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Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In "Cathedral" why is the narrator's wife annoyed with her husband, and why do his attempts at humor and other things he says trigger her irritation?

The narrator's wife is generally annoyed with her husband because he has fallen short of her expectations as a husband. He seems to have made no effort to understand or appreciate her sensitive side. Instead of trying to communicate with her on any deep level, he hides behind a barrier of cynical comments disguised as humor. Specific things the narrator says that trigger his wife's irritation include the following: Remark about taking Robert bowling: She's annoyed because the comment isn't humorous; it's a passive-aggressive complaint about how inconvenienced he thinks he'll be by the blind man's visit. Question about whether Robert's wife is "a Negro." This question is representative of his tendency to be prejudiced against people based on stereotypes. Question to Robert asking which side of the train he sat on: The question is insensitive because it relates to the scenery one sees and has no relevance to a blind person. Joke he makes about saying grace before dinner: He doesn't know whether or not Robert is religious, and he doesn't seem to care if his irreverent attitude might be offensive to his guest.

In "Cathedral" how does the narrator's wife benefit from and nurture her friendship with Robert?

The narrator's wife's friendship with Robert gives her a sense of community and connection. Technology allows her to nurture the friendship in spite of the distance that separates them. Recording audio tapes to send to Robert requires that she periodically set aside some time to think about what she wants to tell him, and in doing so she would need to explore and evaluate her own feelings about how things are going in her life. The longevity of their friendship reassures her that Robert is someone she can rely on for support, advice, and reassurance when she needs it. Communicating with Robert helps alleviate the loneliness she feels as a result of not being able to communicate with her husband. Unlike her husband, Robert knows how to really listen and appreciate her thoughts and feelings. In addition, the kind of marriage Robert had with Beulah serves as an example of the kind of marriage she would like to have.

Why does Robert tell the narrator of "Cathedral" to close his eyes while he's drawing?

Robert knows from his own experience as a blind person that it is possible to understand a thing even if one is unable to see it. He asks the narrator to close his eyes while he draws in order to help him free his imagination from the confines of line and shape so he can feel the essence or spirit of the cathedral. By not looking at the lines being drawn on the paper, the narrator isn't limited by the image he is drawing. In addition, because Robert is clasping his hand as they draw, the narrator learns to appreciate how physical touch can convey ideas and information.

In "Cathedral" why is the experience of Robert's touch on her face so memorable for the narrator's wife?

For someone who is blind, touching a person's face is a way to learn about a person. The narrator's wife would have been aware of this when she agreed to let Robert touch her face. She may have been surprised, however, by the intimacy of this unusual experience. In asking to touch her face, Robert showed that he cared for her as a friend, not just a coworker or employee. She was moving away and was about to be married. The experience may have caused her to realize, as she was preparing to begin a new stage in her life, just how much Robert's friendship had come to mean to her.

In "Cathedral" why does Robert call the narrator "Bub," and what does this name suggest about the relationship between Robert and the narrator?

Robert's use of the nickname "Bub" emphasizes the difference in their ages. Robert, in his late forties, is probably 10 or more years older than the narrator. Calling the narrator "Bub" suggests the kind of casual familiarity Robert might have for a favorite nephew or other young person under his charge. The narrator's comment about being called Bub indicates surprise, but not indignation, as might have been expected based on his previous complaints about the blind man's visit. This benign reaction from the narrator may indicate that his initial impressions of Robert are favorable and are beginning to help him overcome his reservations about his wife's friend.

In "Cathedral," in addition to his prejudice against blind people, what other biases or dislikes does the narrator reveal and what do they suggest about him?

In addition to his prejudice against blind people, the narrator expresses a dislike of the following: Poetry—He says he doesn't understand it. Being spoken about by a stranger—He's annoyed that Robert offers an opinion about him on a tape. Beards—He pronounces Robert's beard "too much." The new sofa—He suggests that he preferred the old sofa. The appearance of Robert's eyes—He wishes the blind man had dark glasses to cover up the uncontrollable movement of his pupils. The stereotypical idea that the name Beulah indicates a black person—In the 1950s there was a television show called Beulah, which featured a black maid. The narrator seems to dislike anything that is unfamiliar or new, or that requires an effort for him to understand. His biases and dislikes suggest that he has a rigid, incurious, closed worldview.

Throughout "Cathedral" how do the narrator's thoughts, words, and actions signal to the reader his changing attitude toward Robert?

Shortly after Robert arrives, the narrator expresses grudging admiration for how well the blind man accomplishes simple activities like smoking a cigarette and locating food on his plate. During dinner, the narrator butters bread for Robert, a surprisingly thoughtful gesture. However, after dinner, when his wife goes upstairs to change, the narrator is uncomfortable about being "left alone with a blind man." He offers Robert another drink and asks if he wants to smoke some marijuana with him. He seems to do this more in the spirit of playing the host than out of any mischievous intent, as his wife seems to suspect when she returns. After his wife falls asleep, the narrator surprises himself by admitting that he's "glad for the company" when Robert expresses an interest in staying up for a while so they can have a chance to talk. It's after this realization that the narrator becomes interested in describing for Robert what a cathedral looks like, and he seems genuinely disappointed with himself when he fails in this act of communication.

In "Cathedral" what does Robert's lifestyle reveal about his outlook on life, and how does his outlook contrast with the narrator's outlook on life?

Robert isn't afraid of change, as evidenced by the number of different jobs he's had over the years. The narrator, who dislikes his own job but is afraid to make a change, calls Robert "a regular blind jack-of-all-trades." Robert doesn't hesitate to reach out to others in friendship, as evidenced by his ham radio hobby, his friendship with the narrator's wife, and his gentle guidance of the narrator. In contrast, the narrator seems to have no friends, and he doesn't seem motivated to make friends. Robert faces setbacks in his life, such as the death of his wife, with stoicism and equanimity, as opposed to the narrator, who uses drugs and alcohol to hide from and blunt his feelings.

Why doesn't the narrator of "Cathedral" describe any conversation, during Robert's visit, about the recent death of Robert's wife?

The fact that the narrator doesn't describe talk of Robert's recent loss doesn't mean it didn't happen. The narrator has shown himself to be biased and somewhat unreliable. After dinner, the narrator reports that Robert and his wife "talked about the major things that had come to pass for them in the past ten years." Most likely this is when they talked about Beulah's death. The narrator tells readers somewhat indignantly that "they talked of things that had happened to them—to them!" The whole time, he says, he was listening "in vain" to hear his wife mention his name. Given the narrator's self-absorption and lack of empathy, he wouldn't have considered Robert's feelings about the loss of his wife worth mentioning.

Why does the narrator of "Cathedral" say a mock grace before dinner, and what does this reveal about his character?

From the narrator's conversation with his wife before Robert's visit, in which he suggests that he and the blind man might go bowling, it's evident that he likes to use provocative comments and actions to vie for attention the way a child would. He doesn't seem to be doing this maliciously, but simply because he doesn't really know how—or is afraid—to express his feelings of insecurity and loneliness. When he says his mock prayer before dinner, he is acting out, in a passive-aggressive way, on his resentment against Robert's presence. He doesn't know whether Robert is religious, and he may not care whether he offends the blind man; he's more interested in showing off his own irreverence and cleverness.

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