Story Playlist 19: Cathedral

Raymond Carver : “Cathedral” (1983) Raymond Carver’s most famous short story could not be simpler. It seems, on the evidence of the stories in this playlist, that, with rare exceptions such as Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” aside, the strongest short stories are the most straightforward. Something happens and, because of it, something (or someone) changes.

In “Cathedral,” the taciturn narrator is pressed into hosting an old friend of his wife’s, a blind man whose own wife recently passed away. Robert, the blind man, and the narrator’s wife became friends when she worked as an aid for him and over the years they developed an intimacy by sending each other tapes on which they talked about their lives. The narrator is somewhat sullen about his wife’s intimacy—dating back to her first marriage—with this blind man with his big beard and loud voice. In the course of a long evening, with many drinks and a joint shared, the narrator comes to accept Robert, and then to be enlightened by him. The change in the narrator, as he tempers his bigotry toward the handicapped, his passive racism, and his chauvinism toward his wife, is the payoff of the story. The key to that change is a simple act of empathy.

The narrator tries to entertain Robert after a big dinner as his wife gets drowsy. Eventually he turns on the television. He expects Robert to retire to the guest room, but the man keeps him company as the wife dozes between them on the couch. A documentary on the middle ages comes on, and at times the camera simply shows pictures of cathedrals. The narrator wonders whether Robert knows what a cathedral is, and how he might possibly describe it to him. He tries to do so in words but cannot. Robert suggests another tactic.

“Go ahead, bub, draw. Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you.” The narrator sketches a cathedral and Robert places his hand on the narrator’s, following the movements of his hand on the paper. After a time, Robert suggests that the narrator close his eyes as he draws. This moment marks the turning point, as the narrator tells us pointedly, “It was like nothing else in my life up to now.” He keeps his eyes closed even after, and the change within him has already taken place. “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” He has been drawn into an empathetic situation with the object of one of his many prejudices. By voluntarily accepting a temporary blindness, the narrator recognizes the strength required to live with such a handicap, and his respect for Robert soars. He no longer considers him as a blind man, but as a man.

As soon as a blind person was introduced, my metaphor alarm went off. Since Homer, at least, the blind have been thought to possess a sort of second sight to compensate for their lost sense, to “see” what others cannot. Blindness is a powerful vessel for metaphor, and it is fitting (if a bit predictable) that a literally blind character should help a figuratively “blind” character to see things more clearly. In its plot, the story is predictable, but, in Carver’s hands, the text is sculpted so simply and cleanly that no heavy-hand is felt. The story is about as perfect as a story can be. There is a flawed protagonist, a stranger enters his life against his wishes, and through their interaction the protagonist sheds his flaw and becomes a better person. A change in the protagonist is a fairly basic requisite for any narrative, from short stories to novels to films. A change for the better usually results in a feeling of justice and satisfaction for the reader at the story’s end.

One could tango about the metaphorical power of a cathedral as the vehicle that brought about the narrator’s change, as a way to throw some religious symbolism into the tale—Robert asks the narrator at one point if he is religious and the narrator claims he doesn’t believe in anything. In some ways, the choice of a cathedral is more about choosing something that is not mundane (it would not work as well if the narrator had drawn a sailboat, for instance). Perhaps there is something of a Saul on the Road to Damascus moment in the narrator’s “conversion,” and doubtless many a student essay has been written on the symbolism of the cathedral in Carver’s story of that title. But my interest is in the simple telling, the simple plot, and the minimalist elegance of an assured hand whose pen can make a sighted man see.