Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral | Themes


The themes of loneliness, communication, blindness, and friendship are linked throughout this story. Communication staves off loneliness by creating human connections that can lead to important, lifelong friendships.


In minimalist fiction loneliness is a common theme; characters are often people who are struggling or have lost something important to them. The narrator is the loneliest, most isolated character in "Cathedral." He's almost trapped within himself, unable to articulate the anxiety, fears, and insecurities that seem to consume him. He hides his loneliness behind a barrier of drugs, alcohol, and cynicism. The narrator's wife reached the depths of loneliness during her first marriage when she attempted suicide. Her second marriage, to the narrator, also has its share of loneliness, but her connection with Robert and her poetry writing seem to be sustaining her. Robert is facing the loneliness of having lost his life partner, but he seems to have the resources he needs to cope with his situation.


The narrator demonstrates his inability to communicate meaningfully throughout the story, from his unwillingness to engage with his wife's poetry to his terse responses during the conversations with his wife and Robert. This is in contrast to the apparently voluminous communication Robert and the narrator's wife have via audio tapes. This theme is also reflected in the epiphany the narrator experiences at the end of the story when he discovers communication isn't reliant simply on an exchange of words. The narrator's wife understands empathy plays an important role in good communication, and the narrator struggles to grasp this concept. Robert skillfully provides the narrator with a valuable lesson in communication when he suggests they draw a cathedral together.


In mythology blindness often represents wisdom and insight. Similarly, in "Cathedral" blindness represents insight and a freeing of the imagination. The narrator assumes, at first, that blindness is a deficiency that places major limitations on Robert's life and experiences, making him a "pathetic," needy person. Paradoxically, it's the narrator who is pathetic and needy; his life experiences are limited by his emotional blindness. The narrator has much to learn from Robert about closing his eyes to what is superficial and distracting and then focusing on the kind of insights that forge human connections.


The narrator resents the friendship his wife has with Robert. According to his wife, the narrator has no friends, and part of his struggle in this story relates to learning to appreciate the value of friendship. Robert and the narrator's wife have diligently maintained their friendship for many years, and it has become a sustaining force in both of their lives.

Questions for Themes

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