In Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” the narrator appears to have it all- a lovely, sympathetic wife, enough food on the table to keep them happy, and the often underestimated gift of sight. But behind this satisfied exterior seems to lie a wealth of blindness, ignorance, jealousy, and a substance abuse problem that he uses to escape the rigors of his reality. On the other hand, the pitied blind man is really the one who should be envied. He appears to have a more accurate view of the world than most with two healthy eyes. In addition, he has a closer relationship with the narrator’s wife than the narrator does himself. The blind man’s high came from his relationship with his own wife, and not mind-altering substances. But to the narrator’s surprise, as the story progresses the narrator’s eyes are opened to the blind man’s world.
On the outside, it would appear as if the narrator could see and the blind man was the one without sight. But on the contrary, the narrator was blinded by his own ignorance. Although he knew little about the blind visitor, the narrator passed judgment on him before even meeting him. “And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed” (Carver 186). Clearly it shows he had little knowledge about the blind when he says, “I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind” or “I remembered reading somewhere that the blind didn’t smoke” (190-191). He foolishly looked for any reason to dislike the man, whether it was because he had married a colored woman named Beulah or because he had a beard on his face (188-189). Unlike the narrator, the blind man keeps an open mind to new experiences and states that he is always learning something because learning never ends, thus demonstrating his lack of ignorance (193).
Later in the story, the blind man asks the narrator to describe the cathedrals for him. There is a need in the blind man to see, but there is nothing that will ever be able to fulfill that need or satisfy it, which is a criticism of Lacan called “objet petit a” (Lacan 1307). The narrator struggles to find the right words, the signifier, that will provide a bridge to the thought in the blind man’s head of the actual cathedral, the signified (De Saussure 964). When his language failed him, he relied on symbolism by drawing while holding the old man’s hand to communicate to the blind man what he couldn’t say with words (Lacan 1281). At this point he is introduced into the blind man’s world and begins to see what it is like for him to have no sight. This allows the narrator to step outside of his own boundaries and free himself of the ignorant world in which he has been living. In the last few lines of the story, he realizes for himself that he is free. “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything” (Carver 196).
While the narrator was blind to his own ignorance, he could also be considered blind to his wife and her feelings and needs. In contrast, the blind man held a close relationship with the narrator’s wife, allowing himself to be an outlet for her to speak about her feelings on the tapes she sent him. Her husband seemed insensitive to her feelings when he brushed off the poem she had written about the experience of the blind man touching her face (187). As a result of his insensitivity, the wife is easily angered by the narrator on a couple different occasions (191-192). In addition to acting insensitive, the narrator appears to be jealous of the relationship between his wife and Robert. The jealous narrator expresses his envy when the three sit down after dinner to talk. “I waited in vain to hear my name on my wife’s sweet lips…But I heard nothing of the sort. More talk of Robert” (Carver 191).
His jealousy even spills over in Robert’s relationship with his former wife. He ponders and decides that it is beyond his understanding that Robert could marry a woman and love a woman he has never seen (Carver 188). But the narrator himself, who can see his wife clearly with own eyes, cannot “see” the depth of her feelings the way Robert is able to.
His blindness to his wife’s feelings isolates him from her and seems to drive him to use mind-altering substances in attempt to escape reality. He says that he “smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could…My wife and I hardly went to bed at the same time” (Carver 193). When conversation with Robert became awkward, instead of dealing with them, he asks Robert if he would like to smoke dope. Along with dope, the narrator refers to drinking numerous times throughout the story calling it “one of our pastimes” (Carver 190). The narrator uses the drugs to achieve a sense of satisfaction. Lacan calls this act a symbol of lack (Lacan 1309). When a person cannot receive real love or a sense of satisfaction in their lives, they will use material things over and over again in an attempt to fill this empty void. But the void will never be filled. While the narrator gets his high from drugs and alcohol, Robert finds his “high” from being with his former wife. The narrator’s wife called Robert and his former wife “inseparable” and recalls that “she died in a Seattle hospital room, the blind man sitting beside the bed and holding her hand” (Carver 188). The blind man seems to understand that time invested in people is much more worthwhile than any high one can get from a drug.
The binaries working within this story seem to point out that after taking a second glance, the blind man may be better off than was once thought. Robert possesses the physical blindness over seeing, but he has the gift of knowing and understanding people over the narrator’s ignorance. He sees through the ignorance of the narrator and looks beyond it to help the young man understand the blind man’s own world. In addition, Robert is more compassionate to the wife’s feelings and uses people to enrich his life, compared to the narrator’s unawareness of his wife’s feelings and his hopeless escape into a lifestyle of drug use. Despite their world of differences, both the young man and the old man are able to see each other’s point of view. The blind man is able to feel what a cathedral is like in the eyes of the narrator, and the narrator feels the struggle of trying to understand what other people can see. The blindness that separates the narrator from Robert in the beginning of the story brings them together in the end.
Also read Review of Short Cuts by Raymond Carver.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. Cassill, R.V. and Richard Bausch. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000. 186-196.
De Saussure, Ferdinand. The Course in General Linguistics.
The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B., et al.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 956-977.
Lacan, Jacques. The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B.,
et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. 1278-1310.