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Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Cathedral | 10 Things You Didn't Know


"Cathedral" is the title story in Raymond Carver's third volume of collected stories, published in 1981. In the story, the narrator hosts a blind man who is his wife's friend. Over the course of the narrative, the narrator reveals his prejudice against the blind, but he and the blind man connect spiritually over drawing a picture of a cathedral.

At the story's end, the narrator and blind man share an experience that moves both forward toward mutual understanding, though each cannot truly know the other. The ambiguity of the story's ending has intrigued readers since its publication. Carver, who wrote in a minimalist style and focused on the American underclass, was often called "the American Chekhov."

1. Carver was a violent drunk who almost killed his wife.

Before 1977 Carver was nearly always drunk. He met his wife Maryann in 1955 and married her when she was 17 and pregnant. He was a jealous husband; at a party in 1975, when he thought she was flirting, he hit her on the head with a bottle, cutting an artery. The attack nearly killed her. They stayed married until 1982, by which time Carver had been sober for five years. However, alcohol still made an appearance in many of his stories, including "Cathedral."

2. Carver thought of writing as building a cathedral.

Carver was an admirer of Gustave Flaubert, the 19th-century French novelist, and often quoted his statement, "Prose is architecture." Carver elaborated on that idea, stating, "This is a farfetched analogy, but it's in a way like building a fantastic cathedral. The main thing is to get the work of art together."

3. "Cathedral" is the first story Carver wrote in which a character grows and changes.

In an interview Carver stated he felt "Cathedral" was different from the other stories he had written. He felt driven to write the story and explained, "The character there is full of prejudices against blind people. He changes; he grows. I'd never written a story like that." He felt the story's ending was positive and liked it for that reason.

4. "Cathedral" is an example of the genre known as dirty realism.

Carver was one of a group of writers who composed what came to be known as dirty realism. The group included Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Tobias Wolff. All wrote stories in a minimalist style, often concerned with the poor and the dispossessed of America. Bill Buford, editor of Granta magazine, coined the term in 1983 when he devoted an issue of the magazine to writers of the genre.

5. Carver often began stories without knowing their endings.

In a New York Times article Carver wrote about his shock on hearing writer Flannery O'Connor describe how she started a story not knowing it would include a character with a PhD and a wooden leg. He was astonished to learn other writers began stories without knowing their endings, just as he did. He described the act of writing one particular story: "I made the story just as I'd make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next. Pretty soon I could see a story, and I knew it was my story."

6. The New York Times thought "Cathedral" was the best story in the collection.

While the New York Times felt Carver's previous stories were "strong but limited," the reviewer of the volume in which "Cathedral" appears stated, "There are a few that suggest he is moving toward a greater ease of manner and generosity of feeling." One of these was the title story, which the reviewer said moves "past Mr. Carver's expert tautness and venture[s] on a less secure but finer rendering of experience."

7. "Cathedral" was adapted into a short film.

In 2002 Films for the Humanities & Sciences produced an adaptation of "Cathedral." The film, 57 minutes long, was designed to be used in the classroom as a teaching tool and is faithful to the story in its use of dialogue. It also includes an interview with Carver's widow, who discusses the writer and the story.

8. There is a Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.

Carve magazine, established in 2000, is an online and print literary magazine that seeks to publish "honest fiction." Since their first year of publication, they have hosted the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, which receives submissions from around the world. Many winners of the contest have cited the award as the catalyst for their successful writing careers.

9. Carver wrote short stories because he could finish them quickly and needed the money.

In an interview with the Paris Review Carver explained why he chose to write short stories. He was a young father with very little money, trying to raise a family and "to think of [himself] as a writer and to learn to write." He realized he didn't have the time to write a novel, saying, "I needed to write something I could get some kind of a payoff from immediately, not next year, or three years from now. Hence, poems and stories."

10. Carver appears as a character in other writers' novels.

Carver's hard-drinking, adventurous life helped make him a real-life character in two novels. Honeymooners (2002) by Chuck Kinder, a friend of Carver's, is about two writers, one of whom is based on Carver. It tracks their alcohol- and drug-fueled adventures in 1970s California. That Other LIfetime (1997) by Mark Maxwell imagines what would happen if Carver and former president Richard Nixon met and talked together on a California beach.

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