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Theme of Limited Perception of Reality in Raymond Carver's ‘Cathedral’ and Alice Walker's ‘Everyday Use’

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Is reality simply based on the things that can be seen with the physical eye? Are there things beyond the physical eye which leads us to a deeper perception of life? Can epiphanic moments be the key to this deeper level of perception where we are able to see things that require more than physical eyes? The inability to see beyond our physical eyes produces a limited perception of reality. However, the ability to see beyond the physical realm opens an avenue to experience deeper levels of reality. These defining moments are very important in our lives because they help us to break free and move beyond the norms of society. Through the use of symbols and irony, both Raymond Carver, author of ‘Cathedral’, and Alice Walker, author of ‘Everyday Use’, conclude their short stories in an epiphanic moment in order to demonstrate a deeper perception on blindness and spiritual awakening.

In these stories, both Carver and Walker utilize physical settings and social standards as affecting components in the characters independence and social development. According to Peterson, “By situating readers in a close, direct relationship with the narrator and forcing them to view the world from the narrator's perspective, readers progress through a series of epiphanies, effectively conveying the stories central message” (Peterson, 167). In both stories, the readers were drawn close to the narrators. Sadeq writes, “Carver is known for his bleak and stark portrayal of working-class people trapped in states of isolation. Meanwhile, Walker grew up in an environment full of racism and poverty, which along with her passion for gender issues, remains a large part of her narratives” (Sadeq, 157). In ‘Cathedral’, Carver introduces the setting in a living room of a middle-class home somewhere in New York. This is home to the narrator and his wife, who was an old friend to a blind man. The story is set at the time, in the early stages of the switch from black and white to color televisions. A time when cassette tapes were on the leading edge of technology. In ‘Everyday Use’, Walker also uses settings and social standards to illustrate the main character’s values of independence and social improvement. Walker introduces the setting with a poverty-stricken family in the rural south. The main characters, Mama and her two daughters, Maggie and Dee, live in a small home with a tin roof and “no real windows, just some holes cut in the sides” (Walker, 365). Through this description of the home, readers gain an unmistakable picture of this family’s impoverished lifestyle. Mama, the narrator, makes reference to her lifestyle due to poverty. She describes herself as a big-boned, hard worker with “man working hands” (Walker, 363). The time is set during the ‘60s or early ‘70s’. A time when African Americans were faced with the task of striving to escape prejudice and poverty while searching for their personal identity in terms of culture. The expression ‘negro’ had been replaced with ‘black’. The new slogan to chant was ‘black power’. In a quest to discover their African roots, numerous blacks were prepared to dismiss anything that had to do with their American heritage, which was filled with generations of torment and injustice. Together, these stories, although taken from different backgrounds draw to a close in a significant epiphany for the characters involved as they travel on their journey to enlightenment.

Often, perceptions of reality are about the ways people communicate or fail to communicate due to their limited ability to rise above social norms. In ‘Cathedral’, Raymond Carver portrays the narrator, as someone without the ability to communicate with others. He looks at everything within his closed environment. His perception of Robert was limited to how he thought a blind man should look and act. According to Facknitz, “He is numb and isolated, a modern man for whom integration with the human race would be so difficult that it is futile. Consequently, he hides by failing to try, anesthetizes himself with booze, and explains away the world with sarcasm” (Facknitz, 294). In ‘Everyday Use’, Alice Walker portrays Dee as someone without the ability to communicate with others. Mama struggled to send her to a good school. However, the outcome of this struggle did not prove it to be the best decision. Dee’s education exposed her to a world far beyond that of her mother and sister. A world in which she now lost her ability to communicate effectively. A world which became the means by which she began to use her intelligence to intimidate and belittle people. The narrator recalls that Dee “washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand” (Walker, 364). According to Nancy Tuten, “Walker stresses not only the importance of language but also the destructive effects of its misuse. Clearly, Dee privileges language over silence, as she demonstrates in her determination to be educated and in the importance, she places on her name. Rather than providing a medium for newfound awareness and for community, however, verbal skill equips Dee to oppress and manipulate others and to isolate herself” (Tuten, 125). No matter how language can be, misusing it can be destructive. Dee used her newfound verbal skills to manipulate and oppress others. Sometimes, with closed lips, we have to speak to the outspoken by doing things to put them in their place. It is not surprising that Mama, who often communicate through silence, gained enough courage in the end to snatch the quilts from Dee and give them to Maggie.

Sometimes, we limit ourselves by only seeing things the way we are taught to see them. We enclose ourselves in a space where we can only experience our perception of a thing. However, there is a space that goes beyond the space that we see with our physical eyes. That space is spiritual, it is unlimited. It is a space where we can share an identical perception of something with someone else. In ‘Cathedral’, the narrator has physical eyes to see. With his eyes, he looks at everything within his closed environment. Though he looks at things with his physical eyes, he is incapable of seeing beyond his physical eyes. He sees himself as being superior to the blind man. His perception was limited to his television knowledge of how a blind man should look and act. The blind man, on the other hand, had a keen ability to see. He could not look at things with his natural eyes. However, his sight was enlightened spiritually. He saw beyond the surface of things. His knowledge delved into the deeper things of life. The absence of physical eyes seemed to heighten his awareness of a deeper understanding of life. Ala Sadeq writes: “‘Cathedral’ offers a variant on the Sophoclean irony of seeing the truth only when literally blind. Before meeting Robert, the sighted narrator sees nothing of what is true about blind people. At the end, temporarily deprived of sight when he closes his eyes, the narrator comes close to seeing liberation from his claustrophobic existence” (Sadeq, 158). When the narrator was initially asked to describe the cathedral that he saw on TV, twice he confessed his inability to communicate what he saw, “I’m just no good at it” (Carver, 225), and “I can't do anymore than I’ve done” (Carver, 225). But all of this changes when he faces an epiphanic moment as he puts himself in Roberts shoes and achieves something that he never thought possible. The blind man helped him to gain insight by leading him to an experience that opened his spiritual eyes. Robert instructed the narrator to close his eyes. Once they were closed, without looking, he instructed the narrator to draw. According to Mark Facknitz, “the blind man gives him a faculty of sight that he is not even aware that he lacks” (Facknitz, 293).

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In ‘Everyday Use’, Dee’s education exposed her to a world far beyond that of her mother and sister. A world in which she too was without the ability to see. When she arrived at the family home, she had lost perception of whom she really was. Due to the fascination of her new world, she was blind to her roots. She was not able to see the significance of her name, so she changed it. She looked at precious artifacts along with quilts which were made with swatches of clothes that had been worn by her ancestors, but she could not see their significance. These quilts were true tokens of her identity. However, the educated one did not know much about her family history. She desired to hang the heirlooms in a museum like an exhibit, to be looked at. She did not understand their significance, therefore, she was incapable of respecting them. When Dee arrives on the scene, her visit is really an exercise in taking. As soon as she arrives, she takes pictures. Later, she takes food as she eats the meal that Mama prepared. After dinner, she takes the dasher and churn top, and after ‘rifling’ through the trunk, attempts to take the quilts. Although she has abandoned her American name, she still holds tight to some American customs and culture. As David Cowart explains: “She wants to make the lid of the butter churn into a centerpiece for her table. She wants to hang quilts on the wall. She wants, in short to do what white people do with the cunning and quaint implements and products of the past. Wangero fails to see the mote in her own eye when she reproaches her mother and sister for a failure to value their heritage - she, who wants only to preserve that heritage as negative index to her own sophistication” (Cowart, 175). Wangero limited herself by only seeing things the way she was taught to see them.

She enclosed herself in a space where she could only experience her perception of reality. However, the narrator in ‘Everyday Use’ was able to see beyond physical boundaries. Mama was able to see the generational history of oppression in her family. She was able to see beyond the appearance of the family quilts. She saw the family memories that had been intertwined throughout the quilts. She saw them as documents of living history. Each swatch was a constant reminder of the people who made and used them. She saw the true significance of the quilts. According to Cowart, “The quilts that Wangero covets link her generation to prior generations, and thus they represent the larger African American past. The quilts contain scraps of dresses worn by the grandmother and even the great grandmother, as well as a piece of the uniform worn by the great-grandfather who served in the Union Army in the War Between the States” (Cowart, 172). These precious heirlooms served as a living legacy of the family’s pride and struggle for many generations. This valuable inheritance was something that had been passed down from generation to generation. Without looking, she was able to see the blindness of her daughter. Nancy Tuten also noticed that “Mama’s awakening to one daughter’s superficiality and to the other’s deep-seated understanding of heritage” (Tuten, 125).

Reality is not simply based on the things that can be seen with the physical eye? There are things beyond the physical eye which leads us to a deeper perception of life. Epiphanic moments can lead to a deeper level of perception which gives us the ability to see things that require more than physical eyes. In the beginning of the story, the narrator in ‘Cathedral’ was portrayed as an ignorant man stuck in his own world of preconceived notions about blind people. He was satisfied with his world and never thought of stepping outside the box. However, when the blind man had him draw a cathedral, he experienced something that he never thought possible. He was so touched that he did not want to open his physical eyes. He chose rather, to keep his eyes closed and enjoy the experience. At that moment, he experienced an epiphanic moment, a spiritual awakening. “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’” (Carver, 45), he said, as he realized that there was indeed a world beyond the one he knew.

It is ironic that Dee, by looking, without the ability to see, concluded that Mama and Maggie did not understand their heritage. “‘You just don’t understand’, she said, as Maggie and I came to the car. ‘What don’t I understand?’. I wanted to know. ‘Your heritage’, she said” (Walker, 370). Clearly, it was Dee herself who did not understand her heritage. She was able to look at the artifacts, look at the family home, and take pictures with a blind perception of her heritage. As the educated one in the family, she thought that changing her name, appearance and mannerisms would show her commitment to her heritage. According to Farrell, “Dee announces that she is no longer Dee, but ‘Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo’. She has newly adopted an African name since, as she explains: ‘I couldn’t bear it any longer being named after the people who oppress me’” (Farrell, 183). In an attempt to rise above the shackles of oppression, she refused to be called by the name of the people who oppressed her. According to Cowart, “Wangero has realized the dream of the oppressed: she has escaped the ghetto. Why, then, is she accorded so little material or authorial respect? The reason lies in her progressive repudiation of the very heritage she claims to revere” (Cowart, 172). She could not see that her true heritage went far beyond being African. Her new name, her new African attire and her new male friend are all physical manifestations of her desire to promote her newly adopted African heritage. Perhaps she will eventually develop a keen perception of the world beyond that which she can see with her physical eyes. At that moment, just as the narrator in ‘Cathedral’, she too will be able to experience her long awaited epiphanic moment.

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Theme of Limited Perception of Reality in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ and Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-limited-perception-of-reality-in-raymond-carvers-cathedral-and-alice-walkers-everyday-use/
“Theme of Limited Perception of Reality in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ and Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-limited-perception-of-reality-in-raymond-carvers-cathedral-and-alice-walkers-everyday-use/
Theme of Limited Perception of Reality in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ and Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-limited-perception-of-reality-in-raymond-carvers-cathedral-and-alice-walkers-everyday-use/> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Theme of Limited Perception of Reality in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ and Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-limited-perception-of-reality-in-raymond-carvers-cathedral-and-alice-walkers-everyday-use/
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