The main themes in Cathedral are alienation, anomie, and faith and faithlessness.
- Alienation: The narrator is alienated from his wife, his job, and society in general.
- Anomie: The narrator imbues the story with a sense of anomie, a feeling of meaninglessness and uncertainty regarding one's place in the world.
- Faith and faithlessness: The story explores humanity's inherent desire for spiritual connection, even in a secular age.
Raymond Carver wrote mostly about the joys and sorrows of politically powerless and socially insignificant working-class people. In this respect he resembled John Steinbeck, whose best-known work is the Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Carver differed from Steinbeck, however, in having no political agenda. Steinbeck was a socialist for most of his life, believing that the lives of the masses could be improved by government and by substituting faith in socialism for faith in God. Carver was apolitical in his writings but seems to have had a working-class distrust of politicians and people who did not work with their hands.
Like many contemporary minimalist writers of his era, Carver displays a nihilistic view of life. His favorite theme in his stories and poetry is alienation or anomie. The latter is the feeling that many people have of being only half alive, of being on a treadmill or in a rat race, of being trapped in meaningless jobs, of not being able to love and not being able to relate to others—perhaps especially of not being able to see any higher meaning to life.
After shedding his inhibitions through liquor and marijuana, and feeling somewhat invisible in the presence of his sightless house guest, the narrator confesses that he does not believe in religion or anything else. “Sometimes it’s hard,” he says, “You know what I’m saying?” Robert replies: “Sure, I do.” Although the narrator knows that cathedrals are products of a great religious faith that existed during the Middle Ages, he confesses that “cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me.”
The cathedral that the narrator and Robert draw on the side of a shopping bag might be seen as symbolizing the vestiges of religious faith in the Western world. It is significant that the men copy a cathedral seen through the modern medium of television, because science and technology have been particularly responsible in undermining traditional religious faith since the Middle Ages.
The joint artistic creation of these late twentieth century men represents their pathetic wish for a spiritual life that is an unavoidable part of their humanity. These hapless strangers—one a man who hates his job, drinks too much, has no friends, and seems on the verge of divorce, the other a blind widower, a former Amway distributor with a bleak future—come together momentarily because of their common yearning for a more fulfilling and spiritually more meaningful life. The epiphany described in this story is of the smallest possible kind—a sort of “mini-epiphany” appropriate to a minimalistic story. The narrator concludes with the ambiguous understatement of an inarticulate man: “It’s really something.”
Alienation and Loneliness Like the characters in many of Carver's works, the main characters experience, or have experienced, alienation and loneliness. The narrator is unhappy in his work, jealous of his wife, and unconnected to other human beings. In addition to not being connected to others himself, he seems to resent his wife's connections to other people as well. When he speaks of the impending visit by the blind man he states, ''I wasn' t enthusiastic about his visit ... A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.’’ Further, once Robert arrives at the narrator's home, the narrator makes no special effort to engage him in conversation. He prefers to remain isolated and observe. Indeed, as the conversation lags, the narrator turns on the television, an act that is not only rude, but one that provides evidence of the narrator's complete disengagement with his wife and her friend.
The narrator's behavior can be...
(This entire section contains 963 words.)
judged not only through his own responses to his wife, but also through the responses he reports his wife makes to him. For example, when the narrator says to his wife that he doesn't have any blind friends, she snaps at him, ‘‘You don't have any friends ... Period.’’
It also seems clear that the narrator's wife has suffered through long periods of isolation and loneliness in the past, before her current marriage to the narrator. In the days just after she worked for Robert as his reader, she was married to an Air Force officer and was forced to move from base to base as he followed his career. At one point, she tried to commit suicide because, as the narrator reports, ‘‘... she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving around life. She got to feeling she couldn't go on another step.'' Her correspondence with Robert via tape recordings seems to have provided her with healing. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that her current marriage to the narrator provides her with the human contact she so obviously yearns for. As she tries to prepare the narrator for the impending visit she pleads, ''If you love me... you can do this for me. If you don't love me, okay.’’ There seems to be little certainty that she feels loved or needed by the narrator.
Of the three characters in the story, Robert, the blind man, seems to be the only one who does not suffer from alienation and isolation. This is ironic because not only is he blind, something which Carver seems to imply could stand in the way of forming human relationships, he has just lost his beloved wife. Certainly, one would assume that such a loss could engender great loneliness. However, there is no evidence for this in the story. Robert is outgoing, polite, and interested in others. Although his journey is one of sadness and mourning, he nevertheless reaches out to both the narrator and his wife in an altruistic gesture of human kindness.
Change and Transformation Both the narrator and his wife undergo change and transformation through their direct contact with Robert. Some years before the story opens, as the narrator's wife left the employ of Robert, he asked if he could touch her face. The narrator's wife tries to tell the narrator the importance of this event, and even shows him the poem that she has written. Even the fact that she has written a poem about the event suggests the transformative power of the touch; the narrator says, ‘‘She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her.’’ The narrator, however, is unable to understand the importance of the event to his wife; he rejects her poetry, saying, ‘‘I didn't think much of the poem ... Maybe I just don't understand poetry.’’
During Robert's visit to the narrator and his wife, however, a similar circumstance seems to break through the narrator's isolation and at least open the possibility of change and transformation in his life. The moment occurs as the blind man asks the narrator to draw a cathedral for him. Robert places his hand on top of the narrator's as the narrator draws, and Robert encourages him every step. Finally he asks the narrator to close his eyes, and tells him to continue drawing. The narrator reports, ''It was like nothing else in my life up to now.’’ The narrator is not an articulate man; yet his final words, ‘‘It's really something,’’ at least suggest that the world has suddenly opened for him.
Creativity and Imagination In "Cathedral," Carver explores the role that creativity and imagination can play in the reduction of isolation and alienation in a character's life. Early in the story, the narrator reveals his own creativity. He imaginatively describes his wife's employment with the blind man, his wife's attempted suicide, even the relationship between Robert and Beulah, Robert's wife. However, although imaginative, this monologue is only shared with the reader, not with the other characters who people the story.
The narrator's wife reveals that she values creativity and imagination as she tries to write her one or two poems a year. She has, however, found an appreciative audience for her work. She reaches out to Robert and sends him her poetry. It is as if through the figurative language of poetry, she is able to reveal to him some important truths about the life she lives.
In the final, climatic scene of the story, Robert asks the narrator to employ his creativity and imagination in drawing a cathedral. By complying with Robert's wishes, the narrator finds himself in physical, intellectual, and emotional touch with the blind man. Through their shared imagination, the cathedral grows under their hands and behind their closed eyes.
The stories in Cathedral mark a departure from those in his two previous collections. The greater length of these later stories allows for a richer representation of the texture of experience, especially of the inner lives of characters. One consequence of this more elaborate rendering is a more generous indication of theme. Without sacrificing his descriptive sharpness or his ear for dialogue, Carver has opened his fiction up to a more ample and expansive portrayal of the lives and problems of his characters. Carver now seems ready for the amplitude and scope of the novel he has long delayed writing.
Along with an increased amplitude in the fiction comes an increased hopefulness in the prospects of his characters. No longer are the lives of the characters necessarily determined by an unrelenting necessity. For some, at least, there is hope, a chance to redirect and gain control of their lives, to come to terms with loss and suffering. The desperation of the early stories has given way to the promise of a life enriched by purpose and meaning. This is not to suggest, however, that Carver has eliminated fear and anxiety from these later stories. He still includes them, but with the suggestion that by some mysterious power of human resiliency, they can be either accommodated or overcome. In "Careful," for instance, Carver beautifully portrays a man's groundless fear that the wax in his ears will harden and incapacitate him. In "A Fever," he convincingly conveys a divorced man's anxiety in finding an adequate caretaker for his young children. And in "The Train," he has a character convey, in the style and manner of Hemingway, a cryptic fatalism: "It'll all come to you. In its own time, it'll come. You won't have to wait for it either. It'll find you." Whereas this sort of ominous tone signaled, in the earlier stories, an inevitable and terrible futility, in the stories in Cathedral it gives way to acceptance and endurance. Survival and growth are thus important thematic undercurrents throughout this collection.