Raymond Carver, Jr. was an American short story author and poet. He was born in 1938 and died in 1988. He was married twice, struggled with drugs and alcoholism, and was an unsuccessful writer early on in his career. It was not until his publication of “Cathedral” that he gained success. Carver even believed that “Cathedral was a watershed in his career, in its shift towards a more optimistic and confidently poetic style” (Arciniegas). “Cathedral” starts out slow, spending most of the short story on the back story of the narrator’s wife and a blind man.
The story progresses with the three characters doing mostly everyday things, eating, talking, and drinking. While this happens, the narrator’s ideas of the blind are challenged little by little throughout the night. It is not till the climax that the narrator has a moment of deep clarity. Then, without warning, the story ends leaving the reader with questions about what happened next and to come up with their own conclusions. Many see Carver’s “Cathedral” as an optimistic story of a metaphysically blind narrator who reaches a state of euphoria with the help of an actual blind man.
They state, “the narrator can see with his eyes but does not realize the restrictions he has placed on himself, and how those prevent him from seeing or wanting anything greater in life” (Muhammedzade). They say that the narrator starts off narrow minded and that the blind man is a teacher that guides the narrator to become enlightened through the things that the blind man is able to do and the act of drawing of a picture together. They point out that the narrator was impressed by the way the blind man is able to eat dinner.
The narrator stated, “I watched with admiration as he used his knife and fork on the meat” (Carver 1115). The narrator even tells us that the blind man even did things he was told that blind don’t do. Like where the narrator said, “I remembered having read somewhere that the blind didn’t smoke because, as speculation had it, they couldn’t see the smoke they exhaled. I thought I knew that much and that much only about blind people. But this blind man smoked his cigarette down to the nubbin and then lit another one” (Carver 1115).
Finally, the interactions lead to narrator trying to explain what a cathedral looks like and when he can they draw one together. The critics say this is when the narrator makes a profound discovery by saying “it was like nothing else in my life up to now” (Carver 1121). Critics use examples like these to say that the narrator reaches a new understanding in life and that he will be changed in how he sees the world and will try to live his life with a little more passion. I believe that the narrator is not as harsh as he is made out to be and that his experience is not as life changing as other make it out to be.
Not to say that he is Buddha, but rather is more like Archie Bunker. He is older, set in his ways, and uses jokes and sarcasm to break the tension or the uneasiness of a situation. For example, when the narrator was talking to his wife and did not know what to do with the blind man he jokingly said, “Maybe I could take him bowling” (Carver 1113). It is easy to see why someone would be uneasy about a stranger coming into their house, regardless if the guest knows someone else in the house.
That uneasiness is exacerbated when someone feels like they have nothing in common or worried about conversations that are taboo to do with a guest’s disabilities. They believe the blind man is the source from which the narrator’s transformation comes, however I say that they are disregarding the intoxicating effects of the alcohol and cannabis that was smoked. I admit that the story does present an event that alters the narrator’s perception of the blind, but I do not think it is the life changing realization that others propose.
The narrator will forget that blind people smoke cigarettes or that they can feed themselves, but I do not think the narrator will see all blind men the same way he sees the blind man in his house. He may even take the visitor as a friend, but will not become an advocate for the blind or seek out other blind people to connect. I think that once the alcohol and weed leave his system, he will become more like his old self. The narrator will not be able to hold on to this new understanding or expand that connection to other people with disabilities the way as he did with the blind man.
He may have short lived moments where his openness returns, such as when his wife gets a tape from the blind man, when passing by a cathedral, or when he is high again. However, people are creatures of habit and the narrator will soon return to his old routines and old understanding. Just like most people do not stick to a new year’s resolution, the narrator will return back to his Archie Bunker ways. Both critics and advocates for the narrators’ enlightenment can agree that this is an import moment in the narrator’s life, though they will disagree on the long term effects.
I know that many may disagree with my interpretation of Carvers “Cathedral” that the effects will be short lived, but I stand by my interpretation. Some will try to say that the weed had no effect by quoting the narrator when he said, “This stuff is pretty mellow,” | said. “This stuff is mild. It’s dope you can reason with” (Carver 1117). However, we know that the weed did have effects on the wife and the blind man. The blind man says, “But I think this is all for me. I think I’m beginning to feel it,” and the wife falls asleep while sitting in her chair (Carver 1117).
Research shows that ‘When THC prevents anadamide from doing its job, the delicate balance between anadamide and dopamine is thrown off. The result: We’re suddenly euphoric, off-balance, ravenous, seemingly impervious to pain, and unable to retain information” (Breene). While drawing the narrator has an experience like he never had before, an experience that could be called spiritual. Many say this part is a hidden message related to the title, because his experience is similar to the feeling of walking into a cathedral and being swept up with euphoria.
That euphoria leaves us when we walk out of the church and get off on the highway. While I admit there are events that change people’s lives, for better or worse, however this is not the case with the narrator and the will soon return to his natural personality and demeanor. Iflam correct in my interpretation, what does that mean? It means that “Cathedral” was not a master piece that showed that Carver could write optimistically, but rather more of a self-portrait of own life drunken stupors.
Carver was a dark writer until this point and “Cathedral” brought him to the front of the writing movement of his time. Did Carver write more and choose only to present only the part of the story that changed how the public viewed his writing. Or even still, could Carver have be advocating the use of drugs and alcoholic, as he was a user himself? All these meanings maybe far reaching of why Carver ended the story when he did, but regardless of the reason, I remain convinced the narrator’s experience was written as a reaction to intoxication, not enment.