Blindness in Carver’s “Cathedral”

Published: 2021-07-08 12:25:05
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Abstract Raymond Carver, being a famous American short story writer in the 20th century, was often labeled as a minimalist writer. However, his “Cathedral” was nothing like his previous stories. With no extraneous words, Carver expressed his unique worldview and vision in “Cathedral”. This essay will examine the text from four different perspectives: sight and insight, names and downplay of individuality, dialogues between characters, and the growth of narrator, which are all related to the theme “blindness” and all contribute to the fulfillment of the work’s artistic and literary value.
Keywords Raymond Carver “Cathedral” Sight and Insight Downplay of Individuality Dialogue Growth of Narrator “Which stories are your favorites? ” When the French literary journalist Claude Grimal interviewed Raymond Carver in the spring of 1987, Carver responded to this question with the answer “Cathedral”. Raymond Carver was a debatable American short story writer in the Reagan era. He was often labeled as a minimalist writer by his contemporary critics, which he rejected in several interviews. Yet, “Cathedral” was nothing like the “minimalist” stories Carver wrote before.
According to Lehman, “‘Cathedral’ is a vastly different story from any that are collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but not because its theory of significant facts has changed. The distinction is that characterization and plots are expanded, while Carver, on occasion, allows himself an optimistic vision that seemed impossible for him to express earlier. ” Even Carver admitted that himself in his interview with the French literary journalist Claude Grimal: “The story ‘Cathedral’ seemed to me completely different from everything I’d written before.
” The idea of the story was inspired by a blind friend of Carver’s wife Tess Gallagher. Just like in the story, the blind friend of Carver’s wife came to visit them after his wife’s death. And this real blind friend of Gallagher Jerry Carriveau was the prototype of the blind man Robert in “Cathedral”. Carver’s stories often start with something real and he revealed this in the 1983 interview for The Paris Review: “But there’s always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be the starting place” (Carver Country, 51).
It was often commented that Carver’s earlier stories were written for the blue-collar. However, we can hardly find any such traces in the story “Cathedral”. It mainly focuses on the narrator’s change and growth (Interview with Claude Grimal), through the inspiration from the blind man. Thus, “blindness” is especially important in this story. In the short story “Cathedral”, the word “blind” has appeared 80 times. “Blindness” is the key theme which causes the narrator’s change and growth.
In the following passage, I will examine the text from four different perspectives: sight and insight, name and downplay of individuality, dialogues between characters, and the growth of narrator, which are all derived from the key theme “blindness”. 1. Sight and Insight Blindness serves as an important feature of the wife’s old friend Robert and also the theme of the story. However what Carver wanted to show was not only physical blindness, he wanted to show the difference between sight and insight.
The author gave effort to stress the feature of Robert repetitively so as to express the narrator’s discomfort and discrimination against blindness. In the first paragraph, the narrator expressed his stereotypical view towards “blindness”: “My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed” (Fiction 100, 123). In the following plot, every activity the narrator did with Robert was a new experience because Robert was physically blind and it was the narrator’s first contact with a blind man.
From chatting, smoking, drinking, eating to watching television, Carver had deliberately chosen these activities to show Robert’s “blindness” and described in detail Robert’s reactions and the narrator’s responses. When the three of us were having dinner, the narrator particularly paid attention to Robert’s action: “The blind man had right away located his foods, he knew just where everything was on his plate. ” Yet the narrator had no idea that being able to look is different from being able to see. The narrator had sight but he lacked insight. He could not understand his wife and he knew little about his wife’s past.
When Robert and the narrator’s wife were chatting about the past ten years, the narrator could not cut in and talked as well. He could simply sit aside and pretended that he was not interested. He did not take time to understand his wife and his miscommunication with his wife will be further discussed in the third section of the thesis. On the contrary, Robert was understanding and insightful. He supported the narrator’s wife when she most needed comfort and security. Robert took the initiative, asking the narrator’s wife to send him tapes telling him about her life.
He took the effort and time to listen and responded by sending back another tape to her. It continued for ten years. The audiotapes between Robert and the narrator’s wife served as an effective communication channel. They had kept their friendship for all those years while being physically so far away. However the narrator did not pay attention to his wife’s personal life. When he was hearing the audiotape with his wife, a knock on the door interrupted and he never got back to hear the tape, totally ignoring Robert’s possibly influencing comments on himself.
When Robert finally visited the narrator in person, they could eventually have a genuine dialogue when his wife was asleep. As Robert could not watch the television with his own eyes, the narrator gave some verbal accounts of what the television was showing. The narrator’s inability to describe the cathedral with his words to Robert shows the failure of language. Trussler analyzed Carver’s another story “Why Don’t You Dance? ” with the conclusion that it is “a contemporary fable that underscores the difficulty of producing meaning through narration”.
In this case, the narrator had difficulty in producing meaning from his description of cathedrals. It also shows the narrator’s inability to “see” things. He did not have insight for anything and that was why he could not describe the cathedral. He knew nothing about religion and so he could not give accounts about the religious architecture. He could only utter certain adjectives to describe the architecture: “tall”, “big”, “massive”. He even repeated the phrase “In those olden days” twice in his second attempt to describe the cathedral, implying that he could not find words to express what he wanted to say.
It was the blind man who eventually helped the narrator to discover a new realm of knowing the things he took for granted. He asked the narrator to draw a cathedral on a heavy paper. The roles of the narrator and Robert had switched at that moment. Normally, it should be the one who could see to tell what a cathedral was like. However in this case, it was the blind man who guided the narrator on how to feel the world. “His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper” (Fiction 100, 132).
The blind man had shared his worldview with the narrator by working with the narrator to complete the drawing of a cathedral. In the last scene, when Robert told the narrator to open his eyes and take a look at the drawing, the narrator still closed his eyes. He was enjoying his epiphanic moment in recognizing the world with a different feeling: “It’s really something” (Fiction 100, 133). 2. Names and Downplay of Individuality Blindness is not the only theme of the story, the seldom use of names in “Cathedral” is worth noted as well.
There are three main characters in the story. Yet until the end of the story, we readers only know that the blind man’s name was Robert. We do not know the names of the narrator and his wife. Strange enough, we know from the interlude the name of Robert’s dead wife: Beulah. Though the narrator had known Robert’s name all along, he did not call him by his name, but by his disability: “the blind man”. We seldom saw the narrator addressing Robert by his name in the story. It was always his wife who called Robert by his name in the dialogues.
The dismissal of using a name for the major characters in the story signifies Carver’s intention to downplay the individuality of the characters, further focusing on the physical feature of the characters: the blindness of Robert, the femininity of the narrator’s wife. It also shows the narrator’s superficial attitude towards people. Carver adopted the first-person point of view and enhanced the realistic feeling of reading the story. Readers can directly get in touch with the superficial and judgmental character of the narrator from his frank narration. The narrator’s wife was never mentioned by her own name.
The narrator simply called her “my wife”. Before she became the narrator’s wife, she was another person’s wife: “an Air Force officer’s wife” (Fiction 100, 124). She was not given her own individuality but only the identity as someone’s wife: “She told him that she was writing a poem about what it was like to be an Air Force officer’s wife” (Fiction 100, 124). Even his wife’s ex-husband did not have a name: “Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want? ” (Fiction 100, 124) The narrator just called his wife’s ex-husband “my wife’s officer”.
It can be interpreted that the narrator was self-centered and self-absorbed, caring only those relating to himself. The narrator did not respect others, therefore he did not address people by their names, but only by their most distinguished features. In Robert’s case, it was “blindness”. Robert’s name was only mentioned four times in the story by the narrator, except in dialogues and through his wife’s mouth. The name “Robert” was first mentioned in the third-to-last sentence of the sixteenth paragraph, before the narrator’s wife officially introduced Robert to him face to face.
We can deduce that the narrator had known Robert’s name all along, even before Robert had arrived at their house. However, the narrator chose to address Robert as “the blind man” throughout the whole story. It can be considered an attempt of stressing the theme “blindness” and Carver’s effort to underplay Robert’s individuality. Robert’s dead wife also had a name: Beulah. But it was only mentioned because the name could show that the woman was a colored woman. “Beulah! That’s a name for a colored woman” (Fiction 100, 124). The narrator immediately exclaimed after he knew the name of Robert’s wife.
He even took the step to ask his wife if Beulah was “a Negro”. Thus, it can be inferred that Carver meant to reveal the narrator’s judgmental nature through mentioning the name “Beulah”. The name was used for the purpose of exclusion. The name of the narrator is unknown. His wife did not address him by his name in any dialogue she had with her husband. Even when she introduced the narrator to Robert, she did not give her husband’s name, but only said “this is my husband” (Fiction 100, 125). I regard this writing technique as Carver’s effort of downplaying the characters’ identity and individuality.
The narrator does not only represent himself but also the group of people who are judgmental and discriminative. The narrator’s wife represents another group of people who are kind and open-minded, willing to accept people with disabilities. Although Robert and Beulah were addressed by their names in the story, Beulah was a minor character and Robert’s name was not always mentioned. The narrator addressed Robert as “the blind man” more often, suggesting physical deficiency than personality. 3. Dialogues between Characters
Although the physical deficiency of Robert is much emphasized in the story, the personality of Robert can be brought out in dialogues. Dialogues are essential in Carver’s stories. As he stated in the 1987 interview with Claude Grimal, he considered dialogues important: “It ought to advance the plot or illuminate character. ” In “Cathedral”, dialogues have more significance in his other stories. Since Robert was blind, his communication with either the narrator or his wife could only through conversations. Consequently, dialogues are of great impact on the story’s development.
The dialogues in “Cathedral” can be divided into three categories: between the narrator and his wife; between the narrator, his wife and Robert; and between the narrator and Robert. We can notice that the narrator had some miscommunication with his wife. Since Robert was his wife’s friend and he himself was a discriminative person, he could not possibly speak out how he felt disturbed by a visit from a blind man. Therefore the narrator began his dialogue with his wife with “Maybe I could take him bowling” (Fiction 100, 124), which was not even a reasonable suggestion for a blind man.
The narrator was trying to act nice and was testing how his wife would respond. His wife could feel his unwillingness and responded by extending the topic to his love toward her, further convincing her husband that it was just ordinary to treat a friend. If he especially took it out to discuss, it would be unnecessary. Then the narrator rebutted that he did not have any blind friends. He implied that he was just consulting if it was a good idea to take the blind man to bowling. When the narrator asked if Robert’s wife was “a Negro”, his wife could no longer stand his judgmental comment and could only replied “Are you crazy?
Are you drunk? ”, indicating a communication gap here. The wife did not realize that her husband was narrow-minded. She expected that her husband would welcome Robert as his friend as well. The narrator was still mindful of his wife’s ambiguous relationship with Robert in the past ten years. He did not just feel uncomfortable about Robert’s being blind, but also Robert’s close relationship with his wife. When Robert and the narrator first encountered, Robert felt at ease and tried to make a connection with the narrator.
It was the narrator who wanted to distance himself. He said “Welcome” to Robert, assuring that he was the owner of the house and that he was the host of Robert. During the narrator’s presence, his wife maintained a close relationship with Robert as well. Robert called the narrator’s wife “my dear” and “they talked about the major things that had come to pass for them in the past ten years” (Fiction 100, 127). The narrator started to feel better about Robert after dinner, awed by Robert’s ability to manage his life so well even though he was blind.
He tried to address Robert by his name thrice in the paragraph. However, he felt left out since the two of them exchanged their previous experience and the narrator felt like the only outsider. Only when the narrator’s wife was asleep could the two men have a chance to talk to each other. One thing worth taking note of is the way Robert addressed the narrator, calling him “bub”. According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, “bub” is a form of address used to a man, sometimes in a slightly angry way. Within the context, there is no reason for Robert to be angry with the narrator.
It can be regarded as an intimate address to the narrator, or a spark of contempt, implying that he was older and more experienced than the narrator. We can tell that the narrator did not like it. He exclaimed “Bub! ” when he first heard Robert calling him that. After the narrator failed to describe the cathedral to Robert, his legs “felt like they didn’t have any strength in them” (Fiction 100, 131). Feeling powerless in front of a blind man, the narrator lost all confidence. It was Robert who encouraged the narrator: “Terrific. You’re doing fine” (Fiction 100, 132).
The dialogues between the three major characters reveal their relationship and their change of relationship. At first, the narrator was irritated by Robert’s visit. He did not welcome Robert as he said. Then after much contact with Robert, the narrator started to change his views toward blind people because his stereotypes did not match with Robert. Yet he did not want to admit that he was wrong in judging people. After his spiritual communication with Robert, he actually changed and was able to view the world with a different perspective. 4. Growth of Narrator
The growth of the narrator in “Cathedral” is something new in Carver’s stories. “I’d never written a story like that. ” Carver explained in his interview with Claude Grimal when he admitted that the narrator changed and grew in the story. Only with the appearance of the blind man Robert, the narrator could realize that he lacked in-depth thinking and he could not even do the job of describing a cathedral to a blind man. Robert, though being physically blind, rescued the narrator by opening his eyes to the new dimension of life, understanding the nature of things more in depth.
In the beginning of the story, the narrator was a typical white man, feeling superior to colored people, judgmental towards the disabled ones. He tried not to show it explicitly in his narration but he admitted that he was not happy about Robert’s visit: “I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit…. And his being blind bothered me…. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to” (Fiction 100, 123). He was jealous of the ambiguous relationship between Robert and his wife too, especially when he knew that Robert “touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck” (Fiction 100, 123).
He was bothered by the fact that his wife treated Robert’s touching as “something really important had happened to her” (Fiction 100, 123). As a result, the narrator had a repulsive feeling towards Robert. He treated Robert as a stranger, “this blind man I didn’t even know! ” (Fiction 100, 124) Those stereotypes he had for blind people were not realistic because he hadn’t met a blind man before. “A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say. ” (Fiction 100, 125) He was pretentious, acting as a person whom he was not in front of Robert. Before they had their dinner, he led the prayer.
His wife was most surprised and “her mouth agape”. We can tell that the narrator and his wife had no such habit as praying before meals. The prayer was not a prayer at all. No addresses of gods or requests for blessings in the prayer. The prayer was secular: “Pray the phone won’t ring and food doesn’t get cold” (Fiction 100, 127). The way the narrator talked about the marriage between Beulah and Robert was not without traces of contempt and disdain. When he spoke of the wedding of Beulah and Robert, he interrupted with a question: “who’d want to go to such a wedding in the first place?
Inferring his scorn for the couple. Being more scornful, he even repeated his wife’s word “inseparable” in italics. He even made fun of Robert’s disability to picture the scene of Beulah’s death for entertainment, imagining Robert’s blind eyes with tears running and Beulah regretting that Robert had never seen her face dying. However, the narrator gradually discovered that Robert was beyond his expectations. Robert acted as if he could see and could take care of himself very well. He began to respect Robert and invited him to smoke marijuana with him.
The relationship between the two men began to get closer and friendlier. In the last part, the narrator even cared for Robert’s needs and asked if he knew what a cathedral looked like. He tried hard to describe a cathedral to Robert not only because of his pride of being able to see, but also because of his supposed superiority over blind people, the so-called “responsibility” to take care of the needy and weak. Yet it turned out that the narrator was the one who needed help. Although Robert was physically handicapped, he was spiritually satisfied.
For the narrator, he was physically well conditioned but he lacked spiritual fulfillment. Like what he answered Robert, he was not religious and he did not believe in anything. But when he followed Robert’s guidance to draw out a cathedral, and closed his eyes to feel, he reached a transcendental moment: “It’s really something” (Fiction 100, 133). What the “something” is we do not know exactly, but it is no doubt that the narrator had changed his views and probably opened up his mind with the help of a blind man.
“In Carver there is a prevailing absence, a silence, an empty space between the lines that his texts invite us to fill”(Reading Raymond Carver, 1). Carver did not overtly tell us anything in the story “Cathedral”. We can interpret it in many ways. For me, Carver had created his “Carverian world” in “Cathedral”, or in Gallagher’s words “Carver Country”. People are divided into two groups: prejudiced versus non-prejudiced; disabled versus good and healthy, whether physically or spiritually. However, no matter which group you belong to, there is always something to learn from the other group.
“Cathedral” is a short story but it is embedded with important themes. Blindness advances the plot and brings out the ultimate epiphany scene of the narrator, enlightening both the character and the readers. The downplaying of individuality by the rare use of names is also worth discussed. Carver introduced a personal account of story and it is universally applicable. Dialogues serve as the indicator of the relationship between the characters and witness the change of relationship, especially between Robert and the narrator.
Through the verbal interactions, we are able to know more about the feelings and attitudes of the characters. The growth of the narrator is what Carver wanted to show in this particular story. In his earlier stories, Carver seldom introduced such an idea. Different from his previous writing habit, that is secluding himself in his room, he drafted “Cathedral” on a train paralleling the Hudson River, the very train that Jerry Carriveau, the prototype of Robert had taken from New York City for their reunion (Carver Country, 15).
This newly added idea sheds some optimistic light on the work itself. In 1982 a question-and-answer session at the University of Akron, Carver said, “This is a farfetched analogy, but it’s in a way like building a fantastic cathedral. The main thing is to get the work of art together. You don’t know who built those cathedrals, but they’re there” (Reading Raymond Carver, 185). “Cathedral” is not only a great piece of literary work with simple language, but also a work of art with profound themes and a new vision. Works Cited

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