Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How might audio tapes and TV be considered competing metaphors in "Cathedral"?

Both the audio tapes and the TV allow people to communicate through technology, and as such they represent connection, but the value of the connections they offer is vastly different. For the narrator's wife and Robert, the audio tapes they send back and forth represent connection and friendship. The audio tapes require active participation in the form of input from a speaker and attention from a listener. The resulting communication is personal and nuanced, leading to the kind of friendship that has developed between Robert and the narrator's wife. TV, on the other hand, requires only passive audience participation. The narrator turns on the TV as a distraction from the conversation in the room. In "Cathedral" the program that's on TV is simply a jumping-off point for the connection that Robert makes with the narrator through human touch.

In "Cathedral" when Robert and the narrator are drawing, why does Robert keep offering encouragement to the narrator, and why does Robert urge him to add people to the drawing?

Robert wants to bolster the narrator's confidence by constantly telling him what a good job he's doing because the narrator has apologized and has repeated, more than once, that he knows he's not doing a good job of describing a cathedral. Robert probably knows, based on what the narrator's wife has told him about her husband, that it's very unusual for the narrator to try to reach out to someone. Robert gently coaches the narrator along to make sure that he doesn't give up in frustration. After suggesting that the narrator add people, he asks, "What's a cathedral without people?" This suggests the idea that human connection is at the root of spirituality. Adding the people to the drawing is significant because it's the final touch that leads to the narrator's transcendent moment.

What are the primary and secondary conflicts in "Cathedral," and what does the author suggest about how the conflicts will be resolved?

The primary conflict in "Cathedral" is the narrator's interior conflict over his feelings of loneliness, prejudice, and inferiority. These feelings become evident in the first four paragraphs of the story: he dislikes blind people, he can't understand his wife's feelings about her friend, and he resents her relationship with her first husband. He can't resolve his conflicts because he avoids acknowledging them, using alcohol and drugs to escape from reality. The secondary conflict is between the narrator and his wife. Unable to establish a close relationship with her husband, she feels lonely in their marriage. She goes along with his frequent drinking, unintentionally enabling his reliance on alcohol and drugs. Robert's visit forces the narrator to confront his situation. The epiphany the narrator experiences while drawing a cathedral with Robert shows him that it's possible to achieve spiritual connection and understanding. This positive note that the author provides at the end of the story suggests that the conflicts will be resolved, or at least that they can be.

How is the theme of loneliness explored in the story "Cathedral"?

Each of the characters in "Cathedral" deals with loneliness. The narrator's approach to dealing with his loneliness is the least effective. He tries to ignore his loneliness and takes a cynical attitude toward people like Robert and Beulah and toward his wife and Robert, who have established close relationships. Overuse of alcohol and drugs contributes to his isolation. The narrator's wife tried to deal with the loneliness she felt in her first marriage by reaching out to Robert, but the long-distance audiotapes they exchanged didn't keep her from attempting suicide when her day-to-day loneliness became too much. After first leaving and then divorcing her first husband, she seems to have acquired a more positive attitude. It's evident that her marriage to the narrator isn't giving her the companionship and understanding that she'd like, and she's strong enough to tell her husband, "If you don't love me, okay." Robert is the catalyst in the story in the sense that he has something to teach the narrator and his wife about how to cope with loneliness by making an effort to connect with others. The reader senses that even though Robert is grieving the loss of his wife, he isn't—and won't be—a lonely person.

What elements of the minimalist literary style are evident in "Cathedral," and what elements of the story seem to depart from the minimalist style?

Raymond Carver uses a first-person narrator who has difficulty communicating his feelings. In dialogue, the narrator uses short, clipped sentences: "We're drawing a cathedral. Me and him are working on it. Press hard." The story is set primarily in the living room and dining room of a middle-class suburban home, and the three characters are ordinary people struggling to understand one another. The characters drink alcohol throughout the story and also smoke marijuana. Many details about the characters are omitted, including names of characters, and there is little plot development. Elements of the story that seem to depart from the minimalist style are the provision of some background information about the first marriage of the narrator's wife and about Robert's marriage, and the ending which, although slightly ambiguous, manages to provide a hopeful note.

Raymond Carver said a story should "reveal something, but not everything. There should be a certain mystery." In "Cathedral" what details does Carver leave out and for what purpose?

In "Cathedral" Carver omits the names of the narrator, the narrator's wife, and her first husband. He says nothing about the current occupations of the characters, and there is no information about how the narrator and his wife met. Given the tension and lack of communication between them, the reader is left wondering why they were ever attracted to each other. There is also no mention of Robert's grief over the recent loss of his wife. There are no physical descriptions of the narrator or his wife, and there is no physical description of their house or neighborhood. The ambiguous ending leaves the reader wondering what exactly the narrator thinks is "really something."

In "Cathedral" what does the narrator learn from Robert about sight?

The narrator's encounter with Robert forces him to face his prejudice against blind people. He'd always thought of blind people as sad, needy, or somehow lesser human beings, and Robert teaches him that his ideas about blind people have been totally mistaken. Robert is perfectly able to do things for himself, and it's evident that he has a rich, full life, with friends around the world and a love of learning. When the narrator draws a cathedral with the blind man's hand clasped over his, he discovers that knowledge can be absorbed in ways he had never before considered. Moreover, Robert's generosity in leading him to this realization opens his eyes so that he, the sighted person, can see in a way he'd never been able to comprehend before.

In "Cathedral" what breakthrough realization, or epiphany, does the narrator have at the end of the story and how might it affect him going forward?

At the end of "Cathedral," the narrator realizes it's possible to connect with others in unexpected ways. In allowing himself to follow Robert's direction, he drops his cynical barrier to communication. By closing his eyes as he draws, he is focusing his attention on his sense of touch. In doing so, he understands how Robert perceives the world, and he realizes that it's a much richer perception than he had imagined. He says, "It was like nothing else in my life up to now." Raymond Carver has called "Cathedral" one of his most positive stories, so it might be assumed that going forward, the narrator will let down his defenses and work harder at communicating with others, starting with his wife and Robert.

In "Cathedral" how does the narrator's experience of drawing with Robert compare and contrast with the time Robert touched his wife's face?

After the transcendent experience the narrator has when he draws a cathedral with Robert, he should be able to understand that for his wife the experience of having Robert touch her face was similarly transcendent. His wife never forgot it and wrote a poem about it, which the narrator didn't understand. Like his wife, the narrator is likely to feel that his experience is something he'll never forget. He might even gain a new appreciation for the poem that his wife wrote about Robert touching her face. The narrator and his wife might discover that sharing their feelings about these experiences can help them forge a better connection in their marriage.

In "Cathedral" what important lesson about communication does the narrator learn, and how does it affect his ability to connect with others?

At the beginning of the story, the narrator has little use for communication and little understanding of it. He mocks his wife's need to express herself by writing poetry and he denigrates the tapes she makes for Robert by describing her audio correspondence with her friend as "her chief means of recreation." He shrinks from making true human connections, as when he says he's glad he never listened to what Robert said about him on the tape his wife wanted him to hear. To please his wife, the narrator makes an effort to communicate with her friend. Soon he realizes that he wants to communicate with Robert, but he finds that he's unable even to describe what a cathedral looks like. In his frustration, the narrator lets down his barriers, allowing Robert to guide him as they draw the cathedral together, with Robert's hand clasped over his. Through touch, more than through words, Robert communicates with the narrator his own experience of the world, conveying to the narrator a transcendent feeling of connection. He's learned that he must let down his defenses in order to truly communicate, and that the resulting feeling of human connection is worth the effort.

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