Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram



The setting of "Cathedral" is a modest suburban home in the northeastern part of the United States in the late 1970s. The narrator and his wife seem to have reached a point in their marriage where they don't really communicate with each other. The story begins with the first-person narrator complaining about "this blind man," his wife's friend Robert, who is coming for an overnight visit. Robert's wife, Beulah, has died, and he's come from the West Coast to visit his wife's relatives in Connecticut. The narrator complains he doesn't know the blind man and says he doesn't like the idea of having a blind man in his house. All he knows about blind people is what he's learned from movies: they move slowly and never laugh.

The Wife's Story

The narrator explains that the friendship between Robert and his wife began when she worked for Robert in Seattle before her first marriage. She needed a summer job while her fiancé, her childhood sweetheart, was in officer training school. She answered a newspaper ad and was hired as a reader for the blind man, who worked in the county social service department. They became good friends during that summer. The narrator says his wife told him that on her last day the blind man asked if he could touch her face. She agreed, and it was such an unforgettable experience she wrote a poem about it. According to the narrator, she wrote a few poems a year, usually related to important experiences. She showed the poem about the blind man to the narrator early in their relationship, but he "didn't think much of the poem," possibly, he says, because he just doesn't understand poetry. The narrator has never met Robert, although his wife has maintained a long-distance friendship with him via audio tapes mailed back and forth between them. Over the years, she has shared with Robert her thoughts and feelings about her life.

The narrator continues with his wife's story. Lonely in her marriage to her first husband and feeling isolated, she attempted suicide but was found in time by "her officer." The narrator refuses to name the first husband, saying it was enough that "he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?" On the tapes she sent, the narrator's wife told the blind man about the suicide attempt. She told him about her decision to separate from the Air Force officer and then divorce him. Later she told Robert about meeting the narrator, to whom she is now married. The narrator says a year ago she wanted him to listen to a newly arrived tape from the blind man. He made drinks and they turned on the tape player. It was unsettling for him when the blind man mentioned his name. Then their listening session was interrupted and the narrator admits he's glad he didn't have to hear what the blind man thought of him.

The Present Day

Before the blind man arrives, the narrator makes a tasteless joke about taking him bowling. This angers his wife, and she reminds the narrator that her friend has just lost his wife. Remembering the wife's name was Beulah, the narrator asks if she was "a Negro." Exasperated, the narrator's wife asks if he's drunk. Then she tells him, as he has another drink, about her friend's wife. Beulah had begun to work for the blind man a year after the narrator's wife worked for him. They had a close, loving marriage for eight years before she died of cancer. The narrator begins to feel sorry for the blind man because he never knew what Beulah looked like. Then he feels sorry for Beulah because she died without her husband knowing what she looked like. The narrator thinks it's "pathetic" that in the end Robert was left with only "a small insurance policy and half of a twenty-peso Mexican coin." Beulah was buried with the other half of the coin.

The narrator has another drink while he waits for his wife to pick up Robert from the train station. When they arrive, he notices how happy his wife seems; she's laughing and smiling. He notices that for some time, she can't seem to tear her eyes away from Robert. When she does look at her husband, he thinks she doesn't like what she sees. The narrator is critical of Robert's full beard, pronouncing it "too much," and he grudgingly admits the blind man is a "spiffy" dresser. Having never met a blind person, the narrator observes Robert closely, wishing he would wear dark glasses because his eyes move about uncontrollably, which the narrator finds disturbing. Over drinks, the narrator notices Robert is a chain smoker, admiring the blind man's ability to smoke each cigarette down to the very end. They have another drink with dinner, and the narrator butters Robert's bread for him. They attack the dinner ravenously, not even bothering to talk, and the narrator notes Robert's skill with the knife and fork. They leave the table and settle in the living room with drinks. Robert and the narrator's wife catch up on each other's lives, and the narrator participates just enough so they know he's there and is interested. He's disappointed his wife never mentions him. He learns Robert has had a variety of jobs and has made friends all over the world via ham radio. Robert makes a point of including the narrator in the conversation by asking him questions every so often. He asks if the narrator likes his job and plans to keep it. The narrator replies that he doesn't like his job, but he doesn't feel he has any other options.

The Narrator and Robert Connect

When the conversation seems to be trailing off, the narrator turns on the TV, which irritates his wife. Soon she goes upstairs to change into her robe, and she's gone for a long time. Her absence worries the narrator, who doesn't "want to be left alone with a blind man." The narrator rallies, gets more drinks, and asks Robert if he wants to smoke some marijuana. Robert says he'll try it, and they're smoking when the narrator's wife returns. She glares at her husband but settles on the sofa between them and smokes a little before falling asleep. The narrator offers to take Robert up to his room, but Robert says he'd like to stay up and talk. The narrator realizes he's happy to have someone to stay up with, for a change. Every night he stays up late alone, smoking marijuana and putting off sleep, which often brings unsettling nightmares.

Drawing the Cathedral

The narrator tries to find something to watch on TV and finally settles for a documentary about cathedrals. The narrator feels compelled to fill in the gaps in the documentary's narration by explaining what's happening on the screen. Robert asks the narrator to describe a cathedral to him, and the narrator tries hard, but fails, and apologizes. Robert asks if the narrator is religious, and the narrator replies that he doesn't believe in anything, and sometimes that's difficult. The truth is, he says, cathedrals don't mean anything to him. Then Robert suggests they draw a cathedral together. The narrator gathers the materials and spreads out a paper shopping bag on the coffee table, Robert closes his hand over the narrator's, and the narrator begins to draw. Robert offers encouragement as they draw spires, windows, and arches. They pause, and Robert runs his fingers over what they've drawn. They continue drawing, and after a while the narrator's wife wakes up and wants to know what they're doing. Robert reassures her and tells the narrator to close his eyes as they continue drawing. The narrator is overcome with amazement at the experience, which he says is "like nothing else in my life up to now." Robert urges him to open his eyes and look at the drawing, but the narrator keeps his eyes closed, thinking that although he knows he's inside his house, he doesn't feel like he's "inside anything."


Character Contrasts

The first-person narrator is not a likeable character. The way he tells his story is neither articulate nor insightful, yet it reveals a great deal about himself. Through his narration, he comes across as self-righteous and inconsiderate, lazy, unimaginative, and easily threatened. Most of his views are so narrow and static that readers quickly come to realize he is blinder than the blind man himself, and they don't trust his perceptions of himself or others. His prejudice against blind people is based on nothing more than an impression he has gained from movies. He considers the upcoming visit of the blind man to be an imposition. He resents being expected to rouse himself out of his self-absorption to consider the needs of someone else. But there's more to his discomfort than prejudice against blind people—he's jealous of the blind man's friendship with his wife. According to his wife, the narrator has no friends himself, and he seems incapable (or fearful) of real intimacy. He's is indignant that, 10 years ago, the blind man touched his wife's face and neck, and he's dismissive of the poem his wife wrote about the experience. He doesn't want to acknowledge its importance to her. He also reveals sexual jealousy of his wife's first husband, referring to him as "this man who'd first enjoyed her favors." The narrator's decision not to name his wife's first husband shows clear resentment of the fact that he'd been her childhood sweetheart.

The narrator avoids introspection, not wanting to know what his wife has told the blind man about him, nor what the blind man thinks of him. He doesn't want to acknowledge that, in many ways, his wife is closer to the blind man than she is to him. The narrator shows no empathy when he describes his wife's former marriage, suicide attempt, and divorce. He dismisses the tapes she sends to Robert and her poems as "her chief means of recreation," not seeming to recognize she's seeking a connection she doesn't seem to find in their marriage. The first time the narrator shows any empathy is when his wife tells him about Robert's marriage to Beulah and Beulah's death. But his empathy reveals skewed, superficial values. He feels sorry for Beulah because she died without her husband ever having seen her face, not understanding that what Robert and Beulah saw in each other was much deeper and more meaningful than physical appearance. It isn't until this point, well into the story, that the narrator refers to the blind man by name. This naming suggests that trying to empathize with the blind man makes him seem more like a real person than a stereotype to the narrator.

In contrast to the narrator, his wife seems to be a kind, sensitive person. She may not be far off the mark when she asks her husband if he's drunk, as he always seems to have a drink at hand. Indeed, his drinking and drug use seem to be another way in which he insulates himself from the rest of the world and from his own thoughts. The narrator notices the contrast between how happy his wife seems when she looks at Robert and her less-than-happy mood when she looks at him. In spite of his cynical, detached attitude, the narrator reveals that he really does care about his wife when he admits that he's disappointed his wife never mentions him when she tells Robert about the last 10 years of her life. The narrator's general state of malaise, which keeps him in a job he dislikes, seems to render him unable to improve his relationship with his wife. He isn't capable of having a serious, deep conversation with her. The best he can do is try to please her in small ways, by going through the motions of being an attentive host. He flubs this act, though, when he turns on the TV.

The character of Robert provides a stark contrast to the narrator. At first the narrator is privately critical of Robert's appearance, taking a scornful attitude toward Robert's beard and his "natty" clothes. Under the force of Robert's friendly, open personality, however, the narrator begins to grudgingly admire the blind man's competence and self-sufficiency. The after-dinner conversation reveals a contrast between Robert's wide and varied interests and occupations and the narrator's narrow, confined view of life. Robert's references to learning—that he's always learning something and that learning never ends—also contrast with the narrator's general disinterest and fear of what he doesn't understand (including the blind man himself). And ultimately, the narrator's near religious revelation at the story's end is in part about finally letting go of that fear. He learns from Robert that seeing involves more than physical sight.

Minimalism and Modern Alienation

As in Carver's other works, the prose in "Cathedral" is spare and matter of fact, with relatively little description. The narrator's voice is casual, slangy, and realistic, and his tone tends to be indifferent and unemotional, even when readers might expect it to be otherwise, such as when he's describing his wife's suicide attempt. The narrator's voice reflects his numb emotions, and the alienation he feels between himself and others. It also demonstrates his inability to be imaginative, to communicate (and therefore connect) meaningfully with others, and to see value beyond his own narrow experience.

The story's ending is triumphant precisely because the narrator is finally able to overcome that alienation. When words fail him in describing the cathedral, the blind man guides him to find another way to connect, another way to escape his own limited perceptions: after the drawing is complete, the narrator notes, "I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything." He's forced to discard the prejudices normal eyesight instills, and in so doing, he is freed from his limitations.

Cathedral Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Narrator describes his wife's friendship with Robert.

Rising Action

2 Robert arrives at the narrator's house for a visit.

3 Narrator, wife, and Robert have dinner and smoke marijuana.

4 Wife goes to sleep, and Robert and narrator watch TV.


5 Robert suggests he and narrator draw a cathedral.

Falling Action

6 Narrator and Robert draw a cathedral together.


7 Narrator has a transcendent experience.

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