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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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699

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.

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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 obviously resents his wife’s relationship with the blind man. It also reveals him as an insensitive character who has prejudiced notions about a variety of subjects. For example, his only notion of blind people comes from films, and he asks if the blind man’s wife was “a Negro” only because her name was Beulah.

The conversation among the narrator, his wife, and the blind man that makes up the center of the story is inconclusive, mainly devoted to the blind man’s dispelling many of the prejudiced expectations the narrator has about the blind. The climax toward which the story moves—a confrontation between the narrator and the blind man—begins when the wife goes to sleep and the two men drink and smoke marijuana together. The encounter is triggered by a program on television about Christianity in the Middle Ages—which the narrator watches because there is nothing else on. When the program features a cathedral, the narrator asks the blind man if he knows what a cathedral is. The blind man says he has no real idea and asks the narrator to describe a cathedral to him. When the narrator fails, the blind man asks him if he is religious, to which the narrator says he does not believe in anything.

The blind man then asks the narrator to find some paper and a pen so that they can draw a cathedral together. The blind man puts his hand over the hand of the narrator and tells him to draw, with the blind man’s hand following along with him. The blind man even asks the narrator to close his eyes as they continue drawing. When they finish, the blind man asks him to look at the drawing and tell him what he thinks; the narrator keeps his eyes closed. He knows that he is in his house, but he says that he does not feel like he is inside anything. His final statement is typical Carver inconclusiveness: “It’s really something.”

“Cathedral” is a much-admired Carver story, often finding its way into literature anthologies for college classes; however, it is less experimental and innovative, more explicit, and more conventionally optimistic and moral than his earlier stories. The narrator has obviously reached some sort of traditional epiphany at the end. Ironically, whereas he had been morally blind before, now he is able to see. The story is about his ultimate ability to identify with the blind man, about the two men blending together into one entity. The narrator’s experience is a religious experience in the broadest sense; the fact that a cathedral brings the two men together makes that clear enough.

The story is much more “talky” than Carver’s earlier stories, partially because it is a first-person narrative in which the personality of the narrator is the very thematic heart of the story itself, but also because Carver seems to believe he has an explanation for things that he did not try to account for previously. The tendency toward explanation moved his later work closer to the kind of moral fiction of which his first mentor, Gardner, would have approved.

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Themes