First Person (Central Narrator)
Point of view isn't complicated in "Cathedral." The narrator is describing an important experience in his life. He's leading us through the changes he undergoes over the course of a single evening. He has a say-anything sense of humor, and isn't afraid to make himself the butt of all the jokes. He's like a standup comedian, but sometimes he goes too far, and stops being funny. Some people might be offended by his blind-people jokes.
Most of the jokes are in his head, told only to the reader. (He does tell one to his wife, though. And she doesn't appreciate it; it's about taking Robert bowling.) As you read "Cathedral" and go through our Shmoop guide, think about how you would characterize the narrator's jokes. Are they funny? Offensive? Inappropriate? Or just downright rude? Read on for some more material to consider.
The narrator's jokes, like many jokes, rely on the assumption that the reader is a reasonable person, and will laugh when shown something unreasonable, like these lines: "This blind man, feature this, was wearing a full beard. A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say" (1.18). We're just surprised that the narrator didn't make a joke about how blind people can't shave. (They can.) This whole thing strikes us as very Seinfeld. (By the way, we can definitely see parallels between "Cathedral" and the "Glasses" episode. Like "Cathedral," "Glasses" plays with ideas of sight and blindness, and ends on a happy note.)
Sometimes, though, this joking can turn ugly, or even start off ugly and just get uglier. Before Robert's visit, the narrator seems dangerously close to crossing the line. The following quote features the narrator's reflections after hearing Robert's story from his wife, but before meeting him:
Hearing this I felt sorry for the blind man for a little bit. Then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life [Robert's wife] 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 never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved […]. She could […] wear green eyeshadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks and purple shoes, no matter. (1.16)
That technique is also known as dramatic irony, and happens when the reader knows more than the character. It also sounds like he's objectifying Beulah, treating her as object that has little or no value if she isn't being looked at and appreciated. We can't quite imagine that the narrator is serious. He's still trying to keep us entertained. Or is he?
Whether or not you think that the narrator is offensive, "Cathedral," the story, is definitely not. After all, Robert, figuratively speaking, is no more or less blind than the other characters. The story suggests that all eyesight is overrated. So, it's really very pro-blind people in spite of the narrator's jokes, and exaggerated assumptions.
In Cathedral by Raymond Carver we have the theme of jealousy, insecurity, isolation, detachment and connection. Taken from his collection of the same name the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed man and from the beginning of the story the reader realises how detached the narrator is. Not only is he displeased with the fact that Robert is visiting but the reader also senses that in some ways the narrator is also jealous of the connection that his wife has with Robert. If anything the narrator views Robert’s visit as an inconvenience. The narrator also appears to have a very limited viewpoint on blindness. This is ironic as later in the story it will be through Robert’s guidance that the narrator begins to see things in a fresh light or as some critics might suggest, it is at the end of the story that the narrator finally opens his eyes to the world around him. For the first time he is seeing, rather than looking.
Just as the narrator is jealous of his wife’s connection or relationship with Robert, the reader also suspects that he is also jealous of his wife’s first husband. It is interesting, that though he has the opportunity to tell the reader the first husband’s name, he never does. It is possible that the narrator remains insecure about his wife’s first husband, just as he is insecure about her relationship with Robert. The narrator’s insecurity regards Robert is also noticeable through his refusal to listen to one of Robert’s tapes which makes mention of the narrator. It is as if the narrator prefers to be ignorant of what Robert might think of him, rather than hearing something that he may dislike. Again this could suggest a detachment from others.
The strong bond or connection that the narrator’s wife has with Robert is noticeable by her continued sending of tapes to Robert, updating him about her life. Also Robert appears to have left an impression on the narrator’s wife. This is noticeable by the fact that she had previously attempted to write a poem about the incident of Robert touching her face. Robert’s touching of the narrator’s face may also be symbolic as it suggests the connection of two people. It may also be significant that the audiotapes that Robert and the narrator’s wife send each other involve sound and not sight. Even with his inability to see, Robert can still connect, or show empathy for the narrator’s wife and she can also empathize with Robert.
It is also interesting that the narrator appears to long for a similar connection with his wife. As he is sitting listening to his wife talk to Robert, he waits, expecting to hear his name being mentioned, however it never is. In some ways the narrator remains on the outside or isolated from his wife’s and Robert’s conversation. There are some other incidents in the story which may further suggest that the narrator is detached or not connected. When the narrator’s wife and Robert expect the narrator to say a prayer, he makes a joke. Also when Robert asks the narrator is he religious, the narrator says ‘I guess I don’t believe in it. In anything.’ This may be significant as Carver may be suggesting or highlighting to the reader that not only is the narrator disconnected from others but he may also be disconnected or detached from God.
The turning point in the story appears to be when the narrator and Robert are looking at some Cathedrals on the TV. It is obvious that despite his ability to see the Cathedrals, the narrator has difficulty in describing them to Robert and if anything he appears to be stuck for words (in describing the Cathedrals). By having the narrator stuck for words and unable to describe to Robert what a Cathedral looks like, Carver may be suggesting that the narrator, at least symbolically, is also blind. This may be important as previously the reader sensed that the narrator viewed himself as superior in some ways to Robert, due to the fact that he can see and Robert can’t.
This sense of equality between the narrator and Robert is explored near the end of the story. Both men are sitting on the ground (same level) and the narrator has his eyes closed, which in some ways mirrors Robert’s blindness. It is also interesting that through Robert’s encouragement, the narrator is able to draw the Cathedral. It is also at this stage, as the narrator is drawing a Cathedral that the reader suspects that both the narrator and Robert are connecting in some way. It may also be significant or symbolic that Carver uses the cannabis as a means of connecting both men. Some critics suggesting that it represents a communion between Robert and the narrator.
Symbolically the Cathedral that the narrator draws is also significant. A Cathedral is a place for people to go and worship, to connect with God. By drawing the Cathedral the narrator is in some ways also making a connection. For the first time he appears to be able to see. There is also a sense of irony at the end of the story. The narrator’s eyes are closed and he is being led by a blind man, yet he is able to see. Carver never explains what it is the narrator sees, but there is the sense that he has found a connection and is no longer detached or isolated.
McManus, Dermot. "Cathedral by Raymond Carver." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.