At the story’s start, the narrator is alienated from other people. He and his wife have a tense relationship and they quarrel before her friend Robert, who is blind, is scheduled to arrive at their house. In this fight, the narrator’s wife remarks that the narrator has no friends, and this seems true—he never mentions any, and when Robert arrives at the house, the narrator has trouble holding a conversation. He even struggles to respond to Robert’s small niceties, such as “I feel like we’ve already met.” However, over the course of the story, Robert’s kindness wins the narrator over, suggesting that friendship—and the emotional vulnerability it can encourage—has the power to transform even the most staunchly isolated people.
Even before the narrator’s transformation, the possibility of Robert’s friendship changing him is foreshadowed by the details of Robert’s friendship with the narrator’s wife. Prior to Robert’s arrival at the narrator’s home, the narrator recalls how his wife began trading audiotapes with Robert after she made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. At the time, the narrator’s wife was married to a military man and the isolation of her existence, compounded by the military protocol of moving from base to base, made her deeply miserable. However, her friendship with Robert seems to have mitigated her isolation in a desperate time and allowed her to heal. The narrator notes how much his wife cherishes her audiotape friendship even now, saying that it seems to be one of her only hobbies.
Though the narrator is initially guarded with (and even rude to) Robert, as Robert persistently engages the narrator in conversation, the narrator begins to come out of his shell. When the narrator indecisively changes channel on the television, he experiences his first moment of vulnerability in front of Robert. The narrator apologizes for his indecision, and Robert gently consoles him, saying that he’s happy with any program the narrator chooses. This small kindness from Robert seems to deeply affect the narrator, because afterward he shows much more consideration for Robert. While watching a program on the cathedrals of Europe, the narrator realizes Robert cannot see the grand architectural feats displayed on the television and the narrator begins explaining what the cathedrals look like, describing features such as gargoyles. After a failed attempt at verbally describing cathedrals, the narrator agrees to draw a picture of a cathedral with Robert. It is an intimate act, in which Robert and the narrator hold a pen together with their hands touching. This intimacy seems, importantly, to be a fulfillment of the narrator’s wife’s hope that Robert and her husband could be friends. The story’s ending, in which the narrator lingers on the picture of the cathedral with his eyes closed, attempting to experience the drawing as Robert does, shows both his newfound deep connection to a man he initially disliked and his new ability to empathize with and relate to his wife, as he now understands her most important friendship.
Intimacy and Isolation ThemeTracker
Intimacy and Isolation 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.
“That’s all right,” I said. Then I said, “I’m glad for the company.”
And I guess I was. Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I fell asleep. My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the same time. When I did go to sleep, I had these dreams. Sometimes I’d wake up from one of them, my heart going crazy.
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.