Cathedral Essays and Criticism
by Raymond Carver

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"Cathedral" through Imagination

(Short Stories for Students)

"Cathedral" first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1981, before Carver chose to make it the title story of his 1983 collection, Cathedral. The collection, and most notably the story, was well-received by both readers and reviewers. Subsequently, the story has become one of the most frequently anthologized and most frequently taught short stories of Carver's body of work.

The success of the story can be accounted for in several ways. A number of reviewers (and Carver himself) identify the story as a transitional moment in Carver's career. As Adam Meyer suggests, ''The notion that Carver's writing underwent a shift between What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral has become a critical commonplace in Carver studies.’’ The bleak, bare-boned minimalist prose of his earlier work gives way to a fuller, slightly more hopeful outlook. Carver attributes the change to a change in his life. Further, virtually all reviewers laud the shift.

Anatole Broyard, who suggests that a reader must be ‘‘something of a semiologist’’ to understand Carver, also links him with ''strong American literary traditions.’’ Carver's stories, he argues, ‘‘summon remembrances of Hemingway and perhaps Stephen Crane, masters of tightly packed fiction.' ' Broyard, while not a fan of minimalist prose, nonetheless offers a clue as to how a reader could approach the short story, "Cathedral."

"Cathedral" can be called an ‘‘open text.’’ That is, the story is a text that encourages its readers to actively participate in meaning-making; in other words, readers must act as semiologists, reading the signs that Carver leaves. The meaning of the story is not explicitly put before the reader, but rather is often hidden in the gaps of a story. The reader, by working collaboratively with the text, arrives at understanding through a cyclic process of reading and rereading the signs, trying to fill in the open spaces that are at the heart of such fiction. This kind of approach is sometimes called ''reader response criticism.’’

The use of a first-person limited narrator is one of the ways that Carver opens the text to multiple interpretation. Although the narrator speaks conversationally to the reader, his monologue clearly is constructed through both inclusion and exclusion of details. For example, the narrator tells the reader about his wife's past; through his inclusion of certain details, such as her suicide attempt, and the exclusion of others, such as his own feelings for her, the narrator constructs the character of his wife for the reader. However, the reader actively participates in the construction of the narrator's wife by ''reading between the lines.’’ Although the narrator never explicitly states that his wife is exasperated and angry with him, he gives enough details so that the reader can make that assumption. ''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,’’ he reports.

A second way that Carver works collaboratively with the reader in building the text is through his parallel rendering of Robert, the blind man, and the narrator, a sighted man. The rendering is, of course, ironic. Robert clearly is a man who is educated and who has traveled extensively. He has friends all over the world. In addition, he has had a deep and meaningful relationship with his wife. Although he is blind, he "sees" how to get along with others in profound and important ways. By contrast, the narrator, although sighted, does not see how his isolation damages himself, his wife, and their relationship. He is metaphorically blind to his own human relationships. When his wife drives up with the blind man, the narrator reports, ''I got up from the sofa with my drink and went to the window to have a look. I saw my wife laughing as she parked the car. I saw her get out of the car and shut the door. She was still wearing a smile. Just amazing.’’ In spite of the repeated references to...

(The entire section is 7,766 words.)