Dec 2, 2009

On Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

How do fiction writers tell us stories? First, by establishing a position from which the storyteller conveys the plot. This is called point of view. We determine who it is telling the story -- a character within the story, an outside narrator? -- and then we analyze the degree of insight that the narrator possesses. How much can this person see into the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the story? Generally, narrators fall into two types: first person narrators with limited knowledge of characters outside of themselves and what they observe (Cathedral is a fine example of this first person limited point of view) and third person narrators who tell the story from an outside perspective. They are not participants in the story proper. They stand as it were outside the action and look in from the sidelines. These third person narrators, however, can vary in the degree of insight they have into other characters’ motivations. Some third person narrators focus on one particular character, typically the protagonist, and give you the story primarily from that character’s perspective. Although third person narrators tell the story from an outsider’s perspective, they can be quite intrusive by giving you plenty of insight into character motivations. Other narrators shift the focus, which is often referred to as a mobile point of view. A narrator who could see into every character’s mind we would call an omniscient narrator (all knowing). A narrator who has access to one character or just a few we would call a limited narrator. Some third person narrators will even intrude on the plot by adding commentary and opinions. It varies from writer to writer.

First person narrators are characters who tell the story from the perspective of “I’” or “we”: here’s the story as I saw it and thought about it and felt about it. Because these are first person human perspectives, naturally they are limited with respect to how that character perceives the surrounding world, what they are able to know and see. This tends to make first person narrators somewhat unreliable as trustworthy sources for information -- not to say that you must not rely on them at all. What other choice do  you have but listen to the storyteller? But you need to take what the narrator gives you and run it through a critical filter. Based on the available inputs, can you believe this narrators? Is he or she filtering the events, selecting how to see them based on the individual's character traits? In other words, it is important to treat the narrator as a full fledged character in the story.

  In “Cathedral,” for instance, the nameless narrator speaks in clipped, cursory, chopped sentences. As we witness the way he sees and understands, we infer some character traits: his attitude is insecure, arrogant, insolent, out of touch, insensitive, inarticulate, lacking self-awareness. There are many examples in the story where this is borne out. This first person narrator betrays himself. His own words implicate him, revealing how biased, ignorant, and insensitive he is. Those same words also reveal how lonely, aloof and in need of human contact he is.

A motif is a theme that recurs throughout an artistic work. when noticed, you can find many instances of the motif replicated and developed throughout the text. One motif you might have noticed in Cathedral is the theme of blindness and sight. How does Carver weave it into the texture of the story? Is it used ironically? In this story, our narrator begins in blindness and ends with insight. Insight into what? Into what it means to be blind and how blindness is not at all what he thought it would be. He also learns that he has been, in a way, blind to his own ignorance and insecurity, and that ignorance is a kind of blindness. These sensitivities have been heightened, thanks to the visit from his wife’s friend Robert, an open-minded, generous, empathic human being who happens to be blind.

Our narrator, in the beginning of the story, can only see the man as a character type: a blind man, with all the stereotypical associations that go along with the tag. By the end, he has been forced to revise his understanding of blind people. Robert is self sufficient, self-assured, confident, gregarious, sensitive, and oddly perceptive. He has a heightened awareness, a sixth sense that tells him that the man he is visiting is a man in need of something meaningful in his life. Robert reaches out and unites with him, and the narrator learns to recognize the humanity in Robert and himself. He learns to see blindness not as a disability but as a kind of enabling, liberating awareness. You are not inside of anything anymore, he tells us at the story's end. You are not necessarily confined by sight, by spatial boundaries (personal space), and by self-consciousness.

The Cathedral is a motif as well. The television show they are watching after dinner is about cathedrals, and our narrator attempts to explain what they are and what they look like so the blind man can  understand them better. This attempt fails, because our narrator is not very good with words. So they draw a Cathedral together, with Robert holding onto the narrator’s hand while he visualizes the building on paper. By carefully observing how they discuss cathedrals, we might get some clues as to how the motif creates meaning in the story. A couple of leads worth pondering are the fact that cathedrals were grand, monumental achievements that could only be build by people cooperating collectively, just as Robert and the narrator act in a communal way to work on building a truer understanding one one another. Cathedrals are also spiritual houses of God. The building is a massive architectural symbol. Robert, a religious man and believer in God, is confronted with our narrator who doesn’t really believe in God or much of anything else. He is a lonely, drifting soul, the implication being that he is lost in an unsaved state. He lacks a spiritual center. He isn’t close to his wife. He doesn’t like his job. He has no purpose. Nothing much matters to him. The subject of cathedrals: their majesty and accomplishment, is something that forces the narrator to recognize his anomie. Robert then gives him the opportunity to realize that he is still capable of vision, insight, and creative energy. There may be a spiritual center to this loner after all. This is pretty clearly a liberating experience for our narrator, something memorable enough that he needs to tell his story.

We might also ponder Carver's use of media in the story. Robert and the wife exchange cassette tapes to say in contact. The television plays a major role in the culminating scene. In what ways does the media bring together people or keep them separated?

Plot management
Notice how Carver shuttles from present action (the plot concerning the actual visit) to the back story. The action moves from present (the narrator’s present situation with his wife and the imminent visit of Robert) to past (the story of how his wife became acquainted with Robert, her life before the narrator, her suicide attempt and divorce, Robert’s marriage to Beulah and her death). We gradually assemble a picture of the narrator’s habitual lifestyle: his drinking and drug usage, his TV watching habits, his lack of enthusiasm for his marriage and his job, and the lack of intimacy in his life.

Carver employs some subtle foreshadowing early in the story, describing how  the narrator’s wife writes poems after important events in her life. This prefigures the story’s epiphanic ending and how he will come to write the story we are reading, which attempts to describe a very meaningful scene in his life.

Carver (the author) takes care to handle this final scene with subtlety. He doesn’t tell you exactly what it means or why it is important, for at least a couple of reasons: (1) his narrator is incapable of verbal fluidity, so as a first person narrator it would be out of character for him to be able to convey precisely what he thought or felt; and (2) Carver probably wants to leave it to us as readers to fill out the scene with our own imaginations, contemplating what it is the narrator and Robert have experienced together while drawing the Cathedral. Another example of this suspension of narrative direction comes earlier in the story when the narrator remembers listening to a tape of Robert talking about him, and we never learn what it was Robert saw in him. This heightens the tension in the story and invites readers to fill in the blanks. Carver shows us the mystery without explicitly telling us what it is, and that makes aesthetic sense because it fits the narrator’s style. He is not facile with language. But he has experienced a breakthrough and through his meagre storytelling, is able to convey enough of that so that we can (if we invest our imaginations) can see what he felt.

These moments of sudden insight and clarity, where a character discovers meaning in a powerful moment of experience, are called epiphanies. Many short stories are plotted in such a way as to culminate in these moments of coming into a new awareness.

Cathedral features three primary characters: the narrator, his wife, and the blind man Robert. For each character we can chart their traits, and motivations (why they do and say the things they do and say). Always keep in mind that we must filter the facts of the story by correcting for the narrator’s own limitations. We don’t have to agree with what the narrator says and sees.

We’ve already discussed many of the narrator’s character traits, so let’s move on to his wife. She clearly has had a rocky past, a broken marriage, a suicide attempt, and what apparently is a less than ideal marriage to her current husband. She is a sensitive person, however, and has developed a close friendship with Robert, whom she has kept in touch with for a decade. She is generous, courteous and genuinely relieved to get a visitor.

Robert, although he is not the protagonist, is the hero of the story, I think -- a man who has not let his blindness impair his quality of life. He has forged close relationships, had a loving marriage, and is clearly an open-minded, easy going, trustworthy individual. He becomes aware that his presence is probably awkward for the narrator,  and he recognizes how he and the narrator’s wife have been dominating the discussion all evening and seems genuinely committed to making a human connection with the narrator. Without his dedication to the project, his sharing of himself with the narrator, the night would have been over long ago. Nothing would have been learned, and no one would have been saved.

J. Esch. [updated 2/14/08]