Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


At the beginning of "Cathedral," how does the narrator's choice of words and use of language convey his displeasure with the idea of Robert's visit?

In the very first line of "Cathedral," the narrator refers to Robert as "this blind man." Using the word "this" as a demonstrative adjective conveys the speaker's attitude of disdain toward the blind man. For the first few pages of the story, the narrator doesn't even dignify Robert by using his name, referring to him instead only as "the blind man." He says to his wife, "Maybe I could take him bowling," suggesting that he expects to be bored by the blind man's visit. He can't think of anything about Robert he'd find interesting or entertaining. The joke is also cruel, highlighting Robert's deficiencies rather than his assets.

According to the details that reveal Robert's character in "Cathedral," was the narrator justified in being concerned about what Robert said on the interrupted audio tape?

Robert has shown himself to be a kind and caring person. The narrator's wife hadn't been in contact with Robert for more than a year when she first called him on the phone. In suggesting she should send him a tape, he reached out to provide her an outlet for her lonely, alienated feelings. He continued to keep up the correspondence with her through her most depressed and lonely times, showing that he is a kind, supportive friend. Robert's continued support of the narrator's wife wasn't motivated by loneliness or need on his part because he had a fulfilling relationship with Beulah. In addition, when he meets the narrator, Robert demonstrates a casual, friendly attitude toward him. These details reveal that, as a kind, nonjudgmental person, Robert would not have said anything on the tape that would have offended the narrator.

In "Cathedral" what is significant about the fact that Robert and Beulah are the only characters named in the story?

Robert and Beulah are named because they are more fully realized characters than the narrator and his wife. They forged a close, fulfilling relationship; they worked together and shared the same goals and values. Their relationship extends beyond death through the 20-peso coin. Robert is curious and outgoing and has interests and friends outside of his work, as evidenced by his ham radio hobby. In contrast, the narrator and his wife are both discontented, unfulfilled people who don't seem to be able to communicate with each other. Their relationship is filled with tension, and they don't seem to agree on much. The narrator apparently has no friends, and the wife's only close friend seems to be Robert; the narrator and his wife don't even seem to be friends with each other. The narrator and his wife appear as nameless ciphers in the story because that is how the narrator, in his loneliness and discontent, sees both himself and his wife.

In "Cathedral" how does the narrator's assessment of Beulah's death reveal the problems within his own marriage?

Before the narrator listens to his wife tell him about Robert and Beulah's marriage and Beulah's death, the narrator hasn't shown any capacity for empathy or sympathy. Perhaps because he knows his wife expects him to feel something, or perhaps in spite of himself, he begins to feel sorry for Robert "for a little bit." Then he shifts to feeling sorry for Beulah because she "could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one." The narrator's shallowness is revealed when he assumes Beulah's last thought was regret that Robert didn't know what she looked like. This assessment suggests the narrator's ideas about what is important in a relationship are misguided. Like his ideas about blind people, his ideas about marriage have no basis in reality. He completely misses the point that the richness of Robert and Beulah's "inseparable" relationship was grounded in communication, love, and companionship, which goes much deeper than physical appearance.

What is Carver's purpose in choosing a cathedral for the central symbol of "Cathedral"?

The narrator tells Robert he isn't religious, and there's no discussion of religion in the story, so the choice of a cathedral as the subject of the drawing transcends religion to encompass spirituality. The cathedral represents a place where people come together to focus on spiritual matters and strive to achieve fulfillment and a higher purpose in life. In drawing the cathedral, the isolated, emotionally stunted narrator makes a connection with Robert both physically—when Robert clasps his hand to draw—and spiritually—when Robert tells him to close his eyes. The experience creates a kind of epiphany for the narrator, as he makes a spiritual connection that breaks through his isolation.

In "Cathedral" what does the narrator's report of his close observation of Robert's appearance and behavior before and during dinner reveal about the narrator's values and concerns?

The narrator studies Robert's appearance and actions carefully. He's critical of Robert's beard, implying that it's an affectation, and he's a little unnerved by the appearance of Robert's eyes because of the way the pupils move about uncontrollably. He dubs Robert's eyes "creepy," and wishes he'd wear dark glasses. The narrator's scrutiny and criticism of Robert's appearance reveal his shallow, superficial concern with appearances. He implies it's inconsiderate of Robert not to wear dark glasses, showing more concern for his own discomfort than for Robert. The narrator does express admiration for Robert's ability to smoke his cigarettes "down to the nubbin" and to locate the food on his plate and skillfully wield his knife and fork, but his description of Robert is that of a scientist observing a subject's behavior. The narrator's observation shows he has no interest in Robert's personality, feelings, or interests.

Which details early in the story "Cathedral" hint that the narrator might be more thoughtful and sensitive than some of his comments suggest?

The narrator doesn't tell his wife that he "didn't think much of the poem" she wrote about Robert touching her face, and he takes responsibility for not being able to understand poetry. When his wife tells him about Robert and Beulah's marriage, he feels some sympathy for Robert and he tries to put himself in Beulah's place. The reason he feels empathy for Beulah is somewhat misguided, focusing as it does on appearance rather than feelings, but he does make an effort. Upon meeting Robert, he tries to censor himself when he's about to ask an insensitive question about the view from the train, and he helpfully butters Robert's bread for him at dinner. In addition, the fact that he suffers from recurring nightmares suggests he is struggling with unresolved feelings or conflicts.

What do the questions Robert asks the narrator of "Cathedral" reveal about Robert, and what do the answers reveal about the narrator?

In asking the narrator how long he's been in his job, whether he likes it, and whether he plans to stay with it, Robert shows he's interested in making a connection with the narrator. The narrator participates only minimally in the conversation between his wife and Robert, and his terse responses to Robert's questions suggest he doesn't know how to connect with people. He also doesn't like to show vulnerability or weakness, hiding instead behind cynical remarks. Later, after the narrator tries to describe a cathedral, Robert asks the narrator whether he's religious. The narrator's response to this question is the first time he admits to feeling vulnerable: he tells Robert that it's sometimes hard not to believe in anything.

In "Cathedral" what do the narrator's wife's reasons for divorcing her first husband reveal about her values and aspirations?

The narrator's wife left her first husband for several reasons. In her tapes to Robert, she said she wanted to put down roots and make lasting friendships, but the "moving-around life" of an Air Force officer's wife prevented her from doing that. Her attempted suicide indicates that although she said she loved her husband, they didn't have a close enough relationship for her to share her feelings of isolation and despair with him. Her concern about her husband being "a part of the military-industrial thing" reveals an interest in the peace movement, indicating she didn't share the same political values as her husband. Taking the action of seeking a divorce shows she had the courage and determination to seek a more fulfilling life for herself, although her choice of the narrator for her next husband raises questions about her judgment.

In "Cathedral" how do the themes of communication and loneliness relate to the narrator's inability to describe a cathedral to Robert?

The narrator's inability to describe a cathedral in a way Robert can understand is typical of his general inability to communicate with other people in a meaningful way. In his interactions with his wife and with Robert, the narrator seems to lack both the vocabulary and the empathy to communicate effectively with another person. When his wife is trying to explain why she wants him to have a better attitude about Robert's visit, she says, "his wife's just died! Don't you understand that? the man's lost his wife!" The narrator doesn't answer that; instead, he asks "Was his wife a Negro?" The narrator has not been in the habit of considering how—or even whether—someone is responding to what he says. His lack of ability to communicate only increases his sense of isolation, which in turn reinforces his alienation from the important people in his life.

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