‘Cathedral’ is a beautiful and elegant story by Raymond Carver. Despite the simple and gruff prose, the story discusses the complex nature of alienation. It is a story of a man becoming something he was not at the beginning of the narrative. This is also a self-analysis of Carver about the meaning of his own life. Carver was born poor and considered himself to be unrefined and simple. He grew up feeling estranged from the world around him. This is a story of an individual becoming aware and discovering truths about himself and his connections to the world. ‘Cathedral’ is an examination of loneliness and alienation.
The narrator of the story was confused, like Carver, about the direction of his existence. This led to his loneliness and disassociation from people. I know that if a person cannot relate to people, then he cannot identify as a person. The narrator was disparaging of Robert at the beginning of the story. He thought Robert was pathetic. To the narrator, Robert was a blind man with a dead wife named Beulah (Carver, 34). The narrator was curt and inarticulate. He had drifted apart from his wife. He had drifted apart from human-kind. He had alienated the people around him. He had become isolated. Upon hearing that his wife had invited a friend to spend the night, he became dismissive. He could not imagine how anyone could be friends with a blind man. He had sensed that his marriage was in trouble. The arrival of Robert added to his suspicions. “My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn’t like what she saw” (Carver, 36). He knew that his relationship with his wife lacked personal attachment. Robert was blind, but it was easy to see why the narrator’s wife was close to him. Robert was open and friendly. He cared for people. He was interested in people.
As the night progresses, he sees that Robert is not hindered by his sightlessness. Robert’s blindness has not diminished his capacity to lead a full life. After the wife goes to bed, Robert and the narrator watch TV. They come across a program about European cathedrals. Robert asks the narrator to describe the cathedrals. Robert says that he always wants to learn. The narrator wants to describe them but cannot. Cathedrals were massive religious structures built by the faithful. They soared skyward in an attempt to penetrate the clouds and be closer to God. Generations of workers toiled to build these architectural masterpieces. Cathedrals were more than buildings. Cathedrals represented the values of the society that engineered them. Cathedrals constituted the bonds and closeness that the community felt toward God and each other. Cathedrals represented society. The architects of the towering cathedrals found that the walls would begin to buckle under the enormous weight of these structures. In the rush to be closer to God, men had forgotten the importance of building a solid foundation. To reinforce the buckled walls, the builders would add buttresses for support (Carver, 40). Just as with the walls of the cathedral, the narrator found that the foundation of his life also needed support. The support was in the form of community.
Robert asked the narrator to get some paper and draw the cathedral. The narrator would draw and Robert would follow the motion of the narrator’s hand with his hand. In a sense, they were building the cathedral together. The narrator closed his eyes as he drew. He had always had a problem connecting, but now he felt liberated and free. “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything” (Carver, 42). He had shared a moment with another person and in the process, with his eyes still closed, he could finally see. By sharing with another, he had overcome his loneliness and alienation.
- Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral”. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. Shorter 12th ed. New York: Norton, 2016. 32-42.