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Essay on Symbolism in 'Cathedral' by Raymond Carver

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“For they do not look through to the soul, nor have a keen eye for virtue, but they stop at the outward excellencies of the body and admire daring, and strength, speed in running, and size, and consider these as fit qualifications for the purple robe and diadem” (Goodreads). In this quote, Anna Coleman portrays how society views others and the fundamental views of the narrator in the short story “Cathedral.” In the story, the author Raymond Carver displays the superficial ideals of society through the narrator, the husband. A blind man, Robert, has to stay at the narrator’s house after his wife’s untimely passing due to cancer. The narrator’s inability to look past the outward appearances of characters within the story results in his dismissal of Robert due to his disability. The narrator gradually begins to see deeper into the blind man once they begin talking to each other and he finally pushes away his shallow views and realizes that there is more to a person than what is on the surface. The symbolism of alcohol, the cathedral, the tapes, and blindness all play a strong part in the overall lesson of the story.

Throughout the story, the husband’s shallow views of people strongly reflect the superficial views of society nowadays. Society often looks down on others if they do not live up to the standards of perfection that it holds. Something the husband pays extra attention to is the physical appearance of the blind man. The husband goes into great detail about the other man’s appearance, thus reflecting society’s condescending views. The husband describes the blind man as “[in his] the late forties, a heavy-set, balding man” with “stooped shoulders” (Carver 5). The narrator judges Robert by his outward appearance instead of making an effort to delve deep into Robert and judge him on what truly matters. Throughout the story, the narrator mentions Robert’s beard. He thinks it is odd for the blind man to have a beard because he cannot see it. The husband’s views stop at the outward appearance of others instead of judging them by what is deeper than the eye can see, thus reflecting his similarity to the shallow views of society.

Furthermore, a large symbol in the short story is alcohol; alcohol illustrates the narrator’s jealousy over his wife and Robert’s close relationship. At the beginning of the story, the husband is in his most superficial and jealous state. The narrator is jealous of the emotional bond that his wife and the blind man hold. The narrator’s wife and Robert have been sending tapes back and forth for years since the narrator’s wife moved away. The actions between the blind man and the narrator’s wife sent the narrator into jealous turmoil, thus leading him to drink his jealousy away. The wife’s “ineradicable memory of this intimate [physical] touch” by the blind man causes the narrator’s jealousy to flare up yet again (Simpson). The narrator is consumed by jealousy which in turn causes him to continue to drink with his wife and the blind man. When the wife recalls the touch of the blind man, the narrator’s “fear of betrayal and abandonment” also come to the surface (Simpson). The husband is afraid that his wife is going to leave him because of the deep emotional bond his wife and Robert had developed and kept over many years.

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Additionally, another symbol in the short story is the tapes. The tapes symbolize the significance of physical touch and face to face connections. The tapes are just a substitution for physical contact and real conversations. Robert mentions that “this beats tapes, doesn’t it” when the narrator’s wife is speaking to him (Carver 8). The real-time conversations are most important to Robert because that is how he is able to connect with other characters in the story. Though the tapes have kept Robert and the narrator’s wife connected throughout the years, being able to talk is extremely special because of the strong bond they share. Additionally, the tapes are special to Robert because they are like letters to him. Since he is unable to read letters, the tapes take the place of letters in his world. Now that the narrator’s wife and Robert can speak face to face, the bond they share is strengthened even more.

Towards the end of the story, the symbol of the cathedral begins to really take shape. Carver uses the cathedral to symbolize secular spirituality. At first, the husband’s outlook on cathedrals is shallow; he views them as simply unimpressive and boring. His views on the cathedral strongly reflect his inability to find true meaning and purpose in his life. The narrator asks Robert if he knows what a cathedral is. Robert knows very little; therefore, he asks the other man to “describe one to [him]” (Carver 11). The narrator is unable to describe a cathedral due to his inability to see the voluptuousness of the cathedral. He sees the cathedral as something on a tv and not as something much larger than what he is able to perceive with his shallow mindset. As Robert asks the narrator to draw a cathedral with him, his shallow views begin to fade. The simple task triggers a change in the narrator’s outlook on the cathedral. His newfound views are a complete turnaround from his previous attitude toward them. After the narrator is finished drawing the cathedral, he keeps his eyes closed to savor the moment. The narrator and the blind man have a moment where they really begin to connect. When the narrator is drawing the cathedral, Robert recommends that the narrator “close [his] eyes,” thus leading to the narrator being able to really relax and focus on the task he is doing (Carver 13). Tracy Caldwell, a well-known writer, suggests that the reason the husband keeps his eyes closed once he is finished drawing is that he has an epiphany about what it really means to be blind (Caldwell). The narrator experiences personal growth and gains the ability to see deeper into things rather than what is on the surface, thus reflecting back to the symbol of secular spirituality.

Lastly, one of the most important symbols in the short story is blindness. This can represent the narrator’s lack of perception of others and Robert’s physical blindness. The narrator navigates the world by sight, thus leading him to judge things upon first experiencing them. On the other hand, the blind man navigates the world by touch. This creates a deeper meaning because Robert is able to appreciate the little things because he is unable to see them and judge them as the narrator can. At the end of the story, the blind man is able to envision the drawing of the cathedral by simply tracing the lines drawn on the paper by the narrator. The husband explicitly describes the actions of the blind man. He says that Robert “felt around over the paper” and “moved the tips of his fingers” across the paper (Carver 13). The way the narrator describes the blind man’s actions goes to show that he is beginning to pay more attention to the little details. The narrator begins to work around his inability to see past the basic view of something and gets to explore the deeper meanings of what people do.

The overall symbolism of blindness, alcohol, the tapes, and the cathedral in the story is heavily impactful on the reader’s perception of the story. Though the narrator is unable to see past the immediate judgments he gets toward other characters at the beginning of the story, he is able to alleviate the shallow views he holds and allow himself to see past Robert’s blindness. Seeing the deeper meaning is extremely important when it comes to navigating the world today. Seeing past the outward appearance of things creates a new mindset and allows one to open up their mind to other things.

Works Cited

  1. Caldwell, Tracy M. “Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral.’” Literary Contexts in Short Stories: Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” Mar. 2006, pp. 1–8. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=18898049&site=lrc-live. 22 September 2019.
  2. Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” New York: Vintage Companies, 1983. http://www.giuliotortello.it/ebook/cathedral.pdf, 22 September 2019.
  3. Simpson, Sara. “Boston University Arts & Sciences Writing Program.” Alcohol, Emotion, and Tension in Raymond Carver's Fiction ' Writing Program ' Boston University, Boston University, www.bu.edu/writingprogram/journal/past-issues/issue-7/simpson/, 22 September 2019.
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