Cathedral (1981)

Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral,” deals with themes of isolation, loneliness, and the inability to create meaningful connections. It is a story about an unnamed narrator who gains life lessons through his encounters with Robert, his wife’s blind friend.

Perhaps one of the most notable elements of “Cathedral” is the narrator. He is opinionated, interruptive, and incomplete in his storytelling. The narrator’s name and many details of the characters’ lives are omitted. Given the lack of information, trusting the narrator, then, seems like an unreliable option, and this is potentially done to give readers an added sense of blindness.

Another notable element of the story is that the narrator experiences a change or some sort of epiphany although we don’t expect him to. He comes off as abrasive, insensitive, and off-putting, and early on, he is deemed a static character. He is rude to Robert and unsympathetic to his wife’s troubled past. By the end of the story, though, he has an intimate moment with Robert.  When Robert asks the narrator to help him understand what a cathedral looks like, Robert holds the narrator’s hand while he draws a cathedral, and in that intimate moment, the narrator experiences a meaningful connection with another human being that was lacking earlier on.

“Cathedral” additionally comments on the notion of versions of reality, potentially suggesting that a single, definite, solid reality, or truth doesn’t exist. Robert, a blind man, lives in a reality that is different than that of sighted people. The narrator declares that his perception of blind people comes from movies and TV, only to meet Robert and realize that those representations may be false, incomplete, and lacking in nuance. This is one of several occasions where a character’s reality is threatened or relativized.

“Cathedral” raises questions about the nature of language and representation—are there things language cannot represent? If you cannot find the words to express something, do you really understand it? Why does it matter to be able to represent experiences through art? What does it mean when we are unable to?

Carver’s “Cathedral” is an intriguing short story, characteristic of the postmodern tradition. It delves into questions of sight, representation, and the process of making art.