“Cathedral” Write Up by Ella Bernstein

In the short story “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, a man’s wife has invited over her friend to stay with them. Her friend is a blind man who she has kept in touch with after working with him several years ago in Seattle. At that time, she had been married to a different man in the army, but they eventually divorced because she hated the lifestyle of always moving around. Now she is married to the narrator, who is very uncomfortable with the prospect of being around a blind man. When he comes over, the narrator does not participate in the conversation much, since his wife and the blind man have so much history together. But when it gets late and his wife goes to sleep, he and the blind man are left together. They are idly watching a show about cathedrals, and since the blind man cannot see the cathedrals, the narrator attempts to explain them to him. But when he doesn’t do a good job, the blind man suggests drawing a picture of a cathedral so he can have a sense of what it looks like. The narrator agrees, and in making an elaborate illustration with the blind man, comes to terms with what it means to be blind, and that it’s not all such a pathetic state like he had assumed.

To analyze “Cathedral,” I chose two elements to focus on. The first: exposition. I identified the beginning of the plot as Robert, “the blind man,” coming to stay with the narrator and his wife. Most of the first two pages and some of the third are dedicated entirely to describing how we got to this point. Here, for example, is the beginning of the second paragraph of “Cathedral,” explaining how the wife met the blind man:

That summer in Seattle she had needed a job. She didn’t have any money. The man she was going to marry at the end of the summer was in officers’ training school. He didn’t have any money, either. But she was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc. She’d seen something in the paper: HELP WANTED—Reading to Blind Man, and a telephone number. She phoned and went over, was hired on the spot.

So while we readers are handed these large chunks of backstory on the narrator’s wife and her blind friend, we actually get very little information on the narrator himself – at least in the beginning, where exposition traditionally goes. Instead, small bits of his backstory are scattered throughout the piece. Most importantly, of course, is the fact that the narrator doesn’t particularly like blind people, which is generously implied throughout the entire narrative. However, basic information on the narrator is given sparsely. Some examples are when the narrator’s wife tells him on page two, “You don’t have any friends.” A more obvious example is placed in page five, where we are informed that the narrator is unsatisfied and bored with his unfulfilling life:

How long had I been in my present position? (Three years.) Did I like my work? (I didn’t.) Was I going to stay with it? (What were the options?)

This unusual placement of exposition must have a purpose behind it; but what? Could it be that the author wanted us to form our opinions of the narrator without a bias? Or was information on his life simply irrelevant? We’ll discuss this later, as this author’s choice is a useful and interesting point to consider.

The second element of “Cathedral” that I chose to focus on was the narrator’s perspective on blindness. If you’ve read the story, then you probably are aware that this is essentially the main conflict in the plot, and this internal conflict is the driving force of the story, as it is the biggest thing that has changed by the time we reach the end. However, this is a pretty vague element to analyze; as you’ll notice in my highlights, I’ve included some things that may have surprised you, or possibly even not included some things you would have expected. But first, we’ll start with some more obvious examples:

…I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved. A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better …her last thought maybe this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave… Pathetic.

This excerpt clearly exhibits how the narrator insists that something so material as blindness would render something so profound as love impossible, or at the very least incomplete. This idea of the narrator’s is so serious that he even thinks a woman’s last thought before death was her disappointment that her lover never got to see her face with his eyes, something that is meant to offend us who hopefully don’t take such a severe view on “disability.” It also implies a somewhat patronizing attitude to those affected by blindness that the narrator harbors by using words like “pitiful” and “pathetic.” This view is elaborated and built upon throughout the story.

Another thing I included under this category, something that shows up a lot throughout the story, is the different ways the narrator addresses the blind man. The vast majority of the times he does this, he addresses the blind man just as such, “the blind man.” This pronoun of sorts is written 68 times, while the blind man’s actual name, “Robert,” is thought by the narrator only 6 times. This signifies that the most, or perhaps the only, important characteristic of Robert in the mind of the narrator is the fact that he is blind. This can be interpreted as closed-minded and biased, while some may say that in reality it’s just the most important characteristic of Robert to the purpose of the plot.

All in all, I found this story really interesting to read because, I’ll admit it, I found a lot of my own fears and discomforts reflected in the narrator. I myself have a certain uneasiness around people with “disabilities,” which is something that I’m not proud of, but the fact that this story addressed this issue made it personally relatable and have a lot of significance to me, and possibly some of you. Also, and this applies more to everybody, what I thought made the story moving was that it was so intimate and personal, yet profoundly addressed a universal theme that we should not discriminate against people for lacking (or possessing) certain surface qualities that in truth do not change the core feelings and experiences that make us all human.

To wrap this up, a few things that I think could be useful to my writing were the fact that we were able to get a pretty thorough and personal understanding of the narrator not through traditional exposition, but through his thoughts and dialogue. (Like Ms. Rolater would say, show, don’t tell!) I think that the author was very aware of what was actually necessary to his plot when deciding what to say about the narrator, instead of going with more conventional information. I think this is a valuable lesson to me and hopefully to you guys as well. Secondly, the narrator didn’t talk much in the story, but rather observed his wife and guest and thought a lot. I think this gave a nice, interesting element to the story in which we were able to gather a lot of really valuable information about the progression of the scene around us, understand the moods present, and actually gather some character traits on the narrator from his quietness. Lastly, Carver exhibits a clever technique of subtly building on the narrator’s character while simultaneously describing other people without much significance to him. This is so well-executed that, the first time I read the story, I was forming opinions without consciously realizing that the author was feeding me two different types of exposition at once. This technique could prove very useful in my writing if I ever write a story in which the narrator has not much direct importance, at least in that moment, but if I also would still like the readers to understand their personality.

And, finally, the fun part! Here are some questions for discussion:

-Are there similarities between the narrator addressing his wife’s ex-husband as “her officer” instead of his name and addressing his guest as “the blind man” instead of Robert? If so, what are they?

-What are the narrator’s views on blindness at the beginning of the story, and how have they changed by the end?

-Does being blind affect or change a person’s experience of love? If yes, how so?

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