Raymond Cathedral Carver Essay - Critical Essays

Cathedral Carver, Raymond


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."

Principal Works

Near Klamath (poetry) 1968
Winter Insomnia (poetry) 1970
Put Yourself in My Shoes (short stories) 1974
At Night the Salmon Move (poetry) 1976
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (short stories) 1976
Furious Seasons and Other Stories (short stories) 1977
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (short stories) 1981
The Pheasant (short stories) 1982
Two Poems (poetry) 1982
Cathedral (short stories) 1983
Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (essays, poetry, and short stories) 1983
If It Please You (short stories) 1984
The Short Stories of Raymond Carver (short stories) 1985
The Water (poetry) 1985
Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (poetry) 1985
Ultramarine (poetry) 1986
Those Days: Early Writings (short stories and poetry) 1987
Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1988
A New Path to the Waterfall (poetry) 1989

∗These works were published together in England as In a Marine Light in 1987.

†The new short stories from this volume were published in England as Elephant, and Other Stories in 1988.


Paul Gray (review date 19 September 1983)

SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Time, Vol. 122, September 19, 1983, p. 95.

[In the following review, Gray suggests that Cathedral contains hidden depths of meaning.]

For years now, the demographics of the American short story have been moving up-scale. The line of Hemingway drifters and Flannery O'Connor grotesques seems to be dying out. Characters rarely worry any more about finding God or their next meal. They are likely instead to be well educated, sensitive to a fault, politically liberal, and affluent enough to feel pleasurable guilt in their possessions. They tend, in short, to resemble the stereotypical reader of The New Yorker, which is where the luckiest of these fictional people are chosen to appear. The rejected ones must troop off to the quarterlies and go through their paces (at greatly reduced rates) for smaller audiences composed of people with whom they can feel equally at home. These days a good many characters in short stories are also quarterly readers.

Author Raymond Carver, 45, has successfully bucked this trend toward the gentrification of short fiction. Furthermore, he has done so in part in The New Yorker, where three of the twelve stories in Cathedral originally appeared.

Carver's art masquerades as accident, scraps of information that might have been overheard at the supermarket checkout counter or the local beer joint. His most memorable people live on the edge: of poverty, alcoholic self-destruction, loneliness. Something in their lives denies them a sense of community. They feel this lack intensely, yet are too wary of intimacy to touch other people, even with language. "What's to says?" wonders one man. Another, traveling to meet the son he has not seen in many years, dreads the moment of greeting: "He really didn't know what he was going to say."

Such uncertainty leads to eruptions of inappropriate behavior. In "Feathers," a man named Jack and his wife Fran are invited to dinner at the home of one of Jack's co-workers. They arrive and find a...

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Joseph G. Knapp (review date 31 December 1983)

SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in America, December 31, 1983, p. 438.

[In the following review, Knapp praises Carver's poignancy and emotional depth in Cathedral.]

Rarely, and at unpredictable intervals, a writer of genius appears on the literary scene, who waves a wand over the relentlessly banal events of everyday life and transforms them. Such a master of the short story form is Raymond Carver. His first two collections of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, announced to critics that an extraordinary talent had emerged from the obscure town of Clatskanie, Ore. In this latest collection of...

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James W. Grinnell (review date Winter 1984)

SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 71-2.

[In the review below, Grinnell praises Carver's writing, arguing that he has improved on his old style and added new elements.]

Things are finally looking up for Raymond Carver. In a way it is entirely fitting that this, his third volume of short stories is entitled Cathedral and that the collection ends with the title story, for in both Carver's life and writing, as in a Gothic cathedral, all signs are pointing upward.

Such was not always the case. Married at eighteen and burdened at that early age not only with the responsibility of a...

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Patricia Schnapp (review date Summer 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Western American Literature, Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 168-69.

[In the review below, Schnapp, who is a professor at Bowling Green State University, discusses the significance of the inability to articulate essential truths and beliefs in Carver's characters.]

A red-eyed peacock startles a couple visiting acquaintances who have an extraordinarily ugly baby. A man tells his estranged wife that he's about to go crazy because of his plugged-up ear. A wife comes home to find her unemployed husband unaware that the refrigerator has quit working and the food is thawing out. In Raymond Carver's Cathedral, his third...

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Mark A. R. Facknitz (essay date Summer 1986)

SOURCE: "'The Calm,' 'A Small Good Thing,' and 'Cathedral': Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 287-96.

[In the following essay, Facknitz compares "The Calm," "A Small Good Thing," and "Cathedral," arguing that these stories represent unique attempts by Carver to create acceptance, closure, and connection among his characters.]

Raymond Carver is as successful as a short story writer in America can be. The signs of his success are many: prestigious and ample grants, publication in the best literary quarterlies and national magazines, and, from all appearances, an unperturbed...

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Eugene Goodheart (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Raymond Carver's Cathedral," in Pieces of Resistance, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 162-66.

[In the following essay, Goodheart analyzes Carver's moral code, arguing that he is at his best when his characters adhere to it.]

The affectless narrative voice of a Raymond Carver story defends itself against surprise or shock or pain. The most banal situations propose inexplicable signs of menace that require, in response, a discipline of unemotional terseness. Nothing much happens at the dinner party in "Feathers," the first of the stories in Carver's latest collection, except for the weird appearance of a vulture-sized peacock, which stares at the...

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Keith Cushman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Blind, Intertextual Love: 'The Blind Man' and Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral'," in D. H. Lawrence's Literary Inheritors, edited by Keith Cushman and Dennis Jackson, Macmillan, 1991, pp. 155-66.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in Études lawrenciennes in 1988, Cushman states that although Carver was not influenced by D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Blind Man" when Carver wrote "Cathedral," the stories are very similar.]

Anyone who reads Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral', the title-story of his 1983 collection, with a knowledge of D. H. Lawrence's short stories might easily conclude that 'Cathedral' is a shrewd, intriguing rewriting of 'The...

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Arthur M. Saltzman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Cathedral," in Understanding Raymond Carver, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 124-56.

[In the following excerpt, Saltzman compares such stories as "Feathers," "Chef's House," and "The Compartment"—which reflect hopelessness and despair—with "A Small, Good Thing" and "Where I'm Calling From" in which Carver allows his characters more compassion and choice.]

"I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone.1 In this way Carver announces a deliberate departure from the relentless austerity of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in favor of...

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Adam Meyer (essay date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: "Now You See Him, Now You Don't, Now You Do Again: The Evolution of Raymond Carver's Minimalism," in Critique, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 239-51.

[In the following essay, Meyer, a professor at Vanderbilt University, traces Carver's use of minimalist style throughout his career, arguing that Carver returns to his previous, more expansive style in Cathedral.]

At this point in his career, there can be little doubt that Raymond Carver is "as successful as a short story writer in America can be,"1 that "he is becoming an Influence."2 Still, despite (or perhaps because of) this position, Carver remains a controversial figure. Much of the debate...

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Michael Wm. Gearhart (essay date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: "Breaking the Ties That Bind: Inarticulation in the Fiction of Raymond Carver," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 439-46.

[In the essay below, Gearhart traces the differences between the original story, "The Bath," and Carver's revision of the same story, "A Small, Good Thing."]

Raymond Carver has been widely acknowledged as a short story writer whose glimpses into the lives of "everyday" people have made him a master of the genre. The typical Carver character is a down-and-out blue-collar type familiar with the trauma of marital infidelity, alcoholism, and financial hardship. As critics have thoroughly noted, these characters...

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Arthur A. Brown (essay date Winter 1990)

SOURCE: "Raymond Carver and Postmodern Humanism," in Critique, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, pp. 125-36.

[In the following essay, Brown—a professor at the University of California, Davis—argues that Cathedral is not a radical departure from Carver's style, but an example of his postmodern humanist writing.]

When Raymond Carver wrote "Cathedral," he recognized that it was "totally different in conception and execution from any stories that [had] come before." He goes on to say, "There was an opening up when I wrote the story. I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that...

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Nelson Hathcock (essay date Winter 1991)

SOURCE: "'The Possibility of Resurrection': Re-vision in Carver's 'Feathers' and 'Cathedral'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 31-9.

[In the essay below, Hathcock compares "Feathers" and "Cathedral" to illustrate the ways in which Carver allows his characters greater freedom and ability to redeem their lives.]

In two of his late stories—"Feathers" and "Cathedral"—Raymond Carver appears to have changed his estimation of the potential power in his characters, the power to reconstruct their lives through language and, in the process, arrive at some understanding or intuitive accord. Unlike earlier Carver protagonists, the...

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Ewing Campbell (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Maturity: Cathedral," in Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992, pp. 48-66.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M University, traces the changes in Carver's writing, noting that in Cathedral he exhibits great skill in adopting a softer, more hopeful tone.]

If a great number of critics hailed the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981 as the establishing event of Carver's career, it is the arrival of Cathedral three years later that confirms his place among short-story writers of the first rank. The confirmation results in part, however, not from a...

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Randolph Paul Runyon (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Cathedral," in Reading Raymond Carver, Syracuse University Press, 1992, pp. 137-85.

[In the excerpt below, Runyon examines the connecting elements and recurring themes in the short stories from Cathedral.]


"Before and after" (14), Bud said, holding up an "old plaster-of-Paris cast of the most crooked, jaggedy teeth in the world" (12) next to his wife Olla's orthodontically straightened ones. It is one of several sights Jack and Fran have to endure on their visit to Bud and Olla's house. Another is the pet peacock that wanders into the house during dinner, is "smelly" (25), and lets out blood-curdling screams....

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Kirk Nesset (essay date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: "Insularity and Self-Enlargement in Raymond Carver's Cathedral," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 116-28.

[In the essay below, Nesset, a professor at Whittier college, argues that the stories in Cathedral differ from Carver's earlier work in that some of the characters are able to escape their self-imposed insularity.]

In "The Compartment," one of Raymond Carver's bleakest stories, a man passes through the French countryside in a train, en route to a rendevous with a son he has not seen for many years. "Now and then," the narrator says of the man, "Meyers saw a farmhouse and its outbuildings, everything surrounded by a...

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Further Reading


Gallagher, Tess. Introduction to Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver, by Bob Adelman and Tess Gallagher, pp. 8-19. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.

Provides an account of Carver's life, along with insight into influences on his writing.

Lehman, David. "Tales of Ordinary Madness." Newsweek (5 September 1983): 66.

Reviews Cathedral, claiming that while Carver was successful illustrating misery and hopelessness, his stories are too limited.

Meyer, Adam. "The Masterpiece: Cathedral." In Raymond...

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