Raymond Cathedral Carver Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Cathedral Raymond Carver

American short story writer, poet, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Carver's short story collection Cathedral (1983). See also, Raymond Carver Criticism.

Carver's 1983 short story collection Cathedral contains much of the author's most popular and highly respected work. The twelve stories in Cathedral build on Carver's earlier work, exhibiting characteristics such as inarticulate characters isolated by their inability to relate to one another; an unsentimental treatment of joblessness, alcoholism, and estrangement; and a prevailing mood of despair and hopelessness. However, in Cathedral, Carver departs from the intensely minimalist style that characterized much of his earlier work. These stories are longer and more inclusive, providing greater insight into the emotions and perceptions of his characters. In addition, in such stories as "A Small, Good Thing," "Cathedral," and "Where I'm Calling From," Carver allows his characters to experience a sense of hopefulness and the opportunity to commune with one another—circumstances largely absent from his previous work. When asked about the collection in an interview, Carver said: "the first story I wrote was 'Cathedral,' which I feel is totally different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before. I suppose it reflects a change in my life as much as it does in my way of writing."

Plot and Major Characters

In many of the stories from Cathedral, Carver focuses on daily events, common occurrences in the lives of his characters. Couples and families are his main subjects, and frequently experience some type of epiphany during the course of the story. In "Careful" a man struggles to clear his ears from deafening wax. "Bridle" is about the downward spiral of a farm family losing their farm, requiring them to relocate. The family is forced to move a second time when the father suffers a head injury, leaving him unable to support his wife and four children. In "Feathers," Carver recounts a defining moment in the lives of Jack and Fran, a couple who visit their friends Bud and Olla one evening. Confronted with their hosts' peacock, a model of preorthodontics teeth, and an ugly baby, the couple is transformed. Fran believes the evening has destroyed their happiness, but Jack views it as the pinnacle of their contentment and success. "Chef's House" focuses on a defining moment in the life of another couple. Edna agrees to reunite with her alcoholic husband, Wes, for one summer to share a friend's beach house. During the summer Wes refrains from drinking, allowing the pair to enjoy an idyllic holiday. When Chef returns, requiring Edna and Wes to leave, Wes again succumbs to his despondency.

Major Themes

Carver's work in Cathedral falls roughly into two categories. Stories such as "Feathers," "Careful," and "Compartment" illustrate a sense of futility and hopelessness that pervades the characters' lives. The protagonists are isolated by their inability to relate to one another and to articulate their feelings. Denied the ability to express themselves they become frustrated, losing hope that their lives will improve. For instance, in "Preservation" the husband and wife cannot express to one another how they believe their lives have come to ruin. The wife watches her husband retreat after he loses his job, but she is unable to reach him or help him regain his optimism. Carver's characters are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances, but often lack traits that allow them to triumph over their problems. However, while "A Small, Good Thing," "Where I'm Calling From," and "Cathedral" deal with dark subjects, Carver's tone in these stories is different. His protagonists are able to communicate with one another and to improve their situations. In "A Small, Good Thing," for instance, the confrontation between parents and a baker results in solace for both parties. The baker confronts his antisocial behavior and the parents acknowledge their grief.

Critical Reception

Critics responded positively when Cathedral was published in 1983. Carver was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1984. He also received the 1983 Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The collection continues to garner praise, and such stories as "A Small, Good Thing," "Cathedral," and "Where I'm Calling From" remain among his best-known and most highly regarded works. Most scholarship about Cathedral has focused on Carver's shift from a minimalist style evident in earlier collections such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) to the longer, more developed stories in Cathedral. As one critic noted, the length of the stories seemed to increase as the length of the collection's titles decreased. Reviewers also noted Carver's more hopeful tone. While a few commentators felt betrayed by Carver's new attitude, arguing that it bordered on sentimentality, most critics cited it as evidence of Carver's growing range and skill. In a review of Cathedral, Irving Howe wrote: "A few of Carver's stories … can already be counted among the masterpieces of American fiction."