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Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral': Beyond Eyes Can See

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'Cathedral' is a short story written by Raymond Carver. The story develops an ironic situation in which a blind man gives a sighted man an eye-opening experience. The story beautifully depicts the process of an individual who transforms from this unknowledgeable, ignorant being, into a knowledgeable soul. When we read the story, we can see that the narrator, the sighted man, is more insensible to the eye light and powerless to perceive with his senses. His blindness is not physical, but social and emotional, to understand other people's feelings and his inability to find the meaning of his life.

'Cathedral' is a story about a husband and wife who live in New York and are visited by the wife’s friend, a blind man named Robert, whose wife, Beulah, recently died. The husband is apprehensive about the visit since he has never interacted with a blind man before. The wife met the blind man ten years ago when she worked for him as a reader to the blind in Seattle. The narrator tells us that on the last day of her job there, the blind man touched her face and she wrote a poem about the experience. The narrator was never interested on her poetry, this is one of the things that make the wife feel away in her marriage with the narrator.

The wife picks up Robert at the train station, and when they arrive back home, the wife seems happy to welcome Robert into the house, while the husband is still nervous. Things are awkward between the husband and Robert, so they decide to drink. After some light conversation, they eat dinner, and the husband is impressed with how Robert can identify the food on his plate. After dinner, the wife and Robert have their conversation, on which the narrator does not know how to interact. This leads the husband to get jealous about their connection. After the wife falls asleep on the couch, the husband and Robert watch and listen to the television. The husband switches to a channel that is talking about cathedrals, and Robert asks the husband to describe it. The husband realizes that he cannot describe it, and so Robert asks him to draw it out. As the husband draws it out, Robert follows along with his hand. In the end, Robert grasps what a cathedral looks like, while the husband begins to view and feel life from a different perspective, never experienced before.

Carver, the author of this story, using the narrator’s character shows us that the appearance as it would seem is ambiguous, the narrator could see externally and the blind man was the one without sight. The narrator in the story says: “And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed” (Carver, lines 9-10). Here, early in the story, the narrator gives context for the visitor he and his wife are about to receive at his home. The narrator displays discomfort with the idea of the blind man’s visit on the basis of not knowing him. The impression that these lines give is that the narrator was the one blinded by his own ignorance. This first instance of his ignorance is passing judgment on Robert before even meeting him, despite knowing very little about him.

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We see narrator's blindness throughout the story, while him talking to us and his small conversations between him and his wife. We see him being very closed off and cynical, he thinks that the marriage between the blind man and his wife, Beulah, is somehow a joke. The narrator makes these off-color remarks about her name when he says: “Beulah! That's a name for a colored woman. 'Was his wife a Negro?', I asked” (Carver, lines 89-90). The narrator seems to be aghast at the idea that Robert's wife could have been black. On top of being prejudiced towards the blindness of Robert, he is also being racist. The author is giving us a space to create hate and to dislike the protagonist, which is the narrator, and create the idea that narrator's eyes have only shallow sight. Observation movements require deeper cooperation. They require to add feelings to the vision and see beyond.

Further on the story the narrator is describing his impressions of what the life of Robert’s recently deceased wife, Beulah, must have been like. Like of his sense of how depressing it must be to be the wife of a blind man. He says: “A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved. A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better. Someone who could wear makeup or not—what difference to him? She could if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks, and purple shoes, no matter” (Carver, lines 113-118). In this part, the narrator betrays his own sense of what is important in a relationship between a husband and wife. That the narrator pities Robert’s wife because she could never experience being appreciated for her appearance. This part communicates more about the narrator, of course, than it does about Robert or Beulah. The narrator cannot be conceived that Robert or anyone else with disabilities might offer other forms of love, empathy, or connection than just appreciating how someone else looks.

The narrator of the story has a stereotypical opinion on blind people, while being blind to his own imperfections. The narrator is confident that he can see everything and effortlessly see ‘anything off the surface’, which unquestionably explains why he does not know his wife well. The narrator says: “I didn't think much of the poem. Of course, I didn't tell her that. Maybe I just don't understand poetry. I admit it's not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read” (Carver, lines 31-33). Poetry is essential to human life. It allows us to convey our thoughts and emotions through beautiful, sometimes horrible, words. We turn to poetry to express the inexpressible. As we see in the story the narrator’s wife writes poetry because it has become a therapeutic way to express her inner thoughts and feelings. This is one thing that perhaps saved her life. If the narrator would be more careful on showing her love and interest, perhaps their relationship would be healthier and the wife would not find someone else, in this case the blind man, to understand her. However, Robert has a deeper ability to 'see more' than the narrator. Although Robert did not see the physical view of the narrator's wife, he understood about her life and emotional situation more deeply than the narrator because he could see deep feelings that 'lie beneath the superficial view'. The narrator also tells Robert that he smokes dope and stays up as long as he could, and he and his wife hardly go to bed at the same time. His blindness to his wife’s feelings isolates him from her and seems to drive him to smoke substances in attempt to escape reality.

Reading the story towards the end, Carver, the author of the story, helps the narrator to go out of his darkness through the help of the blind man. When the narrator drew the cathedral with the blind man and closed his eyes, he realizes an ‘epiphany’, in which he observes a lot more than he could ever see with his eyes being opened. Although the narrator knows how a cathedral looks like, he was incompetent to define it to the blind man as he could not ‘see its deeper meaning’. As a consequence, the definition of the image acquired more ‘human elements’, freeing the narrator and permitting him to truly see for the first time. The narrator says: “But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do. 'Well?', he said. 'Are you looking?'. My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. 'It’s really something', I said” (Carver, lines 392-397). This part shows that for the narrator, this is a transformative experience and perhaps makes him feel a faith. He experiences physical blindness while keeping his eyes closed, but at the same time finds so much more to feel, so much more to see. He is looking in a different way, and he is discovering that it is possible to look, see and feel in this different way.

The main journey is that the protagonist, the narrator, steps towards experiencing true sight. He was blind to his wife, blind to faith, and blind and judgmental to other people, until Robert came along and showed him just how important and ultimate things were under the surface. People are only as blind as they want to be. Sometimes ignorance and lack of knowledge are the causes of one’s blindness. Sometimes the lack of trust on people, and sometimes a broken heart, does not let people open up and see the worth and the true meaning of their life and people around them. Maybe coming out from the dark tunnel of your soul can save someone's life, and most importantly, you can save your own life as well.

Work Cited

  1. Carver, Raymond. 'Cathedral'. The Atlantic Monthly, (1981): pp.1-13. Print.
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Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’: Beyond Eyes Can See. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/raymond-carvers-cathedral-beyond-eyes-can-see/
“Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’: Beyond Eyes Can See.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/raymond-carvers-cathedral-beyond-eyes-can-see/
Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’: Beyond Eyes Can See. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/raymond-carvers-cathedral-beyond-eyes-can-see/> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’: Beyond Eyes Can See [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/raymond-carvers-cathedral-beyond-eyes-can-see/
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