In “Cathedral,” the act of looking is related to physical vision, but the act of seeing requires a deeper level of engagement. The narrator shows that he is fully capable of looking. He looks at his house and wife, and he looks at Robert when he arrives. The narrator is not blind and immediately assumes that he’s therefore superior to Robert. Robert’s blindness, the narrator reasons, makes him unable to make a woman happy, let alone have any kind of normal life. The narrator is certain that the ability to see is everything and puts no effort into seeing anything beyond the surface, which is undoubtedly why he doesn’t really know his wife very well. Robert, however, has the ability to “see” on a much deeper level than the narrator. Even though Robert can’t physically see the narrator’s wife, he understands her more deeply than the narrator does because he truly listens. The wife obviously has a lot to say and has spent the past ten years confiding in Robert on the audiotapes she sends him. The only interaction we see between the narrator and his wife, however, are snippy exchanges in which the narrator does little more than annoy her. True “seeing,” as Robert demonstrates, involves a lot more than just looking.
The narrator, his wife, and Robert find insight and meaning in their experiences through poetry, drawing, and storytelling. According to the narrator, his wife writes a couple of poems every year to mark events that were important in her life, including the time Robert touched her face. The narrator doesn’t like the poems but admits that he might not understand them. The narrator gains insight into his own life when he draws a picture of a cathedral with Robert, realizing for the first time that looking inward is a way to gain greater knowledge and a deeper understanding of himself. Robert, too, gleans insight from the drawing. Although it’s unlikely that he was able to visualize what the narrator drew, he shares the experience of the narrator’s awakening. The narrator’s mere act of retelling the story of his epiphany helps him make sense of his newfound understanding. Even though his narrative is choppy and rough and he frequently interrupts himself to make a defensive comment or snide remark, he gets the story out, passing along some of his insight to us. The narrator doesn’t fully understand what happened when he closed his eyes and drew the cathedral, but he knows that it was an important experience.
The physical act of preparing and consuming drinks gives the story rhythm and weaves the narrative together. Before every action in the story, someone prepares a drink or sips from a drink that’s already been made. When the wife tries to kill herself, for example, she drinks a bottle of gin. Before the narrator begins listening to one of Robert’s tapes, he makes drinks. When his wife tells him about Beulah, he drinks. When he waits for her and Robert to come home from the train station, he drinks. During the evening, the three of them drink constantly. Also, as the drinking continues into the night, compounded by cigarettes and marijuana, the story takes on a dreamy tone, with meaning lurking behind every corner but never quite clearly in focus.
The cathedral that the narrator draws with Robert represents true sight, the ability to see beyond the surface to the true meaning that lies within. Before the narrator draws the cathedral, his world is simple: he can see, and Robert cannot. But when he attempts to describe the cathedral that’s shown on television, he realizes he doesn’t have the words to do so. More important, he decides that the reason he can’t find those words is that the cathedral has no meaning for him and tells Robert that he doesn’t believe in anything. However, when he takes the time to draw the cathedral—to really think about it and see it in his mind’s eye—he finds himself pulled in, adding details and people to make the picture complete and even drawing some of it with his eyes closed. When the drawing is finished, the narrator keeps his eyes shut, yet what he sees is greater than anything he’s ever seen with his eyes open. Carver isn’t specific about exactly what the narrator realizes, but the narrator says he “didn’t feel like he was inside anything”—he has a weightless, placeless feeling that suggests he’s reached an epiphany. Just as a cathedral offers a place for the religious to worship and find solace, the narrator’s drawing of a cathedral has opened a door for him into a deeper place in his own world, where he can see beyond what is immediately visible.
The audiotapes that Robert and the narrator’s wife send back and forth to each other represent the kind of understanding and empathy that has nothing to do with sight. The narrator believes that Robert’s wife, Beulah, must have suffered because Robert could never see her, but in his own way, the narrator has never truly seen his own wife. Robert’s relationship with the narrator’s wife is much deeper than anything the narrator can understand. When he hears a bit of Robert’s tape, he says it sounds only like “harmless chitchat,” not realizing that this sort of intimate communication is exactly what his own marriage lacks. Only when the narrator closes his eyes to finish drawing the cathedral does he approach the level of understanding that his wife and Robert have achieved through their taped correspondence.