Cathedral Summary

"Cathedral" is a short story by Raymond Carver that describes the narrator’s initial jealousy of and eventual bonding with a blind man named Robert.  

  • The narrator learns that his wife has been corresponding via cassette tape with Robert, a former employer of hers. When Robert comes to dinner, the narrator grows jealous of their friendship.
  • After dinner, the three talk, and Robert shares his marijuana with the narrator. When a documentary about cathedrals appears on television, the narrator describes the buildings for Robert.
  • Together, the two men draw a cathedral and learn how to see from the other's perspective.

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A blind man named Robert is coming to have dinner and stay overnight. The narrator’s wife worked for him for one summer about ten years earlier. The two became friends and have continued to correspond by using cassette tapes. The narrator, who lacks social graces, is apprehensive about having to entertain Robert. He does not know what he should do or say. Jealous of the former relationship between his wife and Robert, he is suspicious. He knows that his wife has told Robert about him and has probably complained about his faults. This makes him feel guilty, insecure, and somewhat hostile toward both his wife and Robert.

The blind man proves to be such an outgoing, amiable person that one can understand why he made such a strong impression on the narrator’s wife that she has corresponded with him for years. Despite the narrator’s conversational blunders, the two men get along well; they drink together and smoke marijuana together after dinner. Under the influence of the drugs, the narrator lets down his guard with Robert.

Robert’s handicap has compensations: It has made him compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded. Being dependent on others has made him trusting, and this trust leads him to reveal intimacies that he might otherwise not share. As the evening progresses and the narrator’s wife falls asleep on the sofa, he and his guest grow closer. Finally he finds himself describing a documentary about cathedrals being shown on the television screen. Robert admits that he has no idea what a cathedral looks like, although he knows they required hundreds of people and decades to build. He persuades his host to sketch a cathedral while he holds the hand moving the pen. Through this spiritual contact with the blind man, the narrator discovers unsuspected artistic gifts.

The narrator sheds his inhibitions and sketches an elaborate cathedral with spires, buttresses, massive doorways, gargoyles, and a throng of worshippers. It is a unique and memorable experience that forms the story’s climax. The narrator not only shares his vision with the blind Robert, but he simultaneously shares Robert’s inner vision. At the same time, both share the spiritual vision of men who lived centuries earlier and collaborated to build the beautiful, mystery-laden Gothic cathedrals of Europe.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The title story of Carver’s third collection is typical of how his technique and thematic concerns changed after his personal life became more stable. The story contains much more exposition and discussion, more background and efforts at clarification, than the stories in Carver’s first two cryptic collections. “Cathedral” is told by a first-person narrator, a young man who resents the visit of an old friend of his wife—a blind man for whom the wife once read.

Unlike Carver’s earlier stories, which focus primarily on the immediate situation detached from its background, the first quarter of “Cathedral” recounts the narrator’s knowledge of his wife’s previous married life, her friendship with the blind man (especially the fact that they have sent audiotapes back and forth to each other), and even of the blind man’s wife, Beulah, who has recently died. Although the relevance of all this information to the final, epiphanic revelation of the story is not made clear, it does reveal the cynicism of the narrator, who...

(The entire section is 1,624 words.)