In “Cathedral,” the lives of a married couple are disrupted when the wife’s blind friend, Robert, comes to visit. While the husband, who is the story’s narrator, initially believes that having Robert in the house will be inconvenient and unsettling, he comes to realize that blindness is not simply a deficit—Robert’s fine-tuned perception adds to the narrator’s own appreciation of the world.
Initially, the narrator imagines that Robert will be strange and pathetic. He passive-aggressively points out all kinds of things Robert can’t do: the narrator asks his wife if Robert likes bowling and then asks Robert which side of the train he sat on during his trip (inquiring implicitly whether he sat on the side with a good view). The narrator gives curt replies to Robert’s genuine attempts at conversation and he even turns on the television, which the sightless Robert cannot appreciate fully, in an attempt to both stop the conversation and exert his dominance over Robert, since the narrator is deeply jealous of Robert’s friendship with his wife.
The narrator’s crude attacks on Robert’s disability are even more pathetic in light of the fact that Robert’s mode of perceiving—his ability to understand and empathize with the interior struggles of others—is a type of perception that the narrator lacks. Fixated on physical sight as the only mode of appreciating others, the narrator ruminates on how sad it would be to the wife of a blind man, since the narrator believes that women should be appreciated for their appearance. This, of course, is ironic since the narrator’s own wife knows that perceiving the world as Robert does is rich and rewarding because she herself feels seen and appreciated by Robert in a way that she doesn’t with her husband. Her friendship with Robert—conducted through the exchange of audio tapes in which they discuss their thoughts and experiences—seems to be more emotionally intimate than her marriage.
However, the narrator ultimately comes to expand his own perception by inhabiting Robert’s perspective. When the narrator first turns on the television, he intends it as way to exclude Robert or put him in his place. But Robert surprises the narrator with his deep appreciation for television and his nuanced perception of it—he can tell, for example, that their TV is in color just by listening. As they continue to watch TV, the narrator’s own perception of the TV begins to shift. For example, the narrator says of Robert, “he and I listened to the weather report and then to the sports roundup”—note that the narrator suddenly sees himself as listening, rather than watching. He then further moves towards Robert’s way of perceiving when he begins describing the cathedrals on the television so that Robert can know what’s happening.
The narrator’s transformation is complete when his verbal descriptions of the cathedrals fail. With Robert’s hand resting on top of his, the narrator draws a cathedral on a paper bag so that Robert can “see” what they look like. Halfway through, Robert asks the narrator to draw with his eyes closed, and the narrator submits fully to perceiving the world as Robert does. It’s clear that this experience with Robert changes the narrator; when Robert tells the narrator to open his eyes, the narrator prefers to leave them closed. Though the narrator had claimed not to care about cathedrals at all, he is deeply moved by the experience of perceiving one as Robert does. “It’s really something,” the narrator says of the cathedral, suggesting that Robert’s blindness has given the narrator access to beauty and meaning that he never knew before.
Vision 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.