Taken from his collection of the same name the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed man and from the beginning of the story the reader realises how detached the narrator is. Not only is he displeased with the fact that Robert is visiting but the reader also senses that in some ways the narrator is also jealous of the connection that his wife has with Robert. The narrator also appears to have a very limited viewpoint on blindness. For the first time he is seeing, rather than looking. It is as if the narrator prefers to be ignorant of what Robert might think of him, rather than hearing something that he may dislike.
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Buy Study Guide Summary "Cathedral" is narrated by a man whose wife has invited an old friend to visit their home. As the narrator and his wife live nearby, Robert arranged to visit, and is on his way. The wife had worked briefly for Robert a decade before in Seattle. They have kept in touch by mailing tapes to one another, on which each narrated his or her life in detail.
On the last day she worked there, Robert who the narrator continues to call "the blind man" asked to touch her face and she agreed. He ran his hands sensitively all over her face and neck, and the experience proved profound to the wife, who is an aspiring poet and has tried to memorialize his touch.
He admits he might not understand poetry. The man she was waiting for in Seattle had been her "childhood sweetheart," and after they married, they lived a military life as he was transferred to bases.
One year after leaving Seattle, she contacted Robert, and they thereafter began to exchange the tapes on which they would tell each other their deep secrets. They continued to exchange tapes as her life as an Air Force wife got lonelier and lonelier, until she finally tried to kill herself with pills. She ended up throwing them up, but used the occasion to pursue a divorce, which was followed by her dating the narrator. On it, he heard his own name spoken, a strange experience.
They were interrupted by someone knocking, an interruption which pleased him. The story jumps into its main action as the wife prepares dinner and the narrator glibly suggests taking Robert bowling. She begs him to welcome Robert and chides him for having no friends, "period. Beulah began reading for Robert the summer after she had left, and they were soon thereafter wed. After eight years of marriage, Beulah was diagnosed with cancer and died. He feels sorry for Beulah, "a woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved.
He watches from the window to see her helping Robert out of the car and down the drive. He is greatly surprised to see Robert has a full beard. He turns off the TV and finishes the drink, and then welcomes them in.
His wife is "beaming" when she introduces them. They shake hands, and then she leads him to the sofa. The narrator considers making small talk, but only asks which side of the train Robert sat on. Though the wife think it a strange question, Robert answers it and says he had "nearly forgotten the sensation" of being on a train, it had been so long. The narrator is surprised to see Robert smoke cigarettes, since he thought the blind did not smoke. After a while, they sit to a huge dinner that the wife prepared.
After dinner, all are stuffed. They return to the living room with more drinks, and talk more about the past 10 years. He is a bit contemptuous of how "Robert had done a little of everything…a regular blind jack-of-all-trades. After a while, he finally turns on the TV. His wife is annoyed, and spins it to ask Robert if he has a TV. Robert answers that he has two — one color, one black-and-white — and knows the difference.
The narrator has "no opinion" on this. He pours them another drink and asks if Robert would like to smoke marijuana. He agrees and they smoke, Robert a bit awkwardly since he seems never to have done so before. When his wife returns, she gives the narrator a "savage look" for pulling out drugs, but Robert seems to enjoy it. They smoke for a while, until the wife tells Robert his bed is fixed upstairs and then she falls asleep on the couch. He confesses to the reader that he stays awake later than his wife each night, stoned, and often has dreams that frighten him.
They switch between the channels, but the only decent program is "something about the church and the Middle Ages. They are silent for a while, Robert turned with his ear to the TV, a position that disturbs the narrator a bit.
The program shows medieval monks at work, and the narrator begins to explain the image to Robert. The TV shows a cathedral, and the narrator tries to describe it. It suddenly occurs to the narrator that Robert might not know what a cathedral looks like at all. The narrator shares that "men wanted to be close to God" and hence built them high.
After a while, Robert asks whether the narrator is at all religious. In anything. Robert clears his throat and asks the narrator to do him a favor: find some paper and pen, and they will draw a cathedral together.
They sit near one another and Robert closes his hand over that of the narrator, and tells the latter to draw. He draws a "box that looked like a house" — "it could have been the house [he] lived in" — and continues to add onto it. Robert compliments the work and suggests the narrator never expected an experience like this one. Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes, which he does, and then encourages him to draw that way.
The narrator acquiesces, and the experience is "like nothing else in [his life up to now. Of course, the narrator can see with his eyes but does not realize the limitations he has placed on himself, and how those prevent him from seeing or wanting anything greater in life.
The story is ultimately about transcendence; that is, an existence beyond the limitations of physical things. What Robert has that the narrator lacks is a sight into the wonder of things, the potential for greatness and tenderness in humanity, and the curiosity that can make one truly alive and free even if one is limited by physical factors.
To understand the narrator, it is helpful to analyze the masterful first-person voice of the story. The narrator is forthcoming with his listener, both in terms of what he shares his insecurities are myriad but also through the personal qualities he reveals. While he certainly is detached from himself at the beginning, he is unusually talkative and clever for a Carver narrator.
This absence delivers as powerfully as anything else how shaken and affected the narrator is by this experience. As with most of the stories in this collection, the character seems to observe himself more than to feel himself in control. The nightly drug use and clear alcohol abuse are easy ways to understand this.
There is obviously sexual intimidation — look at his language when he describes the touching of the face — yet he never acknowledges it. Likewise, he seems contemptuous of her desire to write poetry.
Maybe it was just as well. But he is alone — he has no friends as his wife says , and he stays up watching TV stoned each night when she goes to bed. There is an interesting aside when he listens to Robert and his wife talk about their past decade apart. He says, "They talked of things that had happened to them—to them!
This sense of isolation helps to demonstrate his obstinate close-mindedness, most apparent in his feelings and pre-conceived notions of blindness.
As he admits, his idea of blindness comes from the movies. And his attitude about Beulah is harshly insensitive. He thinks Beulah must have been unhappy solely because she was deprived physical compliments — likewise, the only possessiveness the narrator shows over his wife is sexual, in the moment with the robe. And the greatest irony of all is of course that the blind man sees more than anyone else.
In another sense, they transcend the physical. Robert is interested in traveling and learning, with attempting to find a depth in relationships seen in the symbol of the tapes they send , in attempting to connect with others. What Robert sees and teaches the narrator is to see this transcendent reality. Robert senses a depth in reality that confuses the narrator.
Even before they sit together to draw the cathedral, Robert has begun to affect the narrator. I knew that. It might be a mistake to talk about the story as religious, but certainly the transcendent view of reality to which Robert leads the narrator is connected to Christianity. Most obvious is the central image of a cathedral.
And when the narrator is drawing the cathedral, the final instruction Robert gives is, "Put some people in there now. The fake-out prayer that the narrator uses is a bit befuddling in terms of story, unless you think of it as a set-up for the later conversation. When the narrator makes the joke, Robert lowers his head. Notice the way Robert listens so quietly as the narrator fumbles to explain what he sees, and then consistently encourages him to continue.
But it does celebrate the power that beauty and communion in the face of overpowering isolation can have, the way it can brighten our daily struggles and failures, as though to say that we must confront our isolation, loneliness and limits, continuing to work against it day-by-day even if we will, like the cathedral creators, never see our work completed.
Cathedral (short story)
The narrator is clearly unhappy about the upcoming visit. He then flashes back to the story of how his wife met the blind man when she worked for him as a reader. At the time, she was engaged to marry an officer in the Air Force. When she tells the blind man goodbye, he asks if he can touch her face.
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
Buy Study Guide Summary "Cathedral" is narrated by a man whose wife has invited an old friend to visit their home. As the narrator and his wife live nearby, Robert arranged to visit, and is on his way. The wife had worked briefly for Robert a decade before in Seattle. They have kept in touch by mailing tapes to one another, on which each narrated his or her life in detail. On the last day she worked there, Robert who the narrator continues to call "the blind man" asked to touch her face and she agreed.