The Cathedral Essay, Research Paper
The Blind Man
The narrator in Raymond Carver s Cathedral is not a particularly sensitive man. I might describe him as self-centered, superficial and egotistical. And while his actions certainly speak to these points, it is his misunderstanding of the people and the relationships presented to him in this story which show most clearly his tragic flaw: while Robert is physically blind, it is the narrator that cannot clearly see the world around him.
In the eyes of the narrator, Robert s blindness is his defining characteristic. The opening line of Cathedral reads, This blind man, an old friend of my wife s, he was on his way to spend the night. (Carver 1052) Clearly, the narrator can not see past Robert s disability; he dismisses him in the same way a racist might dismiss a black man. In reality, any prejudice be it based on gender, race or disability involves one person s inability to look past a superficial quality. If someone judges a person based on such a characteristic, they are only seeing the aspect of the person which makes them uncomfortable. The narrator has unconsciously placed Robert in a
category that he labels abnormal, which stops him from seeing the blind man as an individual.
The narrator s reaction to Robert s individuality shows his stereotypical views. The narrator assumed Robert did not do certain things, just because he was blind. When he first saw Robert his reaction was simple: This blind man, feature this, he was wearing a full beard! A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say. When Robert sat down on the couch, he thinks, I read somewhere that the blind didn t smoke because, as speculation had it, they couldn t see the smoke they exhaled But this blind man smoked his cigarette down to the nubbin and then lit another one. The narrator s naivete leaves him amazed by Robert, who does things which the narrator would view as atypical of the blind. This reinforces the idea that the narrator is blind to the reality of the world.
The narrator s blindness is certainly not limited to Robert he no better understands the relationship between his wife and the blind man:
They d become good friends, my wife and the blind man On her last day in the office, the blind man asked if he could touch her face She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her
face She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her. When we first started going out together, she showed me the poem I can remember I didn t think much of the poem Maybe I just don t understand poetry. (Carver 1053)
While the narrator realizes that his wife s relationship with Robert is important to her, he cannot understand why. Under other circumstances, the narrator s wife s descriptions of experiences that summer and Robert s friendship and advice through her marriages might have left him enlightened as to the depth of their relationship. But here, despite all evidence to the contrary, the narrator (ultimately because of his prejudice) has ruled out Robert as a thoughtful, consequential person. He cannot comprehend that a blind man is capable of touching his wife s. Instead, he arrogantly assumes that he was the most important person to come into his wife s life. This delusion is obvious, when the narrator relates surprise that his wife never mentions him in her conversation with Robert that night:
They talked of things that had happened to them to them! these past ten years. I waited in vain to hear my name on my
wife s sweet lips: And then my dear husband came into my life something like that. But I heard nothing of the sort.
This only reaffirms that once again, the narrator completely misreads the situations in the world around him.
Notwithstanding, the narrator s emotional blindness can be seen most clearly in his inability to comprehend Robert and Beulah s relationship. The narrator muses, They d married, lived and worked together, slept together and then the blind man had to bury her. All this without his having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like. (Carver 1054) Here, the narrator s preoccupation with physical appearance is evident. Therefore, it is not surprising that he cannot understand Robert s marriage, which was entirely based on the emotional and intellectual aspect of a relationship. The narrator openly admits their marriage was beyond [his] understanding. His inability to imagine or even appreciate such a seemingly wonderful marriage further illustrates his blindness.
In addition, the narrator s prejudice again plays a part in his naivete. The narrator cannot believe that Robert could possibly understand his late wife’s emotions: A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better. (Carver 1055) This statement shows that the narrator believes Robert, because of his
disability, would be an inadequate husband. The narrator s belief Robert s physical blindness resulted in an inadequacy in his marriage shows he again has dismissed Robert on the basis of his disability. He is blind to the possibility that Robert can see, where the narrator cannot.
But perhaps the best example of the narrator s blindness can be seen in a reference to Beulah:
I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. 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 then to slip off into death, the blind man s hand on her hand, his blind eyes streaming tears her last thought this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave. (Carver 1055)
The idea that Beulah continually felt an inadequacy in her marriage based on Robert s disability is undoubtedly a ridiculous claim, which shows an intense misunderstanding of love and life on the part of that narrator. Robert s marriage was most likely very intimate, and completely unhindered by his
disability. The narrator s wife even commented that Robert and Beulah had been inseparable for eight years. But such a love is beyond the comprehensive abilities of the narrator, who cannot seem to recognize the most important things in life.
While a lot has been written about Raymond Carver, little has been written about Cathedral. Contributing writer Charles E. May in the Reference Guide to Short Fiction sites a change in Carver s writing style beginning with the stories contained in the same anthology as Cathedral: Whereas his early stories are minimalist and bleak, his later stories are more discursive and optimistic. (Watson 114) The few critics who have written specifically about Cathedral tend concentrate on that optimism, seen at the end of the story with the narrator s esthetic experience [and] realization. (Robinson 35) In concentrating on the final realization experienced by the narrator, I believe the literary community has overlooked his deep-rooted misunderstanding of everything consequential in life.
The narrator s prejudice makes him emotionally blind. His inability to see past Robert s disability stops him from seeing the reality of any relationship or person in the story. And while he admits some things are
simply beyond his understanding, he is unaware he is so completely blind to the reality of the world.