Raymond Carver’s 1983 short story Cathedral is about awakening and eye-opening experiences that go beyond the physical world. It vividly illustrates the difference between merely looking and seeing; hearing and listening that creates a connection.
The author portrays this so well through the main theme of blindness and other symbolic elements. And more notably, the narrator’s character development, which goes from shallow and insensitive, to gaining the ability to look within themself and see things through another’s perspective.
Summary – Cathedral by Raymond Carver
A blind man, Robert, who’s an old friend of the narrator’s wife is coming to visit for the night.
The idea of a blind man visiting doesn’t seem to please the narrator because he doesn’t know him and has never met a blind person except in the movies. The narrator’s wife had worked for the blind man one summer as she waited for her childhood sweetheart to complete officers’ training school and get married. When the two part ways, the narrator’s wife reaches out a year later and the two keep in touch since then through audiotapes – the equivalent of voice notes now.
In the tapes, she tells Robert all about her new life as an Air Force officer’s wife, the loneliness of not being able to make permanent friends, her failed suicide attempt, separation, and finally divorcing her military man. When she starts seeing a new man – the narrator – she puts it all on tape and mails them to the blind man. Robert too shared about his new assistant Beulah who soon becomes his wife in a small church wedding. He shares through the tapes about their eight years of being happily married and her sad demise through cancer.
At first, there is little conversation when the blind man arrives at the narrator’s house. The three share drinks, a meal, a hearty conversation between Robert and the narrator’s wife about their lives, more drinks, and two or so rolls of cannabis before she falls asleep, leaving the two men watching TV.
In a bid to make conversation, the narrator starts to explain about the cathedral on TV and in a futile attempt, starts to describe what one looks like to the blind man. Robert suggests they draw one together, with the narrator drawing it on paper and the blind man’s hand over his to trace his movements. It’s in this activity that the narrator feels a connection that goes beyond looking, painting him different from the ignorant and insensitive character he was in the beginning.
Literary Analysis – Symbolism in the Audiotapes and What Character Traits They Reveal
One of the prevalent literary devices in Raymond Carver’s short story Cathedral is symbolism. Objects in the plot play their literal functional role to the characters but also symbolize something bigger that drives themes and supports the story to the end.
The title ‘Cathedral’ is probably the most obvious symbol even though the author says it’s not. In a literary view, the cathedral and the narrator & Robert’s drawing process signify the ability to see beyond what’s in front of you. It represents the ability to look beyond the surface and find a deeper or different meaning than you’re used to; being open to learning and entering the very different world of another person, just like the narrator finds himself at the end.
This essay, however, is not about the cathedral but another more overlooked symbol: the audiotapes.
These tapes that Robert and the narrator’s wife exchange over time allow them to keep in touch for ten years, deepening their friendship and even helping the narrator’s wife survive her seemingly lonely life. The audiotapes are a symbol of deep connection, friendship, and a bond that goes beyond sight.
The effect that this mere form of communication has on the two characters’ relationship is what makes it hard to ignore the tapes as symbolism, and as a reflection of each character’s traits in the story.
The first mention of the audiotapes is when the narrator states, “But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth.” (209) At this point, the narrator doesn’t put so much weight into the tapes. He mentions them as a by the way and to give his wife and Robert’s history.
But when his wife invites him to listen to the latest tape that Robert had sent her, it’s difficult to ignore the narrator’s lack of interest and detachment from almost everything about himself.
“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.” (212)
I don’t know about you, but wouldn’t you be curious and want to know what this stranger has to say or conclude about everything your wife has told them about you? Or maybe some things are better off staying unknown? When I read this part, I was immediately reminded of his arrogant ideas about blind people and the fact that they all came from the movies.
Though a dynamic character, this lack of interest, along with his failure to see how meaningful the tapes are to his wife in other parts of the story further paints his arrogant and insensitive traits in broader colours.
The Narrator’s Wife
To the narrator’s wife, the tapes are a means to escape her isolated and lonely life. The audiotapes give the reader a glimpse of how destitute her life had become after marrying the military man, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten better with her current husband – the narrator.
In one instance, the narrator jokingly says, “Over the years, she put all kinds of stuff on tapes and sent the tapes off lickety-split. Next to writing a poem every year, I think it was her chief means of recreation.” (211)
Relocating so often from one navy posting to another only bears impermanent friends for the narrator’s wife, which exacerbates her loneliness to a point of attempting suicide.
She’s a character who cherishes real connections with people, whether in friendships or romantic relationships. When she doesn’t find one in her marriages either, the narrator’s wife looks for solace in their audiotape conversations with Robert. Remember, she’s the one who initiates contact with the blind man, which further proves how lonely her life is.
Robert – The Blind Man
When the narrator’s wife makes the first call from her military man’s posting in Alabama, Robert asks her to send him a tape with everything about her new life. This implies that Robert is interested in making and nurturing connections just like the narrator’s wife.
The narrator’s description of his wife and Robert’s audiotape conversations also reveals some traits about the blind man. It also shows the sharp contrast between the blind man and the narrator’s ability to see beyond the literal world, despite the former’s lack of physical sight.
Robert is insightful and caring, judging from the tapes’ contents. He seems to listen and understand the narrator’s wife more than the narrator himself. When the three retire to the living room after dinner, the narrator exclaims, “They talked of things that had happened to them—to them! —these past ten years.” (218) He seems shocked that the two can find a lot to discuss, which may imply that he does not have a similar connection with his wife. Or maybe he’s just someone who doesn’t speak much in the company of someone new; I do that sometimes.
Symbolism is a major literary device in the short story Cathedral by Raymond Carver. Besides the cathedral, another evident symbol is the audiotapes that the blind man and the narrator’s wife exchange to keep in contact for ten years.
They represent a connection that goes beyond the physical. This is what Robert, Beulah, and the narrator’s wife have in common, and it’s what the narrator gains in the end.
The audiotapes also advance the main theme of blindness by painting each character’s traits, including the narrator’s detachment, arrogance, and inability to find deeper meaning in connections.
What are your thoughts and questions on Cathedral by Raymond Carver? Let me know in the comment section.