Even though the narrator of “Cathedral” is not literally blind, he displays a lack of insight and self-awareness that, in many ways, makes even him blinder than Robert. Unlike Robert, the narrator can see with his eyes perfectly well, but he has difficulty understanding people’s thoughts and feelings that lie beneath the surface. He pities the deceased Beulah because Robert could never look at her and doesn’t realize that Robert was able to see Beulah in a nonphysical way—that is, he could understand her intimately. Consequently, the narrator makes no effort to really get to know his own wife. Instead of welcoming her old friend to his home, he merely categorizes Robert as part of his wife’s past, which makes him jealous, petty, and bitter. He doesn’t care whether this visit is important to his wife or what role Robert may have played in helping her through her suicide attempt and divorce. The narrator is jealous of his wife’s ex-husband but also cockily sure of his revered place in her life, expecting at one point to hear her tell Robert about her “dear husband.” However, every comment he makes to his wife as well as everything he does seems designed to annoy and anger her. Far from being a “dear husband,” the narrator is insensitive and arguably has no idea who his wife really is. The fact that he can recognize her on sight doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows her intimately.
When the narrator draws a cathedral with Robert and closes his eyes, he has an epiphany during which he can see more than he ever could with his eyes open. Although he has been curt with and dismissive of Robert throughout the evening, he is forced to converse with Robert when his wife falls asleep. After some initial awkwardness, the narrator eventually taps into a core of compassion, clumsily describing what’s on television. The narrator’s good intentions are thwarted when he realizes he is unable to describe a cathedral. Even though he can see the cathedral, he is unable to describe the cathedral to Robert because he can’t “see” its deeper significance. The act of drawing a cathedral with Robert with his eyes closed, however, lets the narrator look inside himself and understand the greater meaning. As a result, his description of the cathedral takes on a more human element, which liberates the narrator and allows him to truly see for the first time.
Robert is an insightful, compassionate man who takes the time to truly listen to others, which helps him to “see” them better than he could with his eyes. Robert and the narrator’s wife have been listening to each other for the past ten years through the audiotapes they send back and forth. All the difficult details of the narrator’s wife’s past, including her marriage, suicide attempt, and divorce, have been recorded and sent to Robert, who has recorded responses in return. He is the person the narrator’s wife turned to when she needed to talk. The fact that we never learn exactly what Robert says on the tapes is significant because it suggests that the mere act of listening to the tapes was more important than responding to them.
Robert’s wife has recently died, but we learn little about his relationship with her and only slightly more about Robert himself. Though he is there in person, discussing his travels, Amway distribution business, and hobbies, he seems disembodied somehow and not really present. The narrator’s wife is glad to see him, but since he cannot see her, their interaction is only slightly different from the back-and-forth conversation they’ve been carrying on through the tapes. Robert becomes wholly real, however, when he invites the narrator to draw a cathedral. With their hands touching, the two men work together and temporarily inhabit a space that excludes the narrator’s wife. Robert is not a magical being in any way, but the effect this interaction has on the narrator is almost mystical.