Carver is generally considered the leading writer of the school of fiction called minimalism, which—as its name implies—eliminates all but the most important details. Minimalists are noted for using simple language and focusing on factual statements, implying rather than attempting to explain precisely what is going on inside their characters. The reader of a minimalist story is forced to make inferences from what the characters do and say. For example, it can be inferred that the narrator of “Cathedral” and his wife are not getting along well and might be on the verge of divorce. Indeed, the most striking thing about “Cathedral” is its simplicity of language. This type of narration from the viewpoint of a simple, uneducated man creates an impression of truthfulness, as the narrator seems too naïve to be dishonest or evasive.
Characteristically, Carver neither names nor describes the two principal characters and does not even reveal where the story takes place. Like other minimalist fiction writers, such as Ann Beattie, Carver deletes every word that he possibly can and even deletes punctuation marks whenever possible. The effect of minimalism is to engage one’s imagination, forcing the reader to make guesses and assumptions and thereby participate in the creative process.
In “Cathedral,” as in many of his other stories, Carver uses a narrator who is a faux naïf, like the narrators of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Such “naïve” narrators supposedly do not understand the full import of what they are telling. This narrative device enhances verisimilitude, characterizes and creates sympathy for the narrator, and provides a basis for humor. The typical point of stories involving faux naïf narrator-protagonists is that they experience events that teach them something about life or about themselves, thereby making them less naïve. In identifying with the narrator, the reader vicariously experiences the learning event and feels changed by the story.
Minimalist short-story writers often write about seemingly trivial domestic incidents and tend to avoid what James Joyce called “epiphanies”—sudden intuitive perceptions of a higher spiritual meaning to life. Minimalists have been attacked as having nothing to say because they do not offer solutions to the existential problems they dramatize in their stories. In a typical Carver story, little changes; his endings might be called “mini-epiphanies.” This is characteristic of minimalists, who usually display a nihilistic outlook and do not believe there are answers to life’s larger questions. Carver’s “downbeat” endings tend to leave the reader depressed or perplexed—and this is the intention. Carver tried to capture the feelings of alienation and frustration that are so much a part of modern life.
Carver has been credited with single-handedly reviving interest in the short story, a genre that had been perfected by American authors beginning with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe but had been rapidly declining in popularity and social influence with the advent of television after World War II. Some readers dislike Carver’s stories because they seem depressing or pointless. Others appreciate them because they are so truthful. He writes about working-class folk who lead lives of quiet desperation, are chronically in debt, and often overdrink. He tells bitter truths but has an indestructible sense of humor that always shines through. It is impossible to appreciate “Cathedral” without being aware of its offbeat humor, such as in the narrator’s offer to take the blind man bowling and his wife’s reaction to that bizarre suggestion. The subtle humor spicing this poignant story is typically Carveresque.