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Empathy through Listening as a Form of Perception in Raymond Carver's ‘Cathedral’

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In ‘Cathedral’ written by Raymond Carver, the life of a married couple is disrupted when the wife’s blind friend comes for a visit. The blind man is named Robert. His wife recently died, and he came to visit her family. Robert decides to stay at the couple’s home. The husband, who is the narrator, is not too happy with the fact Robert is staying at their home and finds his blindness to be unsettling. Robert and the narrator’s wife have been friends for ten years. They met when the wife used to work for Robert as his reader. At a certain point the wife became unhappy with her struggling marriage and tried to commit suicide, but survived. She and the blind man kept in touch through tapes they would send each other back and forth. While the narrator can see, he can’t to make any friends and struggles with his wife. Robert on the other hand is blind but able to understand the emotional lives of others. Within the short story we see that Carver constructs empathy through listening as a form of perception.

The married couple have a difficult relationship with one another. They have a disconnection which is shown by disorder as small as sleep. The narrator mentioned: “Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I fell asleep. My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the same time” (Carver, 9). They go to bed in different rooms and have different times of sleep. The couple had a verbal fight right before Robert arrives. Both oppose one another in the argument. The narrator does not want the blind man in his house while the wife wants her husband to be nice to her friend. When Robert arrives into the home, it is clear that the narrator does not listen to or understand his wife. The narrator asks various rude questions. To avoid further conversating with Robert, the narrator turns on the television. Understandably, the wife was mad and looked at husband “with irritation. She was heading toward a boil” (Carver, 7). Clearly the narrator must not be caring for what his wife tells him and is quite obviously doing the opposite of everything she told him.

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The problems between the marriage of narrator and his wife seem to come from the narrator not being able to empathize and understand her, leaving the narrator with only a superficial understanding of who she really is. The narrator cares little of the poetry his wife writes about a significant moment in her life, when Robert touched her face at the last day of working for him. “I can remember I didn’t think much of the poem”, the narrator says (Carver, 1). Hence, he seems unable to grasp the poem; despite the emotional significance that it has held in the life of his wife. And his reluctance to hear one of the audiotapes shared between Robert and the narrator's wife is an even more straightforward example of the narrator's unwillingness to listen. When the narrator decides to listen to a tape he is mentioned on, the narrator causes the listening to be sidetracked by an intrusion (someone at the door). We never get back to the tape because he says he preferred not to. The narrator seems to resent his wife's relationship with Robert because it's focused on the empathetic listening and empathy that the narrator doesn't provide her or is capable of even giving in the first place.

While the narrator struggles, Robert on the other hand is shown to have conversational dynamic with the narrator and his wife, which shows that he is a good listener. Robert is always empathic and interested in what anyone has to say, good or bad. The friendship Robert has with the narrator’s wife backs up the fact Robert is a good listener. The friendship relies on sending tapes and listening without seeing means discussion and clarification are hard to get through, but Robert is fully capable of having an understanding of the wife. When the narrator is extremely rude and flaky, Robert never stopped being friendly to him showing Robert’s true empathy towards others. Due to the fact that Robert is so friendly, empathetic, and kind, the narrator’s reaction is that of a transformation that changed the narrator into a better person.

The lives of a married couple are disrupted when the wife’s blind friend, Robert, comes for a visit. The husband, who is in fact the narrator, is not able to empathize and understand others. The narrator is not even capable of making any friends due to this. On the other hand, the Robert is able to understand the emotional lives of others and is superior at being empathic. The narrator has all his senses while Robert does not. We see within the short story ‘Cathedral’, the author Raymond Carver constructs empathy through listening to be a superior form of perception to that of even being able to see and being able to clearly see discussion and clarifications.

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Empathy through Listening as a Form of Perception in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
“Empathy through Listening as a Form of Perception in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023,
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