Cathedral

by

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator notes that his wife’s friend, a blind man named Robert, is coming to spend the night after visiting his late wife’s family in Connecticut. The narrator’s wife hasn’t seen the blind man (as the narrator refers to him) in ten years, but they’ve kept up their friendship through mailing audio tapes back and forth. The narrator has never met the blind man, and he doesn’t want to—the idea of having a blind man in his house bothers him, because blind people in the movies move slowly and never laugh.
This opening highlights two major features of the narrator’s personality. His reluctance to host his wife’s good friend for the night shows his jealousy and his discomfort with emotional intimacy, especially between his wife and another man. The narrator’s stereotype-based assumptions about Richard — that he will be slow and humorless — show the narrator’s callousness and distaste for weakness.
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The narrator says that his wife met Robert when she worked for him one summer in Seattle. She was set to marry a man (not the narrator) who was in officers’ training school, and she needed money so she responded to a “HELP WANTED” ad in the paper and began helping Robert with his work in the county social service department.
The initial interaction between Robert and the narrator’s wife foreshadows a similar dynamic between the narrator and Robert later in the story. The narrator’s wife started her friendship with Robert in an effort to help him, but it becomes clear through the course of the story that it is often Robert who helps her.
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Over the course of the summer, the narrator’s wife and Robert became good friends, and on her last day at work he asked if he could “see” the narrator’s wife’s face by touching it with his hands. She agreed and later wrote a poem about the remarkable experience of being “seen” by a blind man. The narrator comments that his wife was always writing poems after something important happened to her, but that he “didn’t think much” of this poem when he read it.
Here the narrator betrays his inability to empathize with the emotional experiences of others, including his own wife. He dismisses her poem outright without even engaging with its emotional content, showing again how callous and unfeeling he is. His arrogance is highlighted by the fact that he disparages his wife’s attempts at literary expression even as he himself makes such an attempt (in the form of a short story).
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A year into her first marriage, once the narrator’s wife and her husband had moved away to an Air Force base, the narrator’s wife called Robert and he asked her to send him a tape telling him about her life. In the tape, she told him about not liking being married to a military man, and she and Robert continued to correspond this way for years as she and her husband moved around the country from base to base.
Robert’s request for an audiotape shows his interest in others’ experiences and inner worlds, an empathetic sort of “seeing.” The audiotape correspondence puts emphasis on listening and creating a thoughtful response. Thus, the narrator’s wife finds a degree of emotional intimacy in her friendship with Robert that she doesn’t have with her husband, the military man, despite Robert’s distance and his disability.
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Finally, feeling lonely from her nomadic lifestyle, the narrator’s wife attempted suicide, though the pills she took just made her sick instead. She told Robert about this, too, since by then she told him about most everything—the narrator notes that, aside from writing poems, the tapes were “her chief means of recreation.”
The narrator’s wife’s reliance on her friendship with Robert is evident here, as it seems that one of her favorite activities is to exchange audiotapes with him. The suicide attempt shows her level of emotional distress, while the fact that she seems more stable now demonstrates the healing and nurturing nature of her friendship with Robert.
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Eventually, the narrator’s wife got a divorce and married the narrator, all the while continuing her audio-tape exchange with Robert. Once, the narrator’s wife asked him if he’d like to hear a tape where he was mentioned and he agreed, though hearing his name “in the mouth of a stranger, this blind man I didn’t even know” made him uncomfortable. After a knock at the door, the narrator never returned to hear what Robert said about him, which he notes is “just as well,” since he “heard all he wanted to.”
The narrator’s discomfort with emotional intimacy is especially clear here when he betrays his reluctance to hear an audio tape from Robert. The narrator does not want to hear another person talking about him, or to fully know the level of emotional intimacy that his wife shares with Robert. Despite his jealous nature, then, he manages to suppress any curiosity he may feel.
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Before the narrator’s wife goes to the train station to retrieve Robert, the narrator and his wife quarrel. The narrator makes insensitive jokes about Robert’s blindness, asking his wife if he should take Robert bowling, a sport dependent on sight. He also asks about the race of Robert’s recently deceased wife, Beulah. (Beulah and Robert met when Beulah worked for Robert the summer after the narrator’s wife did.) These remarks infuriate the narrator’s wife who says: “Are you crazy? Have you just flipped or something?”
This interaction highlights the tension between the narrator and his wife as his jealousy turns to cruelty. The narrator is attempting to belittle Robert because of his blindness, perhaps because the narrator feels possessive of his wife and envies her emotional connection with Robert. The irony here is that he is mocking the man for his disability even as it is this disability which occasioned the friendship in the first place and allowed the two to develop such a strong and tender bond.
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The narrator then wonders how Beulah must have felt about Robert’s blindness, saying: “I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led.” Presuming that all women, including Beulah, love compliments on their appearance, the narrator thinks about how hard it must have been for Beulah that her husband had never been able to see her.
This passage shows the high premium the narrator places on visual perception. He is unable to comprehend how a woman could feel appreciated by her husband if he cannot see her when she is wearing a nice outfit. The fact that the narrator does not consider that relationships can be built on non-visual understanding reflects his own inability to comprehend his wife’s emotions or to see that what is most important to her is not her appearance but her inner life.
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Robert and the narrator’s wife arrive back at the house, and the narrator immediately betrays his reluctance about having Robert as a guest in his home. To himself, he notes how Robert wears a full beard, thinking that a blind man having a beard is ridiculous. When his wife introduces him to Robert, the narrator struggles to return Robert’s conversational niceties. Robert, however, seems unfazed by this. After they settle in the living room and begin talking, the narrator cruelly targets Robert’s blindness, asking if he sat on the side of the train with a view. Robert replies in a cordial manner, talking about how he hadn’t ridden on a train since he was child.
The narrator is unwilling to engage with Robert in a sincere manner. His internal comments about Robert’s beard, as well as his pointed question about the train, demonstrate his discomfort with Robert’s disability. They also show that the narrator wants to dominate Robert, exercising power conversationally by emphasizing his own ability to see. In fact, the narrator’s need to make Robert feel inferior only makes his own insecurities painfully apparent.
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The narrator then drops out of the conversation for a few moments to analyze Robert’s appearance. The narrator notices Robert’s clothing, which the narrator sarcastically calls “spiffy.” He then notices that Robert does not use a cane or wear dark glasses, which he understood to be necessary tools for the blind. The narrator is then fascinated by Robert’s eyes, which he says have “too much white in the iris” and he notices that Robert’s pupils move about randomly. Robert’s eyes are “creepy,” he notes.
The narrator’s interest in Robert, the first blind person he has ever had close contact with, is clearly piqued. He surveys Robert closely, but in a sarcastic, puerile manner, using a clichéd compliment of “spiffy” to describe Robert’s clothes and a childish “creepy” to describe the blind man’s eyes. The narrator’s comments show that he is suspicious of Robert, but the narrator’s close interest in Robert’s physical appearance shows that the narrator is also intrigued by him, despite his suspicions.
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The narrator then offers Robert a drink. Robert asks for Scotch with just a splash of water, and the narrator makes the same drink for himself and his wife. They talk for a little while more about Robert’s travel from the West Coast to Connecticut to the narrator’s home. Robert then smokes a cigarette, an act the narrator finds fascinating because he read an article that said blind people often didn’t smoke. The narrator notes how Robert deftly smokes the cigarette down to the nub and then lights another cigarette.
Here the narrator shows some small consideration for Robert and begins to act more like a typical host when he asks Robert if he would like a drink. The narrator shows himself to be unexpectedly impressed by Robert’s ability to smoke a cigarette so skillfully, but this again is only revealing of the narrator’s ignorance.
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The trio then settles down to eat a large dinner, comprising steak, potatoes, green beans, and pie prepared by the narrator’s wife. Before the three begin to eat, though, the narrator jokingly says “Now let us pray,” as if he meant to give thanks in a religious fashion before the dinner. Robert bows his head, but the narrator does not offer a religious prayer, instead saying, “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t cold.”
The narrator’s dinner prayer joke explicitly introduces the theme of religion and faith into this story. The narrator displays a knowledge of religious practice that perhaps indicates he has a religious background. However, he shows his secular, skeptical bent by following up “now let us pray” with a joke that would surely strike some religious people as being in poor taste.
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The three go back to living room to unwind after a large dinner. For a while, Robert and the narrator’s wife talk together about things that have happened since they last saw each other 10 years ago. The narrator does not participate in this conversation, and mostly just listens. Robert attempts to engage the narrator in conversation but the narrator is still resistant. He offers curt answers to Robert’s questions about his career.
This scene further demonstrates the narrator’s inability to connect with others. This is most notable when compared with the conversational skills Robert exhibits in this scene. Robert is able to communicate openly and fluidly with the narrator’s wife, even though the two have corresponded by audio tapes and have not met in person for ten years. The narrator, by comparison, seems to be the one with the real disability.
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The narrator, uncomfortable with Robert’s questions about his life (which the narrator seems to feel are too probing), turns on the television in an attempt to ignore and exclude Robert. This move irritates the narrator’s wife, but Robert handles it with unfailing good humor and is able to correctly identify that that television is a color set and not an older, black-and-white model.
Robert once again impresses the narrator not only by proving to be unfazed by the narrator’s rudeness in turning on the television, but also because he is able to identify that it’s a color TV without being able to see it. This is an inkling of the tremendous perceptual abilities Robert has (although his most impressive perceptual talents are emotional) despite his blindness.
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The narrator’s wife leaves the room to change into bed clothes. Before she does, she asks Robert if he is “comfortable” and firmly says that she wants Robert to feel “comfortable” at home. While his wife is upstairs, the narrator invites Robert to smoke marijuana with him. (Smoking marijuana is an evening ritual for the narrator.) Robert and the narrator smoke together, and the narrator’s wife joins in when she returns. Robert says that he has never smoked marijuana before, but the narrator notes how capably Robert smokes, like “he’d been doing this since he was nine years old.”
Here the narrator’s anxiety betrays itself. It seems as if, in order to calm himself, the narrator regularly smokes marijuana in the evening. Sharing this habitual act with Robert suggests that the narrator is beginning to open up to Robert. Meanwhile, Robert’s fluidity with smoking once again impresses the narrator, as the narrator had evidently assumed that blindness would render a person wholly incapable in this respect. More and more, Robert seems more adept than the narrator in everyday life.
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The narrator’s wife soon dozes off, leaving the narrator to entertain to Robert. The narrator asks if Robert would like to go to sleep, but Robert responds that he’ll stay up with the narrator. The narrator responds that he’s glad for the company, and seems surprised that he actually means it. He notes that almost every night he stays up by himself while his wife goes to sleep and smokes marijuana. And that when he does go to sleep sometimes he has “these dreams,” from which he wakes up with his heart pounding.
Now the narrator is left alone with Robert. His seemingly polite question about whether Robert wants to go to sleep can also be seen as an attempt to escape this situation of being alone with another person, of having to relate to another person. Robert decision to stay up ensures that the narrator will have to relate to someone. That the narrator then almost immediately realizes that he’s glad to have company indicates his underlying loneliness. That lonelines, and its depth and power, are then highlighted by the narrator’s terrible dreams.
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When the news ends, the narrator looks for a new program to watch. There’s “nothing on,” and he switches between programs indecisively, settling on a program about “the church” and European cathedrals. He apologizes to Robert for his choice, but Robert kindly says that it’s fine with him and says he’s happy to learn something. “I got ears,” Robert says.
While one could argue that the narrator ends up on the program about cathedrals for no reason, one could also argue that of all the choices, he does choose to watch the cathedral program, That at minimum they hold some interest for him. Meanwhile, Robert’s statement that he’s always interested in learning and that he’s “got ears” is important—Robert’s assertion directly contradicts the narrator’s focus solely on sight as an important sense throughout the story up to that point. Robert’s kindness in response to the narrator’s apology about the program further builds a bond between them.
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While watching the program, the narrator realizes that Robert is not able to fully understand what the cathedrals on television are, as he has never seen them. The narrator, who didn’t even want to watch the program at first because he says cathedrals aren’t “your run-of-the-mill TV fare,” attempts to explain what they look like to Robert, but he is embarrassed by his feeble attempt to verbalize their elaborate structures.
The narrator now makes an effort to accommodate Robert, a notable departure from his initial attitude. It’s also notable that the narrator is unable to describe the cathedrals he’s looking at very well. This suggests that, even though the narrator can see, he’s not particularly observant of details or adept at analyzing what he sees. Furthermore, his inability to find the right description contrasts the long audio tapes that Robert would make.
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Robert wonders if it would be okay for him to ask the narrator a question, and then asks the narrator if he’s at all religious. The narrator responds that “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything.”
In describing his lack of faith in religion, the narrator in fact describes himself more generally: he truly does seem to have no faith in anything. He has closed himself off in his glib world from the world, from his wife, from friends. That the narrator admits this—even if he doesn’t entirely realize what he’s admitting—is a turning point.
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Robert suggests that he and the narrator draw a cathedral together so that Robert can “see” it. The narrator agrees and finds paper and a pen. Together, they draw a cathedral: Robert holds his hand on the narrator’s writing hand. Robert encourages the narrator to keep drawing, saying things like “swell” and “doing fine.” The narrator becomes enthralled with the drawing, adding more and more details to his rendering of the cathedral.
The narrator’s lack of sarcastic commentary and simple acceptance of Robert’s praise is notable here because previously the narrator has been resistant to committing himself fully to interacting with Robert. Also, his immersion in the details of the cathedral contrasts his inability to describe much about them when he was simply looking at them on TV. This suggests that Robert’s perception has a richness that the narrator lacks.
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The narrator’s wife wakes up and is confused to find the narrator and Robert drawing. Robert tells the narrator’s wife that everything is fine and encourages the narrator to keep drawing. Robert then asks the narrator to draw with his eyes closed, and the narrator does so. He draws passionately. When Robert asks the narrator to open his eyes again to view his work, the narrator decides to keep his eyes closed for a little while longer. The narrator knows he is inside his own home, but feels as if he isn’t inside anything. When Robert asks his opinion of the drawing, the narrator, eyes closed, says: “It’s really something.”
In this final moment, the narrator seems to have undergone some kind of transformation. He has abandoned his self-consciousness and his judgment of Robert. Until now, the narrator hasn’t been impressed by anything, but his reaction to the drawing (even without seeing it) indicates that he is finally able to find some meaning and beauty in the world through perceiving things as Robert does. Or, rather, perhaps it is in perceiving as Robert does that the narrator is able to find a sense of true connection, to see beyond himself, and it is that sudden empathy that changes him and makes him see the world in a new way.
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