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Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral | Context


1970s America

The story "Cathedral" is set in 1970s America, a time dubbed the "me decade" by writer Tom Wolfe. Exhausted by the turbulence of antiwar protests and disillusioned with government after the two-decade-long Vietnam War, in which some 58,200 Americans died, and the Watergate scandal, in which President Richard Nixon's reelection campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters, people began to concentrate on seeking self-fulfillment, or "finding themselves." Increased drug use from the 1960s continued, and middle-class Americans began to move away from mainstream Christianity, while working-class Americans moved toward fundamentalist evangelical religions. The narrator in "Cathedral" is an example of a nonreligious, drug-using, middle-class American who finds himself alone and isolated within his relationships rather than being self-fulfilled.

Women fought to break out of traditional gender roles and began to gain a better foothold in the workplace. As they gained economic independence, women gained the confidence to leave unhappy marriages, and the divorce rate shot up. Although the narrator's wife in "Cathedral" takes part in this divorce revolution, her second marriage to the narrator doesn't fare much better in terms of happiness. In fact, the relationship that best feeds the narrator's wife's sense of fulfillment and self-discovery is with Robert, a close long-distance friend.

The price of oil rose drastically in the mid-1970s, creating an energy crisis. By the late 1970s, the United States was in an economic slump, with high rates of unemployment and inflation. The standard of living declined and the poverty level increased as jobs became harder and harder to find. The 1970s was an era of disillusionment and confusion, as people questioned their ability to achieve the "American Dream." "Cathedral," in fact, goes so far as to question the value of this "American Dream" as a goal. While the narrator and his wife have a home and work, they are emotionally isolated from each other in an unfulfilling marriage.

Much of the technology that would be commonplace by the early 21st century hadn't yet been developed. People didn't have personal computers, smart phones, or modern recording technology. Many people still had black-and-white TVs, and most new color TVs didn't have remote controls. Communication choices included the telephone, the mail, or face-to-face conversation. Yet, as "Cathedral" shows, the human disconnection that has ensued from the advancement of technology in recent years is not a new phenomenon. Robert and the narrator's wife maintain an intimate connection via the mail, but the narrator and his wife are isolated from each other in daily face-to-face conversation.

Minimalist Literature

Minimalism is a style that became popular in literature of the 1970s and 1980s, but its roots can be traced to works of earlier writers such as Anton Chekov, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom Raymond Carver named as important influences on his work.

A spare, pared-down writing style is typical of minimalist literature. Other hallmarks of the minimalist style include the following:

  • first-person narrator
  • two or three ordinary characters
  • characters who have difficulty communicating with one another
  • simple sentences
  • informal tone
  • focus on an everyday situation that takes place in an ordinary home
  • focus on a "slice of life" experience in which alcohol and drugs play a role
  • minimal action or plot development
  • omission of details such as character names, histories, and occupations
  • ambiguous ending
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