Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” opens with an internal monologue in which the narrator expresses his hesitation about hosting Robert, a blind man who is a friend of the narrator’s wife. The narrator remembers the circumstances that precipitated the friendship between his wife and Robert. His wife, in need of money and engaged to her first husband, took a summer job assisting Robert, a social worker. At the end of the summer, Robert asked the narrator’s wife if he could see her by touching her face, and the experience was a deeply memorable one for the narrator’s wife. The narrator also recounts how his wife reached out to Robert for support after an unsuccessful suicide attempt fueled by her miserable relationship with her husband, whose military career caused them to have a nomadic existence.
Snapping out of his internal monologue, the narrator makes cynical jokes about Robert’s blindness, asking his wife if he should take Robert bowling. She protests and implores him to be kind to Robert, who is spending the night at their house after a visit with his recently deceased wife’s family. The narrator asks rude questions about Robert’s wife, and the narrator’s frustrated wife explains Robert’s marriage to his late wife Beulah. The woman had worked for Robert the summer after the narrator’s wife did. They married soon after. The narrator then contemplates this marriage, thinking how sad it must have been for Robert’s wife to not have been visually appreciated by her husband.
The narrator’s wife then retrieves Robert from the train station and brings him back to their house. While the narrator’s wife is very accommodating to Robert, the narrator is insensitive. He asks Robert what side of the train he sat on, since the right side of the train is the one with the good view. The narrator avoids Robert’s questions about his life and bristles when Robert refers to him as “bub.” They have a drink and then eat a large dinner.
After a hearty meal and cherry pie, the trio sit back down in the living room and Robert continues his efforts to get to know the narrator. The narrator answers Robert’s questions curtly and then turns on the television to prevent Robert from asking any more questions. The narrator’s wife goes upstairs to change, and while she’s away, the narrator and Robert smoke marijuana. When the narrator’s wife returns she joins them, and soon all three characters are drowsy.
The narrator’s wife falls asleep on the couch, and the narrator begins looking for a program to watch on television. After flipping around indecisively the narrator settles on one about the cathedrals of Europe. The narrator realizes that Robert cannot fully appreciate this program since he can’t see the visuals of cathedrals being shown. He attempts to describe the cathedral’s ornate architecture. This is a struggle for him, so Robert suggests that they draw a cathedral together. The narrator fetches a pen and brown paper, and the narrator draws a cathedral while Robert’s hand rests on his. The narrator’s wife wakes up and is confused by the activity, but the two keep drawing. Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes and keep drawing, and doing so precipitates a transformational spiritual experience in the narrator. When they are done drawing, Robert asks the narrator to open his eyes and admire their work, but the narrator chooses to keep them closed.