Blindness in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is announced early in the story, in fact in the very first sentence. It is told through the point of view of the narrator/husband who introduces the character of Robert, the blind man from Seattle who is visiting Connecticut to see his dead wife’s relatives. The story revolves around these two characters, one blind and another seeing and in their meeting, Carver creates a story of how one man’s blindness becomes another man’s sight.
Both the characters of Robert and the narrator/husband are blind, but their blindness work on different levels: the former being literal, while the latter spiritual. Robert is seen through the eyes of the narrator/husband. He describes him at the beginning of the story to be someone he would not be comfortable with. Admittedly, though, he says that this anxiety over meeting Robert comes from the fact that he knows little about being blind.
Blindness for him until that point is a thing of “the movies, [where] the blind moved slowly and never laughed” (Carver 224). The narrator/husband knows Robert through the stories of his wife—that she met him in Seattle while working for him as an assistant, that she resigned from her work, left him, but remain in contact with him from that point on, and that he is in Seattle because of his wife’s death. However, it seems that in his description of Robert, the man’s blindness is central, always associated to who he is, as if his blindness is him.
Before meeting Robert, the narrator/husband refers to him as “the blind man,” and he does not show effort to remember his name, perhaps because he cares little of him despite the fact that the blind man has a huge part in his wife’s life (she had written a poem on Robert, but it was something the narrator/husband “didn’t think much of” [Carver 224]). Because he stereotypes blindness, he finds Robert’s ways odd, like the time Robert scanned the face of his wife, “touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck!
” (Carver 226). What confounds him more is that his wife never forgot it, even wrote a poem about it, which means they had connection without Robert even seeing her. The narrator/husband views human connection in a shallow sense. It may be because he lacks human connection, as his wife tells him “You don’t have any friends” (Carver 226). Carver includes a minute detail about the narrator/husband’s disinterest in poetry as a contrast to his wife’s profound understanding of connection.
He pities Robert for not even seeing the face of his wife before she died and thinks it is pathetic that the woman lived with him who, “could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better” and loved him without “receiv[ing] the smallest compliment from her beloved” (Carver 226). Clearly, the narrator/husband understands connection only in the physical realm, something that happens through the senses, and cannot transpire in distance, as the tape correspondence of his wife and Robert, and in the absence of sight. The narrator/husband’s blindness to human connection impacts his relationship with his wife.
A part of his anxiety over Robert’s presence involves the relationship of his wife to Robert, a relationship which Carver ambiguously defines. The narrator/husband feels that this part of his wife’s life is inaccessible to him, but it is so not because his wife refuses to let him in, but because he refuses himself in. In many instances, the wife shares her relationship with Robert to her husband—the poem, the tapes—but he fails to connect to it; he says “heard all [he] wanted to” (Carver). As a result he feels out of place when Robert finally arrives, eats dinner with them and converses with his wife.
His blindness also shows in his prejudice. He underestimates Robert and judges him based on his ignorance, and not his knowledge or experience (Ewers). He is surprised at the little ordinary things that Robert could do—eat dinner without aid, smoke weed, grow a beard, even smile—emphasizing the narrow way he conceives the blind man. When he learns the name of Robert’s wife, Beulah, he automatically thinks she is “Negro,” and the tone of his questioning about it (“Was his wife Negro? ”) reveals his underlying prejudice about a white man marrying a “colored woman” (Carver 226).
As they sit around the TV after having dinner, Robert and the narrator/husband catch a documentary show about cathedrals. From the title alone, Carver brings to the fore the tenor of spirituality, not necessarily in the sense of religion, but of seeing and believing the unseen.. Robert and the narrator negotiate what a cathedral means, the former being completely clueless, while the latter careless. The narrator/husband’s blindness to spiritual matters shows in this scene as he grapples with the essence of what a cathedral is. He admits to Robert that “cathedrals don’t mean anything special to [him]; they were “nothing…
[just] something to look at on late-night TV” (Carver 233). He appears to be “a hollow character, empty and void of belief” (Jones). He described it earlier as something built by people in the olden days because “God was important part of everyone’s life” as if God does not matter in his present time. Robert asks him if he is religious and he says he doesn’t “believe in it…in anything” (Carver 233). His failure to understand cathedrals reflects his failure to commune with his own spirituality. Carver aptly uses the image of the cathedral to express the message of the story about communion.
Unaware of his spirituality, the narrator/husband fails at first to participate in a communion. It is also through the cathedral that Carver dramatizes Robert’s ability to connect despite what he lacks. The irony of the story is reflected as Robert succeeds where the narrator fails. At first, it seems to the narrator that Robert is incapable of genuine connection to others, or at least his way of connecting to others is odd and superficial. But because the story is told in his perspective, the narrator/husband has a biased view. He gradually sees Robert differently from what he had imagined.
The narrator experiences first hand how Robert connects to others, something he could not understand before. He asks the narrator/husband to describe to him the cathedral being shown on television. Though he does not see it, he understands it for what it is. What is more telling of his ability to connect is that he knows he needs others to understand things. Although the Englishman in the television explains what a cathedral is, he admits it can only do little. Thus, he asks the narrator/husband to explain it to him. When the narrator admits that he cannot describe it fully to him, Robert suggests that they draw a cathedral together.
Anatole Broyard describes the scene: “At the end, the two hands moving together—one guided by the other—come to seem a gesture of fraternity. The cathedral represents a bond that is formed through the blind man’s ability to break through the husband’s prejudice. The husband learns a lot from Robert, the blind man, and he learns a lot from himself” (Broyard cited in Ewers). Robert is able to connect to the narrator/husband because his mind is open. He does not judge the narrator/husband for his lack of faith, even if Robert’s life depended on it, blind as he is.
He does not impose on him what he thinks of faith; he shows it to him. Through his blindness, the narrator/husband sees what Robert does. Robert is a man of faith. He believes, or he has to believe, because he understands that the matters of life rests on faith—his survival, his wife’s love, his long-distance friendship with the narrator/husband’s wife. Even in the short period of time that he is acquainted with the narrator, Robert already develops his faith on him, showing how open he is. The narrator/husband doubts his ability to draw a cathedral, but Robert does not.
When the narrator/husband’s wife finds them, hands clasped together, drawing on crumpled shopping bag, Robert says: “We’re drawing a cathedral. Me and him are working on it…Sure you got it, bub. I can tell. You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you?… We’re going to really have something here in a minute” (Carver 234). The beginning of the story shows the narrator/husband prejudiced and blinded. He doubts the blind man’s capability to actually connect to another human being, ignorant of his own failure to connect to his wife and to others.
He sees only the man’s handicap and thinks that it prevents him from living normally. He feels sorry for him that he never saw the face of his now dead wife, thinking that intimacy comes only from seeing the person you love. As the story progresses, however, the narrator discovers that Robert is interesting and every bit as normal as he is. The narrator/husband discovers that despite what Robert lacks, he connects and communes with others, maybe even deeper than he could. When Robert asks him to describe the cathedral, the narrator fails to make him see.
Robert then asks him to sketch it instead, but they have to do it together. As Robert holds his hand, following his movement, the narrator finds himself guided by Robert rather than the other way around. It is now Robert who makes him see the cathedral and understand what communion means. With his eyes closed as if he were blind, the narrator/husband experiences a profound human connection. He discovers, as a result of his decision to be guided by the blind, that human connection has no limits and has no boundaries.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral. ” The Story and Its Writer: An introduction to short fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford Press, 1995. Ewers, Britney. “Cathedral: A blind man’s gift. ” Dream Child and Other Essays. 18 July 2008. Virginia Wesleyan College. 11 December 2008 <http://facultystaff. vwc. edu/~cbellamy/Dream%20Child/index. htm> Jones, Jeff. “Religious Revelation in Carver’s ‘Cathedral’” Dream Child and Other Essays. 18 July 2008. Virginia Wesleyan College. 11 December 2008 <http://facultystaff. vwc. edu/~cbellamy/Dream%20Child/index. htm>