While the narrator is able to see the physical world, he struggles in his relationship with his wife. Robert, on the other hand, is blind, but he seems to be quite attuned to the emotional lives of others because he is an empathetic listener. Carver, therefore, configures empathy via listening as a mode of perception that is perhaps more intimate than sight.
The narrator seems to have a difficult relationship with his wife. They sleep in different rooms and go to bed at different times, which is just one sign of their grave disconnection. Before Robert arrives at their house, the narrator and his wife quarrel—he says that he does not want a blind man in their house, and his wife asks him to be nice to her friend if he loves her. It is apparent that the narrator does not listen to or truly understand his wife, because upon Robert’s arrival at the house, the narrator poses rude questions to Robert, trying to emphasize his disability. After dinner, when the narrator turns on the television to avoid further discussion with Robert, the narrator’s wife is frustrated and the narrator can tell: “My wife looked at me with irritation. She was heading toward a boil.”
The marital problems between the narrator and his wife seem to stem from the narrator’s inability to empathize with her, which leaves him with only a superficial understanding of who she is. He narrates his wife’s suicide attempt in a cold, matter-of-fact manner, which seems a callous and even cruel way of relating to the distress of a loved one. Furthermore, the narrator belittles his wife’s poem about an important moment in her life, when Robert touched her face at the end of her time working for him. “I can remember I didn’t think much of the poem,” the narrator says. He therefore seems unable to appreciate the poem, despite the emotional importance it holds in his wife’s life. And an even more straightforward example of the narrator’s unwillingness to listen is his reluctance to hear one of the audiotapes shared between Robert and the narrator’s wife. When the narrator does agree to listen to a tape on which he is mentioned, the narrator allows an interruption (someone at the door) to sidetrack the listening. They do not return to the tape, and he says he prefers it that way—it seems that the narrator envies his wife’s friendship with Robert because it is founded on the empathetic listening and understanding that the narrator does not provide her.
By contrast, Robert’s conversational dynamic with both the narrator and the narrator’s wife demonstrates that he is a very good listener. He is warm and interested in a way that suggests he is deeply empathetic. Furthermore, the fact that his friendship with the narrator’s wife relies on sending audiotapes across the country shows his gift for listening, because this mode of communication gives little opportunity for discussion and clarification. Robert’s empathy is perhaps most apparent in his willingness to put up with the narrator’s deflection and rudeness, continuing to ask the narrator questions and show him kindness until he has won the narrator over. The power of being listened to and empathized with is apparent in the narrator’s reaction to Robert’s kindness: he undergoes a spiritual transformation after which it seems that he might become a kinder, more empathetic man himself.
Empathy and Listening ThemeTracker
Empathy and Listening Quotes in Cathedral
But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
Once she asked me if I’d like to hear the latest tape from the blind man. This was a year ago. I was on the tape, she said. So I said okay, I’d listen to it. I got us drinks and we settled down in the living room. We made ready to listen. First she inserted the tape into the player and adjusted a couple of dials. Then she pushed a lever. The tape squeaked and someone began to talk in this loud voice. She lowered the volume. After a few minutes of harmless chitchat, I heard my own name in the mouth of this stranger, this blind man I didn’t even know! And then this: “From all you’ve said about him, I can only conclude”— But we were interrupted, a knock at the door, something, and we didn’t ever get back to the tape. Maybe it was just as well. I’d heard all I wanted to.
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.
My wife said, “I want you to meet Robert. Robert, this is my husband. I’ve told you all about him.” She was beaming. She had this blind man by his coat sleeve. The blind man let go of his suitcase and up came his hand. I took it. He squeezed hard, held my hand, and then he let it go. “I feel like we’ve already met,” he boomed. “Likewise,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. Then I said, “Welcome. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
I’ve never met, or personally known, anyone who was blind. This blind man was late forties, a heavy-set, balding man with stooped shoulders, as if he carried a great weight there. He wore brown slacks, brown shoes, a light-brown shirt, a tie, a sports coat. Spiffy. He also had this full beard. But he didn’t use a cane and he didn’t wear dark glasses. I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind.
When we sat down at the table for dinner, we had another drink. My wife heaped Robert’s plate with cube steak, scalloped potatoes, green beans. I buttered him up two slices of bread. I said, “Here’s bread and butter for you.” I swallowed some of my drink. “Now let us pray,” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold,” I said.
From time to time, he’d turn his blind face toward me, put his hand under his beard, ask me something. How long had I been in my present position? (Three years.) Did I like my work? (I didn’t.) Was I going to stay with it? (What were the options?) Finally, when I thought he was beginning to run down, I got up and turned on the TV.
The news program ended. I got up and changed the channel. I sat back down on the sofa. I wished my wife hadn’t pooped out. Her head lay across the back of the sofa, her mouth open. She’d turned so that her robe had slipped away from her legs, exposing a juicy thigh. I reached to draw her robe back over her, and it was then that I glanced at the blind man. What the hell! I flipped the robe open again.
Something about the church and the Middle Ages was on the TV. Not your run-of-the-mill TV fare. I wanted to watch something else. I turned to the other channels. But there was nothing on them, either. So I turned back to the first channel and apologized. “Bub, it’s all right,” the blind man said. “It’s fine with me. Whatever you want to watch is okay. I’m always learning something. Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight. I got ears,” he said.
There were times when the Englishman who was telling the thing would shut up, would simply let the camera move around over the cathedrals. Or else the camera would tour the countryside, men in fields walking behind oxen. I waited as long as I could. Then I felt I had to say something. I said, “They’re showing the outside of this cathedral now. Gargoyles. Little statues carved to look like monsters. Now I guess they’re in Italy. Yeah, they’re in Italy. There’s paintings on the walls of this one church.”
“That’s all right, bub,” the blind man said. “Hey, listen. I hope you don’t mind my asking you. Can I ask you something? Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no. I’m just curious and there’s no offense. You’re my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious? You don’t mind my asking?” I shook my head. He couldn’t see that, though. A wink is the same as a nod to a blind man. “I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?”
So I began. First I drew a box that looked like a house. It could have been the house I lived in. Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. Crazy. “Swell,” he said. “Terrific. You’re doing fine,” he said. “Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub? Well, it’s a strange life, we all know that. Go on now. Keep it up.”
“Close your eyes now,” the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
“Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”
“They’re closed,” I said.
“Keep them that way,” he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”
Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
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.