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Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Cathedral (original 1983; edition 2003)

by Raymond Carver (Author)

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Authors:Raymond Carver (Author)
Info:Vintage (2003), 224 pages
Collections:Just American

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Cathedral by Raymond Carver (1983)


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Black Painting No. 34, 1964 by American Artist, Ad Reinhardt

A dozen Raymond Carver stories collected here as part of the 1980s Vintage Contemporaries series. Since others have synopsized and commented on all twelve, I’ll share some short-short cuts from the title story, my reflections on a real Carver doozy, a story I dearly love. Here goes:

The Blind Man: The narrator’s wife is bringing her old friend, a blind man, home for a visit since the blind man made the trip to Connecticut to visit relatives following the death of his wife. The narrator’s idea of blindness and what it means to be a blind man comes from the movies. Such a telling detail of lower-middle-class Carver country, life saturated by popular culture, especially movies and television. (Although the narrator remains nameless throughout the story, I sense his name is Al, so I’ll take the liberty to occasionally refer to the narrator as Al).

Poetry: Al’s wife writes poems, one such poem about how during her last session with the blind man, she let him touch her face and neck with his fingers. And Al’s reaction to poetry? “I admit it’s not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read.” Ha! What understatement – ‘not the first thing I reach for’ - matter of fact, safe to say Al hasn’t come within a mile of reading a poem since high school English class. I can clearly envision Al rolling his eyes as he grumbles under his breath: ‘Damn sissy stuff.’

Lifeless Bitter Pill: The narrator conveys some of his wife’s background, how she married her childhood sweetheart, etc. It’s that ‘et cetera’ that underlines Al’s distaste for life. For Al, life is a bitter pill. Black bile Al. His words about his wife’s despair and attempted suicide before she met him are entirely devoid of emotion and as flat and as cold as a frozen pancake.

Recreation: Al’s wife has been trading tapes with the blind man over the years. Al demeans the tapes along with his wife’s poetry, calling them her chief means of recreation. At one point, listening to one of the tapes, Al does get extremely upset. We read: “My own name in the mouth of this stranger, this blind man I didn’t even know!” A key revealer of what Al really values and finds important as he sings that all too familiar song: “It’s all about me.”

Pathetic: The blind man lived with his wife and after she fell ill, had to sit by his wife’s side holding her hand in the hospital and then bury her when she died. “All this without his having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding.” The narrator goes on to tell us how the blind man is left with a small insurance policy and half a Mexican coin. “The other half of the coin went into the box with her. Pathetic.” The perfect word since, ironically, what is truly pathetic is the narrator’s hard-boiled, heartless cynicism.

Creepy: As Al waits for his wife to return with the blind man from the station, what does he do? The two big pastimes in Carver country: drink and watch TV. When the blind man does arrive, the narrator is surprised he doesn’t use a cane or wear dark glasses. He looks carefully at Robert’s eyes (the blind man’s name is Robert) and conveys the detail of what he sees. His overarching observation: creepy.

Family Prayer: After a few snide, sarcastic questions and remarks hurled at Robert courtesy of our narrator as they smoke and drink in the living room, all three sit down at the table for dinner. Before they all dig in, we read: “Now let us pray.” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold.”” Raymond Carver, you sly dog, slipping this belly-laugher into your bleak tale. Actually, one thing that is not pathetic, even for black bile Al: serious eating. When all else fails, always the animal pleasure of chowing down on steak and potatoes and strawberry pie.

Rat Wheel: After-dinner conversation and Al finds out that Robert has done a little of everything (“a regular blind jack-of-all-trades”). In turn, Robert asks a few questions about Al's job and almost predictably the narrator’s answers are: 1) three years at present position, 2) don’t like it, and 3) no real options to get out. Work as a deadening reinforcement that life is an unending rat wheel. But the narrator has one surefire way to deal with the rat wheel: every night he smokes dope and stays up as long as he can.

TV and Dope to the Rescue: When the conversation peters out, TV to the rescue. Al turns on the set and his wife leaves to change into her nightgown and robe. Alone together, Al treats Robert to a little cannabis. When the narrator’s wife returns Robert tells her there is always a first time for everything. She takes a seat on the coach and joins them. As the narrator observes: the blind man was inhaling as if he has been smoking weed since he was nine.

The Creative Act: Al’s wife falls asleep on the coach and he and Robert watch a TV program about medieval cathedrals. The narrator questions Robert on how much he knows about cathedrals, just how big they are. Robert suggests they engage in a little artwork together so the narrator can show him all about cathedrals. Down on the living room carpet, armed with pen and paper, Al and Robert, hand on hand, begin their artwork. Then, the unexpected happens during their joint creativity. Robert tell the narrator to close his eyes and asks him what he thinks.

MU: The narrator says it is like nothing else in his life up to now; how he doesn’t feel like he’s inside anything. It’s really something. ----- My reading of the narrator's experience: He finally lets go of his self-preoccupation and crusty cynicism and has a direct experience of that other side of life, the one beyond ego, beyond judgements, beyond all categories, life as boundless awareness. In Zen, this is called Satori but for right now on his hands and knees on the living room carpet, it has no name and it needs no name.
( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
Interesting set of short stories. Some better than others. A tad bit strange, but some gems as well. ( )
  deldevries | Jan 31, 2016 |
Raymond Carver is a master of the short story genre, which he uses to depict middle class America and its issues. The characters in these story are hard-working men and women, working average jobs that pay enough to make ends meet (sometimes), who are dealing with alcoholism and divorce and depression. The dialogue is vibrantly real, and the writing is concise and powerful. Carver conveys immense feeling and description in few words, and every story draws the reader into an intimate connection with the protagonist, whether that person is likable or not. Also, each of these stories has haunting overtones, leaving the reader feeling like so much more is happening beneath this surface we are skimming. So much life is entwined with what we are actually reading.

Each of the stories left a deep on impression on my mind. The momentous evening at a coworker's house in "Feathers" which seems like a trigger moment for greater things, but ends up being a climax in the life of the main couple from which everything else is a letdown. The repentant father on "The Train" who is planning a reconciliation with his adult son, only to lapse into a greater dislike for his offspring than ever before, and then spurn his appointment for whatever life will randomly throw at him. The strained relationships of the people involved in a self-run health business in 'Vitamins". My particular favorites were "The Bridle", in which a family moves into an apartment after losing the farm, but still bring along the bridle that was connected to the horse that lost him their money, and "Cathedral", the oft anthologized story about a blind man who opens the narrator's eyes to a deeper appreciation of life.

For readers who want to appreciate and understand the short story genre, Raymond Carver is an ideal starting point. His economy of language is remarkable, and conveys depth and theme with each word placed in exactly the right place. His characters are real people that feel like they could step off the page and into my living room, and the dialogue is convincing and perfect. The stories often deal with heavy topics, depressed people, and the problems in our society, so don't choose this book for a pick-me-up. Instead, seek out this collection for its powerful writing and perfection of a challenging genre. ( )
  nmhale | Aug 13, 2015 |
I was totally mystified by this. I read the first four stories and had no idea what they were about and why they ended when they did and found it all baffling and not in any way interesting. Since it's a BookCrossing, I feel no guilt in returning it to the pile.
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
Quickly devoured this whole collection as well as some other Carver pieces from the New Yorker archive. Great characters with a depth and complexity matching those found in some of the best novels. Carver's reputation as the master of the short story is well deserved. ( )
  albertgoldfain | Feb 9, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 70 (next | show all)
The Cathedral is a story of how a man, known as the narrator, overcomes his predisposition towards a culture that is unknown to him. From the beginning, the narrator does not like Robert, and he really has no reason for it. He has his stereotypes that he sticks to in the beginning, until Robert starts to prove many of them false. It is apparent that the narrator is very big on appearance, and this is shown through his fascination that a blind man had a beard. Later in the story, the narrator also points out that Robert did not wear sunglasses or use a cane. The narrator thought about how pitiful Roberts wife was, and how awful their relationship must have been because she would never receive a compliment based on her looks by her loved one. This shows what type of a husband he is, and what he values in his marriage. The narrator doesn't seem to have many friends, and his wife even points this out, and he seems to drink and smoke a lot. Although he can see, in comparison, he seems like the blind one. Although Robert is physically blind, he is a real jack of trades. He hasn't let his blindness get in the way of his happiness and it just goes to show that you can be blind, and still truly see. The narrator begins to understand this at the end of the story when he draws the cathedral with Robert and begins to bridge the gap between himself and true understanding.
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Raymond Carverprimary authorall editionscalculated
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For Tess Gallagher
For Tess Gallagher and in memory of John Gardner
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This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Contains: Feathers -- Chef's house -- Preservation -- The compartment -- A small, good thing -- Vitamins -- Careful -- Where I'm calling from -- The train -- Fever -- The bridle -- Cathedral.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679723692, Paperback)

It was morning in America when Raymond Carver's Cathedral came out in 1983, but the characters in this dry collection of short stories from the forgotten corners of land of opportunity didn't receive much sunlight. Nothing much happens to the subjects of Carver's fiction, which is precisely why they are so harrowing: nothingness is a daunting presence to overcome. And rarely do they prevail, but the loneliness and quiet struggle the characters endure provide fertile ground for literary triumph, particularly in the hands of Carver, who was perhaps in his best form with this effort.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:12 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

This anthology, which includes the stories 'Vitamins' and 'A Small Good Thing', firmly established Carver's reputation as the master storyteller of his generation. Carver is also the author of 'Short Cuts', 'Fires' and 'No Heroics, Please'.

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