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Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the effect of the first-person narrator of "Cathedral" on the story?

The first-person narrator gives a limited perspective. In this case, the narrator's lack of self-awareness and insight provide a very limited perspective, allowing the reader to experience first-hand the narrator's isolation and disaffection. The narrator is somewhat inarticulate when it comes to expressing feelings and emotions, and his bare-bones style of storytelling forces the reader to analyze the emotions and motivations of all the characters. Because the reader views the narrator's cynical, detatched view of life through his eyes, his transformation at the end of the story is more effective and dramatic. In addition, the narrator employs a unique style of humor within his storytelling. At times funny and at other times offensive, the narrator's humor works to emphasize his own blindness to the nuances of social interactions he is unable to negotiate with any skill.

How do alcohol and drugs affect the narrator's life in "Cathedral"?

The narrator uses alcohol excessively, as a crutch in social situations. Throughout the story he drinks almost constantly. Clues indicate this is a long-term pattern of behavior. For example, he mentions a year ago when his wife wanted to play a tape for him, he made drinks before they sat down to listen; when his wife tells him the story of Robert's marriage, he makes a drink before he sits down to listen; and he has a drink while he's waiting for his wife and Robert to arrive from the station. He uses marijuana to relax before bed, in the hope it will fend off the nightmares that plague his sleep. The narrator relies on the alcohol and drugs as pain relievers, believing they soften the pain of his isolation and feelings of hopelessness. However, the more he uses them, the more isolated he becomes, lost in a cocoon of alcohol and drugs.

In "Cathedral" which clues signal that the narrator's marriage is on the verge of collapse?

One clue signalling trouble in the narrator's marriage is that when his wife played him a tape from Robert a year ago, the narrator didn't want to listen to what Robert said about him. This avoidance indicates that the narrator suspects Robert doesn't have a good opinion of him, but he doesn't want to face that fact. His self-centered attitude is evident in his complaint that Robert is "coming to sleep in my house"—not "our house." When his wife says he can do this for her if he loves her, and then says, "If you don't love me, okay," she's offering an ultimatum. She's ready to accept that he doesn't love her, and his behavior toward her friend may determine whether she wants to stay in the marriage. Other clues include his wife's failure to mention him when talking to Robert about the past 10 years, the narrator's admission that when his wife looked at him after Robert's arrival she didn't seem to like what she saw, and the many things he does that irritate her.

In "Cathedral" what does the wife's decision to tell the narrator about Robert and Beulah's marriage reveal about her character and motivations?

The narrator's wife recognizes that her husband's prejudice against blind people is partly because he's never known a blind person. Her husband thinks of her friend not as an individual, but as a stereotype—humorless, needy, and somehow "other." By providing some background about Robert, she hopes to impress on her husband that her friend is a real person who has lost the love of his life and deserves to be treated with kindness and sympathy. She probably also hopes to diffuse any jealousy her husband might have of Robert by emphasizing what a strong, close marriage Robert and Beulah had. It is also possible the narrator's wife wants to create a contrast between Robert and Beulah's marriage and her own to assess her husband's feelings or awareness about their situation.

What does the narrator of "Cathedral" reveal about himself when he describes the story of Robert and Beulah's marriage as "pathetic"?

The word pathetic means "causing feelings of pity." Pathetic also has the connotation, or associated meaning of "pitifully inferior, or absurd." The narrator has previously revealed himself to have a cynical outlook on life. Taking a cynical attitude is a way of blocking emotions, so true sympathy doesn't come easily to the narrator, as evidenced by his prejudice against blind people. In addition, he's jealous of Robert, who seems to have had better success in his marriage than the narrator is having in his own marriage. It's likely, then, that the narrator is being derisive when he pronounces Robert's story "pathetic," revealing his own pettiness and insecurity. Also, when he says how strange it must have been for Robert to never have known what his wife looked like and how sad it must have been for Beulah to have a husband who had never seen her, he reveals how much importance he places on physical appearance and superficiality.

In "Cathedral" what does the narrator's change of attitude toward Robert suggest about making judgments about people based on stereotypes?

The narrator initially bases his ideas about blind people on images he's seen in movies of sad, serious, and helpless people. Media as a source of information about people proves a false communicator. It is only through touch and genuine human interaction that the narrator achieves real communication with a blind man, Robert. Although he's never met a blind person, he's sure he won't enjoy having a blind man in his home. While part of his aversion might be based on his jealousy of this particular blind man, who has a friendship with his wife, a large part of it is due to his discomfort in dealing with the unknown. He doesn't know what will be expected of him when the blind man is in his house. When the narrator actually meets Robert, he discovers his preconceptions are false. The blind man is affable, interesting, and capable of fending for himself. He also enables the narrator to really see or experience human connection, revealing how a connection to another person can be be freeing. The narrator's change of attitude shows the folly of making judgments about people based on stereotypes.

In "Cathedral" what is the significance of Robert's habit of touching or lifting his beard?

Robert touches his beard, a physical gesture, in various ways to emphasize his words, thoughts, and feelings. The gesture emphasizes the point at the story's end that real communication is physical. He lifts his beard and lets it fall is when the narrator's wife laughs at a humorous comment he makes. In this case, the gesture is reminiscent of the drum beat that follows an entertainer's joke. He touches his beard when he asks the narrator questions and when he's engaged in his own thoughts, indicating serious attention and consideration. When the narrator tries to describe a cathedral to the blind man, he can tell that Robert is confused by observing how he is touching his beard: "As he listened to me, he was running his fingers through his beard. I wasn't getting through to him. I could see that."

How does the saying "the blind leading the blind" express the situational irony of Robert's interaction with the narrator of "Cathedral"?

The usual interpretation of the expression "the blind leading the blind" is that a person who doesn't know anything about a subject is trying to lead, or inform, another person who doesn't know anything about the subject. In "Cathedral," the irony of the situation is that Robert, the blind man, knows exactly where he's going when he suggests to the narrator that they draw a cathedral together, while the narrator, who is sighted, is the one who must be led. In the end, the blind man succeeds in leading the sighted man to achieve the goal of truly "seeing" in a way he has never seen before.

In "Cathedral" what do the narrator's remarks about his wife's history suggest about his character and values?

The narrator speaks disdainfully about his wife's first marriage. Instead of showing some respect for the feelings she had for her childhood sweetheart, the narrator refers to him as "this man who'd first enjoyed her favors." The narrator describes his wife's loneliness in her marriage, her suicide attempt, and her divorce simply by listing the facts, without mustering any sympathy for what she went through. He seems unreasonably resentful of his wife's relationship with her first husband, and even of her long-distance friendship with Robert: "She told him everything, or so it seemed to me." His attitude suggests he values her more as a possession or as a sexual object than as an equal partner in their relationship.

How does the setting of "Cathedral" contribute to its mood?

The story "Cathedral" is set in a generic, middle-class, suburban home in the late 1970s. Most of the interaction between the characters occurs in the living room. The only features of the living room that are mentioned in the story are the new sofa, the color TV, and the coffee table, and these items aren't described. The lack of description of the setting reinforces the feeling that there is nothing particularly interesting going on in the lives of the people who live in this house. The setting conveys a closed-in, almost claustrophobic, mood of dullness, lack of energy, and boredom.

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