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Cathedral

Raymond Carver

Point of View

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Optimism and the “Zero Ending”

Carver uses a first-person narrator to tell the story of “Cathedral” to emphasize the bewildering aspects of the transcendent moment that he relates in the story. The unnamed narrator is self-absorbed, concerned only with how the visit from Robert will affect him and dismissive of what role Robert may have played in his wife’s past. At the same time, the narrator lacks self-awareness. He pities Robert’s wife, Beulah, because her husband could never look at her, never realizing that he doesn’t really know his own wife despite the fact that he can see her. The narrator is not a very skillful storyteller either, putting his narrative together crudely, with rough transitions and defensive interruptions. For example, when he refers to his wife’s childhood sweetheart, he breaks in, “Why should he have a name? He was the childhood sweetheart, what more does he want?” Interruptions such as these reveal the narrator’s jealous insecurity and suggest that his relationship with his wife is not as stable as he makes it out to be.

When Robert arrives, the narrator does his best to make sense of him. He describes Robert’s appearance, including his eyes, and observes Robert’s actions with a kind of awe: the way Robert smokes his cigarettes, the way he cuts his meat during dinner. Carver’s use of a first-person narrator is especially effective in these scenes because it makes Robert seem abnormal, even alien, because the narrator has no concept of what a blind man can and cannot do. Likewise, once Robert becomes more human for the narrator, he takes shape for us as well. At the end of the story, when Robert guides the narrator in drawing the cathedral with his eyes closed, the narrator revels in the strangeness of the experience, and his bewilderment makes this transcendent moment more poignant. It is a remarkable moment, but the narrator’s unsophisticated description of it makes it a human moment as well.

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