Optimism and the “Zero Ending”
Carver finishes “Cathedral” with a “zero ending,” leaving the narrator with his eyes closed, imagining the cathedral he has just drawn with Robert. A zero ending is an ending that doesn’t neatly tie up the strands of a story. It may not even seem like an ending—in some cases, the writer may seem to have left off in the middle of a thought or idea. Instead of tacking on a florid conclusion that leaves everyone satisfied, Carver often stops his stories abruptly, at the moment when his characters are faced with a stark realization, glimmer of hope, or wall of confusion. Ernest Hemingway used the zero ending in many of his short stories as well. Also like Hemingway, Carver wrote in a sparse, masculine style, and this, along with his favored method of ending a story, has prompted many readers to compare the two writers.
The abrupt ending to the story leaves many questions unanswered, such as how exactly the narrator has changed, if his relationship with his wife will change, or how his opinion of Robert has changed. But the answers to these questions are not the point of the story. “Cathedral” concerns the change in one man’s understanding of himself and the world, and Carver ends the story at exactly the moment when this change flickers in the narrator’s mind. The narrator has not become a new person or achieved any kind of soul-changing enlightenment. In fact, the narrator’s final words, “It’s really something,” reveal him to be the same curt, inarticulate man he’s always been. The zero ending, however, adds an unexpected note of optimism to the story. Until this moment, the narrator has been mostly bitter and sarcastic, but he has now gained a deeper understanding of himself and his life. Far from leaving us unsatisfied, Carver’s zero ending leaves us with our breath held as the narrator sees a new world start to crack open.