Cathedral is a short story written by Raymond Carver. This story was included in the ‘Best American Short Stories’ (1982). It’s the story of how a man’s perspective about blind people changes dramatically when he meets an extraordinary blind man who introduces him to a new realm of experience.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you read this word?
My guess is that you made a mental image of a cathedral, right?
Now here’s a question: how long do you think it’s going to take you to explain your mental image of a cathedral to me so that I see it exactly the same way you do?
5 minutes? 15 minutes? An hour?
And how satisfied are you once you’re done explaining it?
Cathedral, a short story by Raymond Carver, is an immense realization of this. to say the least.
Cathedral Short Story: Summary and Plot Analysis
The story opens with the narrator mentioning a visit from a friend of his wife, one whom he does not seem to particularly like, considering that he is blind.
This friend’s wife has recently died and after returning from one of his relatives’ place, he considers meeting the narrator’s wife, as they live close-by.
The narrator knows quite a lot about this friend – he was a reader. The narrator’s wife met and was employed by this man years ago. On the last day of her job, this blind friend had touched his wife’s face and wrote a poem about it.
Knowing all this, the narrator finds this man’s blindness ‘unsettling’, more than anything else.
The narrator also goes on to give the us (i.e. the readers) a peek into his wife’s past-marriage to a childhood sweetheart, loneliness that had led to a suicide attempt (which she survived) followed by a failed marriage.
Through all these experiences, she continued to keep in touch with her friend. Poems and tapes were the primary means of communication between them. They talked about everything and everyone, including the narrator.
The narrator and his wife have a discussion about the impending visit from her friend, wherein his wife continues urging him to be nice to her friend, while the narrator continues to bring up reservations about the guest being blind.
She tells him about that man’s wife, their married life and her struggle with a terminal disease. All this while, the narrator, seemingly immune to the grief of the blind man, continues to wonder about the unhappiness his wife would have felt thinking he could never see her.
The narrator’s wife goes to pick her friend from the train station, while the husband waits for them at home.
He is shocked to see that Robert (the blind man) sports a beard. This does not seem natural to the narrator. His wife introduces him to Robert and all of them engage in conversation.
The narrator inadvertently asks Robert which side of train did he sit on his way here. He quickly realizes his mistake, but seeing that Robert is unnerved by the question, he’s a bit surprised.
Three of them sit for dinner and stuff their faces. Many things about Robert continue to surprise the narrator, including, Robert not wearing dark glasses, his ability to smoke ‘normally’ and eat and drink effortlessly.
All this starts to challenge the blindness stereotype that he had held in his mind for so long.
While his wife excuses herself for a change of clothes and is gone for quite a while, both men engage in small talk and narrator switches his attention to the television which aired a program about Middle Ages, showing cathedrals from different parts of the world.
This prompts the narrator to ask Robert if he had any idea what a cathedral looked like. Robert requests the narrator to describe one to him but finds him struggling while doing so.
Robert then asks the narrator to bring a pen and paper and draw a cathedral. He puts his hand over the narrator’s hand, following the movement of the narrator’s hand. The narrator continues to draw and finds himself immersed in the experience, in a way that he had never felt before.
At one point, upon Robert’s insistence, he starts drawing with his eyes closed. When he’s done, Robert asks him to open his eyes.
The narrator chooses not to, soaking in his newfound bliss. When he’s asked how it felt, he simply responds with “it really is something”.
Cathedral: Review and My thoughts
The story seems simple, doesn’t it?
But it has a little Thich Nhat Hanh lesson (he’s a famous monk and peace activist who has published over 100 books) for us there – a lesson of mindfulness.
Not only that, it takes a jab at how easy it is for humans to fall prey to stereotypes.
The story sure is short, but has much to offer. The narrator’s reservations about blind people, his completely warped view of the world of disabled is, on some occasions, comical, while at others bordering on apathy.
Some quotes from Cathedral
One of the narrator’s blanket statements about blind people is downright comical.
“I remembered having read somewhere that the blind didn’t smoke, because, as speculation had it, they couldn’t see the smoke they exhaled.”
I couldn’t help but laugh when, on seeing his wife’s thigh exposed, the narrator rushed to cover it, only to put it back when he realized that the only other person in the room was blind.
Here, read for yourself to see if it has the same effect (holding breath in anticipation of your validatory smile):
“(While sleeping) she had turned so that her robe had slipped away from her legs, exposing a juicy thigh. I reached to draw her robe back over her, and it was then that I glanced at a blind man. What the hell! I flipped the robe open again.”
His reminiscence about his wife’s tragic past is sad, but with a slight undertone of jealousy. That man who seemed like a stone, did expose his soft side. I couldn’t help but gush a little when I read this.
“Her officer – why should he have a name? He was her childhood sweetheart, what more does he want?”
And yes, why should a spouse’s ex have a name?
Robert’s positivity and an upbeat temperament is in stark contrast with the narrator’s expectations.
Robert seems to have it all – loving and meaningful relationships, complete immersion in what he does and an undying penchant for learning.
“I am always learning something. Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight. I got ears.”
Couldn’t get any more cliche than that, eh? Yet valuable just the same.
Learning. Never. Ends.
We have great people from history and the present worldwide vouching for Robert on this one, and for good reason.
It’s ironical that a seemingly indifferent narrator has a profound experience at the hands of someone that he was completely apathetic to, until they share an immersive experience.
Very cleverly, Carver exposed the error of the narrator’s way by showing him that the world he thought he was lacking was actually the one capable of making him feel fulfilled.
A world that showed him better things. A world that makes him see.
I hope I see more from this day on.
Want to read Cathedral?
Cathedral is available on Amazon if you want to get yourself a copy. You are welcome to use the links given below to order a copy: