (89). They accept his life story as consolation, and while eating and listening achieve communion. Carver ends the story at dawn, with hope, and pushes forward symbols of sanctified space and the eucharist:
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They are what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of lights. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving. (89)
Carver's characters rarely achieve a transcendent acceptance of their condition as does Ann Weiss. Indeed, more commonly they resign themselves without struggle or thought. They are rarely attractive people, and often readers must work against a narrator's tendency to sound cretinous or Carver's propensity to reveal characters as bigots and dunces. As the story opens, the first-person narrator of "Cathedral" appears to be another in this series of unattractive types. He worries about the approaching visit of a friend of his wife, a blind man named Robert who was once the wife's employer. He has little experience with the blind and faces the visit anxiously. His summary of the wife's association with Robert is derisive, its syntax blunt and its humor fatiguing:
She'd worked with this blind man all summer. She read stuff to him, case studies, reports, that sort of thing. She helped him organize his little office in the county social service department. They'd become good friends my wife and the blind man. How do I know these things? She told me. And she told me something else. On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed to this. She told me he ran his fingers over every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it. She was always writing a poem. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important happened to her. (210)
Clearly he is jealous, and so emphasizes the eroticism of the blind man's touch. But she was leaving the blind man's office to marry her childhood sweetheart, an officer in the Air Force whom the narrator refers to as "this man who'd first enjoyed her favors" (210), and much of his jealousy toward the first husband transfers to the blind man Robert. Thus Robert sexually threatens the narrator, with his blindness, and by virtue of being a representative of a past that is meaningful to the wife. The narrator is selfish and callous; however, he is one of Carver's heavy drinkers and no reader could be drawn through "Cathedral" because he cares for him, and perhaps what pushes one into the story is a fear of the harm he may do to his wife and her blind friend. Yet Carver redeems the narrator by releasing him from the figurative blindness that results in a lack of insight into his own condition and which leads him to trivialize human feelings and needs. Indeed, so complete is his misperception that the blind man gives him a faculty of sight that he is not even aware that he lacks.
The wife and blind man have kept in touch over the years, a period of change and grief for each, by sending tape recordings back and forth. The life of a military wife depressed the young woman and led to her divorce from her first husband, but the narrator's view of her suffering is flat and without compassion:
She told the blind man she'd written a poem and he was in it. She told him that she was writing a poem about what it was like to be an Air Force officer's wife in the Deep South. The poem wasn't finished yet. She was still writing it. The blind man made a tape. He sent her the tape. She made a tape. This went on for years. My wife's officer was posted to one base and then another. She sent tapes from Moody AFB, McGuire, McConnell, and finally Travis, near Sacramento, where one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She balked, couldn't go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine cabinet and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got in a hot bath and passed out.
But instead of dying she got sick. She threw up. (211)
Suicide is mundane, for him merely a question of balking at life, and dying is roughly the equivalent to throwing up, something one might do instead, much as the narrator stays up nights drunk and stoned in front of the television as an antidote to the "crazy" dreams that trouble his sleep. To his credit, he does not claim moral superiority to his wife, and sees the waste of his drinking and the cowardice of staying in a job he can neither leave nor enjoy. He is numb and isolated, a modern man for whom integration with the human race would be so difficult that it is futile. Consequently he hides by failing to try, anesthetizes himself with booze, and explains away the world with sarcasm. He does nothing to better his lot. Rather he invents strategies for keeping things as they are and will back off from even the most important issues. When he wisecracks that he might take the blind man bowling, his wife rebukes him: "If you love me, 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" (212). Each ignores that she says him, not her, and the emotional blackmail of "if you don't love me, okay" appears not to register. He responds that he hasn't any blind friends, and when she reminds him that he hasn't any friends at all, much less blind ones, he becomes sullen and withdraws from the conversation. What she has said is aggressive and true and to respond to it would imply recognition of the many and large insufficiencies of his life. Instead, he works away at a drink and listens while she tells him about Beulah, the blind man's wife who has recently died of cancer. There's no facing this subject. He listens for a while as she talks about Beulah:
"Was his wife a Negro?" I asked.
"Are you crazy?" my wife said. "Have you just flipped or something?"
She picked up a potato. I saw it hit the floor, then roll under the stove.
"What's wrong with you?" she said. "Are you drunk?"
"I'm just asking," I said.
Right then my wife filled me in with more detail than I cared to know. I made a drink and sat at the kitchen table to listen. Pieces of the story began to fall into place. (212-213)
Death is a subject they touch on often but never pursue, and they go on as married couples do in Carver's stories, never forcing a point because each hurt touches on another hurt. Thus, because each serious effort risk the destruction of a stuporous status quo that he maintains by various strategies of denial, they never touch each other.
The narrator inadvertently makes a friend of the blind man. At the end of an evening of whiskey and conversation that bewilder him and leave him sitting alone in his resentment, he is left with Robert when his wife goes upstairs to change into her robe. Together they sit, the narrator watching the late news, Robert listening, his ear turned toward the television, his unseeing eyes turned disconcertingly on the narrator. After the news there is a program about cathedral architecture and the narrator tries to explain to Robert what a cathedral looks like. They smoke some marijuana and he blunders on, failing to express the visual effect of a cathedral's soaring space to a man who, as far as the narrator can tell, has no analogues for spatial dimension. When Robert asks what a fresco is, the narrator is at a complete loss. The blind man proposes a solution, and on a heavy paper bag the narrator draws a cathedral while Robert's hand rides his. He begins with a box and pointed roof that could be his own house, and adds spires, buttresses, windows, and doors, and at last he has elaborated a gothic cathedral in lines pressed hard into the paper. When Robert takes his hand and makes him close his eyes to touch the cathedral, he "sees." Even when he is told that he can open his eyes, he chooses not to, for he is learning what he has long been incapable of perceiving and even now can not articulate:
I thought I'd keep them that way a little longer. I thought it was something I ought not to forget.
"Well?" he said. "Are you looking?"
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house and I knew that. But I didn't feel inside anything.
"It's really something." I said. (228)
The cathedral, of course, is the space that does not limit, and his perception of something—objective, substantial, meaningful—that cannot be seen with ordinary sight depends on his having to perceive as another perceives. In fictional terms, he learns to shift point of view. In emotional terms, he learns to feel empathy. In the moment when the blind man and the narrator share an identical perception of spiritual space, the narrator's sense of enclosure—of being confined by his own house and circumstances—vanishes as if by an act of grace, or a very large spiritual reward for a virtually insignificant gesture. Following the metaphor of the story, the narrator learns to see with eyes other than that insufficient set that keeps him a friendless drunk and a meager husband.
In a reminiscence on John Gardner, his late teacher, Carver pauses to reflect that at some point in late youth or early middle age we all face the inevitability of our failure and we suffer "the suspicion that we're taking on water, and that things are not working out in our lives the way we'd planned."4 For a time there is nothing anyone can do against the debilitating effect of such a recognition. But in "The Calm," "A Small, Good Thing," and "Cathedral," protagonists are taken from behind by understanding. When it occurs, understanding comes as the result of an unearned and unexpected gift, a kind of grace constituted in human contact that a fortunate few experience. Of course, Carver does not imply a visitation of the Holy Ghost, nor does he argue that salvation is apt to fall on the lowliest of creatures in the moment of their greatest need as it does, say, in Flannery O'Connor, whose benighted Ruby Turpin in "Revelation" is saved in spite of herself when shown the equality of all souls in the sight of God. Grace, Carver says, is bestowed upon us by other mortals, and it comes suddenly, arising in circumstances as mundane as a visit to the barber shop, and in the midst of feelings as ignoble or quotidian as jealousy, anger, loneliness, and grief. It can be represented in incidental physical contact, and the deliverer is not necessarily aware of his role. Not Grace in the Christian sense at all, it is what grace becomes in a godless world—a deep and creative connection between humans that reveals to Carver's alienated and diminished creatures that there can be contact in a world they supposed was empty of sense or love. Calm is given in a touch, a small, good thing is the food we get from others, and in the cathedrals we draw together, we create large spaces for the spirit.
1. David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?: Voyeurism, Dissociation, and the Art of Raymond Carver," The Iowa Review, 10 (1979), 84.
2. "The Calm" is collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981).
3. Both stories appear in Carver's most recent collection of fiction. Cathedral (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).
4. "John Gardner," The Georgia Review, 37 (1983), 418.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892
SOURCE: "Raymond Carver's Cathedral," in Pieces of Resistance, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 162-66.
[In the following essay, Goodheart analyzes Carver's moral code, arguing that he is at his best when his characters adhere to it.]
The affectless narrative voice of a Raymond Carver story defends itself against surprise or shock or pain. The most banal situations propose inexplicable signs of menace that require, in response, a discipline of unemotional terseness. Nothing much happens at the dinner party in "Feathers," the first of the stories in Carver's latest collection, except for the weird appearance of a vulture-sized peacock, which stares at the guests and to which Jack, the narrator, responds at intervals with three "god damns," as if the word were a talisman for preserving equanimity. The peacock, the plaster cast of misshapen teeth on top of the TV, the very ugly baby of the hosts give the story a quality of surreal menace that never quite materializes. Though nothing of consequence happens at the dinner, the friendship between the men (the wives have just been introduced to each other) is significantly altered. "We're still friends. That hasn't changed any. But I've gotten careful with what I say to him. And I know he feels that and wishes it could be different. I wish it could be too." Every detail conspires to estrange the friends from each other, whatever else they might wish.
The threat to Carver's characters lies within. They are vulnerable to their own weakness. Informed by his landlord that he must vacate a house he has rented, Wes of "The Chef's House" refuses to be consoled by his estranged wife. "'Suppose,' [she asks him to imagine], 'nothing had ever happened.'" But Wes, a half-reformed alcoholic, can imagine no such power and freedom for himself. "'I don't have that kind of supposing left in me. We were born who we are.'" Here the narrator is the wife who has imagined such freedom, a freedom that would make it possible for them to get back together, but who at the end acknowledges her husband's incapacity for it. "We'll clean it up tonight, I thought, and that will be the end of it."
Carver's characters are alcoholic, unemployed, occasionally violent to their spouses and children, victims of passion or circumstance. They are characters on the margins of middle-class life with the values and occupations of the middle class: sales people, teachers, business people, who nevertheless seem always on the brink of lumpen existence. They do not quite fall out of the middle class, but the threat of catastrophic failure seems always imminent. They live transient lives in rooms, apartments, and houses which either do not belong to them or to which they do not belong. Neither the utilities nor the furniture can ever be depended on—as if the external world had taken on the emotional uncertainty or inertia of the inner lives of the characters.
Carver writes of a time (the present) when everything seems to have gone wrong. In "Preservation," the breakdown of a refrigerator plunges the husband into despair because he remembers that his folks had one that lasted twenty-three years. Carver, with perhaps a bit too much contrivance, makes the fridge and the thawing packages of frozen food an objective correlative for the moral desolation of the time. Yet he also suggests that it may be an illusion that things have changed for the worse. The wife's parents, after all, were divorced, the father had disappeared from her life, and he had died in a car that leaked carbon monoxide.
Have things changed, or is change an illusion? Carver's answer to such a question is a double perspective, true to our experience of both past and present. The past seems better than the present until we recall the actual events of the past; but such recollection cannot alter our sense of present hopelessness or meaninglessness. Right now, whatever the past was and meant to the people who lived it, there is a general sense that things have not only gone wrong, but that they'll never be right again. America, the land of the future, suddenly seems at the end of its tether. Carver's fiction doesn't explicitly encompass conditions of structural unemployment, incorrigible violence in our cities, the closed frontier, and our sense of baffled manifest destiny, but he has superbly caught the mood generated by these conditions.
Even some of Carver's admirers have found the sad passivity of his characters a limitation of his art. In his review of Cathedral, Irving Howe mentions the judgment of a friend who finds the work "cold" and then goes on to construe the judgment as referring to "a note of disdain toward the people he creates," an impatience with "the resignation of his characters." Howe even hears in this note a wish that "they would rebel against the constrictions of their lives." I for one hear neither the note of disdain nor the note of impatience. The story "Chef's House" knows that Wes's inability to suppose is more authentic than the wife's desire not "to hear him talk like this." He is sorry, but he can't help it. "'I can't talk like somebody I'm not. If I was somebody else, I wouldn't be me. But I'm who I am.'" His wife in effect acknowledges Wes's truth with an economical sympathy that is characteristic of the narrative voice in most of the stories. "Wes, it's all right, I said. I brought his hand to my cheek."
Wes could be speaking of the moral aspect of Carver's art as well as of his own character. In his first collection of stories, In Our Time, Hemingway presented characters, not unlike Carver's in their terseness, who refused to act up to feelings that they didn't have. The false note for Carver, as for Hemingway, is supposing yourself to be other than you are.
Like Hemingway's characters, Carver's characters possess a code (there is even the code of the alcoholic) which dictates their behavior. There is a right way and a wrong way to be despairing, or ineffectual, or lost. Carver actually gives us an aesthetic of failure. This is why I find Carver's prizewinning "A Small, Good Thing" flawed in its attempt to redeem the "evil" baker, who unknowingly intrudes upon the lives of the grief-stricken parents of a dead child, continually phoning them to remind them of the birthday cake they had ordered and forgotten to pick up. The baker, sullen and dimly conceived through most of the story, suddenly becomes a figure of compassion, who asks forgiveness for the kind of man he has become. "I was a different kind of human being," he says. Perhaps. But the concluding episode in which he tries to console the parents with coffee and freshly baked bread strikes me as a bit of willed Dickensian sentimentality.
There is, of course, the danger that the very limitations of these characters and the medium in which they live will produce monotonous art. The danger is reduced, however, by Carver's resourcefulness in creating a variety of events and effects. How different and yet alike are the two stories of ineffectual husbands, "The Chef's House" and "Preservation." Only on rare occasions does the weirdness of a Carver story fail to emerge "organically" from the situation and seem contrived, an unnecessary turn of the screw. In an early story, "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," the hero's mother is a sixty-five year old swinger, whom her son discovers kissing a man on the sofa of her house, an unusual but plausible scene of our time. But when the son remembers one of her former lovers, "an unemployed aerospace engineer," who walked with "a limp from a gunshot wound his first wife gave him," we seem to have entered the zone of jokiness. The integrity of "The Student's Wife" (a story in an earlier collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?) is also slightly compromised because it introduces the main character as an admirer of Rilke, whose poems he reads to his wife in bed. The rest of the story beautifully unfolds the insomnia and despair of the wife, who loses her husband every night to a heavy "jaws clenched" sleep. Rilke is an irrelevance. Carver's tact, his instinct for the right detail, is usually so sure that the rare failure jars.
One can see in the title story, "Cathedral," which appropriately concludes the present volume, an effort on Carver's part to transcend his medium, or rather to find within the medium the gestures of fancy or imagination that will reduce its poverty. "Cathedral" is told like many Carver stories in a somewhat disconsolate voice, that of a husband bemused by his wife, who has invited home a blind man for whom she had worked as a reader and helper many years before. The disconsolateness disappears, however, in the extraordinary relationship that develops between the two men, in which the husband teaches the blind man to visualize a cathedral by having him hold his hand as he draws it. As in D. H. Lawrence's story, "The Blind Man," blindness becomes a metaphor for imagination: the power of the mind to ascend to the spires. Carver's story risks pretentiousness, but wholly avoids it, for he preserves in the telling the simplicity and authenticity of language that characterize all his stories.
Carver's minimal art achieves maximal effects. Frank Kermode, I think, is right to speak as he did of Carver's capacity to evoke "a whole moral condition" in a seemingly slight sketch. One wonders where Carver will go from here. He is a lyric poet, who writes verse as well as stories. It is hard to imagine him working in the more extended form of the novel. In a revealing autobiographical essay (see In Praise of What Persist, edited by Stephen Berg), Carver describes his career as a short-story writer as a response to the baleful influence of his children, who did not allow him time for the longer effort of the novel. The circumstances of his life produced a "discovery" about the novel.
To write a novel, it seemed to me, a writer should be living in a world that makes sense, a world that the writer can believe in, draw a bead on, and then write about accurately. A world that will, for a time anyway, stay fixed in one place. Along with this there has to be a belief in the essential correctness of that world. A belief that the known world has reasons for existing, and is worth writing about—is not likely to go up in smoke in the process. This wasn't the case with the world I knew and was living in. My world was one that seemed to change gears and directions, along with its rules, every day. Time and again I reached the point where I couldn't see or plan any further ahead than the first of next month and gathering together enough money, by hook or by crook, to meet rent and provide the children's school clothes.
Although Carver's is not the only possible world, it is one in which many people live, and one he writes very accurately about. In the paradoxically lyric way of the minimalist writer, Carver has not only made sense of this world, he has given it value.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4521
SOURCE: "Blind, Intertextual Love: 'The Blind Man' and Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral'," in D. H. Lawrence's Literary Inheritors, edited by Keith Cushman and Dennis Jackson, Macmillan, 1991, pp. 155-66.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in Études lawrenciennes in 1988, Cushman states that although Carver was not influenced by D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Blind Man" when Carver wrote "Cathedral," the stories are very similar.]
Anyone who reads Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral', the title-story of his 1983 collection, with a knowledge of D. H. Lawrence's short stories might easily conclude that 'Cathedral' is a shrewd, intriguing rewriting of 'The Blind Man'. Carver's tale presents a scrambled reprise of the crucial elements of Lawrence's great story. Lawrence's triangle of characters consists of a blind husband (Maurice Pervin), his wife (Isabel), and the wife's sighted friend (Bertie Reid). In 'Cathedral', the unnamed husband and wife are sighted, but the wife's visiting friend (Robert) is blind. The interplay of husband, wife, and visitor comprises the slight action of both stories. Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' conclude with a potentially transforming act of ritual communion between the two men. The husband in 'Cathedral' genuinely enters Robert's world of blindness; Maurice Pervin does not realize how badly his attempted communion with Bertie has failed. The evidence seems clear: Carver uses Lawrence's story as the scaffolding for his own.
'Cathedral' is typical of Carver's stories in presenting trapped characters leading lives at once banal and nightmarish. As in W. H. Auden's 'As I Walked Out One Evening', 'the crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead'. Carver is a master at presenting what Gary L. Fisketjon has called the 'terrifying implications of Normal Life' (qtd. in Stull 237). As Joe David Bellamy has put it, '[b]eneath the surface conventionality of [Carver's] salesmen, waitresses, bookkeepers, or hopeless middle-class "occupants" lies a morass of unarticulated [sic] yearnings and unexamined horrors; repressed violence, the creeping certainty that nothing matters, perverse sexual wishes, the inadmissible evidence of inadequacy' (qtd. in Stull 239). With failed communication and missed connections so ubiquitous in Carver's stories, the mysterious but unmistakable oneness experienced by the husband and Robert at the end of 'Cathedral' has a powerful impact, especially since the story concludes the collection. Indeed, beginning with 'Cathedral', Carver's work became somewhat less bleak and chilly.
In 'Cathedral', Carver enigmatically dramatizes the possibility of human change and redemption. This element of 'Cathedral' is made all the more compelling by the awareness that Carver is rewriting the end of Lawrence's story, where no real communion takes place. One story resonates against the other. 'Cathedral' offers a complex critique of 'The Blind Man' even as it draws upon it. Chalk up one more striking example of Lawrence's influence on contemporary fiction writers.
This argument is vitiated by one major flaw. Raymond Carver wrote me in autumn 1987 that though he 'had read those three or four stories of [Lawrence's] that are always anthologized—"The Horse Dealer's Daughter" and "Tickets, Please" and one or two others', he had not read 'The Blind Man' when he wrote 'Cathedral'. Carver does acknowledge that when he read 'The Blind Man', not long after writing 'Cathedral', he liked Lawrence's story 'a good deal'. He even had his students at Syracuse read 'The Blind Man' 'in the fall term of 1982 (when [he] first read the story)'. Still, he does not 'recall noticing any, or many, similarities' to his own story when he read 'The Blind Man'. He also supplies a fascinating account of the genesis of 'Cathedral':
The thing that sparked the story was the visit of a blind man to our house! It's true. Well, stories have to come from someplace, yes? Anyway, this blind man did pay us a visit and even spent the night. But there all similarities end. The rest of the story was cobbled up from this and that, naturally.
Thus, the Lawrentian scaffolding of 'Cathedral' collapses.1
Though my study of the influence of 'The Blind Man' on 'Cathedral' has abruptly ended, you will note that my essay continues. The very existence of Lawrence's strong text about three characters—wife, blind man, visiting old friend of the wife—creates a powerful intertextual relationship between the stories. To Julia Kristeva, intertextuality 'has nothing to do with matters of influence by one writer upon another, or with the sources of a literary work'. Rather, it is defined 'as the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another' (qtd. in Roudiez 15). Roland Barthes expands upon this definition in noting that
any text is an intertext; other texts are present in it, at varying levels, in more or less recognisable forms: the texts of the previous and surrounding culture. Any text is a new tissue of past citations. Bits of codes, formulae, rhythmic models, fragments of social languages, etc. pass into the text and are redistributed within it, for there is always language before and around the text. Intertextuality, the condition of any text whatsoever, cannot … be reduced to a problem of sources or influences…. (Barthes 39)
Though Carver had not read 'The Blind Man' when he wrote 'Cathedral', he nevertheless produced a story that resides within the intertextual orbit of 'The Blind Man'. The stories speak to and illuminate one another. Fredric Jameson, commenting on Lawrence Kazdan's movie Body Heat (which he sees as a new version of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice), notes that 'our awareness of the preexistence of other versions, previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself, is now a constitutive and essential part of the film's structure' (67). 'The Blind Man' is similarly present in our response to 'Cathedral'—and vice versa.
Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' associate blindness with a greater depth of being than is possible in the rational, limited sighted world. Over the centuries, the blindness trope has importantly signified the distinction between sight and insight. In classical mythology, the blind seer Tiresias perfectly embodies this tradition. When Oedipus gouges out his eyes, he is violently dramatizing his hard-won knowledge that all along he had been 'blind'. His decision literally to blind himself contains a triumphant element, for the deeper understanding associated with blindness is to be preferred to the superficial grasp of reality associated with sight. The blinding of Gloucester in King Lear follows the same paradigm: paradoxically, Gloucester can 'see' only after being blinded. Mr. Rochester is temporarily blinded at the end of Jane Eyre while selflessly trying to rescue his mad wife from the burning Thornfield Hall. Again blindness is associated with greater insight.
'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral', each in its own way, draw on this blindness trope, for Lawrence's blind Maurice and Carver's blind Robert see more deeply than their sighted counterparts. In 'The Blind Man', blindness is associated with instinct and the unconscious; in 'Cathedral', it finally represents an experience of self-abnegation and shared transcendence. Both tales rewrite a story central to the Western tradition. Both are rooted in the same cultural and literary heritage.
'The Blind Man', written in 1918 just after the Armistice, was first collected in England, My England and Other Stories (1922). World War I provides the background for many of these stories. Maurice Pervin, blinded and disfigured in Flanders has lived at the Grange with his wife Isabel for a year. He does menial work around the farm and discovers that his life seems 'peaceful with the almost incomprehensible peace of immediate contact in darkness'. He and the pregnant Isabel spend time talking, singing, and reading together 'in a wonderful and unspeakable intimacy'. She also reviews books for a Scottish newspaper, carrying on an 'old interest' (347).
The Pervins share a 'whole world, rich and real and invisible', but sometimes Isabel suffers from a 'weariness, a terrible ennui', and Maurice is overcome by 'devastating fits of depression, which seemed to lay waste his whole being' (347). Though Isabel believes that 'husband and wife should be so important to one another, that the rest of the world simply did not count' (349), the strain of her difficult, complex marriage makes her yearn for 'connection with the outer world' (348). When her old friend Bertie Reid, barrister, Scotsman, and minor literary man, writes, she invites him to visit.
Maurice has encouraged Isabel to invite Bertie, for, isolated in his blindness, he yearns to make contact with his wife's old friend. Like Birkin in Women in Love, he seems to feel that an intimate relationship with a woman is not enough. But the visit is not a success. The high tea prepared by Isabel for the two men makes Maurice restless, and he retreats to the barn, where he sits pulping turnips. Isabel sends Bertie out through the wind and rain to fetch her husband. In the barn, 'filled with hot, poignant love, the passion of friendship', Maurice is eager that he and his wife's friend should 'know each other'. He runs his hand over Bertie's skull and face and then grasps the 'shoulder, the arm, the hand of the other man'. When Maurice asks his visitor to touch his eyes, Bertie, trying unsuccessfully 'by any means to escape', lays 'his fingers on the scarred eyes'. Maurice covers Bertie's fingers 'with his own hand, [pressing] the fingers of the other man upon his disfigured eye-sockets, trembling in every fibre' (364). Maurice proclaims that he and Bertie have 'become friends', but Bertie cannot bear it 'that he had been touched by the blind man, his insane reserve broken in'. He is 'like a mollusc whose shell is broken' (365). No wonder Lawrence described the end of 'The Blind Man' as 'queer and ironical' (Letters III 303).
A Lawrentian schema can be discerned beneath the surface of 'The Blind Man'. Maurice and Bertie represent two Lawrentian poles of being. Maurice does not 'think much or trouble much' but lives in the 'sheer immediacy of blood-contact with the substantial world' (355). With his 'slow' mind and 'quick and acute' feelings, he is 'just the opposite to Bertie, whose mind was much quicker than his emotions'. The brittle Bertie is a 'man of letters, a Scotsman of the intellectual type, quick, ironical, sentimental' (349). He cannot 'approach women physically' (359). Maurice and his world of darkness are too much for him. At tea, Bertie, both fascinated and repulsed by the blind man, looks away from him and, 'without knowing what he did', picks up a 'little crystal bowl of violets from the table, and held them to his nose' (358), retreating to the safe world of polite civilization and refinement.
Isabel is caught between the extremes embodied in these antithetical men. Bertie is essentially neuter, and Isabel is devoted to Maurice. Nevertheless, the Maurice-Isabel-Bertie triangle includes a submerged erotic element. Isabel feels fulfilled by the 'blood-prescience' (355) she experiences through Maurice; she 'couldn't do without' his 'presence—indefinable—.' But she also feels isolated and incomplete and longs for Bertie's intellect. Of course, Bertie is unable to rise to the occasion. He observes to Isabel that there is '[s]omething lacking all the time' in her relationship with her husband but suggests lamely—and self-reflexively—that everyone is 'deficient somewhere' (361). The erotic tension is most visible in the scene in which Bertie and Isabel chat shortly after his arrival while 'helpless desolation' (356) comes over the shut-out Maurice.
The uninitiated reader of Lawrence is apt to conclude that 'The Blind Man' offers a simple lesson in the value of living in the darkness. The 'sheer immediacy of blood-contact with the substantial world' creates for Maurice a 'certain rich positivity, bordering sometimes on rapture'. We too should learn Maurice's 'new way of consciousness' (355) and should discover the 'peace of immediate contact in darkness' (347).
But as Janice Harris reminds us, 'Lawrence is not an advocate of any one way of knowing, blood prescience included' (278). The 'rich suffusion' (355) of Maurice's state sometimes becomes swamp-like and overwhelming. 'The Blind Man' is actually a parable of unintegrated being, of the impossibility of bringing together body and mind, darkness and light.
Carver's 'Cathedral' lacks such allegorical resonances, but it reads like a dream-image of Lawrence's story. As in 'The Blind Man', the intrusion of a visiting outsider breaks an imperfect marital equilibrium. As in Lawrence's story, Carver's characters eat together and talk inconsequentially while the husband grows jealous and uneasy. The husband is insecure; the wife feels that something is lacking in her marriage. The tension generated by 'Cathedral', like that in 'The Blind Man', is resolved by a surprising ending. Carver's story is also like Lawrence's in developing a fundamental dialectic between sight and blindness.
The husband narrates 'Cathedral', providing the story with the off-hand, colloquial texture characteristic of Carver's fiction. Robert, the blind man who is an old friend of the narrator's wife, does not conform to stereotypes of blindness. He has a beard and a booming voice, his clothes are 'spiffy' (216); he does not use a cane or wear dark glasses; he owns two television sets. Like Bertie Reid, the husband is uncomfortable with the other man's blindness: 'his being blind bothered me' (209). The narrator perceives the visitor as a threat.
The three people drink lots of scotch, they eat dinner, they smoke marijuana, they watch television (though of course the blind man cannot see). The wife falls asleep on the sofa as her husband and the blind man watch a late-night television program about medieval cathedrals. Robert asks the narrator to describe a cathedral to him—not an easy task. The narrator soon gives up, remarking that 'cathedrals don't mean anything special to me. Nothing'. Robert then suggests that they 'draw [a cathedral] together': 'He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. "Go ahead, bub, draw," he said'. Though the narrator is 'no artist', he starts drawing and can't stop. 'You got it, bub', encourages the blind man (226-7). The wife awakens, but the husband continues to draw. Robert asks him to close his eyes, and he does. The blind man's 'fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now' (228). The story ends enigmatically:
I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.
'It's really something,' I said. (228)
The submerged erotic tension of Lawrence's story is closer to the surface in 'Cathedral'. The narrator, emotionally estranged from his wife, is unable to make human contact with anyone. He conceals his self-pity behind cynical humor, meanwhile keeping everyone at a distance. Jealous of his wife's first husband, the 'man who'd first enjoyed her favors', he is also jealous of her blind friend, who years ago had said goodbye to her by touching 'his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck!' (210). The husband's jealous feelings are probably not misplaced: 'My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn't like what she saw' (215).
The husband attempts to deaden his inner pain by pursuing various forms of sensory oblivion with his wife: the heavy drinking, marijuana smoking, and 'serious eating': 'We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn't talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed that table' (217). Bertie Reid is effete and intellectual, the husband in 'Cathedral' is crude and unintellectual, but both reveal the limitations of sightedness.
The wife also seeks oblivion, for she too finds herself in a bad way emotionally. Like Isabel in 'The Blind Man', she is an in-between character. This different woman suffers from aimlessness and anomie. Her suicide attempt at the breakup of her first marriage tells us that, unlike her husband, she at least does not hide from her emotions. She also writes poetry in order to confront and examine her life. (In contrast, the husband remarks sourly that poetry is not 'the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read' .) Her happiness over her old friend's visit also demonstrates her openness to human contact. The husband notices that she is 'wearing a smile' when she returns from the train depot with the blind man. 'Just amazing' (214), he says. She is one of the walking wounded, whereas her husband is one of the living dead.
In 'The Blind Man', Lawrence revisits, rethinks, and in some ways parodies important themes and ideas in Women in Love, which he had essentially completed by November 1917. Like the novel but in miniature, the story dramatizes and questions the possibility of significant relationship, man to woman and man to man (and man and woman to the cosmos). 'The Blind Man' also resembles Women in Love in its central fascination with wholeness of being. The butterflies Ursula looks at and the 'fleshy' water-plants in the 'soft, oozy, watery mud' both represent principles of life. How can a person incorporate both principles—the light and the darkness, the 'silver river of life' and the 'black river' (19, 172)—into his being?
In Women in Love, Lawrence explores these difficult questions with high seriousness and great intensity. The novel leaves the questions unresolved, for Lawrence is too great an artist to force resolutions where no real resolutions are to be found. Nevertheless, the novel's rawness and turbulence express his urgent effort to discover the dynamic unifying principle that would bring man and woman together, man and man together, body and soul together. 'The Crown' and the late additions to Twilight in Italy are characterized by the same restless quest after the absolute. Though he offers no clear answers in any of these works, he genuinely seeks such answers. The Rainbow had pointed hopefully toward the possibility of personal integration, but Women in Love is more troubled, problematic, and open-ended.
Any truths offered by Women in Love—if truths there be—are at best fragile and provisional. If in Women in Love Lawrence pursues ultimates, in 'The Blind Man' and most of the other England, My England stories, he seems content (or even pleased) to acknowledge that no such ultimates are available. Women in Love is urgent and impassioned; 'The Blind Man' is detached and sardonic. 'The Blind Man' revisits the notions of Blutbrüderschaft and wholeness of being, so crucial to Women in Love, but almost by way of playing artistic games with them. As brilliant as the story is, it has something of the jeu d'esprit about it.
Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' explore the possibility of male bonding. Isabel is not present in the final scene of 'The Blind Man'. The 'wife in 'Cathedral' is awake at the end of the story, but is excluded from the two men's experience. She does not join them in their darkness. 'Cathedral' is most powerfully like 'The Blind Man' in the attempted ritual communion between blind and sighted male characters with which both stories end.
Maurice's attempt to make contact with Bertie is both abortive and destructive. The conclusion of the story rewrites the naked wrestling match in the 'Gladiatorial' chapter of Women in Love. Birkin and Gerald almost seem to obliterate the boundaries separating them: 'Often, in the white, interlaced knot of violent living being that swayed silently, there was no head to be seen, only the swift, tight limbs, the solid white backs, the physical junction of two bodies clinched into oneness' (270). But if Birkin and Gerald come close to achieving oneness, Maurice's reaching out toward Bertie only accentuates the terrible gulf of separateness.
It is not often observed that the laying on of hands at the end of 'The Blind Man' is in part comic. Bertie agrees—'in a small voice'—to let Maurice touch him out of fear and 'very philanthropy'. When Maurice stretches out his 'strong, naked hand to him' (363), he accidentally knocks Bertie's hat off—a detail worthy of Samuel Beckett. Just as in 'Gladiatorial', Maurice's concerted laying on of hands includes a covertly sexual element. Maurice 'seemed to take him, in the soft, traveling grasp', and Bertie stands 'as if in a swoon'. Bertie is 'mute and terror-struck', afraid 'lest the other man should suddenly destroy him'. The final irony is that for all of his blood-prescience and instinctual connection with the dark forces of nature. Maurice Pervin does not know what he is doing in the final scene because—simply and comically—he is blind. Though Bertie is broken by the experience in the barn, the deluded Maurice feels triumphant: 'The new delicate fulfilment of mortal friendship had come as a revelation and surprise to him, something exquisite and unhoped-for' (364).
Bertie's eyes are closed when Maurice runs his hand over his face. At the end of the story, Bertie is 'haggard, with sunken eyes'; his eyes are 'as if glazed with misery' (364, 365). But, unlike the narrator of 'Cathedral', he has never entered Maurice's rich realm of darkness. Darkness and light, body and mind, all the familiar Lawrentian dualisms are doomed to remain forever apart. Lawrence's sardonic joke at the end of the story is at his own expense.
Raymond Carver has said that 'Cathedral' is 'totally different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before'. When he wrote the story, he 'experienced this rush and I felt, "This is what it's all about, this is the reason we do this'" ('Art' 210). The 'opening up' Carver experienced in writing the story is most strikingly reflected in the conclusion, which, as I have shown, powerfully rewrites the communion scene in 'The Blind Man'.
The details of touch in the two stories are similar. Maurice Pervin covers Bertie Reid's hand with his own, pressing the 'fingers of the other man upon his disfigured eye-sockets', and Bertie stands 'as if in a swoon, unconscious, imprisoned' (364). In contrast, in 'Cathedral' when Robert's fingers 'rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper', '[i]t was like nothing else in my life up to now' (228). Though the end of Carver's story is cryptic, there is no denying the oneness experienced by the two men in their community of touch and darkness.
It is no accident that the narrator and Robert draw a cathedral—a fact beautifully underscored by Carver's choice of title—for the implications of the story are somehow religious. Tellingly, the blind man asks if the husband is 'in any way religious'. He responds, 'I guess I don't believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it's hard' (225). Yet the shared experience at the end of the story offers a glimpse of religious belief. When the two men draw together, making physical contact, one blind and the other with his eyes closed, the narrator experiences transcendence, an experience 'like nothing else in my life', an experience in which he does not 'feel like I was inside anything' (228). The story even conjures up a vision of lost religious community when the blind man tells the narrator: 'Put some people in there now. What's a cathedral without people?' (227).
Lawrence's world of darkness is sacred but insufficient, for the darkness cannot be reconciled with its necessary antithesis. When Maurice forces the sighted Bertie to enter his all-encompassing darkness, he destroys him. In contrast, the narrator of 'Cathedral' truly enters Robert's darkness, and that darkness is redemptive.
'The Blind Man' communicates the unavoidable separateness between people. Sixty-five years later, Carver reimagines the story and finds a way to dramatize the possibility of renewed, revitalized human contact, to suggest that the barriers between self and self can be broken down. The story perfectly embodies Carver's remark that though he was not religious, he had to 'believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection' ('Art' 212). At the end of 'Cathedral', the bruised, strung-out, cynical narrator has reentered the human community. Lawrence may have considered himself a 'passionately religious man' (Letters II 165), but he believed in struggle and commitment, not miracles. Resurrection never comes easily in Lawrence's works.
No doubt 'Cathedral' had a personal dimension for Raymond Carver. He had much to overcome en route to becoming one of America's best, most influential short story writers: estrangement from wife and children, long years of dreary jobs, difficulty in getting established as a writer, a terrible history of alcoholism, before lung cancer finally killed him at the age of 50. The haunting affirmations of 'Cathedral' reflect the hopeful upswing in the last decade of Carver's life as much as the change in his way of writing. These affirmations connect with the sense of moral certitude he articulated in 1981, proclaiming that 'in the best novels and short stories, goodness is recognized as such. Loyalty, love, fortitude, courage, integrity may not always be rewarded, but they are recognized as good or noble…. There are a few absolutes in this life, some verities, if you will, and we would do well not to forget them' (qtd. in Stull 242). Such absolutes and verities were unavailable to the author of 'The Blind Man' two generations earlier, no matter how strenuously he sought them. 'Cathedral', which yearns for absolutes, contains 'The Blind Man', which denies that absolutes are possible.
Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' are spun out of one of the hoariest clichés of our culture: love is blind. In 'The Blind Man', Maurice Pervin's blindness finally convinces us of our irredeemable loneliness. But to love in 'Cathedral' is to become blind: to enter the darkness, to respond instinctively, to abnegate self. Though Carver had not read 'The Blind Man' when he composed 'Cathedral', how brilliantly he has rewritten Lawrence's story.
1. One former student of Carver's remembers 'only two occasions on which he spoke with any heat. On the first he said that D.H. Lawrence was one of the best writers in the language and one of the worst, and sometimes in the same story' (Naughton C1).
Barthes, Roland, 'Theory of the Text', Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 31-47.
Carver, Raymond, 'The Art of Fiction LXXVI' (interview with Mona Simpson), Paris Review 25.88 (1983): 192-221.
Carver, Raymond, Cathedral: Stories (New York: Knopf, 1983).
Carver, Raymond, Letters to Keith Cushman, 17 November and 8 December 1987.
Harris, Janice Hubbard, The Short Fiction of D.H. Lawrence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1984).
Jameson, Fredric, 'Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984): 53-92.
Lawrence, D.H., 'The Blind Man', The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 2 (New York: Viking, 1969), 347-65.
Lawrence, D.H., The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: Volume II: June 1913–October 1916, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981).
Lawrence, D.H., The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: Volume III: October 1916–June 1921, ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984).
Lawrence, D.H., Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey, and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987).
Naughton, Jim, 'Carver: The Master's Touch', Washington Post, 4 August 1988: C1, C6.
Roudiez, Leon S., Introduction, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, by Julia Kristeva; ed. Leon S. Roudiez; trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1980), 1-20.
Stull, William L., 'Raymond Carver', Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984, ed. Jean W. Ross (Detroit: Gale, 1985), 233-45.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8346
SOURCE: "Cathedral," in Understanding Raymond Carver, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 124-56.
[In the following excerpt, Saltzman compares such stories as "Feathers," "Chef's House," and "The Compartment"—which reflect hopelessness and despair—with "A Small, Good Thing" and "Where I'm Calling From" in which Carver allows his characters more compassion and choice.]
"I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone.1 In this way Carver announces a deliberate departure from the relentless austerity of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in favor of the "fleshed out" fictions of Cathedral. "Generous" is the term of approval employed by several reviewers to recognize the ventilation of the claustrophobic method and attitude that heretofore had dominated Carver's work. Perhaps befitting the increased stability and ease in Carver's personal life, the strapped constituents of Carver country breathe a bit more freely in this volume.2
Nevertheless, the majority of the stories dispute any claim to a fundamental break from the tenor of the three preceding collections. While there is impressive evidence in Cathedral of his having begun to transcend the haplessness and brittle restraint that commonly besets his characters, Carver by no means forsakes the "down to the marrow" aesthetic that governed his earlier collection. It may prove instructive, then, to contrast those stories in Cathedral that adhere to the established style with those that signal an opening out into what could be termed a postminimalist direction.
"Feathers" teases the reader with the prospect of meaningful repair in the lives of Jack and Fran only to capitulate to the pervading despair of previous volumes. Jack's first-person narrative turns out to be a prolonged complaint about the irredeemable leakage of time, which is temporarily disguised by the comic conditions of a dinner party at Bud and Olla's. The invitation by his friend at work had originally seemed to Jack to be little more than an opportunity to break the boredom, but in retrospect it stands forth in his mind as the final incident commemorating the halcyon days of his marriage:
That evening at Bud and Olla's was special. I knew it was special. That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life. I couldn't wait to be alone with Fran to talk to her about what I was feeling. I made a wish that evening. Sitting there at the table, I closed my eyes for a minute and thought hard. What I wished for was that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening. That's one wish of mine that came true. And it was bad luck that for me that it did. But, of course, I couldn't know that then.3
Jack recalls, or revises, that early period of his marriage as a time when innocence was a kind of enclave for him and Fran; they felt complete unto themselves and believed they needed neither children nor outside acquaintances to complicate their love. Looking back over the narrative, however, as the fast-forward conclusion of "Feathers" requires the reader to do, exposes intimations of the impending estrangement of Jack and Fran.4 Their insistence upon self-sufficiency, for example, appears to be a shield against incursions that would expose the fragility of their relationship, while their routine discussions of things they wish for but never expect to have—a new car, a vacation in Canada, a place in the country—come to suggest more profound deficiencies.
Having declared her reluctance to accept the dinner invitation, Fran is openly contemptuous of Bud and Olla's lower-class home in "the sticks." To be sure, Bud and Olla are unrefined to say the least: their furnishings are vulgar, their conversation coarse, and their life style utterly unfettered by pretension or taste. Still, they are friendly and as hospitable as their means and manners allow; moreover, the unselfconscious happiness they share makes them invulnerable to disdain.
Jack and Fran, on the other hand, are helpless in the face of confusion or crisis. When upon their arrival Bud and Olla's pet peacock, a huge, ungainly bird, lands in front of their car, their mutual ineptitude shows through:
"My God," Fran said quietly. She moved her hand over to my knee.
"Goddamn," I said. There was nothing else to say (8).
Awe, anger, and bewilderment constitute the full store of their reactions.
The evening is marked by the contrast between the pinched behavior of Jack and Fran, and the natural, if uncultivated, good will of their hosts. While Jack worries that he is overdressed for the occasion, Fran barely manages to hide her contempt, which is revealed most markedly as she watches a televised stock car race with the men: "maybe one of those damn cars will explode right in front of us," Fran said. "Or else maybe one'll run up into the grandstand and smash the guy selling crummy hot dog's" (11). At first Jack attributes her attitude to the fact that "the day was shot" in the weird company of Bud and Olla, but upon reflection at the end of "Feathers," it appears to have been a sign of a more comprehensive impatience that Jack failed to interpret fully.
However, nothing fazes Bud and Olla; even potentially uncomfortable subjects they themselves introduce (about their money problems or her father's death) are smoothly incorporated into the fabric of their abiding love for one another. The plaster cast of Olla's twisted teeth commemorating the eventual miracle of orthodontia, and which sits on top of the television set like a prized relic, is a source of shared enthusiasm over their progress: "That's one of the things I'm thankful for. I keep them around to remind me how much I owe Bud" (13). The stalking peacock, which has free reign over their roof and yard and which is welcome inside the house to play with the baby, may strike their guests as forbidding, but "Joey" is one more member of the family. If Joey does not possess the transfiguring divinity of Flannery O'Connor's bird of paradise in "The Displaced Person," his scaled-down majesty earns no less devotion from Bud and Olla; meanwhile, for Fran and Jack the aggressive peacock symbolizes their harassment.
In short, Bud and Olla do not depend on the meager gestures of charity that their guests can muster. Even the astonishing ugliness of their squalling baby—"Even calling it ugly does it credit," Jack confides (20)—cannot affect Bud and Olla's domestic pride. Indeed, the child makes Fran feel deprived; she grows wistful about seeing her niece in Denver. Holding and playing with him triggers her plea to Jack later that night, which is reminiscent of Mary's urgent desire to be "diverted" at the close of "What's in Alaska?": "Honey, fill me up with your seed!" (25).
But the child they ultimately produce does not avail them, and the marriage tenses, then unravels. Fran quits her job, puts on weight, cuts her luxurious hair that Jack had adored. She habitually curses the episode at Bud and Olla's as though they had caused the downfall of Fran and Jack's last stand of innocence. Jack becomes sullen and uncommunicative—"We don't talk about it. What's to say?" (26)—and increases his distance from Bud at the plant. Whereas Bud brags about his son, Jack merely says that everyone at home is fine and broods about the fact that his boy "has a conniving streak in him" (26). The unexpected detour that "Feathers" takes preempts the story's apparent development toward the verge of reconstituted love; as a result, every detail of the dinner party becomes an ironic portent of present desolation.
Seduction by hope intensifies marital vulnerability. In "Chef's House," as in "Feathers," futility surfaces like some awful genetic code. Wes convinces his estranged wife to relinquish the life she has been building apart from him in favor of rejoining him as he struggles to recover from alcoholism. Currently living in a rented house with an ocean view, Wes tells Edna that he needs her to complete his self-reclamation project. Although their children keep their distance, Wes and Edna spend a good summer together, and Edna, who narrates the story, confides that she has begun to believe in their solidarity again. The inevitable crisis comes in the form of Chef, who returns to ask them to vacate the premises. (He wants the house back for his daughter, who has lost her husband.) Immediately they sense that whatever they have been restoring is counterfeit, that defeat has rooted them out of hiding.
Baffled by the injustice of it all, Wes also feels oddly confirmed in his original definition of his limited expectations, and he suddenly finds himself beyond the reach of his wife's consoling:
Then I said something. I said, Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time, Just suppose. It doesn't hurt to suppose. Say none of the other had ever happened. You know what I mean? Then what? I said.
Wes fixed his eyes on me. He said, Then I suppose we'd have to be somebody else if that was the case. Somebody we're not. I don't have that kind of supposing left in me. We were born who we are. Don't you see what I'm saying? (31-32).
It does hurt to suppose, for supposing deludes Carver's characters into fantasies that burst at the slightest instigation; such is the pathology of surrender. Edna cannot hold out for long against her husband's logic, and she ends up absorbing his attitude. The same sort of "I should have known better" tonal quality rules both "Feathers" and "Chef's House"; in both cases reform is too demanding to imagine into existence. For Carver to bother to extend "Chef's House" to include verification of Wes's relapse and Edna's final renunciation would be redundant.
Uncontrollable circumstances claim two more victims in "Preservation." Three months of unemployment has steeped Sandy's husband in the same funk as Wes. He has essentially given up the fight, so he spends his days lazing on the sofa, an emblem of his surrender: "That goddamn sofa! As far as she was concerned, she didn't even want to sit on it again. She couldn't imagine them ever having lain down there in the past to make love" (37). His unstated justification may be that because man cannot prevail, he must learn how to endure; therefore, he adopts a posture of equanimity that Sandy finds maddening. When she happens upon his book Mysteries of the Past, and reads about a man discovered in a peat bog after two thousand years, her husband's petrified figure comes readily to mind.
When their freezer gives out, they are surrounded with perishables on all sides—a precise image of their own domestic entropy. Sandy frantically prepares to cook up as much as possible before everything spoils, but her husband is not up to any exertion and drops off to sleep on the sofa. She considers the prospects for finding a decent used freezer at an auction, but she can only sustain enthusiasm on her own for so long. The sight of her barefoot husband standing in the water puddling from the useless freezer once again recalls the preserved corpse from Mysteries of the Past: "She knew she'd never in her life see anything so unusual. But she didn't know what to make of it yet" (46). In predictable Carver fashion, Sandy's inarticulateness completes her bondage.5
The expense of psychological and verbal repression is evidenced in the airless interior monologue of "The Compartment," whose title metaphor connotes the main character's predicament of self-containment without self-sufficiency. Myers is traveling by train to visit his son at the university in Strasbourg. It has been eight years since their last contact. A letter from his son, whose signature included "love," has initiated the flicker of optimism that has enabled Myers to subdue, for the moment, his suspicion that the boy had been guilty of "malign interference" between his parents, thereby hastening their violent separation.
Myers's unease about the impending meeting fills him with ambivalence, for the clutch of past irritations and blame continues to oppress him. Furthermore, in the intervening eight years Myers has not changed for the better. His aloofness, which is intimated to be one of the principal reasons behind his failed relationships, has intensified, as suggested by the fact that in planning his vacation he could barely imagine anyone whom he might have informed of his absence. His insularity is also documented by the meagerness of his leisure—he reads books on waterfowl decoys—as well as by his aspiration to live "in an old house surrounded by a wall" (48). He envies the man who shares his railcar because his inability to speak English and his talent for sleep combine to ensure his inviolability. Meanwhile, Myers passes the time by perusing guidebooks about places he has already visited and regretting that he had not gotten to reading them before—a situation that precisely parallels his belatedness in familial affairs.
Briefly put, Myers is a man trapped in the conditional tense. His European vacation has been contaminated from the beginning by his self-imposed segregation. He feels isolated and maladaptive in the most exotic cities, and about as spontaneous as a spider. The prospect of encountering his son at the train station sets off a prolonged series of calculations, as though he were a foreign ambassador uncertain of the local amenities: "Maybe the boy would say a few words—I'm glad to see you—how was your trip? And Myers would say—something. He really didn't know what he was going to say" (50).
Because he cannot envision the future, Myers is mired in his troubled past. The climax of "The Compartment" comes when he discovers that the gift he had bought for his son, the watch he was keeping in his coat pocket, has been stolen. He ludicrously tries to intuit who the thief is, but this only increases his humiliation and anger. He is helpless among foreigners; the invasion of his privacy confirms for him that the entire adventure has been a mistake. He realizes that he had not wanted to see his son, that somehow their true enmity had been obscured.
Myers does not get off the train at the Strasbourg station. He watches a romantic parting at the platform, but is careful to avoid being seen by his son, who is probably waiting there for him. Nor does he have the courage to ask the conductor if the train's next destination is Paris. Indeed, Myers is a man for whom any contact seems like "malign interference." Lost in regret, he wanders onto the wrong railcar while his own is uncoupled. Even Myers himself recognizes this last embarrassment as representative of the dissociation that defines him. His belongings gone, surrounded by strangers whose appearance, language, and joviality exclude him, Myers wanders down the maze of tracks: "For a moment, Myers had the impression of the landscape shooting away from him. He was going somewhere, he knew that. And if it was the wrong direction, sooner or later he'd find it out" (58). Sleep finally arrives like a benediction.
The husband in "Vitamins" is just as exasperating as Sandy's. In response to his wife's ranting about how she detests her job coordinating a group of young women who sell vitamins door to door—even her dreams are infected by vitamins, she bitterly complains—he recoils into muteness. He has a "nothing job" of his own as a hospital janitor; however, instead of commiserating with Patti about her misery, he rationalizes making passes at her employees during a drunken party and, later compelling one of them, Donna, to meet him on the sly.
This is familiar territory—trying to lose one's guilt in tawdriness, to court oblivion like a lover. He takes Donna to a "spade bar" he has frequented in the past, and once settled, they begin to grope one another with impunity. But their tryst is interrupted by the arrival of two black men who insinuate themselves at their booth. One of the men, Nelson, who has just returned home from Viet Nam, brags about the tactics of psychological warfare he had learned there and begins to practice them. He offers to display the prized shriveled ear he had cut from a corpse and startles them with sudden threats of violence. Most disturbing are his lewd offers to Donna to pay for her company, which he fortifies with suggestions that the man's wife is probably involved in some obscene relationship of her own even as they speak. In this way Nelson serves as a kind of vile conscience for the would-be lovers. They feel exposed, out of their depth; even though they manage to extricate themselves from the bar, Nelson's last remarks follow them: "He yelled, 'It ain't going to do no good! Whatever you do, it ain't going to help none!'" (107).
Sentenced to failure by this vulgar prophet, the unnamed husband and Donna recoil from one another into their respective justifications. He asks perfunctorily about her plans, but "right then she could have died of a heart attack and it wouldn't have meant anything" (108). She makes a clumsy effort at building a faith in a new beginning in Portland: "There must be something in Portland. Portland's on everybody's mind these days. Portland's a drawing card. Portland this, Portland that. Portland's as good a place as any. "It's all the same" (108).
It is all the same for him as well when he comes home to Patti's rantings over yet another bad dream. Once again Carver demonstrates how attempts to escape confining routines merely reveal, their viciousness and resiliency:
I couldn't take any more tonight. "Go back to sleep, honey. I'm looking for something." I said. I knocked some stuff out of the medicine chest. Things rolled into the sink. "Where's the aspirin?" I said. I knocked down some more things. I didn't care. Things kept falling (109).
He is assailed by gravity. From aimless anger, to furtiveness, to apathy and resignation—so runs the course of private ruin.
In "Careful," Lloyd's cramped accommodations in Mrs. Matthews's boardinghouse are similar to Mr. Slater's "vacuumed" dwelling in "Collectors." Lloyd has neither clock nor telephone to trouble his womb-like limbo; out of work and alcoholic—his attempt to wean himself from hard liquor with cheap champagne now has him downing it by the bottle—he has diminished to a blur. In fact, he has grown so incurious about affairs outside his attic apartment that when one afternoon he passes his landlady's door and notices her collapsed on the floor, he "chooses" to assume she is asleep instead of injured or dead and hustles back to his quarters. Nor can he muster the energy to reflect about his "mildly crazy" habits for very long. "Then, the more he thought about it, the more he could see didn't matter much one way or the other. He'd had doughnuts and champagne for breakfast. So what?" (112-13).
On the day his wife, Inez, shows up for a serious discussion about their future, Lloyd is suffering from a blocked right ear. Their separation, a result of what Inez had termed an "assessment," has apparently been a tonic for her, for she arrives with new clothes and new vitality; she is set to thrive. For his part Lloyd is at the low point of his postpartum depression. As in "Chef's House," a wife's departure signals the imminence of collapse. With symbolic aptness his ear condition has upset his equilibrium and made it difficult to hear his wife. His head feels like a barrel in which his own solipsistic, self-pitying voice endlessly reverberates, which is a far cry from that time "long ago, when they used to feel they had ESP when it came to what the other was thinking. They could finish sentences that the other had started" (117). Now her cares and consolations spatter uselessly against him.
After failing with assorted and potentially hazardous implements to dislodge the buildup of wax, Inez seeks out Mrs. Matthews for help. She returns with baby oil, which she warms to pour into Lloyd's ear. Clearly her apprehensive husband is in need of supervision, and Inez's attentions are of necessity more maternal than wifely. ("Careful" sounds like the plea of a nervous child or a parent's gentle patronage.) Lying on his side to let the oil do its work, Lloyd feels helpless; his whole apartment seems out of whack.
Lloyd's ear finally opens, first to his delight, then to his dismay as he realizes that there is little he can do to stave off another such episode. Meanwhile, Inez consults with Mrs. Matthews in the hall; perhaps she is finalizing the transfer of the nursemaid role to the landlady. Due to the time lost to the crisis, she does not have the time to go into the subject that brought her here in the first place. In the end Inez escapes to other commitments, leaving Lloyd to contend with his inertia. But with his impacted condition—plugged up and mired in irresponsibility—Lloyd is not going anywhere at all.
"The Train" is Carver's sequel to John Cheever's story "The Five-Forty-Eight" (1958).6 Cheever's story concerns the revenge of a secretary against her rather vile boss, Blake, who used her sexually only to fire her in order to escape further complications. She has exhibited signs of mental instability, and she now tracks her culprit to the train, where she accosts him, showing him that she is carrying a gun in her purse. Blake cannot elicit aid from the other passengers; with nightmarish poetic justice it turns out that the only other passengers around him are also people he has mistreated in the past. When he and his secretary are finally alone at the station, she makes him submit to a symbolic act of repentance and self-excoriation: he must drop to his knees and smother his face in the dirt. Nevertheless, his recriminations extend only so far as his fear of death; the woman's departure leaves no lesson or epiphany in its wake. Although he does seem to be more intensely aware of the tenuousness of what had always been the secure surroundings of Shady Hill, "he got to his feet and picked up his hat from the ground where it had fallen and walked home."7
Carver picks up the forgotten thread of Miss Dent, who is preparing for her trip back into the city. The model story is reimagined according to the spartan specifications of the Carver style: Miss Dent's complexities are contracted to a motiveless menace, and the thoughts of the woman who still carries the gun with which she has recently threatened a man are suspended by a matter-of-fact style that also inhibits the "gift for dreams" she had been credited as having in Cheever's rendition. Moreover, her plot is displayed by the indecipherable conversation of an old man and middle-aged woman who are sitting near Miss Dent in the station waiting room. Their absurd agitations invoke Miss Dent's sense of irony and she considers what their reaction would be were she to inform them that she has a gun in her bag.
All of a sudden the couple converges on her with bizarre accusations:
"You don't say much," the woman said to Miss Dent. "But I'll wager you could say a lot if someone got you started. Couldn't you? But you're a sly boots. You'd rather just sit with your prim little mouth while other people talk their heads off. Am I right? Still waters. Is that your name?" (153).
Apparently Miss Dent is hardly manifested by her outrageous episode; every Carver character, after all, is the hero of some tragedy so supremely important that he cannot lend himself to another's.
As the anonymous passengers watch these three people board the train, "they felt sure that whatever these people's business had been that night, it had not come to a happy conclusion. But the passengers had seen things more various than this in their lifetime" (155). Everyone is a closet mystery, but the rampant preoccupation and self-interment of Carver's characters prohibit them from experiencing any more substantial intersection than this. It appears that Cheever's Blake, who only enters "The Train" by implication, is unremarkable in his immunity to reflection. Furthermore, since they are obsessed by their own stories, they "are only lethargically aware that the world is diverse and 'filled with business of every sort,'" and they "cling to the prejudice that they do not care to know more. They can't be shouted at."8 Its plot potential squandered, "The Train" speeds off into the darkness.
The interest the narrator takes in the newly arrived Minnesota family in "The Bridle" results from her suspicion that their bankruptcy mirrors her own sense of a foreclosed future. Holits, his wife, Betty, and their two sons have come to Arizona in search of better luck. As co-manager (with her husband, Harley) of the apartment building, the narrator is concerned at first about whether or not the new tenants will be responsible about paying their rent, but she feels for their predicament; bad luck can come to anyone, and "no disgrace can be attached to that" (191). Holits pays his rent and damage deposit with fifty-dollar bills, and she is moved to wonder about the "exotic" fates of the bills themselves as they pass from place to place and hand to hand. Indeed, even her unfortunate tenants have the advantage of movement; meanwhile, she is rooted to a claustrophobic role, her life assigned to a gruff husband who spends the day addicted to television and who sleeps at night "like a grindstone" beside her (201).
Both as building manager and as a stylist (she abjures the term "beautician" as too old-fashioned), the narrator presides over the sad little dramas that are played out on the premises. These range from the pedestrian—bouts with alcohol, disaffection, and loneliness—to the wickedly cynical, as seen in the building party that features a drawing for an attorney's free divorce services. When Betty gets a split-shift waitressing job, she comes to the narrator for a dye job on her roots, and under the soothing influence of the hair stylist's care (paralleling the consequences of the barber's "sweet" art in "The Calm"). Betty confesses the history of her tribulations. She is Holits's second wife—his first wife ran out on him and the children. Holits bought a racehorse, which he named for Betty, and which he believed would be the instrument of their salvation. However, Fast Betty has proven to be a perennial loser, and mounting gambling losses as well as the cost of upkeep itself has sundered their dreams of "working toward something" (199). The narrator compliments Betty's cuticles, but it is meager solace for someone who is convinced that she is a long shot who will never finish in the money; she does not even bother to dream anymore. Cosmetic improvements—the dye job on her hair, the new job, the new residence—cannot change her essential entrapment.
After this episode Betty keeps away from the narrator for some time, and Holits also appears to have found employment, for he is seldom seen. The climax of the story occurs when during a drunken party with some of the other renters at pool side after closing hours, Holits tries to dive into the water from atop the cabana. He hits the deck, gashing his forehead. The narrator, incensed by the display (and probably by her exclusion from the group as well) rushes to the scene. The scene concludes with a blundering rush to the hospital, with Holits deliriously repeating his complaint: "I can't go it" (204). Significantly, Harley sleeps through the entire crisis.
"I can't go it": the phrase is an apt motto for Holits, for whom the crash to the deck is but one more in a line of downfalls. Betty quits her job to nurse him and Holits grows sullen and standoffish. Soon they are seen packing up for another move. Forever at a loss, they must believe in luck because, presumably, luck can change. Meanwhile, Harley has no compassion to waste on that "crazy Swede" and his family, and he settles back in front of the television as though "nothing has happened or ever will happen" (207). In a surprisingly rebellious exhibition, his wife inserts herself between Harley and his television screen, but she finds she has nothing whatsoever to say to him.
When she goes up to clean the vacated apartment, the narrator discovers Holits's bridle. Perhaps he forgot it. Perhaps he left it behind as part of a ceremony of divestiture in hopes of preparing the way for a different life. For the narrator the bridle is a clear symbol of restraint, of being controlled from without: "The bit's heavy and cold. If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry" (208). She knows what it is to be cruelly reined in, to be perpetually at the mercy of someone, or something, beyond the reach of reason.
The stories discussed above follow the general tone established in Carver's three previous collections. The absence of recourse and the unnourished hopes shrunken to a grudge; the misfired social synapses and the implied ellipses like breadcrumb trails leading from breakdown to breakdown; the "preseismic" endings that "are inflected rather than inflicted upon us"9; the speechless gaps where intimacies are supposed to go—these characteristics persist. On the other hand, some of the stories in Cathedral do suggest an opening out that indicates, however subtly, an ongoing evolution in Carver's art.
The reformulation of "The Bath" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) as "A Small, Good Thing" in Cathedral is an obvious place to begin to examine this contrast. Carver himself has indicated that the enhancement of the original story's "unfinished business" is so fundamental that they now seem to him to be two entirely different stories.10 Certainly the structure of his sentences has been changed in several instances to be less fragmentary, less constrained. For example, while she is waiting for the arrival of the doctor in "The Bath," the mother's dread is nearly wordless, and absolutely privatized: "She was talking to herself like this. We're into something now, something hard."11 In "A Small, Good Thing," however, Ann (she has been granted a name and a fuller identity, as have the other characters in the story) is presented as having a more extensively characterized consciousness, which is thus more sympathetic and accessible:
She stood at the window with her hands gripping the sill, and knew in her heart that they were into something now, something hard. She was afraid, and her teeth began to chatter until she tightened her jaws. She saw a big car stop in front of the hospital and someone, a woman in a long coat, get into the car. She wished she were that woman and somebody, anybody, was driving her away from here to somewhere else, a place where she would find Scotty waiting for her when she stepped out of the car, ready to say Mom and let her gather him in her arms.
In a little while, Howard woke up. He looked at the boy again. Then he got up form the chair, stretched, and went over to stand beside her at the window. They both stared at the parking lot. They didn't say anything. But they seemed to feel each other's insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way (70-71: my italics)
With the expansion of the original version comes a development of the spiritual cost of the crisis. The result of every extension of detail in "A Small, Good Thing"—from the increased dimension of the baker when he is first introduced, to the transcendence of merely symbolic function of the black family at the hospital—is to decrease the distances that separate Carver's characters from one another and Carver's narrator from the story he relates. For one critic the expansion represents a movement away from "existential realism" toward a comparatively coherent, more dramatic, and more personal "humanistic realism."12
Carver's most profound revision is to carry the plot beyond the state of abeyance of Scotty's coma. ("The Bath" concludes in the middle of the phone call, just before the "death sentence" is actually pronounced.) In "A Small, Good Thing," Scotty's death spasm occurs even as the doctor is discussing with the parents the surgery that he will perform to save the boy. Having been assured only the previous day that Scotty would recover, Ann and Howard are absolutely overwhelmed, and they dazedly prepare to withstand the autopsy, to call relatives. Under these more developed circumstances the baker's call is no longer just the ironic plot gimmickry it had been in "The Bath"; instead, his interruption of and ultimate participation in the family's loss in "A Small, Good Thing" precipitates the cycle of "dramatic recognition, reversal, confrontation, and catharsis" that finally gives the story the finished contours of tragedy—the "lowrent" tragic pattern fleshed out to classic dimensions.13 Replacing the blank, dazed reaction of the anxious mother in the former version is her wild anger at the "evil bastard" who has blundered into their grief; when translated to the context of their open wound, his message about the birthday cake sounds ominous and malicious: "Your Scotty, I got him ready for you,' the man's voice said. 'Did you forget him?'" (83).
He hangs up, and only after a second call and hangup does Ann realize that it must have been the baker. Blazing with outrage, desperate to strike out against their defeat, Ann and Howard drive to the shopping center bakery for a showdown. The baker, menacingly tapping a rolling pin against his palm, is prepared for trouble, but Ann breaks down as she tells him of the death of her son. Her debasement is complete, but Carver rescues her from the isolated defeat in which so many of his previous protagonists have been immured. The baker apologizes, and in that instant's compassion is moved to confess his misgivings and his loneliness, and the cold remove he has kept to: "I'm not an evil man, I don't think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem" (88). Their shared bond is inadequacy in the face of loss, joined by a need to be forgiven for that inadequacy. Consequently, whereas in previous stories people clutched themselves in isolated corners against their respective devastations, here they manage to come together in the communal ceremony of eating warm rolls and drinking coffee: "You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this" (88).
The availability of nourishment discloses their common "hunger." Ann Howard, and the baker begin a quiet convalescence, eating what they can, talking until morning. Unlike "The Bath," whose focus is the title's solitary baptism, a purgative reflex meant to ward off catastrophe. "A Small, Good Thing" affirms the consolations of mutual acceptance. Ann and Howard had refused food throughout the story, which suggested their desperate denial. The closing scene "exteriorizes" their misery so as to make available to them the healing impulses of the baker and the small, but significant, brand of grace that human sympathy can provide.
In "Where I'm Calling From," too, commiseration instigates recuperation. In a drying-out facility where the inhabitants are identified and exiled by alcoholism, the narrator is at first unwilling or unable to relate his own story. Everyone at the facility is seized by the same trembling; everyone gauges his relative distance from everyone else's latest stage of collapse, trying to navigate through the mirrorings of his own disease.
Instead of confessing, the narrator persuades a fellow drunk, J.P., to tell his story. By recalling how conditions decayed, J.P. demonstrates a "talking cure" for impacted personalities. Whereas ritualized blandishments about willpower and self-esteem are barely sustaining to people who best recognize themselves in defeat, J.P.'s tale of how he met and married Roxy, a chimney sweep, increases the man's vigor as it frees his voice. It also clears a path for the narrator to follow out of his own eviscerated grimness.
J.P. characterizes Roxy as arrestingly natural and unselfconscious; their courtship started when J.P. was at a friend's house where she had just finished cleaning the chimney. Upon receiving payment, Roxy offered the friend a kiss for good luck, at which point J.P. decided to request the same gift. As J.P. proceeds with his story, Roxy is revealed to be neither maudlin nor promiscuous, just resilient—someone whose capacity for love derives from substantial resources of self-respect. Certainly their relationship had been the best thing to come along in J.P'.s life, until the booze preempted everything.
But Carver does not let "Where I'm Calling From" wither at this familiar impasse. Roxy arrives at the facility to visit J.P., for whom her embrace is an immediate tonic. The narrator marvels at her strength and self-assurance, which sharply contrasts with all the lurking, stalking, and shame that he has been witnessing every day: "Her hands are broad and the fingers have these big knuckles. This is a woman who can make fists if she has to" (142-143). He asks for a kiss, and she gives it easily, taking him by the shoulders as if to brace him for the treatment.
When he was twelve years old, J.P. tells the narrator, he fell down a dry well, and "everything about his life was different for him at the bottom of the well. But nothing fell on him and nothing closed off that little circle of blue. Then his dad came along with the rope, and it wasn't long before J.P. was back in the world he'd always lived in" (130). Salvation is possible, but it requires patience—the one-day-at-a-time creed of the recovering alcoholic—and the belief that "that little circle of blue" is as substantial and reliable as one's entrapment. "Where I'm Calling From" concludes with the narrator's memories of tranquility and his ultimate resolve. Whereas in "The Compartment," Myers lamented his having no idea what he might say to his son, here the narrator figures that saying "It's me" on the telephone is a way to begin again. Obviously he is in the early stage of therapy, but as he determines how to talk to his wife without argument or sarcasm and how to reconnect with his girl-friend again, it appears that where he is calling from need not diminish nor disqualify the fact, that, finally, he is calling.
In like fashion the protagonist of "Fever" finds his anxieties mitigated by the basic inducements of human contact. One of the practical crises Carlyle must face in trying to deal with his abandonment by his wife, Eileen, for his colleague—a mutual friend and fellow high school art teacher "who'd apparently turned his grades in on time" (158)—is locating a dependable babysitter now that fall classes have begun again. His hurried choices, which include a careless teenager and a gruff, ghoulish woman with hairy arms, are disappointing and encourage his fear that Eileen's leaving has left unpluggable cracks everywhere.
Eileen telephones to solicit his understanding in "this matter" (recalling the plastic connotations of Inez's marital "assessment" in "Careful") and to verify her happiness, as though it might be of some indefinable consolation to him. Her unctuous earnestness exasperates him, especially because it is conveyed by the jargon of pop psychology: they are still "bonded," she is "going for it," they need to keep the "lines of communication open," he needs to adopt a "positive mental attitude,"… and say, how's your karma? But despite what Carlyle deems her "insanity," Eileen is prescient enough to have realized that he needs a sitter for the children and a housekeeper. She provides the name of Mrs. Webster, an older woman who had once worked for Eileen's lover's mother (how civil! how sophisticated they are!) and whom she promises he can count on (in contrast, presumably, to her own inconstancy).
Whatever his doubts toward Eileen, Carlyle discovers in Mrs. Webster the kind of quiet dignity and supportiveness, particularly in her intimacies with her husband, that Holly had dreamed of in "Gazebo" as being the special province of the elderly, and indeed, that Carlyle had hoped would represent his future with Eileen. As a result of Mrs. Webster's taking over the household, Carlyle is suffused with calm: he becomes more intrepid in his relationship with his girlfriend (whom he had previously admired for her ability to equate understanding him with not pressuring him), and the family begins to thrive to the extent that Carlyle can face the truth about his wife's permanent decision not to return. When he falls ill, Mrs. Webster easily expands her ministrations to incorporate him as well as his children, and not even fever can deter his prospects for renewal, which have been due in large measure to Mrs. Webster's indiscriminate love.
When Mrs. Webster arrives one day with the news that she and her husband are leaving for Oregon to work on a mink ranch, Carlyle's initial response is panic; to be sure, the sudden shattering of one's delicate composure is common enough throughout Carver's stories, and it would not be surprising for "Fever" to conclude with Carlyle dangling over the pit of his own disarray. Eileen calls again. She has intuited her husband's distress, for which she prescribes journal writing in order to translate and extinguish his problems. But once again Carlyle figures that her craziness contaminates the communication she extols.
Nevertheless, Carlyle is spared a final breakdown. He relates the history of his relationship with Eileen to the eternally patient Mrs. Webster, who bestows her acceptance and predicts his restoration: "'Good, Good for you,' Mrs. Webster said when she saw he had finished. 'You're made out of good stuff. And so is she—so is Mrs. Carlyle. And don't you forget it. You're both going to be okay after this is over'" (185). Consequently, Carlyle learns that he is ready to come to terms with life in the wake of loss. In fact, "loss" is a misnomer for the abiding legacy of his past, in that it "would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he'd left behind" (186). Subdued, yet resolute, Carlyle turns away from the departing Websters and toward his children. This closing gesture implies his emergence from fever and vulnerability, if only to the degree that he is able to offer himself, which is the surest sign of health Carver ever provides.
"There are a few absolutes in this life, some verities, if you will," writes the author, "and we would do well not to forget them."14 Beyond the slow wash of hopelessness throughout Carver's fiction, the stiff coil of the common run that blocks all aspiration, are those moments of fortitude and affirmation that surface in Cathedral and provide some positive, even sentimental, texturing that counters the savage attenuation of character, description, and outlook. Carver specifically heralds the volume's title story on these grounds: "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.'"15
The story opens with the narrator explaining his consternation at learning that, following the death of his wife, a blind man is coming to stay at his home. His resistance to the idea is partly due to the awkwardness he anticipates—he has never known a blind person, and "in the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed" (209)—and partly due to the fact that the man, an old friend of the narrator's wife and with whom she has conducted a longstanding relationship of mailed tape recordings, represents a part of his wife's life that excludes him. She had been a reader for the blind man during the time of her relationship with her childhood sweetheart, a United States Air Force officer-in-training, which ended in his departure and her bungled suicide attempt. Both her lover and Robert, the blind man, were incorporated into poems that her husband cannot appreciate. Now the narrator is reluctant to endure the intrusion of a man who represents a competitive part of his own wife's life—a man who "took liberties" with her by reading her face with his hands! The awakening of his own selfishness makes the narrator sullen. He tries in vain to imagine how Robert's wife could have stood living with a man who could never see her, and in doing so exposes his own rather repellant insularity and lack of compassion.
However, Robert turns out to be a natural-born confounder of stereotypes. He is a robust, broad-gestured man who easily gets his bearings in new surroundings: he ravages his dinner, readily accepts his host's offer to smoke some pot, and even proves quite comfortable "watching" television. The combined influence of these activities inspires unaccustomed ease in the narrator; when his wife's robe falls open after she falls asleep, he cavalierly reasons that the blind man is unaware, of course, and does not bother to cover her up again.
As the two men turn their attention to a television documentary about cathedrals, the narrator tries to approximate what they are like for the sake of his guest, but "It just isn't in me to do it. I can't do any more than I've done…. The truth is, cathedrals don't mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They're something to look at on late-night TV" (226). At Robert's suggestion the narrator gets pen and paper and together, and with Robert's hand riding on top of the narrator's, they begin drawing a cathedral. In this way the amenities of keeping company evolve into a communal ceremony comparable to that which closes "A Small, Good Thing." With Robert's encouragement—"Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub? Well, it's a strange life, we all know that. Go on now. Keep it up" (227)—the narrator is able to let go of his inhibitions and collaborate in an expressive vision. "It was like nothing else in my life up to now," he confesses to himself (228).
Eyes closed now, the narrator surrenders himself to Robert's gentle guidance, much as Carlyle gave himself over to Mrs. Webster's care in "Fever." Both stories, along with "A Small, Good Thing" and "Where I'm Calling From," emphasize the abundant compensations of shared experience. The protagonists of these stories are not necessarily more articulate than their precursors—the narrator of "Cathedral" can only come up with "'It's really something'" to appreciate the spiritual climax of the story—but they are available to depths of feeling they need not name to justify. If the images that conclude the richest stories in Cathedral are gestures by heavy hands—the breaking of bread against suffering or the unblinding of the blind—they begin to establish a basis for conduct beyond the limits set by stylistic austerity or introversion clung to like some ethical stance. A blind man whose wife has died and a man who admits that he does not believe in anything join together to create a cathedral. It is neither perfect nor complete, but the process is encouraging and adequate for now. Robert's belief in the concluding story is known throughout the volume: it is a strange life. The most sympathetic, most human of Carver's characters "keep it up" anyway.
1. Quoted in William L. Stull, "Raymond Carver," Dictionary of Literary Biography: 1984, ed. Jean W. Ross (Detroit: Gale. 1985) 242.
2. Carver notes that the stories in Cathedral reflect what has been the most "composed" period of his life: "I feel more comfortable with myself, able to give more. Maybe it's getting older and getting smarter. I don't know. Or getting older and more stupid. But I feel closer to this book than to anything I've ever done." Ray Anello and Rebecca Boren, interview, Time 5 Sept. 1983: 67.
3. Raymond Carver, "Feathers," Cathedral (New York: Knopf, 1983) 25. Further references to stories in this collection are noted parenthetically in the text.
4. Michael J. Bugeja views this as a crucial structural flaw in the story. See "Tarnish and Silver: An Analysis of Carver's Cathedral," South Dakota Review 24 (1986): 77-80.
5. Citing this story, Michael Gorra complains that Carver's style actually "dictates rather then embodies his characters' predicament" ("Laughter and Bloodshed," Hudson Review 37 : 156). A similar dissent is registered by T. Coraghessan Boyle against the formulaic tedium of the "Catatonic Realists": "You know the story, you've read it a thousand times: Three characters are sitting around the kitchen of a trailer, saying folksy things to one another. Finally one of them gets up to go to the bathroom and the author steps in to end it with a line like, 'It was all feathers'" ("A Symposium on Contemporary American Fiction," Michigan Quarterly Review 26 : 707).
6. John Cheever, "The Five-Forty-Eight," The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (New York: Harper, 1958). "The Five-Forty-Eight" earned the Benjamin Franklin Short Story Award in 1955.
7. Cheever, 134.
8. Mark A. R. Facknitz, "Missing the Train: Raymond Carver's Sequel to John Cheever's 'The Five-Forty-Eight,'" Studies in Short Fiction 22 (1985): 347.
9. Marc Chenetier, "Living On/Off the 'Reserve': Performance, Interrogation, and Negativity in the Works of Raymond Carver," Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature, ed. Marc Chenetier (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986) 173. Chenetier maintains that Carver's method "bludgeons presence upon the reader" through his "violent economy"; however, "past the opening lines the text proceeds to unravel into misdirection" (166).
10. Quoted in Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, "An Interview with Raymond Carver" Mississippi Review 40/41 (Winter 1985); 66.
11. "The Bath," What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Knopf, 1981) 54.
12. William L. Stull, "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver," Philological Quarterly 64 (1985): 7-9.
13. Stull, "Beyond Hopelessville" 10.
14. Quoted in Stull, "Raymond Carver" 242.
15. Quoted in Mona Simpson, interview, "The Art of Fiction LXXVI," Paris Review 25 (1983): 207.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6905
SOURCE: "Now You See Him, Now You Don't, Now You Do Again: The Evolution of Raymond Carver's Minimalism," in Critique, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 239-51.
[In the following essay, Meyer, a professor at Vanderbilt University, traces Carver's use of minimalist style throughout his career, arguing that Carver returns to his previous, more expansive style in Cathedral.]
At this point in his career, there can be little doubt that Raymond Carver is "as successful as a short story writer in America can be,"1 that "he is becoming an Influence."2 Still, despite (or perhaps because of) this position, Carver remains a controversial figure. Much of the debate about Carver's merits centers around a similar debate about minimalism, a style that a few years ago was very hot and very hotly criticized, and that, now that it is cooling off, is under even more fervent attack. Much of the controversy is sparked by a confusion of terminology. As hard as it is accurately to define minimalism, for the same reasons we cannot entirely pin down such terms as realism, modernism, or post-modernism. It is even harder to say who is or is not a minimalist, as demonstrated by Donald Barthelme's being called a minimalist as often as he is called one of the post-modernists against whom the minimalists are rebelling.3 Nevertheless, Carver is generally acknowledged to be "the chief practitioner of what's been called 'American minimalism.'"4 Now that this has become a pejorative appellation, however, his admirers are quickly trying "to abduct [him] from the camp of the minimalists."5 If he is to be successfully "abducted," however, it will not be because the label is no longer popular, but because it no longer fits.
The fact of Carver's membership in the minimalist fraternity has never been fully established. Many critics, as well as Carver himself, noted that his latest volume of new stories; Cathedral, seemed to be moving away from minimalist writing, that it showed a widening of perception and style.6 This is certainly true, but it is not the whole story. If we look back over Carver's entire output, an overview encouraged by the recent publication of his "selected" stories, Where I'm Calling From, we see that his career, rather than following an inverted pyramid pattern, has actually taken on the shape of an hourglass, beginning wide, then narrowing, and then widening out again. In other words, to answer the question "Is Raymond Carver a minimalist?" we must also consider the question "Which Raymond Carver are we talking about?" for he did not start out as a minimalist, and he is one no longer, although he was one for a period of time in between.
This hourglass pattern emerges when we read all of Carver's stories chronologically, or, to a lesser extent, when we read Where I'm Calling From from cover to cover. Carver's evolution can perhaps be best understood when we examine several stories that have been published at different times in different versions. Carver, an inveterate rewriter, has stated that he would "rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than have to write the story in the first place."7 Sometimes this tinkering results in only minor changes, as Carver makes clear when he cites admiration for Evan Connell's statement, "he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places" (F 15). At other times, however, the result is an almost entirely different work. While the rewriting process is not unusual in itself, Carver's unwillingness to stop even after a piece has been published is not typical. One significantly revised publication that has elicited much critical commentary is "A Small, Good Thing," which appears in Cathedral. It is a retelling of "The Bath," a story from Carver's most minimalistic volume, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, that transforms the piece into something far removed from that style. In fact, this change was responsible for alerting many readers and critics to the "new" Carver presented in Cathedral as a whole.8
The basic situation in both stories is the same. A woman goes to a baker to order a special cake for her son Scotty's birthday party. The morning of his birthday, however, he is struck by a hit-and-run driver and becomes comatose. The baker, knowing only that the cake has not been picked up, calls the house and leaves threatening messages. The presentation of these events is very different in the two works, so by comparing them we can come to understand some of the salient features of minimalism. Most obviously, "The Bath," ten pages long, is approximately one-third the length of "A Small, Good Thing," an indication of the further development of the rewritten version. The characters in both stories are usually referred to by nouns or pronouns (the boy, the mother, he, she), but in "The Bath" we do not learn the mother's full name, Ann Weiss, until the last page, whereas she announces it to the baker in the second paragraph of "A Small, Good Thing." This might seem like a small thing, but it is indicative of a larger change. If we juxtapose the two versions of this early encounter between Mrs. Weiss and the baker, we clearly see a fundamental change in Carver's narrative strategy. In "The Bath," Carver writes:
The mother decided on the spaceship cake, and then she gave the baker her name and her telephone number. The cake would be ready Monday morning, in plenty of time for the party Monday afternoon. This was all the baker was willing to say. No pleasantries, just this small exchange, the barest information, nothing that was not necessary.9
In "A Small, Good Thing," Carver rewrites:
She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child's party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn't like that. While he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he'd ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker's age—a man old enough to be her father—must have children who'd gone through this special time of cakes and birthday parties. There must be that between them, she thought. But he was abrupt with her—not rude, just abrupt. She gave up trying to make friends with him. She looked into the back of the bakery and could see a long, heavy wooden table with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end; and beside the table a metal container filled with empty racks. There was an enormous oven. A radio was playing country-Western music.10
The first version is sparse and elliptical, giving the reader only "the barest information, nothing that [is] not necessary," while the second offers a more expansive view, providing physical details of the characters and the bakery, as well as exploring the mother's thoughts. The revision also hints more fully at the conflict that will be developed later in the story. Kim Herzinger's definition of minimalism, "equanimity of surface, 'ordinary' subjects, recalcitrant narrators and deadpan narratives, slightness of story, and characters who don't think out loud,"11 clearly fits the first paragraph, but it does not entirely account for the second, particularly in its exploration of the character's inner thoughts.
The most significant change from "The Bath" to "A Small, Good Thing," however, is in their endings. Minimalist stories have been heavily criticized for their tendency to end "with a sententious ambiguity that leaves the reader holding the bag,"12 and "The Bath" certainly follows this pattern. It ends literally in the middle of one of the baker's telephone calls: "'Scotty,' the voice said. 'It is about Scotty,' the voice said. 'It has to do with Scotty, yes.'" (What 56). At this point in the story, Scotty's medical condition is still uncertain, and, although the reader has figured it out, the parents still do not know who is making the horrible calls. This ending, then, is very much up in the air, and the reader leaves the story with a feeling of uneasiness and fear. "A Small, Good Thing," however, goes beyond this point in time. Scotty dies. The parents come to realize that the baker has been making the harassing calls, and they confront him. Once they explain the situation, the baker, feeling deep remorse for having bothered them, offers them some fresh rolls, telling them that "[e]ating is a small, good thing in a time like this" C 88). The story now ends on a note of communion, of shared understanding and grief: "They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving" C 89). The result is a story that has moved far beyond its minimalistic origins. Carver said in an interview that
[t]he story hadn't been told originally, it had been messed around with, condensed and compressed in "The Bath" to highlight the qualities of menace that I wanted to emphasize…. But I still felt there was unfinished business, so in the midst of writing these other stories for Cathedral I went back to "The Bath" and tried to see what aspects of it needed to be enhanced, re-drawn, re-imagined. When I was done, I was amazed because it seemed so much better.13
Most critics agree with this evaluation of "A Small, Good Thing," which won the O. Henry award as the best short story of 1983.14 "The revision completes the original by turning the sum of its fragmentary parts into a coherent whole that has a powerful dramatic structure, a beginning, middle, and end," writes William Stull,15 and Marc Chenetier feels that it signals "a movement away from threatening ambiguity, a working towards hope rather than horror, and the abandonment of features Carver may have come to consider akin to the narrative 'gimmicks' he has always denounced."16 Indeed, as indicated earlier, nearly all of the stories in Cathedral show this movement away from the "gimmicks" of minimalism.
By looking at a story that has been published in three different versions, we get a fuller picture of the whole of Carver's evolution, his movement at first toward and then away from minimalism. "So Much Water So Close to Home" first appeared (in book form) in Carver's second volume, the small press book Furious Seasons (1977). It was reprinted in his second "major" volume, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and appeared a third time in another small press book, Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (1983). Most recently, it appeared as one of the selected stories in Where I'm Calling From (1988). The basic plot is the same in each publication. Stuart Kane and his buddies go fishing. As soon as they arrive at their campsite, they find a dead girl floating in the river. They decide to tie her to a tree so that she will not be lost downstream and then proceed to fish and drink for the remainder of the weekend. The story is told from the point of view of Stuart's wife, Claire, and is largely concerned with the strain that this event puts on their marriage, as she, empathizing with the dead girl, feels that her husband should have abandoned his trip and reported the body immediately.
A comparison of the way this material is treated in the first and second versions shows the several ways in which, according to John Barth, a story can be minimalistic. First, Barth says, "there are minimalisms of unit, form and scale: short … paragraphs, super-short stories";17 Carver's story is reduced by half in the revision, and long paragraphs, such as the one in which Claire explains the circumstances of the body's discovery, are broken up into many smaller ones (in this case, five). Second, "there are minimalisms of style: a stripped-down vocabulary; a stripped-down syntax that avoids periodic sentences";18 this can be seen in Carver's alteration of "They fish together every spring and summer, the first two or three months of the season, before family vacations, little league baseball and visiting relatives can intrude"19 to "They fish together every spring and early summer before visiting relatives can get in the way" (What 80). Third, and most important, "there are minimalisms of material; minimal characters, minimal exposition …, minimal mises en scene, minimal action, minimal plot";20 this third of Barth's observations is the one on which I wish to concentrate and illustrate here, for it is the key to seeing the change in Carver's aesthetic.
In the first version (FS, 1977), we are given long descriptions of the fishing trip, of Claire's reactions to her husband's behavior, of her thoughts about their past relationship, of the physical separation she imposes upon him, of the identification and subsequent funeral of the dead girl, and of many other actions and thoughts on several characters' parts. In the second version (What, 1981), however, these passages are either considerably reduced or eliminated altogether. As a result, this second version, since it stays on the surface of events and does not really allow us to get inside of the characters, seems to confirm the criticism that Carver's work is cold or unfeeling, that he lacks sympathy for his characters. For example, the last line of the opening paragraph in the first version—Claire's "Something has come between us though he would like to believe otherwise" (FS 41)—sets up, even sums up, much of the emotional conflict that is to be examined in the story. Its elimination in the second version leaves us unsure of the real motivations of the characters, thus diminishing our understanding of what is actually going on and, consequently, our concern for the people involved.
There are many more examples of such revisions, excisions that require more inference on the reader's part rather than providing him with more information. Consider, for instance, a long passage from the first version in which Claire thinks back on her previous life:
The past is unclear. It is as if there is a film over those early years. I cannot be sure that the things I remember happening really happened to me. There was a girl who had a mother and father—the father ran a small café where the mother acted as waitress and cashier—who moved as if in a dream through grade school and high school and then, in a year or two, into secretarial school. Later, much later—what happened to the time in between?—she is in another town working as a receptionist for an electronic parts firm and becomes acquainted with one of the engineers who asks her for a date. Eventually, seeing that's his aim, she lets him seduce her…. After a short while they decide to get married, but already the past, her past, is slipping away. The future is something she can't imagine. (FS 49-50)
This passage, continuing in much the same vein for the rest of the page, provides us with valuable information about the character, her background, and her feelings about herself and her marriage. Therefore, when this is replaced by "I sit for a long time holding the newspaper and thinking" (What 84), we are obviously missing out on a key to understanding the actions within the story. We also miss out on fully comprehending the developing relationship between Stuart and Claire when several scenes showing her physical revulsion toward her husband, the way "his fingers burn" (FS 51) when he touches her, are reduced or eliminated. A long argument about her refusing to sleep in the same bed with him (FS 53), for example, becomes "That night I make my bed on the sofa" (What 85), again making it harder for the reader to grasp what is going on in the story. Unlike the first version, these elliptical revisions result in a minimalistic story whose "prose [is] so attenuated that it can't support the weight of a past or a future, but only a bare notation of what happens, now; a slice of life in which the characters are seen without the benefit of antecedents or social context."21
Not only does the first version provide a fuller understanding of the main characters, it also presents important and detailed pictures of some of the minor characters who are all but eliminated in the revision. We have already seen how the baker's transformation from a mere voice on the other end of the telephone in "The Bath" to a fully realized person with his own history and concerns in "A Small, Good Thing" adds a whole new dimension, a fuller sense of humanity to that story, and the same is true here. For example, Carver's revision of "So Much Water So Close to Home" eliminates an important scene in which the couple's son, Dean, questions his father, only to be told to be quiet by his mother (FS 51). More significantly, Carver dramatically redraws his portrait of the victim. Although it seems like a minor detail, there is a world of difference in the reader's perception when a character is called "Susan Miller" rather than "the body." The Furious Seasons version of "So Much Water So Close to Home" contains the following scene, a description of a television news report in which the dead girl's parents go into the funeral home to identify the body:
Bewildered, sad, they shuffle slowly up the sidewalk to the front steps to where a man in a dark suit stands waiting and holding the door. Then, it seems as if only a second has passed, as if they have merely gone inside the door and turned around and come out again, the same couple is shown leaving the mortuary, the woman in tears, covering her face with a handkerchief, the man stopping long enough to say to a reporter, "It's her, it's Susan." (FS 52)
There is also a description of what she looked like, her high school graduation picture flashed on the screen, and what she did for a living. In this way, she and her family become alive for the reader, who is now able to identify with them just as Claire does. When all we are told is that "the body has been identified, claimed" (What 84), however, we fail to reach this sort of understanding. We also therefore fail to understand fully Claire's motivation in attending her funeral.
Once again, the ending has been radically changed in the rewrite. In the first version, Claire returns from the funeral. Stuart attempts to initiate physical contact with her, but she rebuffs him, even stomping on his foot. He throws her down, makes an obscene remark, and goes away for the night. He sends her flowers the next morning, attempting to make up, but she "move[s her] things into the extra bedroom" (FS 60). At the end of the story, still not understanding his actions, she says to him, "'For God's sake, Stuart, she was only a child'" (FS 61). Her sense of continued sympathy for Susan and incomprehension of Stuart's behavior, her further separation from him, is perfectly in keeping with the previous actions and motivations of the characters. She had said earlier that her real fear was that "one day something [would] happen that should change something, but then you see nothing is going to change after all" (FS 49), yet it is clear at the end of the story that a fundamental alteration of her marital relationship has occurred. In the second version of the story, however, when Stuart attempts to initiate sexual activity with her, she allows herself to be symbolically raped; the sentence "I can't hear a thing with so much water going" (What 88) clearly recalls the rape and murder of the other girl. She even goes so far as to participate actively in the violation. "'That's right,' I say, finishing the buttons myself. 'Before Dean comes. Hurry'" (What 88). Her motivation here is unclear, made even more so by its having been so understated in the earlier parts of the story. We do not understand what has caused her to change her mind about Stuart, nor why she is seemingly willing to return to the status quo. The ending is not ambiguous, like the ending of "The Bath," but it is rather illogical and unconvincingly forced.
As we have seen, then, the revision of this story makes it more minimal than it had been, reduces it rather than enlarges it. When Carver assembled the stories for Fires, however, he decided to republish the first version (with some minor changes) rather than the second. As the explains in the afterword to the volume, "I decided to stay fairly close to the versions as they first appeared …, which is more in accord with the way I am writing stories these days [i.e., the stories in Cathedral]" (F 189).22 Elsewhere Carver has stated that What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a very "self-conscious book in the sense of how intentional every move was, how calculated. I pushed and pulled and worked with those stories before they went into the book to an extent I'd never done with any other stories."23 The end result, however, was not entirely satisfactory. "I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go," he said, "cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone,"24 so he began to move in the other direction, first in Fires and then in Cathedral. Carver's movement away from minimalism is also apparent in his selection of the stories to be included in Where I'm Calling Form. Only seven of the seventeen stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are included, compared with eight of the twelve in Cathedral. Even more tellingly, Carver chooses four stories that appear "minimalized" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love but reprints them in their other, fuller forms—for example, "A Small, Good Thing" rather than "The Bath" and the third "So Much Water So Close to Home" rather than the second.
This movement at first toward but then away from minimalism can also be traced in "Distance," otherwise known as "Everything Stuck to Him" (in What), another story that is printed in all four volumes (FS, What, F, Where). While the changes here are much less dramatic than those in the three versions of "So Much Water So Close to Home," the pattern is similar. The location of the story, for instance, is given in the first version as "Milan … in his apartment in the Via Fabroni near the Cascina Gardens" (FS 27), in the second as simply "Milan" (What 127), and in the third as "Milan … in his apartment on the Via Fabroni near the Cascina Gardens" (F 113). The lack of specificity in the second version indicates that it has been "minimalized," but Carver ultimately rejects this in favor of the fuller, more detailed description.25 The story is selected for Where I'm Calling From in this third version.
An even better example of these changes in Carver's aesthetic, however, is the story "Where Is Everyone?," which was first published in the journal TriQuarterly in the spring of 1980. It reappeared, under the title "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). In the transition it was reduced by a third. Carver having cut from it the same sort of material that he excised in the second publication of "So Much Water So Close to Home." The story does not have much of a plot in either case. It is rather unusual among Carver's stories in that it is almost entirely composed of the narrator's reminiscences of past events, such as his wife's affair with an unemployed aerospace worker, his children and their actions, his father's death, and his widowed mother's sexual activities. The story is difficult to follow both chronologically and emotionally in both versions, but in the earlier, fuller version we are given many more clues. As Marc Chenetier points out:
In its much longer version as "Where Is Everyone?," it makes plain a number of details that remain quite puzzling in the shortened text…. The barest skeleton necessary for suggestion remains and a number of incidents that can be read as explanation in "Where Is Everyone?" are left as mere questions or unclear allusions in "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit."… All of the details that made for "understanding" or "answering" a story in the interrogative mode have been toned down and have lodged the interrogations dismissed from the title at the heart of the story itself.26
The two stories begin similarly, but they diverge sharply in a passage in which the narrator recalls his relationship with his children. "I hated my kids during this time," he says. "One afternoon I got into a scuffle with my son…. I said I would kill him."27 He goes on to explain the way the children, Katy and Mike, tried to take advantage of the situation, but he indicates that they were also deeply hurt by it, as seen by Mike's locking his mother out of the house one morning after she had spent the night at her lover's house and then beating her up when he does let her in. Not only is this passage missing from the revised version, but the son has been eliminated from the story altogether, and the daughter, whose name has been changed from Katy to Melody, just as the wife's has gone from Cynthia to Myrna, is little more than a stick figure who only appears in one brief paragraph. The result again is to provide the reader with less information about the state of the family; we get hints, but that is all. The narrator is also more reticent about himself. His comparing the situation to a scene in a novel by Italo Svevo (TQ 206), for instance, provides some insight into his personality and sets him apart from the standard, even stereotypical, Carver character. Not only does he read, a rarity in itself, but he reads novels by obscure Italian writers. This reference is eliminated in the revision, once more depriving us of a fact that might help us to make sense of the character's actions. The same is true of the sentence "'No one's evil,' I said once to Cynthia when we were discussing my own affair" (TQ 210). This fact, as well as the way it seems to slip out without the narrator's being fully aware of having divulged it, opens up a whole new level of interest and awareness, one that remains blocked off when the line is deleted, as it is in the second version.
This obscuring of the central characters and their relationships continues throughout "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit." In "Where Is Everyone?," although the narrator says that "conversations touching on love or the past were rare" (TQ 208), they do exist and are presented to us. At one point, for example, Cynthia says to the narrator, "When I was pregnant with Mike you carried me into the bathroom when I was so sick and pregnant I couldn't get out of bed. You carried me. No one else will ever do that, no one else could ever love me in that way, that much. We have that, no matter what. We've loved each other like nobody else could or ever will love the other again" (TQ 207). This glimpse of the past, besides being touching, appearing as it does in the midst of anger and violence, explains the tie that binds the couple together despite their problems. Ironically, the other important interpersonal relationship in the story exists between the narrator and his wife's lover, Ross, even though they have never met. In "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," there are a few elliptical references to this feeling of connection on the narrator's part: "But we had things in common, Ross and me, which was more than just the same woman" (What 19); or "I used to make fun of him when I had the chance. But I don't make fun of him anymore. God bless you and keep you, Mr. Fixit" (What 19-20). The rationale behind these statements is obscure. Here is another example of a peculiar bind that Carver can get himself into; when he "omit[s] what other writers might regard as essential information, it is often hard to know what has precipitated a given situation."28 In "Where Is Everyone?," these passages are expanded, and the connection becomes easier to see. For example, the narrator had once suggested that Mike join the Army. Cynthia disagreed, but Ross spoke in favor of the idea. "I was pleased to hear this," the narrator says, "and to find out that Ross and I were in agreement on the matter. Ross went up a peg in my estimation…. He [had] told her this even after there'd been a pushing and shoving match out in his drive in the early morning hours when Mike had thrown him down on the pavement" (TQ 208). The narrator was more than willing to admit to his wife that Ross was "[o]ne of us" (TQ 210) at the time, and now he realizes that his anger toward Ross was really only jealousy because "he was something of a fallen hero to my kids and to Cynthia, too, I suppose, because he'd helped put men on the moon" (TQ 209). In the longer version, then, Ross, like the minor characters we have examined in the other stories, emerges as a person in his own right, more than just the lover of the narrator's wife. We can now see how the narrator comes to identify with him (they are, after all, two men in similar positions) and eventually to forgive him. When all we see is the forgiveness, though, we do not understand how it came to be.
Once again the endings are significantly different from one version to the other. In "Where Is Everyone?," the narrator returns to his mother's house to spend the night. She reluctantly informs him of his wife's affair. He tells her, "I know that…. His name is Ross and he's an alcoholic. He's like me" (TQ 212). She responds, "Honey, you're going to have to do something for yourself" (TQ 212) and wishes him good night. The story ends with the following description:
I lay there staring at the TV. There were images of uniformed men on the screen, a low murmur, then tanks and a man using a flame thrower. I couldn't hear it, but I didn't want to get up. I kept staring until I felt my eyes close. But I woke up with a start, the pajamas damp with sweat. A snowy light filled the room. There was a roaring coming at me. The room clamored. I lay there. I didn't move. (TQ 213)
This ending is somewhat ambiguous, but it does point to an apocalyptic change in the narrator's life, the sort that has resulted in his having reached the level of understanding he possesses at the time, about three years later, when he is narrating these events. "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," however, ends in this manner:
"Honey," I said to Myrna the night she came home. "Let's hug awhile and then you fix us a real nice supper."
Myrna said, "Wash your hands." (What 20)
This ending so lacks any kind of summation, let alone consummation, that it baffles the reader. We do not even know when "the night she came home" is—Is it at the time of the events or at the time of their narration? What will be the effect of the things of which we have been told on the lives of those involved? We simply have to guess, with little to go on. Once asked about his endings, Carver stated, "I want to make sure my readers aren't left feeling cheated in one way or another when they've finished my stories. It's important for writers to provide enough to satisfy readers, even if they don't provide 'the' answers, or clear resolution."29 The ending of "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," however, far from being satisfying, is the sort that, "rather than suggest[ing] depth … only signal[s] authorial cop out."30 This is undoubtedly one of the reasons that, as in the case of "So Much Water So Close to Home," when Carver compiled the material for Fires, he returned, nearly word for word, to the original fuller version. Still one of his less successful pieces, as he tacitly admits by not selecting it for Where I'm Calling From, "Where Is Everyone?" is certainly better in that less minimal form.
John Biguenet finds "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit" to be such a good example of everything he dislikes about minimalism that he uses it as the principal illustration in his satirical article "Notes of a Disaffected Reader: The Origins of Minimalism." After providing a summary of the story that is almost as long as the story itself, he writes:
It sounds like parody, doesn't it? Fifteen years ago it would have been parody. But it's not parody; it's paraphrase. If paraphrase is literature purged of style, then paraphrase is a kind of minimalism, and since the absence of style is a style itself, a disaffected reader might argue that paraphrase is an apt description of minimalist style. The reader, like a child with crayons hunched over a coloring book, authors the story.31
In "Where Is Everyone?," however, Carver has already colored in the story for us, and we must keep in mind that it is this fuller, more expansive, more "authorly" version that he ultimately chooses to stand by. As we have seen by comparing the three versions of this story, as well as the various versions of other stories we have examined. Carver has undergone an aesthetic evolution, at first moving toward minimalism but then turning sharply away from it. The stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, including "The Bath," the second "So Much Water So Close to Home," and "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," do indeed follow Barth's definition of the "minimalist esthetic, of which a cardinal principle is that artistic effect may be enhanced by a radical economy of artistic means, even where such parsimony compromises other values: completeness, for example, or richness or precision of statement."32 In the final analysis, however, Carver rejects this minimalist aesthetic. In Fires and Cathedral, and in the selected (and, incidentally, the new) stories in Where I'm Calling From, he is clearly opting for "completeness, richness, and precision." Therefore, if "most readers [take] their measure of him from his second collection of stories [i.e., What],"33 they get a distorted picture of the actual scope and direction of his writings, which "both before and since" that volume are quite different.34 Carver has said that he does not consider himself a minimalist, that "there's something about minimalist that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don't like,"35 but this statement alone is not enough to remove the label. What should be enough, however, is the content of the work itself; rather than simply expressing his dissatisfaction with those stories he felt "were becoming too attenuated,"36 he rewrote them or returned to an earlier version of them, so that they were more in keeping with his real style. It is no coincidence that, as he has moved away from his arch-minimalist phase to a more natural form, he has no longer felt this need to rewrite. "I feel that the stories in Cathedral are finished in a way I rarely felt about my stories previously," he told an interviewer shortly after the publication of that volume,37 and in a profile written at the time of the publication of Where I'm Calling From, he expresses regret at having "mutilated" some of his earlier stories when he says, "I used to revise even after a story was printed. I guess now I have a little more confidence."38 As this most recent collection makes abundantly clear, Raymond Carver may have been a minimalist, but he used to be and has once again become much more.
1. Mark A. R. Facknitz, "'The Calm,' 'A Small, Good Thing,' and 'Cathedral': Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth," Studies in Short Fiction 23 (1986): 287.
2. Robert Houston, "A Stunning Inarticulateness," The Nation 233 (4 July 1981): 23.
3. The best discussion of these issues is found in the special "Minimalism" edition of Mississippi Review (#40-41, 1985). The essays are edited by Kim A. Herzinger, who also contributes a fine introduction setting forth the problems of definition and inclusion. Several of the other essays are quite useful (and often humorous), and an important interview with Carver is included. Nor should one miss John Barth's excellent "A Few Words About Minimalism," Weber Studies 4 (Fall 1987): 5-14, the most succinct and enlightening view of the controversy yet to appear.
4. Michael Gorra, "Laughter and Bloodshed," Hudson Review 37 (Spring 1984): 155.
5. Marilynne Robinson, "Marriage and Other Astonishing Bonds," New York Times Book Review, 15 May 1988: 1. It is interesting to note that Robinson herself is often grouped with the minimalists.
6. Carver's comments can be found in his interviews with: Mona Simpson and Lewis Buzbee, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Seventh Series, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Viking, 1986) 317-18; Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, Mississippi Review 40-41 (1985): 65; and Kay Bonetti, Saturday Review 9 (Sept./Oct. 1983); 22. Critics who have made remarks along these lines include: Anatole Broyard, "Diffuse Regrets," New York Times, 5 Sept. 1983: 27: Irving Howe, "Stories of Our Loneliness," New York Times Book Review, 11 Sept. 1983: 1, 43; Laurie Stone, "Feeling No Pain," Voice Literary Supplement 20 (Oct. 1983): 55; Bruce Allen, "MacArthur Award Winners Produce Two of Season's Best," The Christian Science Monitor, 4 Nov. 1983: B4; Dorothy Wickendon, "Old Darkness, New Light," The New Republic, 21 Nov. 1983: 38; Josh Rubins, "Small Expectations," New York Review of Books, 24 Nov. 1983: 42; and Michael J. Bugeja, "Tarnish and Silver: An Analysis of Carver's Cathedral," South Dakota Review 24 (Autumn 1986): 73, 82-83, 87.
7. Raymond Carver, Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1983) 188; further references will be parenthetical (F).
8. The most useful account of these two stories is in the best single article on Carver, William L. Stull's "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver," Philological Quarterly 64 (Winter 1985): 1-15; I have kept my comments about them brief here largely because of his excellent explication. Other critics who touch on "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing" include: Howe 43; Allen B4; Rubins 41-42; Jonathan Yardley, "Ordinary People from an Extraordinary Writer," Washington Post Book World, 4 Sept. 1983: 3; and Marc Chenetier, "Living On/Off the 'Reserve': Performance, Interrogation, and Negativity in the Works of Raymond Carver," Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature, ed. Marc Chenetier (Carbondale and Evansville: Southern Illinois U P, 1986) 170. Carver himself remarks on these two stories in his interview with McCaffery and Gregory, 66.
9. Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981) 48; further references will be parenthetical (What).
10. Raymond Carver, Cathedral (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) 80; further references will be parenthetical (C).
11. Kim A. Herzinger, "Introduction: On the New Fiction," Mississippi Review 40-41 (1985): 7.
12. Anatole Broyard, "Books of the Times," New York Times, 15 Apr. 1981: C29. For other criticisms of Carver's minimalist endings see: Gorra 156; Stull 2, 5; and Adam Mars-Jones, "Words for the Walking Wounded," Times Literary Supplement, 22 Jan. 1982: 76.
13. McCaffery and Gregory 66.
14. William Abrahams, ed., Prize Stories 1983: The O. Henry Awards (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983). Abrahams has a brief paragraph in his introduction explaining why he so much prefers "A Small, Good Thing" to "The Bath." A dissenting view, however, can be seen in Rubins, 41-42, who finds the new ending too sentimental.
15. Stull 7.
16. Chenetier 170.
17. Barth 8.
18. Barth 8-9.
19. Raymond Carver, Furious Seasons (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1977) 43; further references will be parenthetical (FS).
20. Barth 9.
21. Gorra 155.
22. Carver also comments on the different versions of this story in his interview with Kay Bonetti, which is available on cassette through the American Audio Prose Library (CV III 1083). The excerpt from the interview that appears in Saturday Review does not include this portion.
23. Simpson and Buzbee 316.
24. Simpson and Buzbee 317.
25. Chenetier briefly discusses the story's three versions, but he misses this all-important point when he states that "Distance" is "retitled 'Everything Stuck To Him' in its passage from Fires and Furious Seasons to What We Talk About" (176). The correct chronology is from Furious Seasons to What We Talk About and then back to Fires, thus conforming to the hourglass pattern I have been stressing.
26. Chenetier 179.
27. Raymond Carver, "Where Is Everyone?," TriQuarterly 48 (Spring 1980): 203; further references will be parenthetical (TQ).
28. Robert Towers, "Low Rent Tragedies," New York Review of Books, 14 May 1981: 37.
29. McCaffery and Gregory 77.
30. Peter LaSalle, untitled review, America, 30 Jan. 1982: 80.
31. John Biguenet, "Notes of a Disaffected Reader: The Origins of Minimalism," Mississippi Review 40-41 (1985): 44.
32. Barth 5.
33. Stull 1.
34. Stull 2; see also 6, 14n. Stull is the only critic to have remarked on this "before and since" pattern that I have been exploring, but he does so only in passing.
35. Simpson and Buzbee 317.
36. McCaffery and Gregory 65.
37. McCaffery and Gregory 67.
38. David Gates, "Carver: To Make a Long Story Short," Newsweek, 6 June 1988: 70.
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SOURCE: "Breaking the Ties That Bind: Inarticulation in the Fiction of Raymond Carver," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 439-46.
[In the essay below, Gearhart traces the differences between the original story, "The Bath," and Carver's revision of the same story, "A Small, Good Thing."]
Raymond Carver has been widely acknowledged as a short story writer whose glimpses into the lives of "everyday" people have made him a master of the genre. The typical Carver character is a down-and-out blue-collar type familiar with the trauma of marital infidelity, alcoholism, and financial hardship. As critics have thoroughly noted, these characters share an inability to articulate their frustrations in words which causes their social, moral, and spiritual paralysis: "each new moment can bewilder a character, freeze him or her into a confusion of inaction. Carver … is famous for the passivity with which his characters confront, or fail to confront, their experience."1
Carver's first two collections of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, are relentless portraits of human despair and futility. But with the publication of Cathedral in 1984, critics acknowledged an unmistakable loosening of Carver's stark "minimalist" prose style, and noted the development of human potential in his characters. Carver's premature death in 1989 precludes a definitive answer concerning whether this movement in his work was an aberration or the beginning of a trend, and Carver's recent retrospective, Where I'm Calling From, which includes little previously unpublished material, adds no insight into this question. However, a close re-reading and comparison of two key stories, "The Bath" and a revision of that story, "A Small, Good Thing," raise a more essential question: how do the characters in "A Small, Good Thing" escape the inarticulation that suffocates the typical Carver character?
In both stories, Howard and Ann Weiss's uncomplicated lives are upset when their only son Scotty is struck by a car and hospitalized on his eighth birthday. The baker, from whom the birthday cake has been ordered, begins to make threatening telephone calls to the parents when the cake is not picked up. (The parents, of course, have forgotten about the cake, and receive these calls as they individually slip away from the hospital to check on things at home.) "The Bath" closes on a note of existential terror with the mother answering the phone, assuming the hospital is calling, only to hear the baker respond to her question "Is it about Scotty?" with the cryptic, "It has to do with Scotty, yes."2
Conversely, "A Small, Good Thing" is three times longer than "The Bath," and introduces a completely opposite conclusion—one of healing and forgiveness. In this story the mother finally realizes that it is the baker who is calling, and she and her husband confront him with the news of Scotty's death (his condition is left undecided in the first version). This confrontation leads to the baker's examination of his own pitiful existence and to the subsequent scene of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Laurie Stone makes an important observation when she states that "Carver steers the story ["A Small, Good Thing"] with his distinctive descriptive wizardry, conveying how the parents feel through their actions."3 Carver generally eschews authorial comment in his stories in favor of brief, emotive descriptions, and continues to do so in "A Small, Good Thing." What, then, accounts for the fullness of style and for the final scene of resolution and reconciliation in this story so absent in his previous work? It is this: Carver's focus on the implicit communication between the characters through unspoken language and, moreover, the fact that this substitution of implicit communication for verbal inarticulation becomes a self-conscious act on the part of the characters.
Some differences between "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing" are immediately apparent. In the former, descriptions of the characters are brief, when they occur at all. The father is never given a name. In "A Small, Good Thing," even minor characters are described, and scenes in which they appear are developed. The effect is that a sense of humanity emerges between the characters that is wholly absent in the first story. The best example of this is a passage in both stories in which Ann Weiss's (the mother) interaction with a black family, who are awaiting the outcome of their son/brother Nelson's accident, is described. In simple terms, the passage is lengthened in the second story from approximately 250 to 650 words, most of them devoted to a physical description of the black family. But significantly, in the expanded version the characters share their pain and experience. Much of this occurs through verbal interaction, but not without some key nonverbal prompting.
In the first version, Ann explains to Nelson's father why she is at the hospital, giving the details of Scotty's accident and condition. The man's reply to her closes the scene: "The man shifted in his chair. He shook his head. He said, 'Our Nelson'" (56). Thus ends the interaction between the two. But in the second version, a slight nonverbal clue leads to the verbal interaction of the grieving parents: "'That's too bad,' the man said and shifted in his chair. He shook his head. He looked down at the table, and then he looked at Ann. She was still standing there."4 The man then proceeds to give the details of how his son was knifed, an innocent bystander at a fight. The paragraph that follows his description makes two things clear; verbal communication is disturbingly inadequate, but the nonverbal signals that trigger the attempt are sufficient to induce the desire for shared humanity:
Ann looked at the girl again, who was still watching her, and at the older woman, who kept her head down, but whose eyes were now closed. Ann saw the lips moving silently, making words. She had an urge to ask what those words were. She wanted to talk more with these people who were in the same kind of waiting she was in. She was afraid, and they were afraid. They had that in common. She would have liked to have said something else about the accident, told them more about Scotty…. Yet she didn't know how to begin. She stood looking at them without saying anything more. (74)
This passage contains an unusual amount of authorial direction to the reader, for the rewrite incorporates a crucial change. In the first version, when the man shifts in his chair, shakes his head, and looks down at the table, he is utilizing what Stephen R. Portch calls a "regulator": an action that involves "both speaker and listener."5 A regulator can "provide a pause … or tell the speaker to continue, repeat, elaborate" (9). In this case, the man's regulator says, in essence, "I don't want to talk about it." But in the revision, Ann utilizes a regulator of her own—her insistent stare—which causes him to continue. This minute difference allows for the possibility that these two people will communicate, and foreshadows the final exchange between the Weisses and the baker in "A Small, Good Thing."
Regulators are mostly subconscious, and perhaps this fact accounts for the tentativeness and ultimate inadequacy of the conversation between Ann and Nelson's father in "The Bath." But as the characters in "A Small, Good Thing" (particularly Ann Weiss) become increasingly self-conscious in regard to body language, their ability to use it as a substitute for verbal shortcomings increases accordingly.
Early in "A Small, Good Thing," the reader witnesses the deterioration of language and the subsequent dependence upon implicit communication. The inefficiency of words is obvious when Howard Weiss, the father, first returns home to clean up after being with Scotty at the hospital. The phone rings, and Howard assumes that the hospital is calling:
"There's a cake here that wasn't picked up," the voice on the other end of the line said.
"What are you saying?" Howard asked
"A cake," the voice said. "A sixteen-dollar cake."
Howard held the receiver against his ear, trying to understand.
"I don't know anything about a cake," he said.
"… what are you talking about?"
"Don't hand me that," the voice said. (62-63)
The reader knows that the voice is the baker's, but Howard does not. Language clearly works for the reader, while it baffles the character. But the inherent ambiguity of language is not always one of perspective. When Howard returns to the hospital, the doctor is attempting to explain Scotty's condition without causing alarm in the parents. The word "coma" is bounced back and forth between them, highlighting the concurrent imprecision and importance of language. The doctor begins by proclaiming that "it is not a coma," then changes to "I don't want to call it a coma," and finally relents with "It's not a coma yet, not exactly." Ann says, "It's a coma" (66).
While language breaks down, body communication becomes more significant. When Dr. Francis is unable to express himself adequately in words, he resorts to more physical and formal displays. Each time he enters the room, he "shook hands with Howard, though they'd just seen each other a few hours before" (65). When he leaves the room, he pats the parents on the shoulders; as their son's condition worsens, the physical displays become increasingly compassionate. When Scotty dies, Dr. Francis embraces Ann, and "He seemed full of some goodness she didn't understand" (82).
The doctor's unconscious use of regulators to augment his speech is a nonverbal device that becomes immediately evident to the reader, if not to the Weisses. He constantly resorts to "looking at the boy" as a way of buying time when he cannot offer verbal encouragement to the parents. It would seem that this lack of words might be disconcerting to the parents, but they find solace in the doctor's very appearance: "The doctor was a handsome, big-shouldered man with a tanned face. He wore a three-piece blue suit, a striped tie, and ivory cufflinks. His gray hair was combed along the sides of his head, and he looked as if he had just come from a concert" (65-66). Contrast his appearance with that of the radiologist, who later comes to take more x-rays of Scotty: "He had a bushy mustache. He was wearing loafers, a Western shirt, and a pair of jeans" (68). Ann's reaction to him is markedly different from her unquestioning faith in Dr. Francis: "She stood between this new doctor and the bed" (68). The radiologist is straightforward in his speech compared to Dr. Francis, yet Ann distrusts him. But when speech is inadequate, nonverbal signs gain added significance, and physical appearance is no exception. As Stephen Portch points out, "Physical appearance usually has an immediate—and often lasting—impact" (11). And judgment of a stranger based on physical appearance is to be expected. It is more significant that during this period of crisis in the parents' lives, their own verbal communication gives way to implicit communication.
After Dr. Francis has provided his less-than-satisfactory explanation of Scotty's condition, the parents attempt to verbalize their fears: "Ann put her hand on the child's forehead. 'At least he doesn't have a fever,' she said. Then she said, 'My God, he feels so cold, though. Howard? Is he supposed to feel like this?'" "'I think he's supposed to feel this way right now,' he said" (67). But both Howard and Ann realize that their words are empty, and although at this point the action is mostly subconscious, body language substitutes for their inability to fully articulate their fears, Howard "felt a genuine fear starting in his limbs," and Ann "knew now they were into something hard," but neither is capable of expression:
Howard sat in the chair next to her. They looked at each other. He wanted to say something else to reassure her, but he was afraid, too. He took her hand and put it in his lap, and this made him feel better, her hand being there. He picked up her hand and squeezed it. Then he just held her hand. They sat like that for a while, watching the boy and not talking. (67)
Although the process is a gradual one, the movement toward self-consciousness has begun, and soon these characters will make a discovery that no Carver character before them has made: they need not be the hapless victims of verbal inarticulation.
Scotty's condition remains unchanged for the next several hours, and both the doctor and the parents are increasingly alarmed that he is not waking. As his condition becomes less explicable, language is less adequate, and body language more important. Now the Weisses reveal their first spark of self-consciousness in regard to implicit communication. As Howard and Ann stare out the window, the narrator makes a rare intrusion: "They didn't say anything. But they seemed to feel each other's insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way" (70-71). Then Dr. Francis returns and again personifies the ambiguous nature of language. He is reticent about Scotty's tests until Ann asserts, "It is a coma, then?" (71). The doctor rubs his cheek (another regulator to stall for time) and answers, "We'll call it that for the time being, until he wakes up" (71). This, of course, is like calling a person dead until resurrected. But the parents cling to whatever hope is offered, and the doctor shakes Howard's hand and leaves.
The Weisses decide to check on things at home, and Howard suggests that Ann go, to freshen up and eat something. She objects at first, but when she looks at Howard, she makes a discovery: "She understood he wanted to be by himself for a while, not have to talk or share his worry for a time" (72). This ability of one character to empathize with another's inarticulation is a rarity in Carver's fiction. Ann has reached beyond her own personal situation to consider someone else's, and in so doing, she confronts her own inability to communicate. As she prepares to leave the hospital, her self-conscious awareness of the process is revealed:
She stood in her coat for a minute trying to recall the doctor's exact words, looking for any nuances, any hint of something behind his words other than what he said. She tried to remember if his expression had changed any when he bent over to examine the child. She remembered the way his features had composed themselves as he rolled back the child's eyelids and then listed to his breathing. (72-73)
Ann's cognizance of the significance of body language is even more evident when she returns to the hospital. Her husband's posture convinces her that something is wrong: "She looked at him closely and thought that his shoulders were bunched a little" (79). This information is repeated four lines later: "His shoulders were bunching, she could see that" (79).
Howard's body language is the result of his initial inability to tell his wife that the doctors have decided that surgery is necessary. But before the full impact of this information can set in, they notice that Scotty has opened his eyes. They run to his bedside, but Scotty's "eyes scrunched closed, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth" (80).
A shaken Dr. Francis escorts the Weisses to the doctor's lounge, and once more the shortcomings of language are highlighted as Ann gropes to find the words to express her grief: "She … though how unfair it was that the only words that came out were the sort of words used on TV shows where people were stunned by violent or sudden deaths. She wanted her words to be her own" (81). Her desire is to confront her situation rather than be controlled by it. But Dr. Francis is yet unable to express himself directly: "There are still some things that have to be done, things that have to be cleared up to our satisfaction. Some things that need explaining" (81). This time it is Howard who clarifies the ambiguity: "'An autopsy,' Howard said. Dr. Francis nodded" (81).
After returning home, the bereaved couple receives two more phone calls from the baker. Finally, Ann realizes that the baker is calling to harass them about the cake. Although it is midnight, she tells Howard to drive her to the bakery, and the stage is set for the story's final scene.
The closing action can be divided into two phases: before and after the baker is told of Scotty's death. In the first phase, almost all of the important communication is implicitly expressed through body language. When the baker explains tersely that he works sixteen hours a day just to make ends meet. Ann's response is entirely nonverbal, but it is clear that her point has been made: "A look crossed Ann's face that made the baker move back and add 'No trouble, now'" (86). The baker then responds with a less-than-subtle physical threat of his own: "He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand" (86).
This type of body movement substitutes for more than words—it also replaces socially unacceptable acts of violence. Portch refers to this type of implicit communication as an "adaptor," or actions that "originated for practical purposes and have become assimilated into behavioral patterns … the clenching of a fist in anger has the practical purpose of preparing the hand to administer a blow. But more often than not, the fist is clenched to signal anger without a blow being struck" (10).
When the Weisses first entered the bakery, Ann "clenched her fists. She stared at him [the baker] fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men" (85). She has effectively communicated to the baker through this adaptor what she later admits to him (and perhaps to herself) in words: "I wanted to kill you … I wanted you dead" (87). Similarly, the baker's manipulation of the rolling pin suggests that he will do what is necessary to defend himself if physical violence occurs, but these nonverbal signals serve to preclude that violence. The spoken messages delivered in the first half of this to preclude that violence. The spoken messages delivered in the first half of this passage amount to little more than childish verbal jabs, while the nonverbal signals are loud and clear. The Weisses and the baker are sizing up each other, waiting to see what will happen.
Things change when Ann reveals to the baker the details of Scotty's death. After a final admonishment to him, she breaks into tears, and Howard and she are notably silent for the final two pages of the story. The baker's initial reaction to the news of Scotty's death is nonverbal—"he shook his head slowly"—but then an outpouring of words that are the baker's healing takes place:
Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. (88-89)
The baker's ability to articulate his meaningless existence makes him unique among Carver's characters; he is the first to use language in a cathartic sense, the first to confront the nature of his own existence. His philosophical self-examination is a turning point in his life, for he takes the initiative of asking for forgiveness: "I'm not an evil man, I don't think. Not evil like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please,' the man said, 'let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?'" (88). The baker finds his forgiveness through the words that have for so long eluded him.
But more significant, perhaps, is the salvation of Ann and Howard Weiss, for they win a self-conscious battle with inarticulation and, in so doing, provide for the redemption of the baker. Had the embittered man not been confronted by the Weisses, he would never have faced his unresolved conflicts. But unlike the baker, the Weisses do not gain their epiphany through words, but through their ability to empathize with another's pain in the time of their own sorrow: "Although they were in grief, they listened to what the baker had to say." They do not speak; they listen. And they nod. In the absence of words, healing is the literal and figurative act of silent communion with the baker, who prepares hot rolls and coffee for the Weisses, reminding them that "Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this" (88). The concluding passage in the story serves as a final restatement of the double theme of verbal inarticulation and the ability of implicit communication to function admirably as its substitute:
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving. (89)
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this reconciliation is revealed in the concluding sentence, which suggests that if a self-conscious understanding of nonverbal communication is gained, then human communication—not just implicit, but verbal—is possible. It is not until the Weisses have partaken of silent communion with the baker that they are able to talk "on into the early morning." Their willingness to allow the baker's actions to facilitate their healing is the culmination of their growing capacity throughout the story to understand implicit communication. In the absence of this ability, it is doubtful that they, much less the baker, could have avoided the fate of the typical Carver character—paralysis.
1. Michael Gorra, "Laughter and Bloodshed," Hudson Review, 37 (1984), 151-64.
2. "The Bath," in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Random House, 1982), p. 56. Subsequent references are cited in the text.
3. Laurie Stone, "Feeling No Pain," Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 20 (Oct. 1983), 54-55; emphasis mine.
4. "A Small, Good Thing," in Cathedral (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 74. Subsequent references are cited in the text.
5. Literature's Silent Language (New York: Lang, 1985), p. 11; subsequent references are cited in the text. This work is an excellent introduction to the occurrence of nonverbal signals in literature, and focuses on the work of specific writers, including Hemingway, with whose style of writing Carver's stories have been compared.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5852
SOURCE: "Raymond Carver and Postmodern Humanism," in Critique, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, pp. 125-36.
[In the following essay, Brown—a professor at the University of California, Davis—argues that Cathedral is not a radical departure from Carver's style, but an example of his postmodern humanist writing.]
When Raymond Carver wrote "Cathedral," he recognized that it was "totally different in conception and execution from any stories that [had] come before." He goes on to say, "There was an opening up when I wrote the story. I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that direction and I'd be at a dead end" (Fires 204). He began to write longer stories, and his characters started to see things more clearly. Perhaps Carver was exaggerating, however, when he said that "Cathedral" was "totally" different.
Carver's writing has remained postmodern, a distinction as apparent as it is challenging to describe. The teacher of a drawing class once said as my class worked on contour drawings of a tree, "Don't lift your pencil from the page. Keep your eyes on the tree. Concentrate until you get a headache, until your pencil is on the branch of the tree." The contour drawing seems an apt metaphor for postmodern fiction, with its attention to surface detail, its resistance to depth, and its aspect of self-consciousness, where the medium merges with the subject—the creation of the fiction is the subject of the fiction. The pencil is on the tree. What can happen in postmodern fiction is what happened in that drawing class—when we looked down at the page, finally, we saw a good deal of contour drawing and little tree. What makes Carver's postmodern fiction so remarkable is that the tree is still there. He never loses sight of his subject, which is real life, even while his subject is also the creation of fiction.
"Cathedral" is the final story in the collection of stories by the same name; it is the first Carver wrote in this collection. William Stull characterizes the change the story represents in Carver's writing as a movement away from the "existential realism" of his earlier stories toward a "humanist realism."
Existential realism … treats reality phenomenologically, agnostically, and objectively. Whether dead or in occultation, God—the archetype of the author—is absent from the world, which is discontinuous, banal, and, by definition, mundane…. The style of existential realism is, therefore, studiously objective, impersonal, and neutral…. Humanist realism, in contrast, takes a more expressive, more "painterly" approach to its subjects…. Such realism treats reality metaphysically, theologically, and subjectively. (7-8)
Stull thoroughly examines the revision of a story entitled "The Bath," which first appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In Cathedral, "The Bath" has become "A Small, Good Thing," and the most obvious difference is that it continues where the first story left off. The characters move from a serious miscommunication to a very real kind of communion. "Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this" (Cathedral 88), says the baker to the couple whose son was killed by a hit-and-run driver and whom he had senselessly tormented, and he shares bread with them. It is a very different kind of eating from that found in many of Carver's earlier stories. In "The Idea," for example, eating—like the television, like language itself—substitutes for communion and is used by his characters to block out the realization that they are dissociated from themselves and from others, especially those with whom they should be the most intimate. "A Small, Good Thing" ends: "They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving" (89). Thus, "The Bath," which, according to Stull, had been "an existential tale of crass casualty," has become "a story of spiritual rebirth, a minor masterpiece of humanist realism" (13).
Stull refers to existential realism as postmodern, while he associates humanist realism with the classic realism of Balzac, Henry James, and the early James Joyce. Stull says, "Humanist realism … differs from its postmodern counterpart in both philosophical orientation and fictive techniques" (7). But Carver is as postmodern in "Cathedral" as he was in the existential stories in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, particularly "Neighbors," "Collectors," and "Put Yourself in My Shoes." Rather than characterize Carver's work in Cathedral as humanist realism, let us call it humanist postmodernism. The central action in "Cathedral" is itself a kind of contour drawing, where not one but two hands hold the pencil.
Most important, Carver does not need to revert to classic realism to express themes of brotherly and spiritual love. In today's world, these themes are more effectively realized in postmodern fiction. Carver's first accomplishment was to join realism with the resistance to depth and the self-consciousness peculiar to postmodern fiction. His second accomplishment has been to leave behind the themes of dissociation and alienation, which post-modern writers inherited from the modernists, and show that reassociation is possible. He has done this because his own theory of fiction never lets him leave real life.
Concerning the difference in the conception and the execution of "Cathedral," Carver said that he supposes "it reflects a change in [his] life as much as it does in [his] way of writing" (Fires 204). Mona Simpson and Lewis Buzbee once asked Carver, "Are your characters trying to do what matters?" He responded:
I think they are trying. But trying and succeeding are two different matters. In some lives, people always succeed…. In other lives, people don't succeed at what they are trying to do…. These lives are, of course, valid to write about, the lives of the people who don't succeed. Most of my own experience has to do with the latter situation…. It's their lives they've become uncomfortable with, lives they see breaking down. They'd like to set things right, but they can't. And usually they do know it, I think, and after that they just do the best they can. (Fires 201)
Thus it is Carver's personal experience that caused him to write about waitresses and salesmen, millworkers, the unemployed, would-be actors and writers, and people whose marriages had failed. His personal experience dealt with both a life he perceived as not succeeding and also with that perception. "And suddenly everything became clear to him" is a quote from a short story by Chekhov that Carver kept on a card near his desk. He explains:
I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that's implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What's happened? Most of all—what now? (Fires 24)
Seeing is intricately related to being. The writer's art is not separate from existence but is part of it, not merely because it is the writer's task to see clearly and to show what he sees to others, but because seeing is a part of all of our lives. Without it we do not exist. In "Fires," Carver talks about the biggest influence on his life and writing—the fact that he had two children—and about a moment in a laundromat when it became clear to him that the things he had hoped for, the things he thought were possible in his life, simply were not going to happen. "But like that it came to me," Carver says. "Like a sharp breeze when the window is thrown open" (Fires 24). Moments of sudden clarity are moments of seeing, and these moments are dangerous and mysterious, like the wind. Our very identities are changing.
"The Pheasant" is a story about a young actor who has been living with an older woman for her money and her connections. "He could call himself an actor at long last" (Fires 150), says the omniscient narrator. What one can call oneself, the nature of one's identity, and the fact that identity is dependent upon watching others and being watched, as is the case in the acting profession, are ever-present themes in Carver's stories, and an element of self-consciousness is usually present during the moments in which everything becomes clear to his characters. These are moments of self-realization for the characters, but, in addition, an element of self-consciousness enters the story itself—the story seems aware of its own existence.
In "The Pheasant," the young man's identity as an actor is tenuous. One night just before his thirtieth birthday, he and his older woman-friend drive three hundred miles up the coast from Los Angeles to her beach house. On the way, as she dozes, he speeds up to hit a pheasant that crosses the path of the car. Driving again, after having stopped to look at the dead bird, the young man asks his companion, "How well do you really know me?" (149). She has no idea what he means. This is the point at which the exposition occurs and the character's brief biography is presented; in other words, it is here that the reader begins to know the young man. He asks, "Do you think I'd act, that I'd ever do something against my own best interest?" (150). She says she thinks he would. The young man remarks that the countryside is "[s]omething out of Steinbeck" (151), recalling the trucker in Grapes of Wrath who swerved to hit the turtle crossing the road. Finally, the young man tells his companion that he killed the pheasant intentionally:
She gazed at him for a minute without interest. She didn't say anything. Something became clear to him then…. [He] suddenly understood that he no longer had any values. No frame of reference, was the phrase that ran through his mind. (151)
"The phrase that ran through his mind": it is as though we hear the actor-character, as well as the narrator-writer, reflexively making life into fiction. The story continues: "'Is it true?' she said. He nodded. 'It could have been dangerous. It could have gone through the windshield'" (151). As soon as we are conscious, then, of the fiction, the question is asked: "Is it true?" Truth and danger go hand-in-hand, through the windshield.
Windows and breezes, or rushes of wind, figure heavily in Carver's fiction, especially at moments of sudden clarity. The word "window" comes from the Old Norse "vindauga," which means literally "wind eye." The window might be a symbol of fiction itself. Truth comes through it. We see ourselves by watching others, and in this revelation is mystery: "What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What's happened? Most of all—what now?" There is danger, for it is dangerous to consider that we might not know ourselves, that we might "act … against [our] own best interests." Here the young actor avoids danger to himself by killing the pheasant instead; he uses the pheasant's death to discover his own identity. Is that not the way we use fiction—both in the writing and the reading of it—to take us through crises we would rather not experience firsthand?
The most self-conscious of Carver's stories is probably "Put Yourself in My Shoes." He says in "Fires":
I once sat down to write what turned out to be a pretty good story, though only the first sentence of the story had offered itself to me when I began it. For several days I'd been going around with this sentence in my head: "He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang."… Pretty soon I could see a story, and I knew it was my story, the one I'd been wanting to write. (Fires 17)
It is not surprising that the sentence suggested a story to Carver; in fact, it might have suggested more than one. "Collectors" is about a vacuum cleaner salesman named Bell—as though Carver cannot help connecting the vacuum cleaner to the telephone—who essentially collects another man's identity. More to the point, in "Put Yourself in My Shoes" the main character is a writer. It is Carver's story, and it is Myers's. Perhaps there is a play on this character's name as well, with the words "my" and "yours." Perhaps it is also the reader's story.
One of postmodern fiction's assumed roles is to remind the reader not only of how he reads the text but, by extension, of how he reads the world. In reading we are creating a reflection of ourselves, as there is no perception without a perceiver. The world, like the text, is a fictional construct—although, unlike the text, it is also real. We identify our own search for identity with the writer's, and vice versa. By reminding us of this, the writer is doubly (or infinitely) identified, and so is the reader. This is the reason mirrors are so prevalent a sign in postmodern fiction, as they are in Carver's stories, for they represent the text itself. If windows are a symbol of fiction, mirrors are a symbol of postmodern fiction. Looking into them is no small matter, for the character's, the writer's, and the reader's existences are affirmed—and perhaps altered—in them.
"The telephone range while he was running the vacuum cleaner" (Will You Please 130) is the first sentence in the story. Myers's girlfriend Paula is calling from the Christmas office party at the firm Myers quit in order to write a novel. The first thing she tells him is that a fellow worker committed suicide. This is the first of several incidences of violent deaths that are related by one or another character in this story that is so concerned with storytelling. It is no accident that violence and death should be immediately under the surface. Carver says, "I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories…. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent … or else, most often, there simply won't be a story" (Fires 17). There are more than artistic or technical reasons for the danger, however, for what is usually at stake is a character's identity, a character on the brink of being and not being. And yet, can we place the concerns of a character ahead of "artistic or technical" concerns? The story, too, is struggling to exist. Analogous to danger and the fear of death for a character is the possibility of a story not being written, or not being read, and that very fear and possibility make the story.
Paula wants Myers to come to the party, but Myers says no. He watches the snowflakes fall outside the window, rubs his fingers across the glass, then writes his name on the glass. Myers's writing his name on the window suggests, almost too clearly, that, like all writers, he obtains his identity from watching. Myers and Paula decide to meet at a bar, and on the way Myers looks at the people, the sky, and the buildings: "He tried to save it all for later. He was between stories, and he felt despicable" (132). They decide to leave the bar and visit the Morgans, in whose house they had lived when the Morgans were in Europe. As they start up the walk to the front porch, a dog runs out from the back of the house, heads straight for Myers, and knocks him over. Inside the house, Morgan, who is not too pleased with the unexpected visitors, asks Myers if he is all right. "I saw it," Morgan says. "I was looking out the window when it happened" (135). The narrator tells us that "this remark seemed odd to Myers." The idea of somebody watching him is what Myers finds odd, and he immediately turns this around and studies the man. At this point, Morgan is described, as though Carver, or the narrator, and Myers are working together. When Paula or the Morgans talk about what Myers does, which they do repeatedly, they say "he writes" rather than "he is a writer." He is still "between stories" and without an identity. "What did you write today?" Morgan asks, and Myers replies, "Nothing" (137).
Then the storytelling begins. The Morgans are eager to provide Myers with some material, and, after Morgan tells the first story, Mrs. Morgan, Paula, and Morgan himself offer different opinions as to which character's point of view would hold the most interesting possibilities for the story Myers should write. Morgan's remark reminds us of the title of the story we are reading when he says, "Put yourself in the shoes of that eighteen-year-old coed who fell in love with a married man. Think about her for a moment, and then you see the possibilities for your story" (139). Morgan adds, "It would take a Tolstoy to tell it and tell it right" (140).
Carver uses the stuffy, professorial Morgan to remind us of literature and its great traditions in order to make the point that those traditions are of the past—they will no longer work for today's stories or storytelling. In "Fat," the story that begins Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, the waitress-narrator has been telling a story to her friend. "What else? Rita says, lighting one of my cigarets and pulling her chair closer to the table. This story's getting interesting now." As if responding to both Rita and the reader, the waitress-narrator continues, "That's it. Nothing else" (5). At the point where the traditional story would have begun, today's story ends. There are no conclusions, no judgments.
After Morgan has finished his tale about the eighteen-year-old coed, the two couples hear singing. They go to the window to watch Christmas carolers across the street, and Mrs. Morgan says sadly, "They won't come here" (140). In fact, the singers do not come to the Morgans' house. Mrs. Morgan then decides to tell Myers a story she hopes he can use. It is a fairly long story, and it ends: "Fate sent her to die on the couch in our living room." The line sends Myers into a fit of laughter. The Morgans' idea of storytelling—of stories controlled by a universal, larger-than-life force that orders them and defines their meanings—is too much for Myers, and his laughter destroys the surface calm of the visit. "If you were a real writer," says Morgan, "… you would not laugh…. You would plumb the depths of that poor soul's heart and try to understand" (147).
"Plumbing the depths" is precisely what Carver and Myers will not presume to do. Says Carver:
What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it's also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things. (Fires 17)
By keeping us on the surface. Carver is adding force to whatever is beneath it, or to the terrible sense that nothing is there at all. Dean Flower contrasts Carver's approach with Hemingway's theory that "you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted, and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood" (Baker 143). Flower writes of the stories in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?:
In their terse objectivity as well as subject matter … these episodes suggest Carver as a descendent of Hemingway, relocated in the Pacific Northwest. But where Hemingway's purified style was meant to imply volumes of unspoken knowledge, like the seven-eighths of an iceberg underwater, Carver's method suggests that the other seven-eighths either isn't there or isn't knowable. (281)
Hemingway never loses sight of his frame of reference, his values. If he leaves something out, it is only because he is so sure of what it is and he believes that, by leaving it out, he can make it felt more strongly. Carver has less choice about what he leaves out. There is no universal referent, no code of ethics or incontestable values, no resource of significant events to draw from in postmodern fiction. There may be no real reason, no cause, for the breaking down of our lives. There is no choice but to stay on the surface.
On the surface we find more than enough for real stories, and the real feelings of the characters in "Put Yourself in My Shoes" are evident from the beginning of the narrative in the observable surface details. "The real story lies right here, in this house, in this very living room, and it's time it was told!" Morgan cries (147). He does not realize that the story is being told. He accuses Myers of stealing from him, which is precisely what Myers is doing, whether or not he took Morgan's "two-volume set of 'Jazz at the Philharmonic'" (149), as Morgan accuses him of having done. Myers is stealing Morgan's identity for a story he is already writing in his head, just as it has been written by the narrator and just as we are reading it. In stealing Morgan's identity, Myers's own is reestablished, as are the narrator's and the reader's. As Myers and Paula leave the house, the dog yelps in fear and jumps to the side. Myers exists again. The story ends:
Myers patted her hand…. Her voice seemed to come to him from a great distance. He kept driving. Snow rushed at the windshield. He was silent and watched the road. He was at the very end of a story. (150)
In this story about storytelling, about itself, Myers, like the young actor in "The Pheasant," is protected from the wind by a windshield. Like Myers and Carver, we are protected from the real danger of not existing by the story itself. Myers and Carver seem happy, at least for the moment, and we are happy for them—and for ourselves.
Alongside the quote by Chekhov on Carver's wall was a quote by Ezra Pound: "Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing" (Fires 14). Citing this quote, William Stull states that, prior to writing Cathedral. Carver "embraced an aesthetic of accuracy, objectivity, and authorial neutrality" (4) and that "this moral and aesthetic orientation suggests a subject as well as a style" (5). The question is whether the moral and aesthetic orientation suggests the subject, or the subject suggests the moral and aesthetic orientation. We have discussed the importance of subject and of real life to Carver, as well as the more humble reasons he might write about "the lives of the people who don't succeed." In any case, Carver qualifies Pound's quote by adding that "[fundamental accuracy of statement] is not everything by ANY means" (Fires 14). Carver uses "fundamental accuracy of statement" in order to make real life, as he sees it, vivid.
In "On Writing," Carver quotes V. S. Pritchet's definition of a short story: "something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing."
Notice the "glimpse" part of this [Carver continues]. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we're lucky … have even further-ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer's task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He'll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things—like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. (Fires 17-18)
Four things come together here: subject ("how things out there really are"), seeing ("how he sees those things—like no one else sees them"), language ("the use of clear and specific language"), and, inseparable from the others, meaning.
In an essay entitled "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?: Voyeurism, Dissociation, and the Art of Raymond Carver," David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips write: "In Carver's works, the gulf between the seer and the seen—that is, between writer and subject—is very small indeed. His voice barely impinges upon the story being told" (79). We are again reminded of the contour drawing, in which ideally the pencil seems to be on the tree itself. Boxer and Phillips continue:
[Carver] seems to have appropriated what he's writing about and to have kept the stolen thing closely intact out of fascination or respect. And so, as we read his stories, we feel we're accomplices in this faintly stealthy act of appropriation. Like the writer, we're voyeurs, peering into the disturbed lives of these unsuspecting characters. This is what is unique about Carver, his thorough but subtle manipulation of the metaphor of the voyeur at every level of his writing. (79-80)
Boxer and Phillips briefly examine the role of the voyeur in literature.
[Whitman] used voyeurism as a way of resolving the paradox of the One and the Many, the individual and the other. Whitman's omniscient self plays at being invisibly present at the events described by the poet … "I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there." Thus, voyeurism becomes emblematic of an ultimate form of identification and empathy. But in our century a strong bond has been forged between voyeurism and alienation, disconnectedness rather than connectedness. (78)
They point to examples of this alienated voyeur in the work of Eliot, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway and of contemporary writers such as Fowls, Panchen, Barth, Walker Percy, and Leonard Michaels, among others. If Carver makes us—the readers—feel like accomplices in voyeurism, then a kind of collaboration is implied, a connection at least between writer and reader, even if this is achieved at the characters' expense. Furthermore, have we not suggested that seeing, rather than being separate from life, is at the very heart of it, that it is a necessary part of being? What the writer does is intensify this phenomenon, both for himself and for his readers. Carver's art, rather than being one of dissociation, is an art of association, of participation. As though his success at writing has brought this home to him, Carver is ready, at the time he writes "Cathedral," to share this success with his characters.
A blind man comes to spend the night with the narrator of the story and his wife. The blind man, whose wife has just died of cancer, is an old friend of the narrator's wife. She had worked for him, reading case studies to him in his office in the county social-service department, while her first husband was in officer's training school. That her job was reading and her work with the blind man was performing a kind of social service are details that show that Carver wants us to be aware of reading and of its humanist possibilities. Moreover, the narrator's wife had written a poem about the blind man touching her face. The narrator seems uneasy about all this.
How do I know these things? She told me. And she told me something else. On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed to this. She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it. She was always trying to write a poem. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her. (Cathedral 210)
His wife having written a poem about the blind man touching her face connects human intimacy to reading and writing in an obvious way. The narrator dwells on the poem, which his wife had showed to him when they first started seeing each other.
In the poem, she talked about what she had felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips. I can remember I didn't think much of the poem…. Maybe I just don't understand poetry. (210)
By the end of the story, thanks to the blind man, it is clear that this seemingly insensitive narrator is perfectly capable of understanding poetry.
More subtly, the blind man's touching the face of the narrator's wife is almost itself an act of reading and writing, as though one human being is reading and writing another. As with the contour drawing, the blind touching can be seen as a metaphor for postmodern fiction. Again the attention is on the surface, but here the surface is human. The blind man's touching the face of the narrator's wife is a very different way of seeing and establishing another's—or one's own—identity from Myers's rubbing his fingers and writing his name on the cold glass. Here the knowledge of others and of ourselves is a more intimate knowledge, although we cannot forget that the knowledge is blind, appearing not in the light of some controlling order but in darkness. It is a human knowledge, simply a human connection.
The narrator is jealous of the blind man, especially since his wife's friendship with the man dates back to the time of her first husband, "the man who'd first enjoyed her favors" (210). But there seem to be other reasons the narrator does not want the blind man to stay with them. Blindness is strange to him. Not only has the blind man known his wife longer than he has, and in ways that he has not known her, but from tape recordings his wife has exchanged with the blind man over the years, the man even seems to know him. He had heard the blind man say on one of the tapes, "From all you've said about [your husband], I can only conclude …" And then the tape had been interrupted.
After dinner, the three drink, smoke marijuana, and watch television. The narrator tells us, "Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I fell asleep. My wife and I hardly ever went to bed together at the same time. When I did go to sleep, I had these dreams. Sometimes I'd wake up from one of them, my heart going crazy" (222). It is significant that he puts this in the past tense. Presumably, the events he is narrating have changed his domestic life. Furthermore, the loss of marital intimacy he describes recalls Carver's earlier stories—again "The Idea" is a good example—in which any intimacy, sexual or even conversational, either no longer exists or was never there. In his foreword to William Kittredge's We Are Not in This Together, Carver writes, "There's God's plenty of 'disease' in these stories, a phrase Camus used to describe a certain terrible kind of domesticity" (ix). In "The Idea," an almost hyper real symbol of this "dis-ease" is the ants the woman finds after her husband has gone to bed; in "Cathedral," it seems to reveal itself surrealistically in the narrator's dreams. In "Cathedral," however, we are not left with the bad dreams, and Carver may be pointing to a way out of this "dis-ease."
After his wife has fallen asleep, her robe having slipped open as she sits back on the sofa between the narrator and the blind man, the narrator asks the blind man if he is ready to go to sleep. The blind man responds, "Not yet…. No, I'll stay up with you, bub. If that's all right. I'll stay up until you're ready to turn in" (222). There is a program on the television about cathedrals, and it occurs to the narrator that the blind man might have no idea what a cathedral looks like. He asks him, and the blind man says he does not have a good idea and asks the narrator to describe one. The narrator tries but has a difficult time.
They're massive. They're built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone's life. (225)
God was also an important part of fiction, and fiction now must find its way without him. The blind man asks the narrator whether he is in any way religious. The narrator shakes his head and says he guesses he does not believe in anything. He ends his description of cathedrals by saying, "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" (226).
The blind man asks the narrator to get a pen and some heavy paper. The narrator gets a ball point pen from his wife's room upstairs and a shopping bag from the kitchen, items that remind us of his domestic life. The blind man puts his hand over the narrator's hand and tells him to draw. He tells the narrator to close his eyes. The television station goes off the air. Together, they draw a cathedral. "His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper," the narrator says. Thus the blind man is feeling not the finished drawing of the cathedral, not the paper or the cathedral itself, but the making of it—he is participating in the drawing of the cathedral. The blind man says, "I think that's it. I think you got it…. Take a look. What do you think?" (228). The narrator has almost become the blind man, and the blind man the narrator. Who is drawing for whom? Reader and writer have merged. The narrator does not want to open his eyes.
"Well?" [the blind man] said. "Are you looking?"
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.
"It's really something," I said. (228)
If the contour drawing is a metaphor for postmodernism, then this contour drawing, of one hand upon another's, is a metaphor for humanist postmodernism. Through the making of a fiction together, the narrator and the blind man come to communicate; even more, they become aware not merely of their physical but of their spiritual being. The narrator shows the blind man a cathedral, and the blind man shows the narrator how to see. He shows him what a cathedral means. He shows him something larger than himself. And the narrator is good enough to show us.
Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Avon Books, 1980.
Boxer, David, and Cassandra Phillips. "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?: Voyeurism, Dissociation, and the Art of Raymond Carver." Iowa Review 10.3 (1979): 75-90.
Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. New York: Vintage, 1984.
――――――. Fires. New York: Vintage, 1984.
――――――. Foreword. We Are Not in This Together. By William Kittredge. Washington: Graywolf Press, 1984.
――――――. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
Flower, Dean. "Fiction Chronicles." The Hudson Review 29 (1976): 270-82.
Stull, William, "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver." Philological Quarterly 64 (1985): 1-15.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3669
SOURCE: "'The Possibility of Resurrection': Re-vision in Carver's 'Feathers' and 'Cathedral'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 31-9.
[In the essay below, Hathcock compares "Feathers" and "Cathedral" to illustrate the ways in which Carver allows his characters greater freedom and ability to redeem their lives.]
In two of his late stories—"Feathers" and "Cathedral"—Raymond Carver appears to have changed his estimation of the potential power in his characters, the power to reconstruct their lives through language and, in the process, arrive at some understanding or intuitive accord. Unlike earlier Carver protagonists, the inhabitants of what one critic has called "Hopelessville," (Newlove 77) these narrators show an uncommon interest in the way they tell their stories. The stories themselves dramatize the characters' incipient awareness of their own authority: the control of their own language. This act of assertion reveals their ability to read, at last, the texts of their own lives. They "read" in the sense that Barthes defines the activity—an erotic interaction with the fabric of their memories, fears, and desires—and the "text" resulting from this practice resists the characters' tendency to fall passively silent (Barthes 31-47). The nihilism that many readers have faulted Carver for espousing is successfully deflected by these two narrators; through language, through the engaged imaginative act of "telling," they are granted a new vision of their lives and, in the process, a re-vision of meaning.
Many critics of Carver's early work have been concerned with the extreme economy to which he submits both himself and his imagined world. This restrictive aesthetic seems either to impress or discourage, according to how the reader interprets the implied struggle for power. James Atlas notes that for all the "talk" in the stories, it "is groping, rudimentary. [These characters] have no wisdom to purvey…. Language becomes just another misfortune, without our ever quite knowing why" (Atlas 96). Such a notion of language is, another critic maintains, precisely the point: "In his early stories [the] obsessive subject is the failure of human dialogue" (Facknitz 288). Emphasizing this failure, both responses call attention to the control of language.
In his essay "On Writing" Carver himself dwells upon the necessary element of control:
If the words are heavy with the writer's own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason—if the words are in any way blurred—the reader's eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader's own artistic sense will simply not be engaged. (Fires 16)
Language, Carver tells us, is both an obstacle and the means of confronting that obstacle. Even this passage is marked with the evidence of conflict: its indeterminacy gives evidence of the same malleability that Carver warns against. We cannot know how a word is "heavy" or "imprecise" or "inaccurate" or "blurred" without knowing a priori something of the author's intent. But such assumptions seem unnecessary if a corresponding "artistic sense" is brought into play because it is the re-written text—one produced by the reader—that is vital. Carver acknowledges the duplicity of words while asserting in the same breath that the writer fights against this liability, that emotions must be "bridled." He fights for, the implication seems to be, the vision of the reader. If the reader's eyes "slide right over" the "blurred" language, the reader does not in reality see it and so cannot re-vise it through his/her "artistic sense." For Carver then writing is reading and reading, writing. Both must be creative practices; in fact, both are the same practice. This observation is noteworthy because in "Feathers" and "Cathedral," the author allows characters to discover this "artistic sense" within themselves, and they begin to "read" for the first time.
An earlier story might serve as a counterpoint. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" speaks less of love than of the inadequacy of language to convey those monumental abstractions that spring from "unbridled emotions." Even the title suggests a practice of displacement. The attempt to talk about love results in story, but the stories in this case are struggles that fail to elicit their audience's "artistic sense." As Mel the cardiologist says, "I'll tell you what real love is … I mean, I'll give you a good example. And you can draw your own conclusions" (What We Talk About 144). Like the writer posited by Carver above, Mel assumes that language must catalyze a process, but, as the story illustrates, he senses also the inadequacy of his role in that process. All his efforts to explain the meaning of his parables end in questions, non sequitur, or just inconclusive silence. We see the breakdown of response in Nick's final utterance: "I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark" (154). This scene could be read as a moment of communion in which the story culminates, but for the presence of that "human noise." What better description of "blurred" language could Carver have settled upon? What more apt rendition of a scene in which "nothing will be achieved" than the stasis and darkness that blot out this story at its end, leaving literally nothing for the "eye" to rest upon?
In speaking of the self-conscious labor that went into the stories of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver resorts to the terminology of struggle:
I pushed and pulled and worked with those stories before they went into the book to an extent I'd never done with any other stories. When the book was put together and in the hands of my publisher, I didn't write anything at all for six months. 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…. There was an opening up when I wrote that story. (Fires 204)
Such language is significant, as the pushing, pulling, and working result in an "opening up." The trope of escape into freedom mirrors the writer's paradigm that Carver proposes in the passage cited earlier. A condition of being "bridled" will result in words that engage, or open up to, the reader's artistic sense." If this metaphor encompasses the artistic process, then "Feathers" and "Cathedral," both results of Carver's changed practice, could also manifest that practice as he now conceives it. A rare enough phenomenon for characters in the Carver world before now, the liberation of creativity becomes the redemptive act in these later stories. Creation is the only act with meaning because it generates its own, and in these two narrators we find characters concerned to an unprecedented degree with reading and drawing accurately from the texts of their lives. As of yet, both are but nascent artists, and neither story affords any guarantees that the evolution begun will continue, but possibility is verified as each consciousness shows itself ready to grasp and wrest interpretation from the world rather than simply process it.
In a review of What We Talk About, Michael Koepf points to one agency of isolation that has generally been neglected by critics: "Raymond Carver is the consummate master of Now. There are no getaways of hope allowed into the future or back into the past" (Koepf 16). The characters of the early Carver are quarantined not only in their physical and emotional selves, but in time as well (one might note the number of stories set in the present tense). Narrative, however, means that the past is recoverable. It acts as a "getaway of hope" into the future by re-vising the past. In this regard, "Feathers" provides an interesting example. While Jack, the narrator, recalls an evening spent with a friend from work and his wife, it is the backward and forward motion through time that grants his memory its significance. He faces the past by imposing upon it his imaginative reconstruction, and by means of this re-vision finds some solace for the future. Borrowing from Harold Bloom's theory of tropes as psychic defenses, we might posit the narrative drawn from memory as a defense against ignorance; Jack's story—his troping of the past—becomes a weapon to combat feelings of powerlessness (Bloom 8). In the process Jack encounters the limits of his expressive resources, but the value in his story lies in his struggle with those limits. He acts, rather than accept the confusion that has shrouded his failed marriage. The recurring question "What's to say?" is answered by the story itself.
Jack's approach to his text is emotional, structured by a stream of associations. The opening paragraph—with its seemingly random collocations, advanced by the choppy cadences of speech—reveals a consciousness gradually challenging itself:
This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper. I didn't know his wife and he didn't know Fran. That made us even. But Bud and I were friends. And I knew there was a little baby at Bud's house. That baby must have been eight months old when Bud asked us to supper. Where'd those eight months go? Hell, where's the time gone since? I remember the day Bud came to work with a box of cigars. Dutch Masters. But each cigar had a red sticker on it and a wrapper that said IT'S A BOY! I didn't smoke cigars, but I took one anyway. "Take a couple," Bud said. He shook the box. "I don't like cigars either. This is her idea." He was talking about his wife, Olla. (Cathedral 3)
This passage proceeds by associative strands, broken by a pair of questions. But these questions are not merely interrupters; they spark the telling of the story altogether, challenging Jack's attempts to recover time and redeem the present by reading his past accurately. The aggregate of details must be sorted through for Jack to arrive at, or select, his significant moments. He has trouble remembering Bud's wife's name, even as he recalls their baby, but by an inductive sequence, returning to the day the child was born, he triggers the memory of her name, the last word of the paragraph: Olla. This psychological process is the "opening up" Carver speaks of in connection with these stories. The freedom and assertiveness of this passage, something we take for granted in fiction, is new in the realm of Carver's own work.
However, as the narrative progresses, clearly it is less a series of challenges to Jack's power of recall than to his powers of rendition. Throughout the visit to Bud and Olla's, Jack and Fran encounter sights that surprise, dismay, and enthrall them. In his memory the patina of a strange beauty settles over all of these things so that his recollection then demands embellishment and honing, even the crude sort of which Jack is capable. He is faced with spanning that gap between experience and re-vision, as in this passage describing the couple's arrival and their greeting by Bud's peacock, Joey:
The bird moved forward a little. Then it turned its head to the side and braced itself. It kept its bright, wild eye right on us. Its tail was raised, and it was like a big fan folding in and out. There was every color in the rainbow shining from that tail.
"My God," Fran said quietly. She moved her hand over to my knee.
"Goddamn," I said. There was nothing more to say.
The bird made this strange wailing sound once more. "May-awe, May-awe!" it went. If it'd been something I was hearing late at night and for the first time, I'd have thought it was somebody dying or else something wild and dangerous. (8)
Initially, nothing in Jack's description seems other than mundane, his lack of verbal resources revealed in the cliches he resorts to—"like a big fan" and "every color of the rainbow." He can only curse because "there was nothing more to say." But this statement reports his reaction then. To Fran he said nothing more, but as he tells his story later, he can say more, something less hackneyed, more truthful, suggesting both fear and attraction.
Further challenges lie in store, as when Olla finally brings baby Harold into the gathering. The appearance of Harold leaves both Fran and Jack gasping. The moment is humorous, but primarily because Jack again confronts a sight defying description, and his attempts to encompass Harold's ugliness quickly blossom into awkward, hyperbolic repetition:
Bar none, it was the ugliest baby I'd ever seen. It was so ugly I couldn't say anything. No words would come out of my mouth. I don't mean it was diseased or disfigured. Nothing like that. It was just ugly. It had a big red face, pop eyes, a broad forehead, and these big fat lips. It had no neck to speak of, and it had three or four fat chins. Its chins rolled right up under its ears, and its ears stuck out from its bald head. Fat hung over its wrists. Its arms and fingers were fat. Even calling it ugly does it credit.
Aside from Jack's persistence in denying the child a sex, part of the comedy lies in his realization that "no words would come out of [his] mouth." Then Jack was struck dumb, but now the memory calls forth a flood of words that—while repetitive and monosyllabic—still indicate that in his present attempt to convey the "specialness" about that night, Jack will consciously push himself to speak, to re-vise his experience in order to speak. He is resisting the temptation to fall silent.
After the meal, Harold's debut, and Joey's entrance, Jack sits at the table appreciating the ineffable warmth that the night has generated. He knows that the night is "special" and wants to be alone with Fran to tell her what he is feeling: "I made a wish that evening. Sitting there at the table, I closed my eyes for a minute and thought hard. What I wished for was that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening" (25). That night, upon returning home, Jack and Fran conceive their own child, in spite of never having wanted children before. Their son's coming signals a deterioration in their marriage, and in the present from which the story is told they "don't talk about it. What's to say?" If the story ended here, in the disconsolate silence that overcomes so many others, it would surely qualify as more dead-end than "opening-up." But Jack continues, and the final passage seems a testimony to memory—re-vision—as a sanctifying power:
But I remember that night. I recall the way the peacock picked up its gray feet and inched around the table. And then my friend and his wife saying goodnight to us on the porch. Olla giving Fran some peacock feathers to take home. I remember all of us shaking hands, hugging each other, saying things. In the car, Fran sat close to me as we drove away. She kept her hand on my leg. We drove home like that from my friend's house. (26)
Jack's wish has come true because he has held on to the night in memory and has committed it to language. The final scene suggests that this is not "bad luck" but rather the part of the past that redeems the present. It consoles by reminding Jack that his and Fran's "mistake" had its real inception in love. He realizes that "the change came later," and his re-vision of the past has led him to that knowledge. With the close of his narrative stressing the promise of that night, Jack defeats the stasis of despair.
This passage from stasis into possibility is recorded even more clearly in "Cathedral," the story Carver felt to be a breakthrough. Much against his wishes, the unnamed narrator must confront a part of his wife's past when she is visited by a blind man who was once her employer. The narrator's prejudices and cynicism comprise limitations from which he has been too boorish or lazy to free himself. However, his confrontation with Robert, the blind man, has astounding effects on his own vision. His wife tells him the story of Robert's marriage to Beulah, that ends eight years later with her death by cancer. The narrator's version reveals a consciousness ripe for change. He is impressed, almost in spite of himself, by the fact that a woman could marry, live with a man, and die without his ever knowing what she looked like.
It was beyond my understanding. Hearing this, I felt sorry for the blind man for a little bit. And then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one…. Someone who could wear makeup or not—what difference to him? She could, if she wanted, wear green eyeshadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks and purple shoes, no matter. And then to slip off into death, the blind man's hand on her hand, his blind eyes streaming tears—I'm imagining now—her last thought may be this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave. (Cathedral 213)
In the dynamic of the passage, the narrator contradicts his admission that "It was beyond my understanding"; in fact, "understanding" and "imagining" become identical. By revising the story provided by his wife, the speaker manages his own comprehension and through it feels the pangs of sympathy, none of which pervade his earlier account of his wife's attempted suicide. The act of the imagination becomes the first stage of genuine human contact.
Another example of such an energetic transfer occurs when the trio sits down to dinner:
We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table.
We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn't talk. We ate.
We scarfed. We grazed that table. We were into serious eating. The blind man had right away located his foods, he knew just where everything was on his plate. I watched with admiration as he used his knife and fork on the meat. (217)
A simple colloquialism gives way to pleonastic variations on a theme, much like Jack's description of Harold in "Feathers." Significantly, though, as soon as the narrator reveals an awareness of his medium, troping in his own clumsy way, he also begins to notice the blind man, and that recognition is tinged with "admiration," the story thus far has shown that sympathy and admiration for others are novel feelings for this speaker. He is beginning, as Mark Facknitz observes, "to see with eyes other than that insufficient set that keep him a friendless drunk and a meager husband" (Facknitz 295). He is, in fact, learning to read, which is learning to revise.
In the crucial passage, the narrator and Robert sit watching "something about the church and the Middle Ages" on television; that is, Robert listens, and our speaker watches and tries to describe what is depicted. When he attempts to convey a cathedral to his blind guest, he faces the bounds of his experience because of the limits of his language: "I'm just no good at it." Robert's solution is to have the narrator draw a cathedral on heavy paper while he rests his hand on the drawing hand. Caught up in the imaginative transfer, the speaker closes his eyes as Robert suggests and continues to draw, thinking, "It was like nothing in my life up to now."
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
"Well?" he said. "Are you looking?"
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.
"It's really something," I said. (228)
The narrator experiences the same freedom that Carver himself describes above when he mentions an "opening up." He does this as a culmination of his pushing, pulling, and working with his language, in the process learning to do more than empathize or shift point of view. Point of view implies a metaphoric enclosure, a role, a situation. He has transcended that kind of specification, and, in so doing, has escaped the bonds of his experience that trapped him. He is no longer "inside" anything. The confrontation with language has led him into the realm of an ineffable "something" beyond a linguistic register, beyond the power of words to inhibit, to the point at which they shatter. This confrontation and the attempt to achieve it, Carver implies, is the struggle that will result in "something," not "human noise" and darkness.
In a Paris Review interview in 1983, Carver answered Mona Simpson's question "Are you religious?" by saying, "No, but I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection" (Fires 206). In these two stories we see Carver directing "miracles" of the type he believed possible. In the effort to transform actions into words or words into actions, these characters arrive at a language that is ultimately a means of freedom and enfranchisement, of vision and revision.
Atlas, James. "Less is Less." The Atlantic Monthly June, 1981:98.
Barthes, Roland. "Theory of the Text." Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge, 1981.31-47.
Bloom, Harold. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.
Carver, Raymond. Cathedral New York: Vintage, 1984.
――――――. Fires New York: Vintage, 1984.
――――――. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Vintage, 1972.
Facknitz, Mark. "The Calm,' 'A Small, Good Thing,' and 'Cathedral': Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth." Studies in Short Fiction 3 (1986): 287-96.
Koepf, Michael. "The Collapse of Love: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." San Francisco Review of Books May-June 1984:16.
Newlove, Donald. "Fiction Briefs." Saturday Review April 1981:77.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7587
SOURCE: "Maturity: Cathedral," in Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992, pp. 48-66.
[In the following excerpt, Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M University, traces the changes in Carver's writing, noting that in Cathedral he exhibits great skill in adopting a softer, more hopeful tone.]
If a great number of critics hailed the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981 as the establishing event of Carver's career, it is the arrival of Cathedral three years later that confirms his place among short-story writers of the first rank. The confirmation results in part, however, not from a continuation of what established him, but from his manifest growth and the more generous spirit visible in his work.
The defining features of Carver's fiction alter during the period between the two books. The voice remains the same, but the vision becomes less grounded in despair. The fictional framework is enlarged and reinforced by traditional structures. Empty spaces fill with beginnings, middles, ends. Truncations vanish; where once the narrative halted in emotional tumult, the story continues and equilibrium is restored. Despair becomes redemption; the alienated are reconciled. Hardboiled realism turns out to be allegory with a soft center.
The techniques, situations, and effects of popular forms become the tools, material, and goals of his fiction. He exploits the melodrama of what was once the exclusive province of daytime television (now also under primetime lights and cameras), the thrills of detective fiction, and the convictions of a culture's assimilated lessons.
It is a sign of Carver's maturity that he makes these adjustments skillfully, with a power and quiet confidence seldom seen in the toilers of such genres. The sureness of a writer at case with himself is felt in his willingness to develop complete narratives that shun the old poetics of withholding, in his willingness to permit affirmative resolutions, and in his opening up of the narrative to include aspects (sentimentality, for example) traditionally dismissed by literary critics as unsuitable for serious fiction.
Aside from being exemplars of maturity in a fine craftsman who has enlarged his reach and grasp, certain stories in Cathedral provide excellent opportunities to note the retrieval of sentimentality and religious melodrama from the storehouse of cultural assumptions and the restoration of their aesthetic value during the 1980s. When literary historians look back, they will wonder what so modified tastes that melodrama could move from radio to the hot klieg lights of daytime television, from afternoon to primetime drama, and finally from the electronic medium to award-winning serious fiction. "But in a knowledge of authors and their times," as Paul Valéry observes, "a study of the succession of literary phenomena can only excite us to conjecture what may have happened in the minds of those who have done what is necessary to get themselves inscribed in the annals of the History of Letters":
If they succeeded in doing so, it was through the concurrence of two conditions which may always be considered as independent: one is necessarily the production of the work itself, the other is the production of a certain value in the work by those who have known and liked it once it is produced, those who have enforced its reputation and assured its transmission, its conservation, its ulterior life.
That value bestowed by others—editors who like and select a work for publication, critics who transmit its reputation, and members of grants and awards panels who determine material and symbolic stamps of value—was denied for most of the twentieth century, as Jane Tompkins has pointed out, to works that were accused of trading in "false stereotypes, dishing out weak-minded pap to nourish the prejudices of an ill-educated and underemployed female readership."16 However, with the major institutional changes of the 1980s, a visible shift in literary criteria took place, and no story better illustrates this shift than "A Small, Good Thing."
"A Small, Good Thing"
"A Small, Good Thing" provides a clear contrast between the quintessential Carveresque, as represented by "The Bath" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the new fiction of Cathedral. Certain therapeutic themes highly charged with iconographic intensity make their appearance in the story, reinforcing convictions so deeply held that we are often unaware of their presence or force. Moreover, the story's record of awards and reprintings testifies to the cultural shift toward sentimentality that characterizes the decade of the eighties and expresses the degree to which devalued elements appreciated during this shift.
Unlike numerous stories by Carver in more than one version, "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing" are not variations of the same story, although the characters, initiating situation, and crisis remain the same. In the McCaffery-Gregory interview, Larry McCaffery identifies them as two versions of a story taking radically distinct courses. Carver amends his interviewer's definition, calling the narratives "two entirely different stories" that he found difficult to think of "as coming from the same source" (McCaffery, 66). On this point, the author can be trusted, for certain parallels between Vladimir Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" and Carver's "The Bath" insist that the former exercised an influence on Carver as he composed the latter. To that extent "Signs and Symbols" was a source for the "The Bath," but not for "A Small, Good Thing."
In both omniscient narratives, parents of a hospitalized son spend his birthday worrying about his life in the care of medical people. In the Nabokov story, the son is grown, suffering from insanity, and in danger of killing himself in the asylum; in the Carver story, the son has been struck by a car, is in a coma, and in danger of dying from the trauma. In both stories three telephone calls function as menacing signs. The falling back on signs and symbols in "The Bath" underscores Carver's fondness for a sense of threat, which he confesses to in "On Writing": "I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine" (Fires, 17).
"The Bath" opens with Ann Weiss's visit to a baker and an order for a birthday cake. On Monday, the day of Scotty's birthday party, the boy is struck by a hit-and-run driver: "He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall" (What, 48). Here Scotty resembles Nabokov's image in "Signs and Symbols" of an unfledged bird knocked from its nest and twitching in a puddle.
Scotty picks himself up and returns home where, before slipping into a coma, he tells his mother what happened. At the hospital, the parents begin their vigil, watching for signs of recovery, dealing with medical people as they search for signs of the problem and taking turns going home for a bath. During the father's trip home the baker, without identifying himself, calls twice, making cryptic remarks about the cake that was not picked up. Disoriented in his fear for Scotty's life, the father does not make the connection or mention the calls to Ann upon his return to the hospital.
Finally persuaded to go home and freshen up, Ann encounters an African-American family waiting at the hospital for news about their son Nelson. A moment of mistaken identity and a disconnected exchange underscore the emotional states of the respective individuals. In the last brief scene, Ann reaches home, and the story closes with the third and final telephone call from the baker: "'Scotty,' the voice said. 'It is about Scotty,' the voice said. 'It has to do with Scotty, yes'" (What, 56).
The effect of this closure is powerful in the context of Ann's emotional state, even to the reader who knows the caller is the baker. She is terrified. Her only child is in a coma at the hospital. She has just encountered another mother waiting for word about her hospitalized son. She has not slept for a long while and is disoriented. The last thing she needs to hear at this moment is the jarring ring of a telephone with a sinister voice from the other end of the line encouraging her worst fears with ambiguous words.
Unlike many of Carver's stories that end in overt loss of control, this one provides clear motivation for a breakdown. However, because Carver has made the provision this time, an actual breakdown becomes unnecessary, and he leaves it out. In the empty space following the last full stop, the reader involuntarily experiences the powerful emotions that Ann would feel. The result is a story that exemplifies the Carveresque as well as any story Carver ever wrote.
And yet, he rewrote "The Bath" as "A Small, Good Thing," expanding it to three times its original length, giving it a fully developed structure with a beginning, middle, and end, and a resolution of reconciliation, effectively removing both the Nabokovian influences and its distinctly Carveresque qualities, while at the same time creating for it a much wider appeal than his stories usually enjoy.
As a truncated, indirect work of fiction, "The Bath" remains consistent with the other stories of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Along with the title story of the collection, "So Much Water So Close to Home," and "Why Don't You Dance?" it is one of the most memorable fictions in the book, but the synergetic force of the whole collection is what makes itself felt among those readers and critics who respond favorably to the work.
Readers without patience to seek out the hidden complexities of indirect or elliptical narration tend to reject Carver's fiction on grounds that the stories are incomplete. They fail to find a sense of development or proper closure. Accustomed to overt conflict and its clear resolution, they believe the stories are devoid of significance, of events that would explain the characters' motivation and retarded emotional states, and of consequences when explanatory events do occur, as in "The Bath." Even when taken together as a coherent mosaic of scaled-down narratives, the stories portray unpleasant realities without relief. All too often, these readers complain, Carver chooses to eliminate character-shaping relations and to give only the result of the character's static confusion.
Such objections ought not to be dismissed without consideration, yet a little reflection reveals that they fail to take into account the method of indirection, which has become the technique of choice in this century. This method, in conjunction with Carver's desire to focus on a limited time or action for the sake of realism, has contributed to his minimalist reputation, a designation that irritated him. It also helps to form what I call his defining signature. Granted, the technique derives in part from an obsessive desire to avoid great glares and had evolved in Carver by the time of this collection to the point that even the epiphany—which might have created a sense of closure, dynamism, and meaning—had been trimmed of all devices that would render its meaning immediately clear. And yet, the patterns of Carver's fiction—repetition, parallelism, opposition, shared elements—have the power to reveal missing scenes, relations, explanations, the past, and the future. The lesson of these truncated narratives is that much of their merit can be found in the omitted parts, which patience and care can flesh out.
However, no such claim can be made about "A Small, Good Thing," for neither its structure nor its theme owes anything to truncation or the signs and symbols of Nabokovian menace. Instead, it depends on sentimentality and a different category of characterization, on cultural myth and a therapeutics of passion for its effect.
Howard and Ann Weiss, their child Scotty, and the unregenerate baker appear in both stories, but compare the two Howards:
It had been a good life till now. There had been work, fatherhood, family. The man had been lucky and happy. (What, 49)
Until now, his life had gone smoothly and to his satisfaction—college, marriage, another year of college for the advanced degree in business, a junior partnership in an investment firm. Fatherhood. He was happy and, so far, lucky—he knew that. (Where, 282)
College, an MBA, a junior partnership in an investment firm. This Howard is like no previous character in Carver's fiction, and the family doctor is a stereotype that viewers of soap opera will recognize immediately: "The doctor was a handsome, big-shouldered man with a tanned face. He wore a three-piece blue suit, a striped tie, and ivory cuff links. His gray hair was combed along the sides of his head, and he looked as if he had just come from a concert" (Where, 284-85). The only stock items missing are the overcoat and silk scarf these doctors are usually wearing when they come from the symphony to take pulses and lift eyelids. There is, furthermore, the melodramatic scene of Ann and Howard performing their vigil while Scotty lies in a coma:
"I've been praying," she said.
She said, "I almost thought I'd forgotten how, but it came back to me. All I had to do was close my eyes and say, 'Please God, help us—help Scotty,' and then the rest was easy. The words were right there. Maybe if you prayed, too," she said to him.
"I've already prayed," he said. "I prayed this afternoon—yesterday afternoon, I mean—after you called, while I was driving to the hospital. I've been praying," he said.
"That's good," she said. For the first time, she felt they were together in it, this trouble. She realized with a start that, until now, it had only been happening to her and to Scotty. She hadn't let Howard into it, though he was there and needed all along. She felt glad to be his wife. (Where, 286)
Whether Scotty will live in "The Bath" is an open matter—he is alive when the story ends with the baker's telephone call underscoring the menace—but he must die in "A Small, Good Thing" in order to fulfill the thematic requirements of sacrifice and redemption. As Tompkins argues, "Stories like the death of little Eva [in Uncle Tom's Cabin] are compelling for the same reason that the story of Christ's death is compelling" (Tompkins, 127). The pure die to redeem the unregenerate, and through Scotty's death, the baker will be brought back into the world, where people know how to behave.
In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault notes the moral tenor of water treatments and travel for disturbed behavior and emphasizes the correlation between salvation and a return to the world: "If it is true that the techniques of immersion always concealed the ethical, almost religious memories of ablution, of a second birth, in these cures by movement we can also recognize a symmetrical moral theme, but one that is the converse of the first: to return to the world, to entrust oneself to its wisdom by returning to one's place in the general order of things, thus forgetting madness."17
Along with a therapeutics of movement and immersion, Foucault devotes attention to beliefs in cures by passion: "By subjecting the nervous fibers to a stronger tension, anger gives them more vigor, thus restoring their lost elasticity and permitting fear to disappear" (Foucault, 181). Foucault's emphasis on the necessity of the immediate, on cures by passion, and on cures by regulation of movement wonderfully parallel the conceits of Hemingway's anachronistic hunter in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." Here are the white hunter Wilson's explanations of Macomber's newfound courage: "Hadn't had time to be afraid with the buff. That and being angry too. Motor car too. Motor cars made it familiar. Be a damn fire eater now. He'd seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear."18 It is Macomber's need to react without thinking, what Foucault calls the necessity of the immediate, that forestalls his fear. When he had time to think about the wounded lion earlier, he became frightened, and in Wilson's world, cowardice is a sign of disturbed behavior. Having been a car racer, Macomber's reaction in the moving car is nothing more than a familiar reaction brought on by the regulation of movement. And of course he is angry about his wife's infidelity—Foucault's cure by passion. Along with other eighteenth-century notions and cultural traces, a therapeutics of passion has leached down to us through the centuries and is still with us in the fiction of Hemingway and Carver.
Elaborating his morality play and perhaps taking his cue from Hemingway's example, Carver resorts to cures by passion, giving Ann Weiss an angry vigor as she realizes the telephone calls have come from the baker. She insists on their going to the shopping center. Confronting the man, "She clenched her fists. She stared at him fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men" (Where, 299). This correlation of Foucault's curative anger purifies Ann's condition, concentrating her thinking, fortifying her resolve, leaving her, as Wilson might say, with "no bloody fear."
For the baker's anger and consequent behavior, Carver administers a prescription of fear, curing his patient, according to Foucault, just as eighteenth-century doctors would have done: "Fear, in the eighteenth century, was regarded as one of the passions most advisable to arouse in madmen. It was considered the natural complement of the constraints imposed upon maniacs and lunatics" (Foucault, 180). Confronted by the infuriated Ann Weiss, the baker loses his bluster, which is replaced by a constraining fear. "A look crossed Ann's face that made the baker move back and say, 'No trouble, now'" (Where, 299).
A conversion follows. He confesses, repents, and asks forgiveness. Bread and coffee are brought out, and the three of them commune until dawn. A sense of redemption is everywhere felt in the atmosphere of this resolution. What we have here is religious allegory, for the iconography of this reconciliation belongs, not to the neorealist phase of Carver's earlier fiction, but to the tradition of typological narrative with its doctrine of theological types, what Tompkins calls "a narrative aimed at demonstrating that human history is a continual reenactment of the sacred drama of redemption" (Tompkins, 134).
The popularity of a work is certainly indicative of the values of its time, but not necessarily of literary values. In the twentieth century, at least, there has been a clear line between popular literature and serious literature. However, when popularity and critical opinion agree, the convergence speaks with authority about the aesthetics of the period, expressing something profound about the culture that produces such a convergence.
"A Small, Good Thing" was published in Ploughshares, honored in Prize Stories 1983: The O. Henry Awards and The Pushcart Prize (1983–84), and reprinted in the Ploughshares Reader: New Fiction for the Eighties (1985). And yet, there has been some dissent, noted by Carver when he told McCaffery and Gregory, "I've had people tell me they much prefer 'The Bath,' which is fine, but 'A Small, Good Thing' seems to me to be a better story" (McCaffery, 66).
If the author's judgment can withstand the passage of time, a radical shift in literary values must be seen to have occurred in the 1980s, a shift that may seem perplexing to future critics. However, Jane Tompkins, asserting the power of nineteenth-century sentimental narratives, may have located the source of that shift. In "A Small, Good Thing," Carver creates the illusion of realistic fiction, but, as Tompkins explains about Uncle Tom's Cabin, "what pass for realistic details … are in fact performing a rhetorical function dictated" by the story's ruling religious paradigm of sacrifice and redemption (Tompkins, 136).
A set of governing beliefs, organizing and sustaining a pervasive cultural myth, "invests the suffering and death of an innocent victim with just the kind of power that critics" have traditionally withheld from such literature (Tompkins, 130), but critics are not free-floating entities unaffected by powerful social currents. When a cultural shift occurs, they react to prevailing attitudes just as others do, adjusting literary criteria to meet cultural pressures. It may be that this need to adjust best explains the critical reception of "A Small, Good Thing." It may be that, at the deepest levels, even tough-minded critics are governed by our most persistent cultural myths.
Although evidence of the melodramatic stands demonstrably present in "A Small, Good Thing," the story is just one of several in Cathedral that rely on emotional effects and materials drawn from popular forms. The fictional situation of "Vitamins," which exploits the thrills of risky sex, personal danger, and racial fears found in much detective fiction, is another. It develops in the following manner: Patti sells vitamins door-to-door and supervises other women doing the same. The characters forming the core of the group—Patti, Sheila, Donna—are experiencing bad times. Vitamins aren't selling well, and their personal lives are falling apart. Sheila is the first to forsake the business, taking off for Portland when she finds Patti unresponsive to her advances: "One night this Sheila said to Patti that she loved her more than anything on earth. Patti told me these were her words. Patti had driven Sheila home and they were sitting in front of Sheila's place…. Then Sheila touched Patti's breast. Patti said she took Sheila's hand and held it. She said she told her she didn't swing that way" (Where, 184). Sheila's sexual advance is the first of three such events in the story, Patti's rebuff the first of three such rejections. Together, they shape the informing patterns of the story.
The second occurs at a Christmas party thrown by Patti to cheer up the group. Attached to Patti, but attracted to Donna and finding himself with her in the kitchen, the narrator embraces her, receives a warm response, but is told, "Don't. Not now" (Where, 186).
This refusal is clearly more deferral than rejection, a conclusion that is confirmed when Donna shows up later as the narrator is leaving the hospital, where he works nights on the cleaning crew. They begin their night together by going to an after-hours jazz bar owned and frequented by African-Americans. They are joined in their booth by Khaki, Benny, and Nelson, the latter just back from Vietnam with a human ear in his silver cigarette case and $500 in his wallet.
The central event of the story occurs in the booth. It is also in this crucial scene that we discover significant parallels with popular detective fiction. Indeed, we encounter specific parallels with a chapter from Timothy Harris's detective novel Good Night and Good-bye (1979).
Like Donna and Carver's narrator, Harris's detective, Thomas Kyd, finds himself in a bar booth threatened by hostile blacks. At one juncture, "Mojo's hand snaked out and grabbed my collar while the guy next to me leaned his weight against me and took hold of my ear…. 'He got two, Mojo. He don't need this ear. Let's take him in the back,'"19 Then later, Mojo tells the detective, "You thought Baltimore was jiving you when he talk about cutting off your ear. The dude's bad, man. How many ears you cut in Nam, Baltimore?" (Harris, 149).
We might also compare two other passages, the first from Harris's novel: "I stood up, and this time Moth and Baltimore moved quickly to let me out of the booth. 'I haven't got the stomach for the work. I was in Nam. I've seen guys cut ears off stiffs. It never did anything for me except make me sick.' I smiled into Baltimore's watchful ill-humored face. 'That's strictly an animal act you got there, friend. That shit belongs in a cage'" (Harris, 150). And the second from Carver's story:
He looked around the booth. He looked at Nelson's wallet on the table and at the open cigarette case next to the wallet. He saw the ear.
"That a real ear?" Khaki said.
Benny said, "It is. Show him that ear, Nelson. Nelson just stepped off the plane from Nam with this ear. This ear has traveled halfway around the world to be on this table tonight. Nelson, show him," Benny said.
Nelson picked up the case and handed it to Khaki.
Khaki examined the ear. He took up the chain and dangled the ear in front of his face. He looked at it. He let it swing back and forth on the chain. "I heard about these dried-up ears and dicks and such."
"I took it off one of them gooks," Nelson said. "He couldn't hear nothing with it no more. I wanted me a keepsake." (Where, 194)
Carver's handling of the situation seems mythic in its use of a blind character (metaphorically blind in this instance) as intervening agent, clairvoyant in perceptions, oracular in pronouncements. Nelson looks at the couple with his alcohol-reddened eyes as if trying to place the narrator and sees that they are betraying Patti. "What I want to know is, do you know where your wife is?… while you setting [sic] here big as life with your good friend" (Where, 192). He suggests that Patti is also out with someone and makes the third sexual advance of the story, offering Donna $200 to perform fellatio on him.
Donna's rejection of this offer is the final refusal of the story, but like her protestation at the party, it is not sincere. She confesses to the narrator as they return to the hospital parking lot, having made their escape, that she needs the money and is sorry she did not accept the $200. Now, she too will leave for Portland. "I'm not going in. I'm leaving town. I take what happened back there as a sign" (Where, 195).
It takes a particular state of mind—as Isak Dinesen simply, but convincingly demonstrates in Out of Africa—to find a sign in an event. The state is brought on by a maelstrom of disasters. What seems at first a mere coincidence of circumstances becomes the dominant factor of one's life, evolves into an obsession, and eventually is seen as having a necessary central principle, which if only known could bring the chaos into a coherence that can be dealt with. In that final stage, the individual is prepared to find a sign in anything that lends itself to the situation.
For Dinesen it was the confrontation between a white cock and a chameleon. In an attempt to save himself, the chameleon opened his mouth and shot out his clublike tongue, which the cock plucked out. The gruesome event struck her profoundly and left her shaken. In her state of mind, it was irrefutable testimony to danger: "I looked down on the stones and dared not look up, such a dangerous place did the world seem to me."20 Donna has also seen the cock pluck out the chameleon's tongue, so to speak, in her willingness to take money for sex, and she has taken it for a sign, which makes up her mind for her.
When the narrator reveals that he has also been thoroughly shaken by the event, we are left with but one conclusion. Although not admitting it, he has had a sign, as well, and the experience has altered him. He returns home and starts looking through the medicine cabinet, spilling pills in the sink, making a racket, and disturbing the fully dressed but sleeping Patti, who wakes and blames him for letting her oversleep.
It is true that the narrator reacts to Nelson's threats in a way similar to Mr. Harrold's reaction in "Pastoral" to having a gun on him, and were it not for the pattern of sexual advances and rejections in the story, suggesting human relations as the theme, we might suspect "Vitamins" of being a variation on the theme of mortality. However, there can be no dismissal of the pattern.
First, the narrator is told by Patti that Sheila made a pass and was gently rebuffed. Then he makes a pass at Donna and is put off. Finally, Nelson makes a pass at Donna. She refuses him while actually wanting to accept. Such a pattern strongly suggests that saying no is not final for these characters. In two out of three instances the narrator can be certain of that.
And what about Nelson? Is he an avenging angel or oracle? Whatever he is, the narrator cannot dismiss his words. His judgment must be reckoned with, for he takes one look at the couple and says to the narrator, "You with somebody else, ain't you? This beautiful woman, she ain't your wife. I know that" (Where, 192). Then he says that Patti is out with another man. He also reads Donna correctly. She would, admittedly, have taken the money for the sex.
And finally, he yells after the couple, "It ain't going to do no good! Whatever you do, it ain't going to help none!" (Where, 195). That too is true. Like a spirit, Nelson's presence seems to follow them. In three out of four instances, the narrator can be certain that Nelson's reading is accurate. Perhaps he is also accurate about the fourth. Perhaps Patti is with another person.
Badly shaken by his encounter with Nelson, the narrator cannot be certain of much, least of all that Patti has not betrayed him with Sheila or someone else. Like Wyman in "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" he may have failed to see Patti's potential for passion—or seen it and refused to acknowledge it. In either case, he must confront the possibility, and that makes him an altered person.
Recalling Carver's past use of the themes of mortality and human relations, we might be justified in asking if he is merely repeating himself or contributing something new to his old preoccupations. After a moment's thought, we can observe one difference immediately: the two themes, treated separately in earlier stories, are rendered complex in "Vitamins" by combining them in a narrative pattern that subordinates the mortality issue to the question of human relations, although the threat of death or harm is the catalyst that directs our attention to the characters' relations.
All of the events—the drinking, the sexual disruptions and disappointments, the futile attempts to escape their dismal plights by fleeing to Portland or Arizona, as Patti and the narrator speak of doing—underscore the narrator's recognition of what their lives have become: empty, meaningless, oppressed by poverty and the pressures of trying to make ends meet. As Patti says early in the story, "I don't have any relief. There's no relief!" (Where, 187), then later, "Middle of winter, people sick all over the state, people dying, and nobody thinks they need vitamins. I'm sick as hell myself" (Where 188). And it's true. These characters are spiritually sick, beaten down by a life over which they have no control. Things are falling apart, and there are no vitamins that will help. In this condition, they are typical Carveresque characters confronting a depressing nihilism.
Typical they may be, but Nelson is another matter altogether. Like Scotty in "A Small, Good Thing," he possesses mythic qualities; Scotty is a Christ figure, and Nelson both the blind seer and avenging angel. Both are representations of the symbolic in someone real. Carver's essays "On Writing" and "Fires" offer helpful information about Nelson's function. The first essay underscores Carver's fondness for creating a feeling of threat, the "sense that something is imminent" (Fires, 17), that certain forces are relentlessly set in motion. The second essay reveals the origin of Nelson, who changes the direction of "Vitamins." In "Fires," Carver recounts how he was once interrupted by a telephone caller seeking someone named Nelson. Noting the inflections of black English in the caller's speech, Carver imagines his characters in a situation that demands the Nelson we encounter: threatening, the sole custodian of judgment and prophecy, perceiving the scene and foretelling the outcome, able to transcend everyday realism. Nelson is a character, in essence, much closer to Sophocles' Tiresias than to the powerless, inarticulate people we are accustomed to seeing in Carver's fiction.
Carver's exploitation of white America's fear of the black male and other persistent myths separates the fiction of Cathedral from earlier Carveresque fiction while, at the same time, linking it with detective and sentimental genres. Even when Carver returns to his old form, as he does in "The Bridle," capturing the colloquial diction and syntax of his narrator, there is something different about the work. It is fleshed out, no longer without resolution, and there is a felt sympathy, a pathos not always present in the early stories and almost always missing from stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Sympathy emanates from Carver's enterprising narrator-apartment manager, Marge, who has installed a professional chair with sink and turned the front room of her living quarters into a beauty parlor, where she collects the rents, writes receipts and, most important, talks to interested parties. As up-to-date as any current member of the National Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association, she disdains the title of beautician and calls herself a stylist.
In charge of a corporate-owned apartment complex in Arizona, Marge and her husband, Harley, observe the arrival of a family of four in flight from the chaos of their life in Minnesota. Marge rents them an apartment, but it is not until later, when she gets the new tenant into her beautician's chair and relaxed by a manicure, that Betty starts talking.
Back in Minnesota after his first wife left him, Holits met and married Betty. Their life together began well enough, but then something happened. Holits bought a horse, took to betting on it, and gambled away the farm. Although Carver does not include the scene in this story, one need not imagine what passed between the travelers before their departure; Carver provides the prototype in "Vitamins":
Then we got to talking about how we'd be better off if we moved to Arizona, someplace like that.
I fixed us another one. I looked out the window. Arizona wasn't a bad idea. (Where, 187)
The idea occurs, distilled in the alembic of a mind beholding nothing. The character contemplates the prospect of departure, its unfulfilled promise, and symbolic escape. It is a familiar scene in Carver's fiction, and Carver leaves it out in "The Bridle."
Now in Arizona, their possessions reduced to an old station wagon, clothes, and a bridle, they are hoping for a change of luck and a new life. However, once again, something happens. Under the influence of drink and at the urging of others, Holits attempts to leap from the roof of the pool cabana into the water, misses, splits his head open, and is left permanently addled. Before long, the family gives up the apartment and moves on, leaving the bridle behind.
No doubt Holits had retained the tackle to flatter himself about his knowledge of horses, but by the time it is overlooked or left intentionally, the harness, reins, and bit have come to be, not an instrument Holits's uses to control and guide brute force, but rather the symbol of Holits's condition, controlled rather than controlling. As Marge puts it at the end of the story, "If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you'd know it was time. You'd know you were going somewhere."21
One feels the power of that image, a negative force that life exercises on individuals, especially those on whom Carver focuses his attention. More often than not, they are incapable of stating with any precision what they sense. Consequently, we must interpret their strange physical reactions or indirect comments that say important things in commonplace utterances.
Still under Marge's spell in the chair, Betty remembers that her school counselor once asked what her dreams were. It was a question without an answer then, but asked the same question now, she would reply, "Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from," adding to Marge, "You don't know what it's like" (Cathedral, 200).
But Marge knows. She is on the point of revealing just how clearly she knows when Carver deftly restrains her by guiding Harley into the room. She never finishes, but the reader sees the affinity between these two wives, sees as well the similarity between Holits and Harley. Betty's burden is Marge's too. As Marge expresses it, "Sometimes I lie awake, Harley sleeping like a grindstone beside me, and try to picture myself in Betty's shoes. I wonder what I'd do then" (Cathedral, 201). Her curiosity is rhetorical, for she must know that she would continue her life as it is, exchanging one stonelike husband who sees and understands nothing of the drama she is witnessing for another.
After the family leaves, Marge inspects the apartment and finds it clean: "The blinds are raised, the bed is stripped. The floor shines. 'Thanks,' I say out loud. Wherever she's going, I wish her luck. 'Good luck, Betty'" (Cathedral, 208). With this sympathetic farewell expressed across an unknown space, Marge once again acknowledges her affinity with Betty. She may not be able to articulate the significance of what she has experienced, but she can hardly fail to detect the presence of forces that control people against their will and damage them. She expresses as much by thinking of the bridle.
To weave sympathy, sentimentality, and melodrama into the fictional fabric of Cathedral with the assurance of an artist unburdened by lingering doubts and have the mature quality of the writing widely acclaimed by critics and readers alike—these are notable accomplishments perhaps best explained by the originality of the title story, which first appeared in Atlantic Monthly and was reprinted in Best American Short Stories, 1982. Carver's imaginative invention may find its explanation in something as simple as his use of the rarely seen opposite of an archetypal pattern.
"Cathedral," more than any other story, is the emblem of the new Carver. The disillusioned first-person narrator, often but not always a child, is one of literature's most familiar structures and a chief example of dynamic characterization. In the paradigm, the protagonist discovers a profound truth that is necessary in order to take one's place in mature society. The structure goes back as far as Oedipus, and individuals who have read Turgenev's "First Love," Joyce's "Araby," and Sherwood Anderson's "I Want to Know Why" will recognize this paradigm immediately. "Cathedral," however, provides the rare opposite of this familiar type: a narrator who discovers a life-affirming truth without the pain. While it is true that such a story runs a risk of sinking into the sentimentality of "A Small, Good Thing," Carver contrives to avoid the hazard in an instructive manner.
Robert, a blind friend of the narrator's wife, who comes for a visit, is the catalyst of the story, serving as the Tiresias figure. His reception is mixed: enthusiastically welcomed by the wife, grudgingly received by the narrator. Bub, as Robert calls the narrator, is mean spirited, asocial, and governed by questionable assumptions about the blind and members of ethnic groups. To his remark that he has no blind friends, his wife responds,
"You don't have any friends."…
I didn't answer. She'd told me a little about the blind man's wife.
Her name was Beulah. Beulah! That's a name for a colored woman.
"Was his wife a Negro?" I asked. (Where, 268)
Although a grown man, Bub is no better informed than the adolescent narrator who must be disabused of a mistaken notion about the world. Carver's way of setting up the theme on the first page is to show how little Bub understands about blindness, then to anticipate the final and central event of the story: "She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it…. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her…. In the poem, she talked about what she had felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips" (Where, 266-67). This will eventually form one of the harmonious parts of the story, but here, Bub can no more see the point than Oedipus could. He goes on to compound his folly by revealing his contempt for the blind: "Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved. A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better" (Where, 269). One need only recall Oedipus's taunt to Tiresias in order to compare the contempt shared by the two protagonists: "for thee that strength is not, since thou art maimed in ear, and in wit, and in eye."22 Oedipus and Bub possess full sight, but are blind, while Tiresias and Robert are blind, but can see clearly. As Tiresias warns, "And I tell thee—since thou hast taunted me even with blindness—that thou hast sight, yet seest not" (Sophocles, 380). Ultimately, both will be instructed by the blind.
After dinner, the three of them settle down comfortably in the living room so that Robert and Bub's wife can talk about the past 10 years. When Bub thinks they are about through discussing old times and the intervening years, he turns the television on. She leaves to change into her robe, and Bub invites the blind, middle-aged man to smoke marijuana with him. Returning to find them smoking, Bub's wife joins them, but soon falls asleep.
The two men give their attention to a program about the church in the Middle Ages, Bub watching, Robert listening, one ear turned toward the set, as Bub attempts to explain what a cathedral is, but discovers he cannot express what he sees. Undaunted, Robert suggests some heavy paper to draw on. As Bub draws, Robert places his hand over Bub's drawing hand. When the picture is finished, he runs his fingers over the lines. Then he has Bub close his eyes and continue drawing:
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, "I think that's it. I think you got it," he said. "Take a look. What do you think?"
But I had my eyes closed, I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
"Well?" he said. "Are you looking?"
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.
"It's really something," I said. (Where, 279)
Thus, in a replication of his wife's much earlier experience, the narrator discovers the refutation of his assumptions about the blind and seeing. We can imagine the shape of the cathedral materializing before his inner eye as he learns that conventional vision is not the only way to see things and that the eyes are not the only organs with which one can view the world. We can also see that he has not quite grasped the meaning of his experience, but he has acknowledged that special quality his wife experienced and tried to recapture in a poem when he says, "It's really something."
To express such a lesson would be didactic and the worst possible way of developing the theme, not only sentimentalizing the story, but also rendering Bub more articulate than he is. Bub never seems to notice that his experience is identical to his wife's; the discovery is left to our powers of inference. Moreover, in the context of the smoking, Carver allows for a belief on Bub's part that the something he experiences is an effect of the marijuana. And therein lies Carver's success.
Although Bub, like his wife 10 years before when she let Robert feel her face, receives a profound, perhaps a character-altering, experience, it would be too much to conclude from what has passed that he experiences a conversion like the baker's in "A Small, Good Thing." Nothing suggests that he will have any more friends from this point on or be governed any less by such spurious notions as, for example, blind people don't smoke because they can't see the smoke. What we can conclude, though, is that he will view from now on his wife's experience in a manner different from his initial attitude, that his attitude toward Robert will be wholly different also, and that he has experienced an event that has the power to trigger the imagination.
With all of his imperfections, Bub remains thoroughly realistic, not a symbol in a modern allegory. We can believe him when he says, "My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn't like what she saw" (Where, 270). However, there is the indisputable sense that she may well like what she sees after Robert departs, for in a single event her husband has moved considerably closer to sharing her values—intuitively perhaps, unconsciously, but also convincingly.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19089
SOURCE: "Cathedral," in Reading Raymond Carver, Syracuse University Press, 1992, pp. 137-85.
[In the excerpt below, Runyon examines the connecting elements and recurring themes in the short stories from Cathedral.]
"Before and after" (14), Bud said, holding up an "old plaster-of-Paris cast of the most crooked, jaggedy teeth in the world" (12) next to his wife Olla's orthodontically straightened ones. It is one of several sights Jack and Fran have to endure on their visit to Bud and Olla's house. Another is the pet peacock that wanders into the house during dinner, is "smelly" (25), and lets out blood-curdling screams. Still another is their hosts' offspring, "the ugliest baby" Jack has "ever seen," with "no neck to speak of" and "three or four fat chins" (20).
Yet Jack, who narrates the story, is able to say that "that evening at Bud and Olla's was special…. That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life…. I wished … that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening" (25). Fran was of a different opinion. "Fran would look back on that evening at Bud's place as the beginning of the change…. 'Goddamn those people and their ugly baby,' Fran will say, for no apparent reason." It was a change for the worse: Fran has since cut her lovely long hair and has "gotten fat on me, too" (26), Jack says. They have a child now, but he "has a conniving streak." And Fran and Jack no longer talk to each other very much. Jack's wish that he would never forget that evening was "one wish of mine that came true. And it was bad luck for me that it did. But, of course, I couldn't know that then" (25).
We are thus presented with two differing interpretations of the meaning of the visit. For Fran it was a disagreeable experience, and the beginning of what went wrong in their lives. But for Jack it had been a glimpse of paradise—though a paradise that in retrospect he realized he'd never see again—symbolized by the peacock: "'They don't call them birds of paradise for nothing,' Bud said" (23). The baby may have been ugly, but to Bud and Olla, Jack imagines, "It's our baby" (24). He remembers "Olla giving Fran some peacock feathers to take home … all us shaking hands, hugging each other, saying things" (26).
But is a third interpretation possible? Is "Feathers" about anything else, too?
From our somewhat different vantage point as nonparticipants in the story, we can make some observations that may have escaped Jack and Fran. One of them is that this story of an evening they will both always remember began with an anecdote about the difficulty of remembering. Jack had telephoned Bud once
to see if he wanted to do anything. This woman picked up the phone and said. "Hello." I blanked and couldn't remember her name. Bud's wife. Bud had said her name to me any number of times. But it went in one ear and out the other. "Hello!" the woman said again…. I still couldn't remember her name. So I hung up. The next time I saw Bud at work I sure as hell didn't tell him I'd called. But I made a point of getting him to mention his wife's name. "Olla," he said. Olla, I said to myself. Olla. (4)
The strange thing about this is the resemblance between "Olla" and "Hello," between what Jack heard her say and what he couldn't remember. The voice on the other end of the line is practically telling him the name he is racking his memory to find. "Olla" and "Hello" are almost the same, yet not quite: close enough for their similarity to be noticed—by us, if not by Jack—yet not enough alike for one to be taken for the other. We might remember that in "Are You a Doctor?" a story whose plot arises out of a telephone call made to a wrong number, which was what Jack's abortive call must have appeared to Olla to have been, Arnold Breit had made a similar transposition of syllables when he thought Cheryl's name was Shirley.
A number of other things in "Feathers" present themselves in pairs, of which one can be taken to stand for the other. When Fran and Jack first arrived, they saw a baby's swing set in the front yard and some toys on the porch. "It was then that we heard this awful squall. There was a baby in the house, right, but this cry was too loud for a baby…. Then something as big as a vulture flapped heavily down from one of the trees and landed just in front of the car" (7). It was the peacock, which occupies the stage long before they get to see the baby.
Then there are the teeth, the "before" and "after" Bud is so proud to exhibit (he had paid for the orthodontic work that Olla's parents had not been able to afford). The more closely we examine these teeth, however, the more slippery the notion of before and after becomes. The mold, of course, is just a copy of a prior original: Olla's teeth as they were before the treatment began. So the "before" is a copy, while the "after" is the (revised) original. But there is another copy: "That orthodontist wanted to keep this," Olla announces as she holds the mold in her lap. "I said nothing doing. I pointed out to him they were my teeth. So he took pictures of the mold instead. He told me he was going to put the pictures in a magazine." Bud wonders "what kind of magazine that'd be. Not much call for that kind of publication, I don't think" (14).
Yet there still is another copy, another version of this "picture in a magazine." For a few pages later, when Fran asks why Olla decided to get a peacock in the first place, she answers, "I always dreamed of having me a peacock. Since I was a girl and found a picture of one in a magazine. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw…. I kept that picture for the longest time" (18; emphasis added). So the peacock in their house is the copy of the original magazine picture, which in turn is an echo of the magazine picture mentioned earlier of the mold of Olla's teeth, which in turn …: not an infinite regression by any means, yet one of significant length.
It is fitting that the first story in Carver's new collection of stories should begin with this evocation of a chain of befores and afters, of originals and copies, of forerunners (the peacock that, in its initial appearance, could be taken for the baby) and avatars (the baby as the later version of the peacock, which had occupied the house, and Olla's affections, first). That, as we have been accustomed to discover by now, is the way his short story sequences appear to be put together: a chain of befores and afters bearing a strange resemblance to each other.
In this chain of resemblances the second story in Cathedral, like the first, is also about a house that affords a glimpse of paradise lost. This time it is told from the point of view of the wife. Edna had been separated from Wes but accepted his invitation to join him in a place with an ocean view he was renting for next to nothing from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Wes was on the wagon too. "He said, We'll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me…. I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married" (27).
Things went very well in that idyllic spot. Edna found herself wishing the summer would never end. She put her wedding ring back on. They drank no alcohol. Wes would pick flowers for her, and they'd go fishing. Their children, grown up now, "kept their distance" (29). But one afternoon Chef came by with the sad news that they had to leave. "Chef said his daughter, Linda, the woman Wes used to call Fat Linda from the time of his drinking days, needed a place to live and this place was it." Her husband had disappeared, she had a baby and couldn't afford to live anywhere else.
Wes is devastated. "This has been a happy house up to now, he said. We'll get another house, I said. Not like this one, Wes said. It wouldn't be the same, anyway. This house has been a good house for us. This house has good memories to it" (30). Edna tries in vain to keep Wes from giving up. "I said, Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time…. Say none of the other had ever happened" (31). But Wes replies "Then I suppose we'd have to be somebody else if that was the case. Somebody we're not. I don't have that kind of supposing left in me" (32). He can see no future, no more room to continue the fresh start they had been able to make as long as they could live in Chef's house.
And that's about where the story ends. "He seemed to have made up his mind. But having made up his mind, he was in no hurry. He leaned back on the sofa, folded his hands in his lap, and closed his eyes. He didn't say anything else. He didn't have to" (32).
For both Jack and Wes, the house they visit—Jack and Fran for an evening, Wes and Edna for a summer cut short—is an almost magical place where they can see a vision of how life ought to be lived. "This house has been a good place for us. This house has good memories to it," according to Wes. "That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life," Jack had said. Wes speaks of "good memories," and Jack made the wish "that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening." Though they are at opposite moments in their lives—Jack and Fran at the beginning of their marriage, the child they will have not yet born, and Wes's children already grown—the future for both men is evidently bleak. It's just that Jack didn't know it yet.
Two smaller details from "Feathers" reappear here. The fatness of Bud and Olla's child—"big fat lips … three or four fat chins…. Fat hung over its wrists. Its arms and fingers were fat" (21)—returns in the name Wes gave its counterpart, Fat Linda, who is the baby's counterpart because both are the off-spring of the owner of the house that afforded that glimpse of paradise. The other recurrence concerns what happens to Jack's attempt to engrave on his memory the name he was so embarrassed at having forgot: "Olla, I said to myself. Olla" (4). Now when Wes lies back on the sofa and lapses into silence, Edna tells us that "I said his name to myself. It was an easy name to say, and I'd been used to saying it for a long time" (32; emphasis added)—unlike Jack, of course, who was saying that name to himself for precisely the opposite reason: to get so used to saying it that he wouldn't forget. This echo emblematizes the essentially complementary nature of these two opening stories, the first looking toward the future, the second backward to the past, because their living at Chef's house was apparently a condition of their living together at all, and this may be one of the last times Edna will ever pronounce Jack's name.
What happens near the conclusion of "Chef's House"—the way Wes demonstrated his abject surrender to bad luck when he "leaned back on the sofa, folded his hands in his lap, and closed his eyes" (32)—is what happens at the beginning of "Preservation": "Sandy's husband had been on the sofa ever since he'd been terminated three months ago" (35). "He made his bed on the sofa that night, and that's where he'd slept every night since it happened" (35-36). After a discouraging visit to the unemployment office "he got back on the sofa. He began spending all of his time there, as if, she thought, it was the thing he was supposed to do now that he no longer had any work…. It's like he lives there. Sandy thought" (36; Carver's emphasis).
The title of the story, which for once does not actually appear in the text itself, is doubly evoked (1) by the story Sandy's husband kept rereading as he lay on the sofa of "a man who had been discovered after spending two thousand years in a peat bog" (36)—in a state, that is, of almost perfect preservation—and (2) by the sudden demise of the refrigerator, that is by its inability to preserve their food any longer. "I have to cook everything tonight" (40), Sandy says, and proceeds to clean out the fridge. She "started taking things off the shelves and putting stuff on the table." Wes "took the meat out of the freezer and put the packages on the table…. He took everything out and then found the paper towels and the dishcloth and started wiping up inside" (41). Strangely, Sandy and her husband's cleaning out the refrigerator and cleaning up the mess inside repeats what happened on the last page of the preceding story. The refrigerator in Chef's house had not broken down, but since he had informed Edna and Wes that they had to leave they did feel obliged to clean it out—to eat up, that is, what was left inside: "I went in to start supper. We still had some fish in the icebox. There wasn't much else. We'll clean it up tonight, I thought, and that will be the end of it" (33). The idea is not to waste the food they have. Sandy and her husband have a lot more they'll have to eat, way too much, in fact: "'I've got to fry pork chops tonight,' she said. 'And I have to cook up that hamburger. And those sandwich steaks and the fish sticks. Don't forget the TV dinners, either'" (42).
The refrigerator had given out, Sandy's husband determines, because "we lost our Freon…. The Freon leaked out" (41). It's not the only time that gas leaks out in this story. Sandy has decided that they should go to the Auction Barn that evening because they were advertising new and used appliances. Her husband does not share her eagerness: "Whoever said anything about us buying an icebox at an auction?" (44), he asks. Sandy, however, remembers what "fun" (43) it was to go to auctions with her father when she was a child, although her father died in a car he had bought at one of those auctions. It "leaked carbon monoxide up through the floorboards and caused him to pass out behind the wheel…. The motor went on running until there was no more gas in the tank. He stayed in the car until somebody found him a few days later" (45).
Her father's death and the icebox's demise respond to each other in interesting ways. A leaking gas caused both events. The faulty car had been an auction bargain—"he said he'd bought a peach of a car at this auction for two hundred dollars. If she'd been there, he said, he'd have bought one for her, too" (45)—while the faulty refrigerator is to be replaced by one bought at auction. Her father's undiscovered body had doubtless begun to deteriorate in those few days as had the food in her fridge: "She opened the door to the freezer compartment. An awful smell puffed out at her that made her want to gag" (39). Sandy doesn't say so, but the association of these two events is surely powerful enough that she could have smelled the memory of her father's corpse when she opened that door and the "warm, boxed-in air came out at her."
Sandy's father in the icebox, and especially in the "freezer compartment," is answered, too, in an interesting way by the story that follows, in which a father has "decided he wasn't going to leave the compartment. He was going to sit where he was until the train pulled away" (55; emphasis added). Carver's choice of a title for this story draws attention to this connection to its predecessor. This decision to stay put echoes as well, of course, Sandy's husband's decision to spend the rest of his life on the living room sofa reading about the corpse discovered in a Netherlands bog.
Myers, on vacation, was touring Europe alone. His son, whom he hadn't seen since the divorce eight years before, had written him a letter from Strasbourg, France, where he was studying. Myers had decided to visit him for a few days on his way from Milan to Paris. Myers had always believed that the breakup of his marriage had been "hastened along … by the boy's malign interference in their personal affairs" (47). The last time he had seen him they had actually come to blows—the son, thinking he had to defend his mother from his father's anger, "charged him. Myers sidestepped and got him in a headlock while the boy wept and pummeled Myers on the back and kidneys." Myers "slammed him into the wall and threatened to kill him. He meant it. 'I gave you life,' Myers remembered himself shouting, 'and I can take it back!'" (47-48).
In the train compartment, Myers "looked at guidebooks. He read things he wished he'd read before he'd been to the place they were about … he was sorry to be finding out certain things about the country now, just as he was leaving Italy behind" (48). But he is tired of trying to make himself understood to foreigners and probably will not spend his whole six weeks of vacation in Europe after all. When he returns from the WC Myers discovers that the expensive Japanese watch he has bought as a gift for his son is missing from the coat he had left behind in the compartment. Through sign language, he tries to ask the other passenger in the compartment if he saw anyone take it, but the man shrugs in incomprehension. Myers stalks out into the corridor but sees no chance of making anyone else understand either.
When he returns to his seat, it comes to him that "he really had no desire to see this boy whose behavior had long ago isolated him from Myers's affections…. This boy had devoured Myers's youth, had turned the young girl he had courted and wed into a nervous, alcoholic woman whom the boy alternately pitied and bullied" (54). So when the train pulled into Strasbourg Myers "decided he wasn't going to leave the compartment. He was going to sit where he was until the train pulled away" (55).
As he looks through his compartment window Myers doesn't see his son on the platform. While the train is still in the station, he gets up and opens the compartment door. "He went to the end of the corridor, where the cars were coupled together. He didn't know why they had stopped. Maybe something was wrong. He moved to the window. But all he could see was an intricate system of tracks where trains were being made up, cars taken off or switched from one train to another" (57). What happens at this point is that Myers becomes caught up in that intricate system switching and coupling. He wanders into the second-class car next to his first-class one. The train begins to move. He returns to his car and compartment—but his suitcase is gone. "It was not his compartment after all. He realized with a start they must have uncoupled his car while the train was in the yard and attached another second-class car to the train…. He was going somewhere, he knew that. And if it was the wrong direction, sooner or later he'd find it out" (58).
"A Small, Good Thing"
What has happened to Myers is what has also happened to his story, for Carver's sequences are part of an intricate system of switching, coupling, and decoupling too, and while Myers's journey started out in a car coupled at one end to "Preservation," it ended in a car coupled to "A Small, Good Thing," which, as it turns out, is a car from another train: a revised version of "The Bath," from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
We know that story. We know how it too, like "The Compartment," concerns a missed appointment: Myers's missed rendezvous with his son at the Strasbourg station is thus echoed by the one Mrs. Weiss had made with the baker to pick up her son's birthday cake. We recall as well how, like the story to which it is coupled here, this one concerns a gift for the son that does not get delivered: the expensive Japanese wristwatch that disappears from Myers's pocket, and all the gifts that Scotty would not get to open for his birthday. We recall that just before he was struck by the car, "the birthday boy was trying to find out what his friend intended to give him for his birthday that afternoon" (60).
What we didn't know when we read "The Bath"—the identity of the mysterious telephone caller and whether the boy would survive—is what "A Small, Good Thing" goes to some lengths to tell us. The caller is the baker whose cake was not picked up, and after the boy's death, the Weisses go to his bakery for a confrontation that turns into a reconciliation. The "small, good thing" the contrite baker offers them is bread.
It is now quite a different story from "The Bath." This version is in a way more comforting—the scene in the bakery becomes almost heartwarming—but in another perhaps more troubling. Coming as it does just after "The Compartment" the son's death now comes dangerously close to fulfilling the filicidal wish Myers had made when "he slammed him into the wall and threatened to kill him. He meant it. 'I gave you life … and I can take it back!'" Tess Gallagher, in her Introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, speaks of the persistent image of the "son as an oppressive figure" (xxiv) in Carver's poetry (she mentions "The Compartment" as well), with particular reference to "On an Old Photograph of My Son," which appears in that collection. The son, a "petty tyrant," bullies his mother in that poem—as had Myers's son ("This boy had … turned [his mother] into a nervous, alcoholic woman whom the boy alternately pitied and bullied"): "Hey, old lady, jump, why don't you? Speak / when spoken to. I think I'll put you in / a headlock to see how you like it. I like / it" (86). The poet writes, apparently speaking out of Carver's own ambivalent feelings towards his son, "I want to forget that boy / in the picture—that jerk, that bully! / … Oh, son, in those days I wanted you dead / a hundred—no, a thousand—different times." What Carver confesses in "Fires," an essay on what had influenced his writing over the years, gives us some understanding of how he could have felt, as Myers did, that "this boy had devoured [his] youth." In the mid-1960s he was in a busy laundromat keeping a keen eye out for the next available dryer. He also had to worry about his children, who were at a birthday party but whom he would have to pick up as soon as he could get the laundry done.1 His wife was working that afternoon as a waitress. Every time he thought he had a dryer someone else beat him to it.
In a daze I moved away with my shopping cart and went back to waiting. But I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feelings of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing—and, brother, I mean nothing—that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction…. At that moment I felt—I knew—that the life I was in was vastly different from the lives of the writers I most admired. I understood writers to be people who didn't spend their Saturdays at the laundromat and every waking hour subject to the needs and caprices of their children. (Fires, 32-33)
He did get published—"Neighbors" appeared in Esquire—"But my kids were in full cry then … and they were eating me alive" (39)—as the son in "The Compartment" "had devoured Myers's youth." And then Carver uses a railroad metaphor that puts him in very nearly the same situation as Myers at the end of "The Compartment" (the difference being that though Myers found himself on the wrong track he was still going somewhere): "My life soon took another veering, a sharp turn, and then it came to a dead stop off on a siding." He is evidently alluding to his descent into alcoholism, but it is clear that part of what drove him there was his despair at not having the time to write, time his children consumed.
How close Myers may be to Carver himself is suggested by the fact that the protagonist of "Put Yourself in My Shoes," whom we saw to bear some remarkable resemblances to the author, had the same name.
What consolation the baker can offer Ann and Howard Weiss for the loss of their son as they accept the bread he offers them at midnight in his bakery and talk on with him into the early morning hours brings them to about the same point that Myers's decision to forego meeting his son had brought him. "He decided he wasn't going to leave the compartment"; "they did not think of leaving" (89).
Such a dark reading of the story, influenced by Carver's decision to place it immediately after "The Compartment," with its tale of a father's enmity toward his son, contrasts with William Stull's sunnier interpretation. In "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver," Stull is right, of course, to say that "A Small, Good Thing" is more hopeful than "The Bath," as Carver himself has indicated in several interviews, but I think he goes too far when he says that here "Carver goes farther still … toward a final vision of forgiveness and community rooted in religious faith" (11). Quite correctly calling our attention to the manner in which the Weisses" and the baker's breaking of bread recalls the Last Supper, Stull nevertheless presumes more than I am willing to accept when he argues that "a subtle but pervasive pattern or religious symbols" in the story "suggests the presence of a third kind of love in Carver's work" in addition to erotic and brotherly love; "Christian love." Stull sees the rite of Christian baptism in the baths the parents take: "While their innocent child (a Christlike figure, to be sure) lies suspended between life and death, each of the parents bathes. Carver calls attention to this seemingly incidental action by making it the title of the original story" (12)—as if forgetting his argument that the second story is the Christianized version of the hopeless, secular first.
Stull, who has not only written widely on Carver but has even resurrected some of his early work (in Those Days) and certainly done more than anyone else to promote Carver's academic reputation, is the foremost Carver scholar we have, and "Beyond Hopelessville" is probably the most influential article yet to appear on Carver's work. Its principal thesis that the distance between Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Cathedral encompasses a significant movement "beyond Hopelessville" is undeniably correct in general terms, but precisely because of the article's special significance in Carver studies I'd like to take the opportunity to quarrel with its theological conclusion—as well as to indicate that Stull and I do agree on one very crucial point, though we interpret it differently: The slain son is a sacrificial victim. In my reading, he is slain by the father, the same father (the father behind the scenes in a number of Carver's stories and poems who is to a starting degree Carver himself, who can become a writer only by sacrificing his son) who in the immediately preceding story, "The Compartment," wishes his son were dead. In Stull's reading, Scotty is a sacrificial son because he is the Son of God: "The child Scotty dies—painfully, irrationally, unjustly—in a sacrifice that recalls not only the crucifixion but also Christ's teaching. As Jesus makes clear again and again in the Gospels, the child is the emblem of perfect faith: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein' (Mark 10:15)…. With unwitting cruelty, [the baker] torments the Weisses, taunting them and taking the name of the Christlike child in vain" (12). Stull then cites Matthew 18:6: "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck." The problem here is that Scotty is nowhere depicted in the story as "one of these little ones which believe in me." At most he believes in his birthday, and the likelihood of presents. Nor can the baker be blamed for taking Scotty's name in vain if he was unaware (not having read Stull's article) that the child was "Christlike."
Where Stull, using the King James Version, cites "whoso shall offend," the Revised Standard Version gives "whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin," a more accurate translation of the original Greek "causes … to stumble" (an skandalisé)—which resonates intriguingly with what really did happen to Scotty: "the birthday boy stepped off the curb at an intersection and was immediately knocked down by a car … the boy got unsteadily to his feet. The boy wobbled a little…. He walked home" (60-61). If anyone causes the boy to stumble, it's not the baker but the driver of the car.
Stull is of course right to say that Carver's story recycles elements of the Christian Gospels, but I think it is risky to conclude from that that the story buys into the Christian message itself. "In breaking bread together," Stull writes, "the characters reenact the central rite of Christianity, the Lord's Supper. 'It's a heavy bread, but rich,' the baker says—an apt description of the Eucharist" (12-13). It may be more accurate to say that Carver's characters here achieve, on their own, without divine intervention, a genuine but purely human communion. They don't need God to do it, and Carver doesn't need a Christian conversion to write it. Stull, having brought Carver back into the fold of the "humanist realism" of a James Joyce or a Henry James by arguing that Cathedral, in contrast to his earlier stories, is "more expressive, more 'painterly'" (8), seems to want to bring him back into the church as well: "A study of Carver's revisions reveals not only another side of his realism, the humanist side, but also another spirit in his work, a spirit of empathy, forgiveness, and community tacitly founded on Judeo-Christian faith" (6). The way Carver recycles his own stories, particularly in their sequential resonance, allows us to see how he can incorporate elements of a prior narrative into a new one without having to "found" the new one on the old. What I'm criticizing in Stull—that he "reads into" Carver's story the haunting presence of a prior narrative (by another Hand, in this instance)—could be turned against my own reading of Carver were it not for the preponderance of evidence. More importantly, I am not suggesting that the second story (of two sequentially linked ones) actually retells the first or is dependent on the first for anything more than the raw material it gives such a strong impression (or illusion) of borrowing. What essential relation it may have with the story it echoes or recycles is likely to be an ironic one, each playing off the other for a greater effect. What's missing from Stull's reading is the very real possibility of irony in Carver's recycling here of the Christian foundation myth.
Before Mrs. Weiss told the baker her son was dead, when the atmosphere was still tense with anger—the Weisses' for the baker's sinister phone calls, the baker's for their sticking him with an unbought cake—he had said: "You want to pick up your three-day-old cake?… There it sits over there, getting stale. I'll give it to you for half of what I quoted you. No. You want it? You can have it. It's no good to me, no good to anyone now" (85-86). The vitamins in "Vitamins" are a product no one wants either. The narrator's wife tries to sell them door to door but business is terrible. "Nobody's buying vitamins…. Middle of winter, people sick all over the state, people dying, and nobody thinks they need vitamins" (98). The narrator concurs: "Vitamins were on the skids, vitamins had taken a nose-dive. The bottom had fallen out of the vitamin market" (100).
The vitamins are not the only thing in "Vitamins" into which the cake of the immediately preceding story is transformed, as if it had passed through the distorting process of dream. Dreams are in fact thematic in the story, as the narrator's wife is plagued by nightmares: "Everybody dreams," she tells her husband. "If you didn't dream, you'd go crazy. I read about it. It's an outlet. People dream when they're asleep. Or else they'd go nuts. But when I dream, I dream of vitamins. Do you see what I'm saying?" (97) "A dream," Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, "is a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish" (194; the parentheses are Freud's). It is inevitably distorted into a disguise in order to get past the dream censor of the conscious part of the brain. The raw material for the disguise in which the unconscious clothes its wish is the "day residue"—the events of the immediately preceding day. "In every dream it is possible to find a point of contact with the experiences of the previous day," but dreams "make their selection" from those immediately previous events "upon different principles from our waking memory, since they do not recall what is essential and important but what is subsidiary and unnoticed" (197). Carver's sequential stories behave in similar fashion: each successive one functioning like a dream, picking up details left over from the immediately preceding story—details that are generally of quite minor significance there—and using them as raw material for its own narrative. We earlier saw Freud's dream analysis emerge as a model for understanding how these stories work when we found that the protagonist of "Night School" was caught up in the analysis of a dream that repeated an event that seemed to have come from the immediately preceding story.
The birthday cake, as I was saying, returns in "Vitamins" as the vitamins themselves. Or rather, the relatively unimportant detail of the baker's halfhearted attempt to sell Mrs. Weiss the cake at half price, together with his frustration at being unable to sell it at all, returns in the form of Patti's inability to unload her vitamins. Two details about that cake, its having dried out after three days ("There it sits … getting stale") and it's having almost become the body of the boy whose name is on it ("Your Scotty, I got him ready for you" , the taunting voice on the phone said to the grieving mother after her son had died, as if he had his corpse ready for burial), also recur, in the form of something that resembles a piece of stale food: "It looked like a dried mushroom" (106). It is the "dried-up" (107) severed ear of an enemy soldier, brought back from Vietnam by Nelson, a sinister black vet the narrator encounters in the back room of Khaki's Off-Broadway Bar. The narrator was there with Donna, one of his wife's vitamin salespeople, and he had been confident of scoring with her until Nelson sat down at their table and spoiled things by showing them the ear and by proposing to purchase Donna's sexual services.
Other minor details from the immediately preceding story emerge again here. When Ann Weiss realized whom the calls were coming from, she and her husband drove to the shopping center where the bakery was located.
The sky was clear and stars were out…. They parked in front of the bakery. All of the shops and stores were closed…. The bakery windows were dark, but when they looked through the glass they could see a light in the back room…. They drove around behind the bakery and parked…. She knocked on the door and waited…. "I'm closed for business," he said. "What do you want at this hour? It's midnight. Are you drunk or something?" (85; emphasis added)
It was the same hour of night when the narrator of "Vitamins" left work and went with Donna to Khaki's bar: "I'd walked out of the hospital just after midnight" (100; emphasis added). The baker complained that he was "closed for business … at this hour," while the narrator was in the habit of frequenting the Off-Broadway "because I could get a drink there after closing hours" (99; emphasis added). The weather was precisely the same: "It'd cleared up and stars were out." The baker's accusation that the Weisses were "drunk or something" was genuinely true in the narrator's case: "I still had this buzz on from the Scotch I'd had." The Weisses had to go to the back room of the bakery, as the narrator goes to the back room of the bar: "The front half of the Off-Broadway was like a regular café and bar…. We went through the café and into the big room in back" (101; emphasis added).
The recurrence of details is naturally puzzling. Why should the scene in Khaki's bar come this close to repeating the scene in the bakery? What does the confrontation with the black Vietnam vet have to do with the confrontation with the baker? To the extent that Carver's stories recycle residual details from their immediate predecessors as dreams recycle day residue, this question might not really have an answer, because what dreams are devised to express is not the hidden meaning of what happened the day before but the repressed wishes of the unconscious. The day residue is just the clothing of the disguise. With these stories, however, the situation is a little more complicated, for each preceding one is not only a fund of leftover residue to be mined for raw material for the next, but is itself—but virtue of its relation to its immediate predecessor, if for no other reason—something like a dream. And of course there are other reasons for saying Carver's stories are like dreams, as "A Small, Good Thing" for instance reveals when it shows itself, as does "The Compartment," to be a dream about the death of his son.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say a daydream. In "The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming" Freud suggests that the imaginative writer is a daydreamer, and that a day-dreamer is like a child at play: "Every child at play behaves like an imaginative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, more truly, he rearranges the things of his world and orders it in a new way that pleases him better…. Now the writer does the same as the child at play; he creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously" (35). Freud also maintains that daydreams and night dreams are really the same. "Language, in its unrivaled wisdom, long ago decided the question of the essential nature of dreams by giving the name of 'day-dreams' to the airy creations of phantasy. If the meaning of our dreams usually remains obscure in spite of this clue, it is because of the circumstance that at night wishes of which we are ashamed also become active in us…. Such repressed wishes … can therefore achieve expression only when almost completely disguised" (39). Normally, he writes, we would find other persons' daydreams boring, if not in fact repellent. "But when a man of literary talent … relates what we take to be his personal day-dreams, we experience great pleasure…. The writer softens the egotistical character of the day-dream by changes and disguises, and he bribes us by the offer of a purely formal, that is, aesthetic, pleasure in the presentation of his phantasies" (42-43). So the writer's ability to disguise his daydreams to make them more palatable to the reader performs the same task as the dream work of the unconscious, which disguises its repressed wishes in order to express them without the conscious realizing what they mean. Carver's stories, I believe, are day-dreams to the extent that through his art he has made his fantasies palatable to the reader; yet they resemble night dreams to the degree that they treat their immediate predecessor in his short story sequences as day residue to be transformed into the fabric of its disguises. Freud does not say whether the "changes and disguises" the successful writer exerts on his daydreams are consciously or unconsciously done; it is quite probable they are a mixture of both. Certainly what happens in nocturnal dreams is an unconscious phenomenon. We have seen in Carver some evidence of conscious change in the alterations he has made in his stories so that they will "couple" (in the railroad sense) better in sequence. Yet surely much of what we are uncovering here is unconscious as well, and thus all the more intriguing.
But if we are going to try to tackle the question of the reason for the resemblance between the back room of the bakery and the back room of Khaki's bar we must first be sure we are in command of all the details of that resemblance. One parallel that needs to be made more explicit is the one between Nelson and the baker. Both are sinister, in fact downright mean, and both threaten violence, Nelson had "little red eyes" (102; emphasis added); while Ann Weiss found, when she first set eyes on the baker, that his "eyes were small, mean-looking" (86; emphasis added). Nelson threatens violence by attributing the thought of it to the narrator: "I bet you thinking, 'Now here a big drunk nigger and what am I going to do with him? Maybe I have to whip his ass for him!' That what you thinking?" (104-5). Likewise the baker had made a show of warning against violence at the very moment he was brandishing a weapon: "A look crossed Ann's face that made the baker move back and say. 'No trouble, now.' He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand…. The baker continued to tap the rolling pin against his hand. He glanced at Howard, 'Careful, careful,' he said to Howard" (86).
Yet at this point the resemblance surely ends, for the encounter with Nelson ends on an angry note while the meeting with the baker is suddenly transformed, when Ann Weiss tells him what happened to her son, into a reconciliation. Benny, who was a friend of the narrator's, had brought Nelson over to be introduced. Unfortunately, they decided to join the narrator at his table. What begins as a friendly gesture, at least on Benny's part, will soon turn into something much uglier, as Nelson becomes increasingly aggressive. What began, however, as a hostile confrontation turned into something much more amiable in the other story when the baker, in sudden contrition, "cleared a space for them at the table…. Howard and Ann sat down and pulled their chairs up to the table. The baker sat down, too. 'Let me say how sorry I am,' the baker said" (87). "Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years" (88-89).
Why is it that these two back-room scenes should bear so many ties of resemblance and yet turn out so differently? Have we overlooked something that could resolve this discrepancy?
Well, yes—in one small detail that was added to "The Bath" when it became "A Small, Good Thing." The family that Ann Weiss had met in the hospital when she was looking for the elevator in "The Bath"—"she turned and saw a little waiting room, a family in there, all sitting in wicker chairs, a man in a khaki shirt, a baseball cap pushed back on his head, a large woman wearing a housedress, slippers, a girl in jeans, hair in dozens of kinky braids" (55)—has been transformed into a black family: "she turned to her right and entered a little waiting room where a Negro family sat in wicker chairs. There was a middle-aged man in a khaki shirt and pants…. A large woman wearing a housedress and slippers…. A teenaged girl in jeans, hair done in dozens of little braids" (73). One could argue that they were black already because of the "kinky braids" (since changed to "little" ones). But Carver's greater explicitness now makes it possible to see this family as a middle term between the baker and Nelson. Like Nelson, they are black—and the fact that these two consecutive stories should both feature black characters is itself worthy of comment, since there are otherwise so few in Carver's white working-class world. Like the baker, they are in a position to sympathize with Ann Weiss's plight, and to receive her sympathy in return. This was not particularly evident in "The Bath," where the only response Ann elicits when she tells them about her son's accident (he is not yet dead in either story) is that the father shakes his head and repeats his own son's name (56). In the revised version, the father responds to Ann's recital of her plight with an account of what happened to his son. "Our Franklin, he's on the operating table. Somebody cut him…. We're just hoping and praying, that's all we can do now" (74).
Not only does Carver strengthen the connection between the two stories by explicitly naming the family as black, but he goes on to give a name to the proprietor of the bar where the narrator encounters the sinister Nelson that comes directly from the description of the black father who commiserated with Ann Weiss. He was "a middle-aged man in a khaki shirt and pants," while the Off-Broadway Bar "was run by a spade named Khaki" (99; emphasis added). Khaki was a reassuring presence: the narrator might have had reason to fear for his safety when he frequented this all-black establishment were it not for Khaki's devotion to preserving the peace, and for his friendly attitude toward him.
A story went around once that somebody had followed somebody into the Gents and cut the man's throat while he had his hands down pissing. But I never saw any trouble. Nothing that Khaki couldn't handle…. If somebody started to get out of line, Khaki would go over to where it was beginning. He'd rest his big hand on the party's shoulder and say a few words and that was that. I'd been going there off and on for months. I was pleased that he'd say things to me, things like, "How're you doing tonight, friend?" Or, "Friend, I haven't seen you for a spell." (99-100)
Khaki came over at the right moment, when things were getting especially tense with Nelson. "Khaki had a hand on my shoulder and the other one on Benny's shoulder. He leaned over the table…. 'How you folks? You all having fun?'" (106) Benny assures him that they are, but the narrator takes advantage of Khaki's presence to make his exit. "Khaki was watching Nelson now. I stood beside the booth with Donna's coat. My legs were crazy. Nelson raised his voice. He said, 'You go with this mother here, you let him put his face in your sweets, you both going to have to deal with me.' We started to move away from the booth…. We didn't look back. We kept going" (107).
Khaki's name gives us the clue we need. The amiable proprietor of the Off-Broadway Bar is the reincarnation of the khaki-clad father who commiserates in as friendly a way as their circumstances permit with Ann Weiss, while Nelson is that of the baker in his menacing mode. The black father anticipates the baker's other mode by offering sympathy to Ann Weiss and receiving hers in return, as does the baker in the final scene. The bakery and the bar can with appropriateness resemble each other so much (the clear night sky, the stars, the midnight hour, the back rooms in both instances) because the baker's two personae—his sinister side and his commiserating side—are represented, alternately, by Nelson and Khaki together at the narrator's table.
In "Fires," Carver tells a curious anecdote that tells us significantly more about just how it was that Nelson came to stand for that menacing baker.
Not so long ago in Syracuse, where I live, I was in the middle of writing a short story when my telephone rang. I answered it. On the other end of the line was the voice of a man who was obviously a black man, someone asking for a party named Nelson. It was a wrong number and I said so and hung up. I went back to my short story. But pretty soon I found myself writing a black character into my story, a somewhat sinister character whose name was Nelson. At that moment the story took a different turn. But happily it was, I see now, and somehow knew at the time, the right turn for the story. (Fires, 29-30)
Nelson's name, as well as his presence in the story at all, was thus due to the purest chance: "This character found his way into my story with a coincidental rightness I had the good sense to trust" (30). But it is a coincidence on top of a coincidence, for his name is the same as that of the son over whom the father in khaki was in anguish in "The Bath": "'Nelson,' the woman said. 'Is it about Nelson?'… The man shifted in his chair, He shook his head. He said, 'Our Nelson'" (55-56). Carver changed the name to Franklin in "A Small, Good Thing": was he covering his tracks? Was the anecdote about the telephone call a ruse? Surely not, yet that phone call itself seems to come right out of this story about the effects of a mysteriously sinister voice on the phone. By comparing in detail the scene in the back room of the bakery with the one in the back room of Khaki's bar we explored the remarkable extent to which the baker who made those calls resembles that "somewhat sinister character whose name was Nelson." Carver's anecdote about the fortuitous event that interrupted, yet influenced the writing of "Vitamins," while appearing to stress how much Nelson's presence in that story is the product of chance, actually reveals how much that story grows out of the one that immediately precedes it in Cathedral's unfolding sequence.
One more incident in "Vitamins" deserves our attention, for its strange resemblance to something that happened in "A Small, Good Thing" can, I think, be interpreted. It takes place early in "Vitamins," quite possibly before Carver's phone rang with the wrong number, because it would appear not to have much to do with Nelson. Yet it has a lot to do with the death of the Weisses' son. Sheila, one of the vitamin sellers working under the narrator's wife, Patti, "passed out on her feet, fell over, and didn't wake up for hours" (93). It happened at a Christmas party Patti gave for her employees. Sheila had had too much to drink. "One minute she was standing in the middle of the living room, then her eyes closed, the legs buckled, and she went down with a glass in her hand…. Patti and I and somebody else lugged her out to the back porch and put her down on a cot and did what we could to forget about her" (93). Sheila's sudden collapse into unconsciousness uncannily repeats Scotty's: "he suddenly lay back on the sofa, closed his eyes, and went limp" (61). Why should this be so? What does Sheila have in common with the Weisses' son?
The answer draws us back to our reading of "A Small, Good Thing" as it coupled with "The Compartment"—to the father's daydream of the death of his son. Myers, we recall, had been locked in Oedipal conflict with his son. Although he accused him of turning "the young girl [Myers] had courted and wed into a nervous, alcoholic woman whom the boy alternately pitied and bullied," the son on another occasion had sought to come to his mother's rescue, to show her he loved her more than his father did. It had happened in a family dispute when she began angrily breaking china plates, and Myers uttered what the son interpreted as a threat: "That's enough,' Myers had said, and at that instant the boy charged him" (47). Now in the eyes of the narrator of "Vitamins" Sheila, like Myers's son, was a rival for his wife's affections, "One night this Sheila said to Patti that she loved her more than anything on earth. Patti told me these were the words…. Then Sheila touched Patti's breast. Patti … told her she didn't swing that way" (92-93). Sheila's sudden collapse into unconsciousness, by recalling Scotty's, shows the extent to which a father's jealousy, already invoked in "The Compartment," presides in secret over the events of "A Small, Good Thing." There is absolutely no evidence of this in "A Small, Good Thing" considered by itself—Howard Weiss's expressions of grief are genuine, and heart-rending to read. But when we consider the larger underlying narrative that extends to the stories on either side (not to mention such a text as "On an Old Photograph of My Son") we can see a father's jealousy at work. Sheila, as the rival for his wife's affections, stands—or rather, falls—for the hated son. In our reading of "The Bath" in the context of the stories that accompanied it in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, we found what lay behind the apparently innocent image of a son sitting on the sofa with his mother, which was what Scotty was doing just before he lapsed into the coma from which he never recovered. It is reason enough to justify a father's jealous rage.
When Sheila fell her hand had struck the coffee table, and when she woke the next morning "she was sure her little finger was broken. She showed it to me. It looked purple" (93). Later it grew "as big as a pocket flashlight" (94). "But she'd made a serious pass at Patti, a declaration of love, and I didn't have any sympathy." We have seen before, in "Fat," how phallic fingers can be. This tumescent digit, which though it belongs to a woman in fact belongs to an Oedipal son, has received a symbolically castrating blow.
The next story begins, too, with a woman having apparently fallen into unconsciousness on the living room floor, "Once … he stopped on the landing and looked into his landlady's living room. He saw the old woman lying on her back on the carpet. She seemed to be asleep. Then it occurred to him she might be dead. But the TV was going, so he chose to think she was asleep. He didn't know what to make of it" (111-12). It's hard for us to know what to make of it either, for nothing happens later in "Careful" to integrate it into the story, which concerns not the old woman but her lodger, Lloyd, who stumbles across the sight of her deathlike slumber. It's almost as if this woman dead asleep on the living room carpet were something left over from the previous story—a kind of day residue, to use the term from Freud's dream analysis that has, as I have indicated, a certain relevance to how Carver puts his story collections together. Indeed, in the Alton interview Carver said that the germ of a story or poem is for him often, quite literally, residue: "I never start with an idea. I always see something. I start with an image, a cigarette being put out in a jar of mustard, for instance, or the remains, the wreckage, of a dinner left on the table. Pop cans in the fireplace, that sort of thing" (Conversations, 154).2 Carver's point of course is that his stories begin with an image. But the choice of images he provides tells us something more, for they are all images of debris, of remnants left over from a previous event.
Two of the remarks the observant Lloyd makes, however, do serve a purpose beyond his awareness, thanks to Carver's practice of planting resemblances in his sequentially occurring stories. That "it occurred to him she might be dead" confirms the suspicion that Sheila's similarly unconscious state was likewise a semblance of death—not hers of course but Scotty's. And that "he chose to think she was asleep" echoes the doctor's words with which the Weisses tried to comfort themselves in the hospital: "Now he simply seemed to be in a very deep sleep—but no coma, Dr. Francis had emphasized" (61). "Howard gazed at his son…. Scotty was fine, but instead of sleeping at home in his own bed, he was in a hospital bed" (65). The landlady was evidently not dead, for the lodger later "saw the old woman down in the yard, wearing a straw hat and holding her hand against her side" (112). That something might be wrong with her hand recalls the injury Sheila's hand received in her descent: "The hand holding the drink smacked the coffee table when she fell" (93). As residue from the immediately preceding story, the scene of the woman asleep on the living room floor persists, even though it seems to have no immediate relevance to the story it finds itself in now. On the other hand, we can see that it has a great deal of relevance to the sequence in which the story appears, confirming the interpretation to which Sheila's collapse gave rise—that she was a figure for the son as rival for the wife's affections.
Sheila's—and Scotty's—reappearance in the form of the woman on the floor is not, however, the residue from which Carver has fashioned his story. That role belongs to another piece of detritus—a classic case perhaps of one man's trash being another's treasure—left over from the story just before: the object of disgust Nelson showed off in the Off-Broadway Bar, the body part retrieved from the corpse of a Viet Cong soldier. "I looked at the ear inside. It sat on a bed of cotton. It looked like a dried mushroom. But it was a real ear, and it was hooked up to a key chain…. 'I took it off one of them gooks,' Nelson said. 'He couldn't hear nothing with it no more. I wanted me a keepsake'" (106-7). The whole story recounted in "Careful" turns upon the problem Lloyd is having with his ear: "He'd awakened that morning and found that his ear had stopped up with wax. He couldn't hear anything clearly, and he seemed to have lost his sense of balance, his equilibrium, in the process. For the last hour, he'd been on the sofa, working frustratedly on his ear, now and again slamming his head with his fist" (113). A problem, as it happens, of too much residue.
Lloyd, an alcoholic who has taken up drinking champagne, is living apart from his wife. But Inez does pay a visit to his third-floor apartment that morning, just as he has worried himself into a helpless state over his ear. As he tells her his tale of woe the chain to which Nelson had attached his keepsake (Nelson "took up the chain and dangled the ear…. He let it swing back and forth on the chain" ) returns here too, in the chain attached to Lloyd's memory of the last time he had this problem. "My ear's plugged up. You remember that other time it happened? We were living in that place near the Chinese take-out joint. Where the kids found that bulldog dragging its chain? I had to go to the doctor then and have my ears flushed out" (114-15). Inez is willing to do what she can to help but unfortunately her nail-file technique (she couldn't find a hairpin) is neither safe nor effective. But she does have the bright idea of going downstairs to ask his landlady if she "has any Wesson oil, or anything like that. She might even have some Q-tips. I don't know why I didn't think of that before. Of asking her" (119).
She returns with baby oil, and some good advice on how to use it; warm the oil, pour it in the ear, and massage gently. "She said it used to happen to her husband…. She said try this. And she didn't have any Q-tips. I can't understand that, her not having any Q-tips. That part really surprises me" (120). Inez still doesn't understand that putting any solid object into the ear, whether hairpin or Q-tip, is only going to push the wax deeper in, though her stubborn insistence on procuring cotton swabs does serve the purpose of recalling the "bed of cotton" on which Nelson's ear was displayed. However, by following Mrs. Matthews's instructions to the letter, success is achieved. "He heard a car pass on the street outside the house and, at the back of the house, down below his kitchen window, the clear snick-snick of pruning shears…. 'I'm all right! I mean, I can hear. It doesn't sound like you're talking underwater anymore'" (121-22).
So the old woman whose supine state resembled death did have an important part to play after all. It's just that her unconsciousness, whether from having blacked out or simply from sleep, still seems a naggingly irrelevant episode, troubling because of its apparent lack of purpose. We went some distance toward making sense of its presence in the story when we found how it served to confirm our sense of what was going on in the sequence at this point. But I think I can now show that that opening scene has more to do in the story—and not just in the sequence—than that.
Let us look once more at Lloyd's behavior the day the principal events of the story take place: "He was on the sofa, in his pajamas, hitting his fist against the right side of his head. Just before he could hit himself again, he heard voices downstairs on the landing…. He gave his head another jolt with his fist, then got to his feet" (113). At that moment we had no idea why he was hitting his head with his fist. We would learn the reason in the next paragraph—that it was because his ear is stopped up—but before we did his self-inflicted blows had the stage to themselves, and they were incomprehensible. And they continue: "Now and again slamming his head with his fist" (113). "He pounded his head a good one" (114). "He whacked his head once more" (116).
All that we have seen up to now of the way the stories in Cathedral and in the two earlier collections retain echoes of prior events, words, and gestures should justify my making the following hypothesis. In slamming his fist against his head Lloyd was not only trying to clear the obstruction in his ear, but as a figure for the father in the ongoing narrative hidden in the sequence of these stories he was also trying to inflict on himself the injury his son had suffered—the son whose death he had wished for in "The Compartment," the son who died in "A Small, Good Thing." For the father in "The Compartment" had in fact "slammed him into the wall" as Lloyd kept "slamming his head with his fist," while Scotty suffered a "hairline fracture of the skull" (66) that was caused by his head hitting the pavement ("He fell on his side with his head in the gutter" ) and died from "a hidden occlusion" (80). An occlusion is the stopping up, the closing, the obstruction of a passage—in Scotty's case something like a blood vessel in the brain, in Lloyd's the auditory canal of his ear.
Something really does happen in the buried narrative hidden between Carver's stories: one event succeeds another. The father desires the son's death, then the son dies, and then the father, chastened by the fulfillment of his wish, repents of his desire and tries in his anguish to turn the suffering inflicted on the child upon himself. But then something else takes place, and that is the reason the old woman downstairs who provides the remedy for Lloyd's suffering was first glimpsed passed out on the living room floor as if she were dead, repeating Sheila's collapse that itself repeats the son's. For by her recreation of Scotty's coma she becomes, in the buried narrative the sequence tells, the son (as Sheila had when she took on the son's Oedipal role of rival for the wife's affections). And by providing the cure for Lloyd's head pounding and for his auricular occlusion, she delivers the son's forgiveness. (It is not perhaps by accident that it should appear in the form of "baby oil," instead of the cooking oil Inez had originally requested.) That reconciliation, of course, is this father's deepest desire. For the same poem where Carver confesses "Oh, son, in those days I wanted you dead" ends with these words: "But don't / worry, my boy—the pages turn, my son. We all / do better in the future" ("On an Old Photograph of My Son").
These stories tell this story by recycling each other's details (for example, the ear) as dreams do the residue of the immediately preceding day, so it is fitting that Lloyd should doubt the permanence of the cure just effected and fear his malady might return as he slept: "He began to feel afraid of the night that was coming…. What if, in the middle of the night he accidentally turned on his right side, and the weight of his head pressing into the pillow were to seal the wax again in the dark canals of his ear?… 'Good God,' he said…. 'I just had something like a terrible nightmare'" (122-23). It is fitting, too, that this fear of falling asleep should invoke not only the fate that befell the son (who fell into a sleep from which he never awoke) but also the dread Patti evidently had of falling asleep and having dreams that offered her no solace, just the same worries that had fatigued her throughout the day. "I even dream of vitamins when I'm asleep. I don't have any relief. There's no relief! At least you can walk away from your job and leave it behind. I'll bet you haven't had one dream about it. I'll bet you don't dream about waxing floors or whatever you do down there" (97). Her husband performs janitorial duties in a hospital. It's a remarkable coincidence that she should complain that her husband doesn't dream of wax.
"Where I'm Calling From"
After Inez's departure, even though his ear is, at least for the moment, cleared of its obstruction, Lloyd still must face his other problem—his addiction to champagne. "In the beginning, he'd really thought he could continue drinking if he limited himself to champagne. But in no time he found he was drinking three or four bottles a day" (119). On the next to last page of the story we find him taking a fresh bottle out of the fridge. "He worked the plastic cork out of the bottle as carefully as he could, but there was still the festive pop of champagne being opened" (124; first two emphases added). These words form some resonant echoes. When his ear was stopped up, Lloyd thought that "it felt like it had when he used to swim near the bottom of the municipal pool" (115) and "his ears would pop" (116; emphasis added) when he cleared the water out of them by blowing with his mouth and nose closed tight. Before Inez arrived he had been "working frustratedly on his ear" (113; emphasis added). And of course the title, already repeated in Lloyd's plea to "Be careful" (118; emphasis added), reappears in the adverb that describes how he worked the cork out of the bottle. Not surprisingly, that cork bears a close resemblance to what the landlady once saw emerge from her husband's ear: "this one time she saw a piece of wax fall out of his ear, and it was like a big plug of something" (120).
This conclusion to "Careful" not only recalls the events that had preceded it but anticipates the subject of the story to follow, which takes place at a "drying-out facility" for confirmed alcoholics. Lloyd's favorite drink is what the narrator consumed en route to the sanitarium: "We drank champagne all the way" (138). Early in the story the narrator witnesses the same kind of event that Lloyd had glimpsed as he mounted the stairs to his apartment. Tiny, one of the inmates at Frank Martin's farm, "was on his back on the floor with his eyes closed" (128; emphasis added), as Mrs. Matthews had been "lying on her back on the carpet" (111; emphasis added) with her eyes closed as if she were asleep. We never find out why she was doing that; Tiny was having a quasi-epileptic seizure, apparently brought on by alcoholism. The narrator spends most of the story listening, primarily to fellow drunk J.P., who first tells him how he fell into a well when he was twelve, and then how he met his wife. Both episodes repeat significant elements of what Lloyd went through in the story before.
It was a dry well, lucky for him…. But he told me that being at the bottom of that well had made a lasting impression. He'd sat there and looked up at the well mouth. Way up at the top, he could see a circle of blue sky…. A flock of birds flew across, and it seemed to J.P. their wingbeats set up this odd commotion. He heard other things. He heard tiny rustlings above him in the well, which made him wonder if things might fall down into his hair…. He heard wind blow over the well mouth, and that sound made an impression on him, too. In short, everything about his life was different for him at the bottom of the well. But nothing fell on him and nothing closed off that little circle of blue. Then his dad came along with the rope, and it wasn't long before J.P. was back in the world he'd always lived in. (130)
Lloyd described what it felt like to have his ear stopped up in ways that anticipate J.P.'s experience both of being trapped in a cylinder and of hearing how cylinders distort sounds. "When I talk, I feel like I'm talking inside a barrel. My head rumbles…. When you talk, it sounds like you're talking through a lead pipe" (115). J.P.'s being "at the bottom of that well" recalls Lloyd's memory of being "near the bottom of the municipal pool" (115) when he had had the same sensation in his ears. When the wax was removed, he could hear things like the "rustlings" and the wind blowing over the mouth of the well: "Lloyd heard the sound her breath made as it came and went … the clear snick-snack of pruning shears" (121-22). J.P.'s terror of something falling on him from above parallels the claustrophobia induced by the sharply slanting ceiling of Lloyd's top-floor apartment. "He had to stoop to look from his windows and be careful getting in and out of bed" (111). That too-low ceiling contributed to the terror he felt at the thought of his ear problem returning: "What if he woke up then, unable to hear, the ceiling inches from his head?" (122-23). J.P. was rescued by clinging to his father's rope; Lloyd had been at the end of his: "he'd tried everything he could think of, and he was nearing the end of his rope" (114).
Lloyd's rescue is evoked in the most remarkable way by the other story J.P. tells. It was Lloyd's wife (with help from the landlady downstairs) who managed to clean out his occluded canal, while what made J.P. fall in love with the woman who became his wife was the fact that she cleaned out obstructed passages for a living.3 Roxy was a professional chimney sweep with all the traditional regalia of the trade and had shown up to clean the chimney at the house of a friend J.P. was visiting. "She's wearing a top hat, the sight of which knocked J.P. for a loop…. She spreads a blanket on the hearth and lays out her gear" (131)—as, with much less aplomb, Inez had "emptied the purse out onto the sofa. 'No hairpins,' she said. 'Damn'" (117). The sexy chimney sweep is "wearing these black pants, black shirt, black shoes and socks…. J.P. says it nearly drove him nuts to look at her. She does the work, she cleans the chimney…. J.P. and his friend … raise their eyebrows when the upper half of the young woman disappears into the chimney" (131).
What are we to make of these two particular bits of recycling: Lloyd's ear blockage transformed into J.P.'s falling into a well and one wife's ear cleaning become another wife's chimney sweeping? Their effect, I believe, is to justify my hypothesis about the sleeping Mrs. Matthews. I had suggested that the person really responsible for curing Lloyd's malady was the landlady, that his wife was only the medium through which her cure was effected, and furthermore that the old lady passed out on the carpet really represented the son, who was symbolically saving his father from his self-inflicted pain. What happens in the first of these two episodes in "Where I'm Calling From" is that the father-son relationship that I had said was behind Lloyd's aural occlusion has now been brought out into the open: here a father rescues a son; in "Careful" it was the other way around. Each story is a complement to the other, as so many story pairs have shown themselves to be. And the wife still has a part to play, but her contribution has been separated out and re-presented in a totally different story.
Near the end of "Where I'm Calling From" a scene takes place that both repeats the scene near the beginning of "Careful" in which Lloyd spied on his landlady stretched out on her living room rug and does so in terms of a father-son connection. Lloyd had glanced into his landlady's apartment on his way up the stairs; here, the narrator, in bed with his wife on a Sunday morning, thinks he can hear something outside the window. His wife suddenly remembers who it must be: the landlord, who was going to paint the exterior of the house.
I push the curtain away from the window…. It's the landlord, all right—this old guy in coveralls. But his coveralls are too big for him…. And a wave of happiness comes over me that I'm not him—that I'm me and that I'm inside this bedroom with my wife…. The old fart breaks into a grin. It's then I realize I'm naked…. I can see the old fellow nod to himself like he's saying, "Go on, sonny, go back to bed. I understand." He tugs on the bill of his cap. Then he sets about his business. He picks up his bucket. He starts climbing the ladder. (145)
Everything is reversed. The landlady has become a landlord. The protagonist has changed from voyeur into someone whose nakedness is the object of someone else's gaze—while in both cases the person doing the viewing is climbing up, (the stairs, a ladder) at the time. That the landlady represented the son (not Lloyd's son, of course, but the son of the father whose presence haunts these stories from "The Compartment" on) is evidenced by the fact that in this reversal the landlord addresses the narrator—"Go on, sonny, go back to bed"—as if he were a father speaking to his son. It is the reversal, that is, of the landlady as son and the lodger as father. And the forgiveness that I contended the son was extending to his father by offering the remedy that would make him stop slamming his fist against his skull—that filial forgiveness has now become a paternal blessing: "Go on, sonny…. I understand."
"The Train," which is inscribed "for John Cheever," begins where Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight" leaves off, with Miss Dent holding a gun on the man who had seduced her and then fired her from her job.4 She had followed him into his train home to Shady Hill, sat next to him, and explained that she had a pistol in her purse. In the darkness past the station parking lot, as Carver picks up the story. "She'd made him get down in the dirt and plead for his life. While the man's eyes welled with tears and his fingers picked at leaves, she pointed the revolver at him and told him things about himself…. 'Be still!' she'd said, although the man was only digging his fingers into the dirt and moving his legs a little out of fear" (147). Blake's terror, and especially the way his eyes "welled with tears," evokes J.P.'s terrifying experience at the bottom of the well, though it was J.P. who said that "being at the bottom of that well had made a lasting impression" (130) on him, and Miss Dent who "knew she would remember for a long time the sound he made through his nose as he got down on his knees" (148; emphasis added). This persistent memory of the sound of his nose is an even more precise recycling of J.P.'s recollection of a similarly breathy noise: "He heard wind blow over the well mouth, and that sound made an impression on him, too" (130).
How is it that the scene of a son trapped and then rescued from deep in the ground by his father gets transformed into one of a woman trapping a man and forcing him to "get down in the dirt"? It is that what had been separated into two stories in "Where I'm Calling From"—the plot of "Careful" divided into the episode at the well and J.P.'s courtship of his chimney-sweep wife—has been put together again into one. For Miss Dent, while putting her victim through an experience that recalls J.P.'s in the well, at the same time bears a significant resemblance to J.P.'s wife: both are women extraordinarily capable of violence. Miss Dent had "held a gun on a man … she put her foot on the back of his head and pushed his face into the dirt" (147), and Roxy "is a woman who can make firsts if she has to" (143). "Her hands are broad and the fingers have these big knuckles. This woman broke a man's nose once" (142).5
In "The Train" Miss Dent leaves the man groveling in the dirt and goes into the station to wait for the next train back to the city. An odd couple enter, an elderly man wearing stockings but no shoes and a middle-aged woman who speaks to him in a mixture of Italian and English. They seem to be discussing a cocktail party they have just left, and what they say to each other is as opaque to the reader as it must have been to Miss Dent, something about a girl "alone in a house filled with simps and vipers," an "imbecile they call Captain Nick" (150), "café au lait and cigarettes, their precious Swiss chocolate and those goddamned macaws" (151), and having to sit through "home movies about Point Barrow, Alaska" (152).6 There is nothing I can think of in any other Carver story to compare to this barrage of pointless information, pointless, that is, until we realize that it does serve at least one function: it puts Miss Dent in the same situation in which "The Train" puts the reader who does not know Cheever's story. Carver after all does not tell us exactly how his story is an homage to Cheever; he doesn't tell us which Cheever story this is the sequel of, or even that this is one. Carver's story in fact can stand alone, just like all the others in Cathedral (which is to say that it can also be part of a larger whole, as they are); we don't need to have read Cheever's story to understand Carver's. Yet while all that is true, Carver evidently still felt the need to put in his story some telltale sign that would make the reader feel that he or she has arrived on the scene too late, that a lot must have already happened before the story began.
What happens at the end of the story points in the same direction. As Miss Dent and the man and woman get on the train, "The passengers naturally assumed that the three people boarding were together; and they felt sure that whatever these people's business had been that night, it had not come to a happy conclusion" (155). As the old man had held the waiting room door for the middle-aged woman and then for Miss Dent, so that they emerged onto the platform with Miss Dent between them, this was not an unreasonable assumption. But in fact they were not together; neither had they transacted any business. The extent of their interaction in the waiting room had been: the man and Miss Dent exchanged a "Good evening" (148-49); Miss Dent silently shook her head when the woman said to her companion. "If you really must smoke, she may have a match" (149); the woman once referred to Miss Dent in the third person in the midst of an argument with the man (151); the woman eventually did address her directly: "'You don't say much. But I'll wager you could say a lot if someone got you started…. What do they call you?' 'Miss Dent. But I don't know you'" (153); later, Miss Dent almost began to open a conversation, but just then the train pulled into the station. The three people boarding the train were just as much a closed book to the passengers already on the train as the couple's bizarre conversation had been to Miss Dent; more than that, by assuming they were together the passengers raise the same issue that the story itself raises by being an unannounced sequel to Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight"; are the stories together or not?
It is of course the same question that Carver's stories always raise: are they to be read intertextually—in conjunction with the story just finished—or not? Are they all, in this sense, sequels?
Arthur Saltzman accurately observes that the narrator of "Where I'm Calling From" "is at first unwilling or unable to relate his own story…. Instead of confessing, the narrator persuades a fellow drunk, J.P., to tell his" (147). The woman in "The Train" makes the same observation about Miss Dent: "You don't say much. But I'll wager you could say a lot if someone got you started. Couldn't you? But you're a sly boots. You'd rather just sit with your prim little mouth while other people talk their heads off" (153). The wife in "Fever" likewise urges the husband she has left to talk it out: "Tell me about yourself," she said on the phone. "He told her the kids were fine. But before he could say anything else, she interrupted him to say, 'I know they're fine. What about you?'" (165).
"Fever" is the account of Carlyle's eventually successful effort to accept his wife's not coming back. He teaches art at a high school; Eileen ran away with the drama teacher, leaving Carlyle to cope with his two young children alone. After some bad experiences with babysitters, his luck changes dramatically when his wife puts him in touch with the grandmotherly Mrs. Webster. For six weeks things go beautifully, until Carlyle comes down with a severe bout of the flu. His fever and headaches keep him in bed for several days, while Mrs. Webster takes care of both him and the children.
During this time Eileen occasionally telephones to ask how he is and to say that her life has significantly improved since she left him, all in a trendy psychobabble about her "karma" and his that convinces Carlyle she is going crazy. "Eileen must be losing her mind to talk like that" (164). Her perceived insanity is mentioned at least a half-dozen times in the story. On one occasion even Eileen shows that she realizes how strange she must sound: "'You may think I'm crazy or something,' she said. 'But just remember.' Remember what? Carlyle wondered in alarm, thinking he must have missed something she'd said" (168). On another Carlyle tells his girlfriend Carol why he's not going to answer the phone. "It's my wife. I know it's her. She's losing her mind. She's going crazy. I'm not going to answer it" (175). When he falls ill, Eileen advises him to keep a journal of his illness, just like Colette.7 "She wrote a little book about what it was like, about what she was thinking and feeling the whole time she had this fever…. Right now you've just got this discomfort. You've got to translate that into something usable" (181). Carlyle can make no sense of what seemed like pointless advice. "It was clear to him that she was insane" (182).
Miss Dent was crazy too, in fact certifiably insane—had even been institutionalized for it—not in "The Train" but in Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight." "Oh, I know what you're thinking," she said as she sat next to Blake on the train, aiming the pistol in his direction from inside her purse.
You're thinking that I'm crazy, and I have been very sick again but I'm going to be better. It's going to make me better to talk with you. I was in the hospital all the time before I came to work for you but they never tried to cure me, they only wanted to take away my self-respect…. Even if I did have to kill you, they wouldn't be able to do anything to me except put me back in the hospital. (289)
She was evidently insane even before she came to work for him and did not become so because he seduced her. In Cheever's story, her vengeance is thus not so much the act of a woman taking a stand against male injustice as it is the irrational act of a poor demented soul. We can read Carver's "The Train" and not realize this about her, as long as we do not follow the hint his dedicatory lines to Cheever make and track down "The Five-Forty-Eight." But if we do read Cheever's story and appreciate the extent to which Carver's "Train" is a sequel to it, then we are also in a position to appreciate the extent to which "Fever" is a sequel to both, and Eileen's craziness a distant echo of Miss Dent's. This is particularly evident when we compare Miss Dent's words: "You're thinking that I'm crazy" (289) to Eileen's: "You may think I'm crazy" (168). More than this unites Eileen to Cheever's heroine, for they both also share a firm belief in the efficacy of the talking cure. "It's going to make me better to talk with you," Miss Dent had said. And later: "I won't harm you if you'll let me talk" (290). Eileen's insistence that Carlyle articulate his thoughts during his illness finally bears fruit when, in the midst of a splitting headache, he begins to talk to Mrs. Webster, not about his fever but about what Eileen's leaving means. "Mrs. Webster, there's something I want you to know. For a long time, my wife and I loved each other more than anything or anybody in the world" (184). And he goes on at considerable length, spilling out all the thoughts that had been pent up for so long and that had surely contributed, psychosomatically, to his having fallen sick. "There, it's all right,' Mrs. Webster said. She patted his hand. He sat forward and began to talk again." The children came into the room. "Carlyle looked at them and went on talking." They kept quiet but started to giggle. "Carlyle went on talking. At first, his head still ached…. But then his headache went away." He had started "in the middle," after the birth of the children, but now he went back to the very beginning, when he and Eileen had first met. "You just keep talking, Mr. Carlyle," Mrs. Webster said. "Sometimes it's good to talk about it" (185). He talked so much more that the children had time to fall asleep and wake up again.
When he was finally all talked out, not only had his headache disappeared, but at last "he understood [the marriage] was over, and he felt able to let her go … it was something that had passed. And that passing … would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he'd left behind" (186). Eileen, crazy as she may have seemed to him to be, was right about one thing. "Remember," she had said, "sickness is a message about your health and your well-being. It's telling you things" (181). His fever was trying to tell him something: it was telling him he had something to tell.
In the end it's Carlyle who begins to resemble Miss Dent. It did both of them good to talk it out. And it turns out they had almost the same dreams: earlier in the story, "when the alarm went off, he wanted to keep his eyes closed and keep on with the dream he was having. Something about a farmhouse…. Someone … was walking along the road carrying something. Maybe it was a picnic hamper…. In the dream, there seemed to exist a sense of well-being" (169). "I dream about picnics and heaven and the brotherhood of man," Miss Dent had told Blake (293).
Carlyle has at least one thing in common with Miss Dent's victim, too. Blake's eyes, we recall, had "welled with tears and his fingers picked at leaves" (147) (in a passage that recalled J.P.'s terror in the well). Carlyle "felt a welling in his chest as he kissed each of his children goodbye" (171).8
Like Carlyle, and like the Miss Dent of Cheever's story, Betty Holits too finds it helps to talk it out. "And that's fine with me," Marge tells us in "The Bridle." Marge is a hairstylist, and Betty is her customer. "They like to talk when they're in the chair" (198). Marge at the same time manages, with her husband, Harley, an apartment complex where the Holitses have rented a suite. But the more Betty talks the more it appears that the character in this story to which the protagonist of "Fever" bears the most resemblance is her husband, who like Carlyle is referred to by his last name as if it were his first. Holits, like Carlyle, had a wife (before Betty) who "lit out on them" (198), leaving him with two children to raise.
Holits, an unemployed farmer from Minnesota who has moved west with his family to look for work, had earlier developed a passionate interest in horses and bought a race-horse on which he pinned all his hopes. He named it Fast Betty, after his wife, but it didn't exactly live up to its name. When they moved into the apartment complex and were unloading their possessions from the car, Marge had seen him carry in "something [with] straps hanging from it" that she recognized as a horse's bridle (191-92). At the end of the story, after Holits sustains a head injury from a drunken leap one night from the roof of a cabana onto the deck of the pool and the family moves out a week later, Marge goes to clean the vacated apartment. Betty had left the rooms in unexpectedly tidy condition, but there was one thing left behind. "One of the bureau drawers is open and I go to close it. Back in a corner of the drawer I see the bridle he was carrying in when he first came. It must have been passed over in their hurry. But maybe it wasn't. Maybe the man left it on purpose" (208; emphasis added). At the end of "Fever" too we had seen Carlyle leaving something behind, the marriage his wife had walked out on: "their life together … was something that had passed. And that passing … would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he'd left behind" (186; emphasis added).
The parallel is even greater if we can place any faith in the possible pun between the bridle Holits left and the bride (or bridal hopes) Carlyle left behind—or in Holits having named the horse after his wife, so that its bridle, by evoking the horse, evokes his bride. Betty recognizes the incongruity of the horse bearing her name: "The Betty part is a joke. But he says it can't help but be a winner if he names it after me. A big winner, all right. The fact is, wherever it ran, it lost" (199).
The duplication of Betty's name is itself duplicated by the odd way Marge duplicates her name on the fifty-dollar bills with which the Holitses paid their first installment of rent: "I write my name in ink across Grant's broad old forehead: MARGE. I print it. I do it on every one. Right over his thick brows. People will stop in the midst of their spending and wonder. Who's this Marge?" (192) Marge is like Carver in this regard—not that he keeps writing his name everywhere, but he does keep writing the same words in different places, both between and within his stories.9 The activity in which Marge is here engaged offers an intriguing case in point, for her disfiguration of U. S. Grant's forehead is echoed in the climactic later scene of Holits's fall from the cabana roof:
He dragged up one of the tables and climbed onto that. Then … he lifted up onto the roof of the cabana…. They're egging him on. They're saying. "Go on, you can do it." "Don't belly-flop, now." "I double-dare you." Things like that.
Then I hear Betty's voice. "Holits, think what you're doing." But Holits just stands there at the edge. He looks down at the water. He seems to be figuring how much of a run he's going to have to make to get out there. He backs up to the far side. He spits in his palm and rubs his hands together…. I see him hit the deck…. Holits has this gash on his forehead. (203)
Forehead, that is, is written into both scenes. Now is this done haphazardly, promiscuously, as are Marge's MARGEs? Or is there an underlying reason for this echo?
There are actually two.
Holits was trying to make a leap into the swimming pool from the cabana roof, but he failed because he couldn't run fast enough: "He seems to be figuring how much of a run he's going to have to make to get out there." He thus came to resemble his beloved Fast Betty, the horse that could never run fast enough, that, "wherever it ran, it lost." His drunken and foolish behavior would brand him for life with a scar on his forehead in which one can read his identification with the horse whose name is also the name of his wife. Thus does Marge's gesture of inscribing her name on a man's forehead find its echo in the trace of another wife's name.
His head injury at the same time recalls the headache and fever Carlyle suffered in the immediately preceding story, for as Holits's wound was self-inflicted so too, in the final analysis, was Carlyle's psychosomatic illness. He fell sick because he couldn't cope with his wife's having left him (and once he had talked out all his feelings on that subject, he was suddenly cured of his headache). Now while Holits's first wife did leave him in apparently similar circumstances (left him, that is, with two children to take care of by himself), his second wife Betty didn't. Yet apparently it was despair that brought him to make his near-suicidal leap, a despair that we may be able to understand by paying attention to Marge's meditation on the meaning of the bridle he left behind, in the concluding words of the story:
"Bridle," I say. I hold it up to the window and look at it in the light…. I don't know much about them. But I know that one part of it fits in the mouth…. Reins go over the head and up to where they're held on the neck between the fingers. The rider pulls the reins this way and that, and the horse turns. It's simple. The bit's heavy and cold. If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you'd know it was time. You'd know you were going somewhere.
Clearly, bridle here takes on a bridal connotation. Holits may have had the bridal bit between his teeth, but he had apparently lost the ability, and more importantly the will, to go where it was telling him to go: "I can't go it" (104; emphasis added), he had mysteriously said after he fell. "'What'd he say?'… 'He said he can't go it….' 'Go what? What's he talking about?'" It's understandable, after the failure of his farm and his long period of unemployment. He may have started working again, Marge thinks, just before the accident. But if so his injury and subsequent hospitalization have put an end to that; he no longer seems in full control of his faculties—when their friends wave at his departure, he doesn't at first respond but then raises his hand and then "keeps waving at them, even after they've stopped" (207).10
Yet he has to keep on going all the same, as the conversation between Marge and Harley reveals, with its repeated emphasis on that word: "He asks me where they're going. But I don't have any idea where they're going. Maybe they're going back to Minnesota. How do I know where they're going? But I don't think they're going back to Minnesota. I think they're going someplace else to try their luck" (206).
Marge's fascination with the idea of her name cropping up in strange places, in the mouths of strangers—"People will stop in the midst of their spending and wonder. Who's this Marge?"—finds a precise counterpart in the wonderment the narrator of "Cathedral" feels when his wife plays for him a tape from her blind correspondent. Before her marriage to the narrator, she had worked as a reader to Robert, and they had continued to exchange tapes in the years since. "I was on the tape, she said…. After a few minutes of harmless chitchat, I heard my own name in the mouth of this stranger, this blind man I didn't even know! And then this: 'From all you've said about him, I can only conclude—' But we were interrupted, a knock at the door, something, and we didn't ever get back to the tape" (212). Marge's heart-to-heart talk with Betty Holits had suffered a similar interruption: "I'm starting to tell how it was before we moved here, and how it's still like that. But Harley picks right then to come out of the bedroom" (201). And Betty "for some reason … doesn't come back to get her hair done" any more so the conversation is never resumed. The architecture of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, its ongoing sequence of contiguous repetitions, is about to be broken off too, since "Cathedral" is the last story in the collection. It is therefore fitting that one of the last of these repetitions should be about the sudden interruption of discourse.
The narrator is at first annoyed by the news that Robert is coming to visit. He has never had much to do with blind people and knows he is going to feel uncomfortable. But Robert is a jolly sort, who clearly enjoys good food, good whiskey, and good dope, though it was his first time for the latter. "We thought we'd have us some cannabis" (220), the narrator tells his wife when she came back downstairs and encountered the smell. High on pot, the blind man and the narrator sit up until late into the evening, listening to a TV program about "the church and the Middle Ages" (222) for which the narrator gives Robert a running commentary. He does his best to depict the spires, the gargoyles and the flying buttresses. But realizing the difficulty of describing a cathedral to someone who has never seen one, he asks, "If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they're talking about?" (223-24) Robert responds that he knows, since the man on the television had just said as much, that "they took hundreds of workers fifty or a hundred years to build," that "the men who began their life's work on them, they never lived to see the completion of their work. In that wise, bub, they're no different from the rest of us, right?" (224) If Carver's Cathedral is self-naming, then the kind of cathedral it is is one of these unfinished ones, for the nature of its architecture is forever open-ended, each last word always open to the possibility of being succeeded by another.
The last word in this case is the final scene of the story, which finds the narrator trying to draw a cathedral on the "heavy paper" (226) the blind man had asked him to look for (an empty shopping bag served the purpose), pressing down very firmly with the pen so that Robert would be able to follow the tracings with his fingers. "So I began. First I drew a box that looked like a house…. Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. Crazy" (227)—then windows, arches, gargoyles, people, and all. The blind man now tells him to close his eyes. "'Keep them that way…. Don't stop now. Draw.' So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now" (228). But it was like something else, two stories before, in "Fever"; "'Like this, like this,' he said, guiding their hands…. 'Suggestion is what it's all about,' he said, holding lightly to Sue Colvin's fingers as he guided her brush. 'You've got to work with your mistakes until they look intended. Understand?'" (172) Carlyle, we recall, was a high school art teacher. Should we take his advice? Should we work with the products of chance—what in his context are pupils' mistakes but in ours such possibly chance occurrences as the way this passage so strikingly anticipates the one that concludes the book—until they look intended?
Or are they intended? I think they are intended to make us think, to feel a sense of wonder as we linger in Carver's Cathedral to explore some of its more obscure passages, to realize how—as at Chartres, for example—one image in stained glass or statuary responds to another somewhere else in the fabric (Joseph's coat of many colors to Jesus' seamless robe, his fall into the pit to Christ's descent into hell, or the silver cup hidden in the sack of grain to the chalice of the Eucharist). "Suggestion," to adopt another piece of Carlyle's pedagogical advice, "is what it's all about."
Though distributed at different places in "Fever," two other moments anticipate what happens at the end of the title story. "At school, they were just leaving the medieval period and about to enter the Gothic" (176)—as were the narrator and Robert as they kept pace with the television broadcast. The "heavy paper" that Robert asked the narrator to procure, and that was indispensable for the effect he wanted him to create, had already appeared in a drawing "on heavy paper" Eileen had sent him "of a woman on a riverbank in a filmy gown, her hands covering her eyes, her shoulders slumped. It was, Carlyle assumed, Eileen showing her heartbreak over the situation" (164).
Yet the concluding scene where the blind man's fingers "rode" the narrator's as he drew the cathedral while both were high on cannabis recalls as well the conclusion of "The Bridle" when Holits was high on the cabana roof. For in his loser's run he was, as we have seen, acting the part of the horse wearing the bridle with reins that "go over the head and up to where they're held on the neck between the fingers. The rider pulls the reins this way and that, and the horse turns." And in a significant reversal, while at first it was the narrator who was in charge, drawing the cathedral on the heavy paper so that Robert could then move "the tips of his fingers over the paper" (227) to get some idea of what it looked like, by the time the story ends it's the blind man who is guiding the narrator, riding him with his fingers. He is showing him what it is like to be blind. He tells him to shut his eyes and then to keep on drawing. "His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now. Then he said, 'I think that's it, I think you got it'" (228), as if he were an art instructor congratulating his student. "'Take a look. What do you think?' But I had my eyes closed. I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer…. 'It's really something,' I said."
In a question-and-answer session at the University of Akron in 1982 Carver said that in his view to build a cathedral was to engage in a collaborative endeavor. "This is a farfetched analogy, but it's in a way like building a fantastic cathedral. The main thing is to get the work of art together. You don't know who built those cathedrals, but they're there" (Conversations, 23). He was referring to the collaboration between writer and editor, though surely the kind of joint effort in which the blind man and the narrator are engaged in "Cathedral," which he was then writing or had recently completed, was on his mind. But this uncertainty as to authorship extends to the uncertainty into which Cathedral's stories lead us: to which of these two stories can the origin of the image of the riding fingers be traced—"Cathedral," which was written first, or "The Bridle," which the stories' order places before the other in the total fabric of the work?11 "Cathedral, in other words, is a cathedral in the Carverian sense: like the protagonists of its title story, its stories ride each other, depend on each other, collaborate with each other to create together what they could not have done by themselves.
1. That is, he thinks he remembers it was a birthday party, but he isn't entirely sure: "They were with some other kids that afternoon, a birthday party maybe. Something…. As I say, I'm not sure where our kids were that afternoon. Maybe I had to pick them up from someplace, and it was getting late, and that contributed to my state of mind" (32). In light of the fact that in "The Bath" (and later in "A Small, Good Thing") the son dies on his birthday and that the cake was an elaborately iced birthday cake makes the uncertainty of his recollection all the more interesting. Concealed beneath it may be a kind of birthday wish that could be expressed only in a fiction: that his children had never been born.
2. When Alton later asks Carver about the role of the unconscious in his work, he acknowledges its relevance: "JA: You have a dream motif in many stories [he mentions "The Student's Wife," "Elephant," and "Whoever Was Using This Bed"]. There are several more that involved dreams occurring, and I wonder what importance you place on the unconscious mind and its relation to the kind of surface reality you record. You get at the unconscious only in an indirect way…. I wonder if you think about it much. RC: I don't think about it very much. It may be one of those things you don't think about but that's sometimes relevant to your work" (Conversations, 164).
3. In her short story "Turpentine," Tess Gallagher has her narrator tell practically the same tale and make the same connection between the shape of a well and the shape of a chimney: "A chimney sweep had come to our house not long ago. He'd learned his trade in Germany, where the sweeps go to weddings and kiss all the women on the cheeks for luck. He'd told an incredible story about falling into a well at the age of twelve. He'd had to be rescued by his father…. His affection for chimneys, he thought, was entirely due to the excitement and danger of his falling into a well when he was twelve" (The Lover of Horses, 12). Ginny Skoyles, who tells this story, found that people were always telling her their life stories and confesses that "sometimes I told them back one of the stories someone else had told me. And once in a while I told it back as though it had happened to me. It was harmless enough and it gave me something to say" (60). Gallagher's narrator, in other words, is a thief of stories. In an oddly self-referential way, so too is the author of the story—or Carver, depending on who told it first.
4. More precisely, it begins just before Cheever's story ends. Miss Dent walks away, leaving Blake in the dirt. When it was safe to do so, he gets up and makes his way home.
5. The man was J.P., with whom she would trade blows in the troubled years of their marriage (134).
6. Mark Facknitz was also struck by the incoherence of the scene: "We eavesdrop, but learn little. In fact, the more they say, the less we know. Why is this man in his socks? What is all this about a trip to the North Pole?… The growing, inchoate set of questions suggests many meaningful and intriguing stories, none of which can cohere unless Miss Dent asks for elaborations, for sense" (346).
7. Which makes "Fever" the third story in a row to allude to other writers—John Cheever in the dedication to "The Train," and in "Where I'm Calling From" the author of The Call of the Wild: "Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley," Frank Martin told his guests. "Right over there behind that green hill you're looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson to you. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn't handle the stuff, either" (137).
8. Cheever's story may provide the origin, too, for those almost unbearably troubling words the woman's son utters in Carver's story "Why, Honey?" (in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?): "Kneel is what I say, kneel down is what I say, he said, that's the first reason why" (173). For they are what Miss Dent said to Blake: "When the train had passed beyond the bridge, the noise grew distant, and he heard her screaming at him, 'Kneel Down! Kneel down! Do what I say. Kneel down!'" (293). Note that not only is the command the same, but the accompanying phrase "what I say" appears in both passages. Could the son be speaking the torment of a seduced and abandoned lover?
9. Of which this is, among those published in the three collections studied here, the fiftieth. This would exclude Furious Seasons, which stands apart from the rest of Carver's fiction because of the wholly untypical title story ("unusual among Carver's stories for its disruption of linear progression, its conflation of dream and reality, and a surprising lushness of style" [Saltzman, 96]) and its not having been published by a major press. It would exclude the stories in Fires, too, which unlike the other collections consists of poetry and essays as well as stories. I do not think the stories in Fires or Furious Seasons exhibit the sequential echoing structure of those considered here.
10. Holits has become a strange parody of the man in "Viewfinder" who climbed up on the roof of his garage, as Holits did on the roof of the cabana, and waved.
11. After What We Talk About "the first story I wrote was 'Cathedral'" (Conversations, 44).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7062
SOURCE: "Insularity and Self-Enlargement in Raymond Carver's Cathedral," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 116-28.
[In the essay below, Nesset, a professor at Whittier college, argues that the stories in Cathedral differ from Carver's earlier work in that some of the characters are able to escape their self-imposed insularity.]
In "The Compartment," one of Raymond Carver's bleakest stories, a man passes through the French countryside in a train, en route to a rendevous with a son he has not seen for many years. "Now and then," the narrator says of the man, "Meyers saw a farmhouse and its outbuildings, everything surrounded by a wall. He thought this might be a good way to live—in an old house surrounded by a wall" (Cathedral 48). Due to a last minute change of heart, however, Meyers chooses to stay insulated in his "compartment" and, remaining on the train, reneges on his promise to the boy, walling out everything external to his selfish world, paternal obligation included.
Meyers's tendency toward insularity is not, of course, unique among the characters in Cathedral or among the characters of earlier volumes. In Will You Be Quiet, Please? there is the paranoid self-cloistering of Slater and Arnold Breit, and in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love we read of James Packer's cantankerous, self-absorbed disgruntlement about life's injustices. In Cathedral appear other, more extreme versions of insularity, from a husband's self-imposed confinement to a living room in "Preservation" to another's pathetic reluctance to leave an attic garret in "Careful." More strikingly in Cathedral than before, Carver's figures seal themselves off from their worlds, walling out the threatening forces in their lives even as they wall themselves in, retreating destructively into the claustrophobic inner enclosures of self. But corresponding to this new extreme of insularity, there are in several stories equally striking instances where—pushing insularity the other way—characters attempt to throw off their entrapping nets and, in a few instances, appear to succeed. In Cathedral, and in Cathedral only, we witness the rare moments of their comings out, a process of opening up in closed-down lives that comes across in both the subjects and events of the stories and in the process of their telling, where self-disenfranchisement is reflected even on the level of discourse, rhetorically or structurally, or both.
As one might expect, "de-insulation" of this kind necessarily involves the intervention of others: the coming out of a self-enclosed figure depends upon the influence of another being—a baker or a babysitter or blind man, or even a fellow drunk on the road to recovery, who, entering unexpectedly into a character's life, affords new perspective or awareness and guides him along, if not toward insight then at least away from the destructively confining strictures of self. As one might expect further, such interventions and influences are mobilized in the stories through the communal gestures of language—through the exchanging of tales and through communicative transactions, particularly, where separate identities blend and collaborate rather than collide. Thus even as "Carver's task," as Paul Skenazy writes, is to depict the "tiny, damning confinements of the spirit," in Cathedral it is also to go beyond depicting the suffocations and wilted spirits of characters in chains (78). Engaging in what he calls a kind of writerly "opening up" of his own, Carver draws out in various uplifting moments the momentary gratifications and near-joys characters experience when, however temporarily, the enclosing walls come down—when their self-preoccupations lift and they sense new freedom, a freedom they may or may not ever truly participate in at all (Interview 21).
But since outright freedom is for many of Carver's lot as terrifying as total lack of mobility (think of Arnold Breit in "Are You a Doctor?" or Lloyd in "Careful"), the freedoms Carver's newly-liberated characters experience manifest themselves ironically as forms of enclosure, ample and humane as those enclosures may be. Be they a comforting memory of one's old bedroom, or the warm, fragrant reality of a bakery, or a vision of the awesome interior of a cathedral, they are enclosures nevertheless. Trying to free themselves of the fetters of insecurity and addiction, Carver's characters expand both inwardly and outwardly and, thanks to the beneficial incursion of other lives and other stories, imagine larger, more spacious enclosures—places big enough and light enough to allow the spirit room to breathe. In Cathedral, by and large, characters are more insulated than ever, cut off from their worlds and from themselves; but a few of them, like J.P. in "Where I'm Calling From," trying patiently and steadfastly "to figure out how to get his life back on the track" (135), demonstrate through shared stories and through overtures toward human connection new and unprecedented awareness. It is an awareness of collective confinement, a sense that we can and often do help each other set aright our derailed lives, that by opening up to others and to ourselves, we do indeed occasionally get those lives back on track.
"Where I'm Calling From" is the story of a man coming to grips with addiction within the security of an alcohol treatment home. Contrary to the situations of "The Compartment," "Preservation," and "Careful"—situations in which men blockade themselves in ways as offensive to others as they are self-destructive—this narrator's confinement is both positive and necessary. Locking himself up voluntarily in "Frank Martin's drying out facility" (127), he is a stronger version of Wes in "Chefs House," a wavering recoveree who lapses back into alcoholism when his summer retreat—the sanctuary of his fragile recovery—falls out from under him. Up until now, this narrator (like many of Carver's narrators, he goes unnamed) has insulated himself with drink, with the buffering torpor alcohol can provide, his addiction being both a reaction to and the cause of his failing marriage. Arriving at Frank Martin's dead drunk, exchanging one extreme state of insularity for another, he takes refuge from a prior refuge—one that was killing him. Sitting on the porch with another recovering drunk, J.P., he takes further refuge in the story his new friend has to tell.1
It is significant that throughout most of the story Carver leaves his characters sitting where they are. Protected yet still exposed to the chill of the outer world, the porch is that liminal space existing between the internal security of a cure-in-progress and the lure, if not the danger, of the outer world. On the porch, the narrator and J.P. are at once sheltered and vulnerable, their physical surroundings an objective correlative to the transitional state of their minds and wills. Beyond the "green hill" they see from the porch, as Frank Martin tells them, is Jack London's house—the place where the famous author lived until "alcohol killed him" (137). Beyond that—much farther north—is the "Yukon," the fictive topos of London's "To Build a Fire," a place where, as the narrator recalls later, a man will "actually … freeze to death if he can't get a fire going" (146). With his wet clothes, tragically enough, London's figure is hardly insulated from the chill, even though, ironically, he's bundled up in the manner of the two strongest figures in Carver's story: J.P.'s wife, Roxy, whose "big knuckles" have broken her husband's nose, wears both a "coat" and "a heavy sweater" (142); Frank Martin, hard-edged and tough and looking like a "prizefighter," keeps his "sweater buttoned all the way up" (137).
By the end of the story, sitting alone and enjoying the transitional comforts of the porch, Carver's narrator fails to recall, or subconsciously omits, the tale's sad conclusion—the fact that, at the mercy of the elements, London's man eventually freezes to death, his life extinguished along with his fire. Still upset perhaps about Tiny's "seizure," the narrator chooses not to think of the extreme consequences of ill-prepared exposure to the outer world. Nor does he remind himself that death entered the heart of the sanctuary only days before, this time without claiming its prize. Subject also to bodily complaints, J.P. suffers from the "shakes" and the narrator from an occasional "jerk in [his] shoulder"; like Tiny, the fat electrician from Santa Rosa, J.P. and his friend are each in their own way overpowered by biology, by nature. Their bodies—like their minds—are adjusting and compensating in the process of recovery. Just as love was once upon a time "something that was out of [J.P.'s] hands"—something that set his "legs atremble" and filled him "with sensations that were carrying him every which way" (132)—the aftermath of drinking is for both men superseded in intensity only by death, the ultimate spasm, which proceeds from both within and without, insulate themselves however they may.
Before "going inside," Frank Martin suggests a bit of recommended reading, namely The Call of the Wild. "We have it inside if you want to read something," he says. "It's about this animal that's half dog and half wolf" (137). Like London's "animal," we learn, the narrator is similarly divided, torn by inner impulses. At the outset of his first visit, Frank Martin had taken the narrator aside, saying, "We can help you. If you want help and want to listen to what we say" (138). Thinking now in retrospect, the narrator says, "I didn't know if they could help me or not. Part of me wanted help. But there was another part" (138). Partly civilized, partly wild, the narrator is in one sense interested in protecting himself from himself, his retreat at Frank Martin's a gesture of attempted self-domestication that, considering present circumstances, unfortunately did not come off the first time. "We're not out of the woods yet," he says, describing the second aftermath of addiction, the physical extremity of which leaves him and his friend trembling in their chairs, still caught up in the war of selves. "In-between women," Skenazy writes of this story, "in-between homes, in-between drinks, the narrator locates himself in his disintegration" (83). And yet it is between selves, we should hasten to add, where he begins to come to terms with disintegration, and begins imagining ways to reintegrate, rebuild.
Above all he wants "to listen," as Frank Martin says, though it is not Frank he listens to chiefly but to J.P. "Keep talking, J.P.," he says early on (130), interjecting this and like phrases throughout the story in the manner of a refrain: "You better keep talking," he says (136). The coming out of hardened insularity involves intensive listening, as necessary for him as telling is for J.P., and for Carlyle in "Fever," who comes out of a psychological and physical ordeal by spilling his pent-up turmoils to a babysitter. For this narrator, significantly, the process of coming out involves going into the narrative of another, involves entering imaginatively into a discourse which, arising of the communal act of storytelling, is at once familiar and unfamiliar. Since "commiseration instigates recuperation," as Arthur Saltzman observes of this story, J.P.'s story initiates through both comradery and displacement the continuation of the narrator's own story—and, if all goes well, the reassembly of the fragments of his life (147). Which is not to say, of course, that there are not perils as well as benefits in transactions of discourse, the sharing of stories. In "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please," a secure, seemingly happy man comes unglued at hearing the tale of his wife's infidelity, a story she tells him herself; in "Sacks," a son enclosed by his own world and concerns meets his father briefly in an airport, and upon hearing the story of his father's adultery (and his parents' ruined marriage), he seals himself off completely from his father, more alienated and embittered than ever by the old man's confession. Before Cathedral, generally, narrative transactions—if transaction has taken place at all—constitute perilous intercourse indeed.
But in "Where I'm Calling From," as in other stories in Cathedral, Carver would have us believe otherwise. "I'm listening," the narrator says, waiting for J. P. to go on with his tale. "It's helping me to relax, for one thing. It's taking me away from my own situation" (134). Still, J.P.'s story helps him do more than merely "relax." Listening, and the imagination required of close listening, takes him away from his "own situation" even as it brings him closer to the heart of his problems. His inner crisis is externalized in J.P.'s story, both in the pairing of their present circumstances and in the details of his friend's narration—in such odd details, in fact, as the "well" J.P. fell into as a boy. Like the chimneys from which J.P. ends up making his livelihood later in life—narrow, tubular enclosures associated with the family to whom he becomes attached (they run the chimney-sweeping business)—the well is a trap, a darkly insulating prison; it represents the extent to which J.P. senses, enclosed until very recently in a bottle, he has hit "the bottom" in the present trajectory of his life.2 For both the narrator and J.P., the well represents literally the pitfalls of experience, the dark refuges in which they find themselves (voluntarily or involuntarily) existing, places they are extricated from ultimately only through the intervening efforts of others. Like J.P. "hollering" at the bottom of the well, the narrator is waiting for a drop-line of his own, his "line out" being (along with his willingness to reform) the telephone. By the end of the story he has tried calling his wife twice, and is about to call his "girlfriend," hoping to make contact with the women in his life. Not by any means out of the woods yet, though, he is still wavering in his resolve. In one of the story's last lines, he says, thinking of his girlfriend, "Maybe I'll call her first"—suggesting, given what we know about her drinking habits, that that line out may send him tumbling back into the hole. Torn between the warmth of stability and the chill of the outer world, between civilization and wilderness, he is, we assume, still at war with himself.
With two layers of female protection, in a sense, buffering him from the world, he is mildly obsessed with the women in his life, so it is not surprising that his life and J.P.'s story intersect finally in a woman's kiss. Far more hopeful than the peacock in "Feathers"—one man's token of a kind of radiant bliss he'll never know—Roxy's kiss is for the narrator a token of "luck," emphasizing more than his need for help from without, a rope down the well of his life. As a gesture, Roxy's kiss underscores the degree to which women provide security in his life; he has depended on them, certainly, as much as he has in the past on drink, or as he has recently on the captivating flow of J.P.'s narrative. Our sense of his greatest personal security comes with his description of the time his landlord, coming around one morning to paint the house, awakened him and his wife in their bedroom:
I push the curtain away from the window. Outside, this old guy in white coveralls is standing next to his ladder. The sun is just starting to break over the mountains. The old guy and I look each other over. It's the landlord, all right—this old guy in coveralls. But his coveralls are too big for him. He needs a shave, too. And he's wearing this baseball cap to cover his bald head. Goddamn it, I think, if he isn't a weird old fellow. And a wave of happiness comes over me that I'm not him—that I'm me and that I'm inside this bedroom with my wife. (145)
Seated on "the front steps" in the chill air beyond the porch, the narrator warms himself with this memory of the past—triggered, seemingly, by the kiss he gets from Roxy (before she and J.P. "go in," leaving him outside alone). He associates his "happiness" then, in his memory, with being "inside" the bedroom with his wife, suggesting not only how much women are integral to his well-being but also how beneficial certain walls and enclosures have been to him at times. "Outside," in the form of a strange, skinny old man, are reminders of toil and old age, and, as before, of what lies beyond that—illness and decrepitude and death; "inside," on the contrary, there is security and leisure, embodied by a laughing wife and the enveloping comforts of a warm bed, and by a recognition of his circumstances as being as secure then as they were.
Thus the contact the narrator makes with an old man one morning is recapitulated by his contact with a younger man years later, though contact is closer now since both men are "outside" and are working communally in their efforts to find ways back in. Epitomized in the gesture of Roxy's kiss, the intersection of their lives and stories has initiated a recuperation that may get them, as J.P. says, "black on the track." So crucial is this intersection, ultimately, that it is manifested even on the level of the story's structure, in the way the story unfolds. With its disruptions in time and narrative continuity, the story mirrors the psychic energies of the narrator, wavering from man to man in its focus, intertwining the individual threads of their stories and lives in a manner that makes them come to seem oddly inseparable, fused in a brotherly textual knit. Promoting such healthy complicity, "Where I'm Calling From" embodies and dramatizes our collective tendencies to discover ourselves in the stories of others, and to complicate other lives with our own as we collaborate toward understanding, toward liberation from the confinements that kill.
In "A Small, Good Thing" we find a similar coming together of lives—rather more disparate lives, but with problems no less serious. It is the story of a couple dealing with the loss of a child, and of the consolation they find eventually, haphazardly, in the company of a baker; it is a story about the way fear and worry and grief can cause people to break out of the habitual, insulating, self-preoccupations of their lives, and about how the narratives of others can cushion the violent unsettling such break-outs bring on. As in "Where I'm Calling From," recovery entails "listening," as characters enter briefly into the lives of others through channels of verbal interaction. In this story, however—perhaps because Ann and Howard Weiss, its central figures, are simultaneously more stable and more emotionally vulnerable than J.P. and his friend, and because the story evokes a greater sense of affirmation overall, despite its subject—the liberating aspects of attentive listening are rather more noticeable. With a fullness and optimism unequaled in any other story, Carver dramatizes here what William Stull calls "talk that works" (11). Carver provides here in essence an answer to the failures his characters have been subject to all along, failures of characters who, in stories in all of his books, talk and listen with characteristically poor results. Corresponding to this new fullness of possibility, the shape of the story itself swells out to new proportions (revised from its original form as "The Bath"), reflecting on the level of narrative the kind of psychological and spiritual expansion taking place within.
"So far," the unnamed narrator says of Howard Weiss, "he had kept away from any real harm, from those forces he knew existed and that could cripple or bring down a man if the luck went bad, if things suddenly turned" (62). As for J.P.'s friend, "luck" is important to Howard; its capriciousness, he knows, dictates somehow over the details of his world—has in fact allowed "forces" to insinuate themselves into the placid interior of his life, forces manifesting themselves after the initial blow in the ominous calls of the baker. His insular bubble of security now on the point of bursting. Howard remains sealed in his "car for a minute" in the driveway, this leg beginning to "tremble" as he considers the gravity of his circumstances. Trying to "deal with the present situation in a rational manner" (62), his motor control is suddenly as erratic as that of Frank Martin's clients. Similarly affected, Ann's teeth begin to "chatter" as fear takes her over, and as she realizes that she and her husband are "into something now, something hard" (70). Both Howard and his wife—like recovering alcoholics—are afflicted by the physical consequences of their dealings with an irrational, over-powering problem, in the face of which rationality is useless. Thanks to a bit of bad luck, their secure and self-enclosed familial world is turned inside out.
As the focal figure of the story, Ann seems both more preoccupied and more sensitive than her husband, not necessarily because her parental (maternal) attachment to the boy is greater than Howard's, but because she is afforded more interior space in the story throughout. Thus, despite the intensity of her preoccupation in their days-long vigil, she momentarily glimpses the walls around her, walls erected in the tide of catastrophe. "For the first time," the narrator says, describing Ann's realization after many hours in the hospital, "she felt they were together in it, this trouble" (68). Realizing she has shut herself off to everything but her son and his condition, she acknowledges that she "hadn't let Howard into it, though he was there and needed all along. She felt glad to be his wife." If in a sense the disruptive force of calamity clarifies, it also causes both Ann and her husband, hemmed in now by fear and dread, to project outward as they seek respite from confinement. Worry insulating them as security had before, they stand staring "out at the parking lot." They don't "say anything. But they seem … to feel each other's insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way" (71). Their interior state of affairs is "natural," of course, because it is nature—and their powerlessness in the face of it—that makes them transparent, that prompts them, fire-distilled now by mutual concern, to gaze out the window the way J.P. and his friend stare from the porch. After Scotty's death, however, they will have to "get used to … being alone" (82); soon they will have to readjust tensions in the marital bond that have been for years filtered by their son's presence. What was once a common refuge is suddenly no longer available to them.
As in "Where I'm Calling From," the act of exchanging stories is also a kind of refuge, though here it becomes an even more compensatory one. Ann and Howard end up in a bakery, giving up the oppressive environment of the hospital—and a house full of painful mementoes—for a warmer, more spacious setting. The narrative transaction occurring in the bakery is for husband and wife the "restorative measure" the doctor mistakenly diagnoses in discussing Scotty's "very deep sleep"; at the hands of the baker the Weisses are doctored as their son could not be. Contrary to the situation of J.P. and his friend, recovery is administered to them by a speaker who cannot empathize with his listeners, a man as ironically unlike them as anybody could be. "I don't have any children myself," the baker tells Ann and Howard, "so I can only imagine what you must be feeling" (87). Still, sparked by his power to "imagine" their grief, he begins his tale of "loneliness, and of … what it was like to be childless all these years," offering them if nothing else at least the consolation of knowing that they know what they are going to miss. Thus husband and wife listen, and listening, enter the baker's world—his story—to temporarily escape their own. "They listened carefully," the narrator says, drawing through repetition special attention to the act, "they listened to what the baker had to say" (88).
Elsewhere in Cathedral, remarkably, hearing and listening are treated in less optimistic terms: in "Careful," a man's metaphorical deafness to the world is figured in the literal blockage of his ear with wax; in "Vitamins," a similar if more general kind of deafness finds its emblem in a dismembered, dried-out human ear. But in other stories—in "Fever" and "Where I'm Calling From," for instance—characters indeed turn their ears to others, and come away better for it. "I got ears," the blind man says in "Cathedral," affirming, in spite of his handicap, that "Learning never ends" (222). In "Intimacy," one of Carver's last stories, a fiction-writing narrator calls himself "all ears," exploring both the idea of the writer as plunderer of experience (as earlier, in "Put Yourself in My Shoes") and of the writer as listener, as someone who, by listening carefully, reconstructs memory and experience in order to reorder the disorder of his past. In "A Small, Good Thing," more strikingly than ever, telling and listening are beneficial, recuperative activities. And yet what is crucial is not so much the substance of the stories as it is the process of the telling. "I was interested," J.P.'s friend says of J.P.'s tale. "But I would have listened if he'd been going on about how one day he'd decided to start pitching horseshoes" (132). Enveloped similarly in the baker's tale, Ann and Howard listen, escaping the still unthinkable reality of their present circumstances by entering the far more stifling, insulated life of their host, and thus they begin a slow journey out of the darkness of grief. Though it is still dark outside, it is "like daylight" inside the bakery; warmed by the light and the ovens and the sweet rolls they eat, and revived by shared compassion. Ann and Howard do "not think of leaving."
The welcome light of possibility, finally, along with hopes if not promises of self-regeneration, is reflected in the shape of the story overall, which we have here in its revised form; "A Small, Good Thing" is two-thirds again as long as the original published version, "The Bath," and is the longest story Carver Ever collected. Like many stories in Cathedral, which Carver describes as "fuller and more interesting somehow" as well as "more generous," the revised version of this story reflects part of an "opening up in this book" which, as Carver says, is absent in "any other of the books" (Interview 22). From the shadowy, overdetermined world of "The Bath," where the tiny enclosure of a bathtub provides a sole comfort for characters ("Fear made him want to take a bath," the original narrator says of Howard), we traverse to the indoor daylight of the bakery, where food and talk and commiseration actually do make a difference, if not redeeming characters of their miseries then consoling them at least, allowing them to understand that loneliness and hardship and death are part of the natural order of things, and that as people they are not in it alone. Embodied in this "fuller" version of the story, Carver's "opening up" suggests further the very real extent to which style can wall an artist in—suggests how as an artist Carver, like a few of his more fortunate characters, is capable of breaking free of enclosing environments, exchanging them not only for greater capaciousness but, we must assume, for a new understanding of himself and his craft as well.
In the title story, "Cathedral," the coming out of a self-insulated figure is more dramatic than ever before, not simply because he is more fully shut off than some but because, like Meyers riding away from his son on a train to nowhere, he is ignorant of the serious nature of his insularity. Walled in by his own insecurities and prejudices, this narrator is sadly out of touch with his world and with himself, buffered by drink and pot and by the sad reality, as his wife puts it, that he has no "friends." As are the figures in "A Small, Good Thing" and "Where I'm Calling From," however, he too is given an opportunity to emerge from the strictures of self-enclosure, though here it is not a story that opens him up but a more subtle nonverbal transaction—an odd, unspoken communication between him and his blind guest, Robert. And as is often the case in the conversations of Carver's characters, talk fails him, and yet his failure is more than made up for by the connection he finally succeeds in making, by the self-liberating results of his attempt.
Not surprisingly, this narrator lives in a narrow, sheltered world. Like Howard and Ann, he is threatened abruptly from without; the appearance of his wife's friend constitutes—at the outset, at least—an invasion of his enclosed existence. "A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to," he admits (209), and later adds, "Now this same blind man was coming to sleep in my house" (212). His territorial impulses, spurred on certainly by insecurity, make for what Skenazy calls an "evening of polite antagonism between the two men" (82). The narrator's buried hostility, we suppose, is rooted in the blind man's association with aspects of his wife's past and of her independent nature in general—aspects that are intimidating to him, not the least of which is her former marriage, a subject with which he is obsessed. Simultaneously fascinated by and reluctant to hear the blind man's story ("my wife filled me in with more details than I cared to know," he says; "I made a drink and sat at the kitchen table to listen" ) he searches for himself indirectly in his wife's relationship with Robert. Like J.P.'s friend, this man's sense of a secure identity depends upon his bond with a female, a bond he seems to need to see perpetually reinforced—though, perturbed by his insensitivity, his wife isn't about to give him the reinforcement he craves. Referring to his wife's conversation with Robert in the living room, he says, "I waited in vain to hear my name on my wife's sweet lips" (218). His muddled search for self, we guess, involves a continual gauging and protecting of the autocratic status of his name. A year earlier, listening to Robert's half of a taped conversation, he'd been startled to hear his "own name in the mouth of [a] stranger, this blind man" he did not know (212). Insistent upon asserting his identity over his wife, therefore, he blankets her past the way he has lately blanketed his present—with insulating self-absorbency. Summing up her prior life, he refers to his wife's ex-husband only as her "officer," adding, "Why should he have a name?" (211). He is no ideal listener, having predicated the names and stories of others under the subject of his own tyrannical yet precarious identity: he listens for purposes of self-validation, relegating the rest of experience—like Robert's marriage—to a place "beyond [his] understanding" (213).
It is fitting that Robert, the invader in the house, is insulated only physically, left in the dark only by his handicap. Extremely outgoing—not to mention friendly—he has done "a little of everything," from running a sales distributorship to traveling in Mexico to broadcasting "ham radio." His activities, unlike those of his host, bring him out into the world, his booming voice having extended as far as Alaska and Tahiti before making its way into the narrator's home. Unlike the baker and J.P.—relatively restrained men—Robert is characterized by the strength of his personality, and he serves accordingly as the extra-durable guide needed to pull his host out of his shell (though like the Weisses, Robert, too, is dealing with grief, having just lost his wife; "I know about skeletons," he says , responding to the narrator's query regarding the TV). As the narrator fails to describe the image he sees on television, Robert listens, and having "listened" to failure, takes charge of the situation. "Hey, listen to me," he says, activated suddenly by his host's admission of verbal impotence. "Will you do me a favor? I got an idea. Why don't you find us some heavy paper. And a pen. We'll do something. We'll draw one together. Get us a pen and some heavy paper. Go on, bub, get the stuff' (226). Robert's initiative in the matter of the narrator's failings, not to mention the remedy he employs in general, suggests that verbal handicaps—and the larger problems they are symptoms of—are debilitating as blindness (stemming as they do from the willed blindness of ignorance, oversight). Robert's handling of the situation, finally, suggests that handicaps are first and foremost challenges to overcome.
"[M]ost of the communication in this story," writes Michael Vander Weel, in reference to the joint project of the drawing, "comes through shared non-verbal work, as expression that stops short of the effort and commonality of speech" (120). Indeed, as Irving Howe observes, the drawing of the cathedral is a "gesture of fraternity" that, like the meal preceding it, establishes solid contact between the men and in turn nudges the narrator temporarily out of his self-contained world (43). The subject of their mutual efforts—the cathedral—as a symbol represents a kind of common humanity and benevolence, and of human patience and fortitude, in the process of "a-spiring."3 Curiously enough, it is within the walls of the cathedral that the narrator ultimately ends up. "I was in my house," he says at the end of the story, his eyes still tightly closed—bringing to mind the "box" he drew when he and Robert began, something that "could have been the house [he] lived in" (227). What begins as an enclosing spatial configuration of his home—and present level of awareness, we assume—gradually swells in proportion to become something far more spacious than what he started with, something with interior depths as enlightening to him as bakeries and bedrooms are comforting to others.
"I didn't feel like I was inside anything," he says (228), unwilling still to open his eyes. While Meyers "close[s] his eyes," alternately, to whatever encroaches on his personal life—his voluntary blindness as bad as Lloyd's deafness in its turn—the narrator of "Cathedral" finds not escape but sanctuary within self-confinement, his sanctuary existing, by virtue of his closed eyes, within that inner vestibule of self, where selfishness gives way at last to self-awareness. A man obsessed with the faculty of vision ("Imagine," he says earlier of Robert's wife, "a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one" ), he clings to a miraculous glimpse of a world beyond the borders of his insular life, blinding himself voluntarily to the distracting reality of his former world. The profundity of his new awareness staggers him; "It was like nothing else in my life up to now," he says, and adds, in the story's final sentence, "It's really something." The indefiniteness of his language—he is usually a little more glib than he is here—expresses the sheer incomprehensibility of his revelation, and the fact that he registers it as such. He experiences "depths of feeling," as Saltzman calls them, that only a few enlightened characters in Cathedral experience, feelings that he "need not name to justify" (154). The changes working in him are not unlike those "impossible changes" Ralph Wyman undergoes in "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?," where even more pronounced tensions of jealousy, possessiveness, and self-preoccupation are vented finally in human contact. Just as Ann Weiss wants "her words to be her own" after the death of her child, seeking out a personal vocabulary of grief, this narrator reaches for words weighty enough to fit his experience, and, failing gloriously in that, settles for indefinites. Impossibly changed, reduced to semi-inarticulateness, he keeps his eyes fastened shut, wavering between self-awareness and habitual existence in a new and newly-spacious enclosure; he is "no longer inside himself," as Skenazy writes, "if not quite outside, no longer alone, if not quite intimate" (83).
Naturally, this coming out is mirrored by rhetoric of the story. Early on in the story, the narrator feels momentarily "Sorry for the blind man," his insulated hardness beginning to to soften. As the walls of his resentment noticeably crack, he watches with "admiration" as Robert eats, recognizing Robert's handicap to be no impairment to his performance at the dinner table. The tonal shift in the final sequence of the story-marked by a kind of mild ethereality flooding the last lines—illustrates on the rhetorical level the opening up the narrator has undergone, and, certainly, is yet to undergo. Like Robert, who is on a journey by train, dropping in one friends and relatives, trying to get over the loss of his wife, the narrator is also on a journey, one signaled by signposts in his language and played out by the events of the story he tells. His destination—as are the destinations for all of Carver's travelers, whether they leave home or not—is necessarily a confining one. But it is also a destination where one's sense of shared confinement makes for heretofore-unknown freedoms. "What's a cathedral without people?" Robert asks, bidding his host to add a touch of humanity to the drawing, to "put some people in there" (227). Approaching his destination, the narrator begins to realize just how exhilarating confinement can be, once one sees beyond the narrow enclosure of self that larger, more expansive enclosure of society. He begins to sense, as did perhaps the builders who toiled for years to raise the cathedrals they would never see—people who were, as Robert says, "no different than the rest of us" (224)—he begins to sense, the warmth of the blind man's touch still vibrating in his hand, that we are all in this together, and that that really is something.
Carver wrote "Cathedral" on a train, writing in his cabin during a transcontinental journey from Seattle to New York.4 Enclosed in tight quarters, rubbing shoulders with all kinds of people, heading somewhere in a hurry: the writing environment seems an appropriate one, considering the story—and the volume of stories—which was to come of that ride. "It was a different kind of story for me, no question," he explains in his preface to Where I'm Calling From. "Somehow I had found another direction I wanted to move toward. And I moved. And quickly" (i). Reflecting the process of his "opening up," Carver is in this collection definitely going somewhere in a hurry; in Cathedral, as in no other volume of his stories, characters connect with one another, however briefly, and as a result of their connections come away changed. Such momentary connections, of course, do not reflect the tone of the book as a whole. Most of the stories—"The Compartment" or "The Train," say, ironically stories about people on trains—are slightly fuller explorations, or re-explorations, of Carver's old familiar territory, reimmersions into tableaux where human proximity not only provides no real connection but also alienates, with disconnectedness and alienation coming hand-in-hand as end-products of insularity, terminal self-enclosure. In these stories, as well as in the lighter ones, Carver suggests that life hemmed in rigidly by walls is a hard life indeed—suggests, contrary to Meyers's observation, that this is perhaps not "a good way to live," this having a ticket to ride and no idea where one is going, no connection with one's fellow travelers.
As Irving Howe notes, the stories of this volume "draw upon the American voice of loneliness and stoicism, the native soul locked in this continent's space" (42). While in rare moments we find characters transcending the fettered states of soul by means of smaller, personal unfetterings of self, such moments do not deny the "locked" status of the characters in general, or the darker implications of Carver's vision overall. Still, Carver implies, it is through our collaboration with others that we free ourselves from the slavery of self-absorption. We see in these stories that compassion, as well as stoicism, is a prerequisite not just of happiness but of survival, and that while confinement may be the precondition of many lives there is still a good deal of freedom available within it—freedom which becomes tangible only when it is recognized for what it is. In this sense the stories of Cathedral are on a par with those that Carver and Jenks praise as editors of American Short Story Masterpieces, stories which have, as they say, "the ambition of enlarging our view of ourselves and the world" (xiii)—enlarging us as readers, that is, both in the sense of expanding and setting us free.
1. For a brilliant narratological and stylistic analysis of this story see Verley.
2. See also Carver's later story "Elephant" (Where I'm Calling From), in which a reformed alcoholic refers to his drinking days, and his vision of an alcoholic relapse, as "rock bottom."
3. For this coinage I am indebted to Lonnquist.
4. This bit information I gleaned in a conversation with Tess Gallagher, who refutes Carver's assertion in his preface to Where I'm Calling From that "[a]fter a good night's sleep, [he] went to his desk and wrote the story 'Cathedral.'"
Carver, Raymond, Cathedral, New York: Random House, 1984.
――――――, Interview, Saturday Review. Sep-Oct 1983: 21-22.
―――――― and Tom Jenks. Introduction. American Short Story Masterpieces. New York: Delacorte, 1987.
――――――, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Random House 1981.
――――――, Where I'm Calling From, 1st edition, Franklin Center. PA: Franklin Library, 1988.
――――――, Will You Be Quiet, Please? New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977.
Howe, Irving. "Stories of Our Loneliness." New York Times Book Review, 11 Sep 1983: 42-43.
Lonnquist Barbara C. "Narrative Displacement and Literary Faith: Raymond Carver's Inheritance form Flannery O'Connor." Since Flannery O'Connor: Essays on the Contemporary American Short Story, Ed. Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer, Macomb, IL: Western Illinois University, 1987, 142-50.
Saltzman, Arthur, Understanding Raymond Carver, Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1988.
Skenazy, Paul, "Life in Limbo: Raymond Carver's Fiction," Enclitic 11 (0000): 00-00.
Stull, William. "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver," Philological Quarterly 64 (1985): 1-15.
Verley, Claudine, "Narration and Interiority in Raymond Carver's 'Where I'm Calling From.'" Journal of the Short Story in English 13 (1989): 91-102.
Weele, Michael Vander. "Raymond Carver and the Language of Desire." Denver Quarterly 22 (1987): 00-000.
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