How does a blind person understand the majesty of a cathedral? The narrator in Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” tries to describe it. His underlying epiphany, however, is not about architecture but about his own prejudices and stereotypes. He discovers in the end that he has been the one blind. He has not understood the uniqueness of the various people in the world, particularly the blind or otherwise disabled.
I first read Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” when I was in college, and as I pondered stories about the “little-noticed” in life for my wallpaper reading project, I thought of it again. How often do the sighted consider the difficulties of describing a cathedral in words to those unable to see the grandeur? Likewise, how often do the -abled consider the similarities and personalities rather than the stereotypes of the “disabled”?
Having reread the story now, I don’t think it is a “wallpaper” story: it’s full of depth and it focuses on real issues that many might relate to. Carver provides some interesting parallels: the blind man’s lack of sight versus the narrator’s prejudice; the narrator’s ability to see the grandeur of a cathedral versus the wife’s ability to see the grandeur of the blind man. It is ultimately a touching story as well.
For those who may want a content warning, I should note that the friends do smoke dope together. It seems to me, though, that that scene is the beginning of the narrator’s understanding of his mistaken prejudices. As they visit and do “ordinary” (for them) things, the narrator begins to recognize his mistaken prejudice.
“Cathedral” is not in the public domain. I read it an anthology: Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, seventh edition (1999).
Carver is one of my favorite short story writers, and this story particularly is excellent. I teach it every year in my writing and literature course, and students love it (maybe just for the pot-smoking scene), but honestly, they go on to write research papers on it as well.
It’s about how we communicate (or don’t communicate) and how sometimes language just isn’t enough.
Love it – and glad you enjoyed it.
jenn aka the picky girl » I think it’s a great story for school. That’s where I first read it too. Lots to look at in it. I haven’t read any other Carver, though. Bad me.
This was my first Raymond Carver story and I was hugely impressed with it. Carver is so relaxed and subtle in the way he tells things that you really have to go back over the story again to see how cleverly he alters his protagonist’s perceptions and our own. He is the king of making the ordinary extraordinary, I think. Thank you for the reminder of how good he is!
litlove » Sounds like I really need to read more Carver! This is the only one I’ve read.