Cathedral Summary, Characters and Themes | Raymond Carver

In Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral,” the tension between the mundane and the profound is masterfully explored through the interactions of the narrator, his wife, and a blind man named Robert. 

Full Summary

The narrative unfolds with the narrator’s internal monologue, revealing his reluctance to host Robert, a friend of his wife. He recalls the origins of their friendship: his wife, once in dire need of money and engaged to another man, had spent a summer assisting Robert, a social worker. 

This period culminated in a poignant moment where Robert asked to ‘see’ her face through touch, an experience that left a lasting impression on her.

The narrator’s wife had later turned to Robert for support following an attempted suicide, a result of her unhappy marriage and transient life due to her then-husband’s military career. This backstory sets the stage for the complex dynamics that unfold.

The story then shifts to the present, where the narrator’s casual cynicism is evident. He jokingly suggests taking Robert bowling and asks insensitive questions about Robert’s deceased wife, Beulah, whom Robert married after she succeeded the narrator’s wife in assisting him. 

The narrator ponders the irony of a marriage where one partner is visually unappreciated.

Upon Robert’s arrival at their home, the narrator’s discomfort is palpable. He awkwardly asks Robert which side of the train he sat on, dodges personal questions, and is irked by being called “bub.” 

The evening progresses with drinks, a lavish dinner, and eventually, the three relaxing in the living room. The narrator, keen to avoid further conversation, turns on the TV. His wife soon leaves to change clothes, and in her absence, the narrator and Robert share marijuana, joined later by his wife.

The climax of the story arrives as the trio watches a program about European cathedrals. Realizing Robert can’t appreciate the visuals, the narrator struggles to describe them. 

Robert then proposes they draw a cathedral together, leading to a transformative moment. With Robert’s hand over his, the narrator draws, guided to close his eyes. This shared experience transcends the physicality of sight, taking the narrator on a spiritual journey. 

His wife, waking up to this scene, is bewildered yet they continue. When finished, Robert asks the narrator to open his eyes and see their creation, but he chooses to keep them closed, symbolizing a newfound inner vision.

Cathedral Summary

Characters

Narrator

The unnamed narrator of “Cathedral” is central to the story. 

He is depicted as a cynical, superficial individual, initially uncomfortable and insensitive about Robert’s blindness. His character is marked by a lack of empathy and understanding, as seen in his insensitive jokes and reluctance to engage meaningfully with Robert. 

Throughout the story, his perspective is limited, focusing primarily on the physical and mundane aspects of life. 

However, by the end of the story, through his interaction with Robert, he undergoes a significant transformation, gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation for experiences beyond the visual and superficial.

Narrator’s Wife

The narrator’s wife is a key character who bridges the gap between the narrator and Robert. 

She has a history of emotional struggles, evidenced by her attempted suicide and her previous unhappy marriage. Her relationship with Robert, which began during a summer job assisting him, is profound and meaningful. 

She finds comfort and understanding in Robert, unlike her relationship with the narrator. Her character is empathetic, sensitive, and serves as a contrast to the narrator’s initial insensitivity. 

She plays a crucial role in facilitating the transformative experience between the narrator and Robert.

Robert

Robert is a blind man who visits the narrator and his wife. Despite his blindness, he is insightful, patient, and understanding. He is an old friend of the narrator’s wife, and their friendship is deep and meaningful. 

Robert’s character challenges the stereotypical perceptions of blindness. He is not limited by his lack of sight; instead, he exhibits a profound understanding of people and life. His presence and actions are pivotal in initiating the narrator’s transformation. 

His suggestion to draw a cathedral together leads to the climax of the story, symbolizing the power of shared experience and the ability to ‘see’ beyond physical sight.

Beulah

Beulah is Robert’s deceased wife, who is mentioned in the story but does not appear as an active character. She had worked for Robert after the narrator’s wife and later married him. 

Beulah’s character is significant as she represents a subject of the narrator’s cynical musings about marriage with a blind person. Through the narrator’s thoughts about Beulah and Robert’s marriage, the story explores themes of perception and the varied ways people experience and value relationships.

Themes

1. Limitations of Physical Sight versus Depth of Spiritual Insight

At the heart of “Cathedral” lies the contrast between the physical act of seeing and the deeper, more profound understanding that comes from spiritual or emotional insight. 

The narrator, with his ability to see, initially represents a superficial understanding of the world, confined to what is physically visible. In contrast, Robert, though blind, possesses a deeper insight into life and human connections. The story culminates in the drawing of the cathedral, a moment where the narrator, under Robert’s guidance, closes his eyes. 

This act symbolizes the shift from relying solely on physical sight to accessing a more profound spiritual understanding. 

The narrator’s choice to keep his eyes closed even after completing the drawing signifies a newfound appreciation for the non-physical aspects of perception and a deeper understanding of the world beyond mere appearance.

2. Transformative Power of Empathy

Carver explores the theme of empathy as a vehicle for transformation and connection. 

Initially, the narrator’s lack of empathy for Robert is evident in his insensitive remarks and discomfort. 

However, as the story progresses, particularly during the intimate act of drawing the cathedral together, the narrator begins to step outside his own experiences and see the world from Robert’s perspective. 

This act of shared creation becomes a bridge between their two disparate worlds, allowing the narrator to experience a moment of profound connection and understanding. 

This transformation underscores the idea that empathy can break down barriers, challenge preconceptions, and lead to personal growth and deeper human connections.

3. Isolation in Human Existence

The theme of isolation runs subtly yet powerfully throughout the story. Each character, in their own way, experiences a form of isolation. 

The narrator’s isolation is self-imposed, born from his inability to empathize and connect with others. His wife’s isolation stems from her unfulfilling past relationships and her current inability to fully connect with her husband. 

Robert’s isolation is a result of his blindness, which sets him apart in a world dominated by sight. However, the story also offers a counterpoint to this isolation in the form of shared experiences and empathy. 

The final scene, where the three characters engage in the act of drawing the cathedral, serves as a metaphor for the breaking down of these personal isolations, suggesting that connection and understanding are possible even in the midst of our individual solitude.

Final Thoughts

Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is a masterful exploration of human connection, perception, and the transformative power of empathy. 

Carver uses simple, straightforward prose to delve into complex emotional landscapes. The story is a poignant reminder that true understanding often requires us to step out of our comfort zones and perceive the world through the experiences of others. 

The narrator’s journey from ignorance and insensitivity to a place of deeper insight is both compelling and instructive, highlighting the often overlooked depths in everyday interactions. 

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