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In Raymond Carver’s short story, “Cathedral,” the close-minded speaker is forced to spend a civil evening with a blind man. Initially, the narrator despises the blind community. However, after interacting and connecting with the blind man in the story, the speaker finds himself with a transformed opinion. He discovers the blind man’s immense and unique wealth of wisdom. While blindness is an obvious theme of the story, the author may have executed it through more than merely the blind man’s physical condition. Just as he lacks his vision, the speaker and his wife are blinded socially and emotionally. These dynamic personalities allow the characters to construct a strong bond and a sense of growth throughout the story. “Cathedral” illustrates the nature of blindness, both physical and metaphorical, and demonstrates its effect on the characters.
In order to apply blindness as a metaphor, Carver must first introduce his physically blind character. This man, Robert, serves as the foundation for the core theme of the entire story. This wise and smooth character is genuinely interesting. His charm and intelligence nearly have a way of compensating for the absence of his vision. This scenario is not uncommon in literature. A challenged character, like Robert, is often portrayed as exceedingly admirable and sympathetic. This enables the reader to conclude that a human’s exterior does not necessarily reflect his or her inner self (Ozer). The author employs Robert’s blindness and the resulting mannerisms to both shape and contrast several aspects of the story in relation to the other characters. For this reason, a thorough understanding of his personality and lifestyle is crucial. Fortunately, Carver provides an ample amount of descriptive details pertaining to the blind man.
Immediately, the reader is informed of Robert’s profession in the social-service department. The speaker’s wife met Robert through assisting him with this job, reading him case studies and reports. In this manner, the story wastes little time in illustrating Robert’s determination and refusal to allow blindness to affect his productivity. From the moment Robert arrives at the speaker’s home, he is polite and conversational. Unlike his host, he seems to be very relaxed and comfortable. During various discussions, he is nearly always prepared with a clever response and he rarely hesitates. Robert, perhaps to the reader’s surprise, is a confident and secure man. In spite of his physical limitation, he operates with undeniable stability.
Robert’s nature is not only defined by what he does, but also what he does not do. As the speaker observes, the blind man does not wear dark glasses or use a cane to aid him. Contrastingly, he is not at all similar to the portrayal of blind men seen in entertainment. When offered help with his luggage, Robert repeatedly declines. Instead, he notifies his hosts that he can manage tasks of that sort on his own. Additionally, he does not take advantage of the excessive catering offered by the speaker’s wife. Robert is content and capable, despite certain expectations of the speaker and even his wife. Though vision is significant, the blind typically adapt to their sightless days and carry out satisfying lives (Bennett). As technology continues to advance, blindness becomes more of an inconvenience than a handicap. Such a condition can be overcome with time and practice, not unlike poor handwriting or fear of public speaking (Kurzweil). The blind are fully capable of achieving assimilation and normalcy. Still, people such as Robert are regularly met with low expectations and high prejudice.
Few exemplify this discriminatory behavior more effectively than the speaker of “Cathedral”. This indicates the first appearance of metaphorical blindness in the story. The narrator does not see the essence of a blind man, such as Robert. His own dark perception of the blind prevents him from initially understanding the rich personality and potential of his guest. He expresses this feeling right away: “I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me” (Carver 81). His wife diligently attempts to persuade her husband, telling him about Robert and his delightful attitude. This effort is to no avail, however, and the speaker continues to dread the experience. It is evident that, in the early portion of the story, the only consideration in the speaker’s mind is his heavy distaste for the visually impaired.
Upon the revelation of one’s disability, he or she may easily become the victim of many assumptions. Among these hasty conclusions, one of the most common is the sense that any non-disabled persons present know best. This robs the disabled of power and credit (Ray). Such is the case in the story, at Robert’s expense. He, in all likelihood, may be quite aware of the narrator’s feelings. However, his wisdom does not affect his host’s opinion. Regardless of his knowledge, he is not respected or taken seriously by the speaker. As previously mentioned, this is most likely the product of rampant misconceptions concerning the physically challenged. Therefore, the speaker’s ignorance acts as a blindness of his own.
One may question this notion, arguing that such a blindness is entirely voluntary. However, while ignorance is an aspect of character, it is not necessarily so easily eliminated. Typically, a rational human being does not willingly elect to be blind. The story certainly represents its speaker as an average, healthy man. The issue is not found in his mind, but rather, in the information with which he is surrounded. Misinformation is one of the most notorious causes of prejudice and rejection. Furthermore, certain pieces of information are emphasized more heavily than others. Some information is omitted altogether. These ingredients often produce prejudice (Lewis). The speaker supports this theory upon openly admitting that his idea of the blind is a product of dramatic and glamorized media. Finally, competitiveness and displaced aggression can also lead to prejudice (Aronson). These are personality traits clearly displayed by the speaker throughout the story, as shown later. All of these contributing factors influence him and provoke his ignorant behavior. Just as the very man he rejects, the narrator is blind.
In contrast to her husband, the speaker’s wife is dearly fond of the blind man. She and Robert are old friends, and the two of them have kept touch with each other during their time apart. Naturally, she is extremely respectful and accommodating toward him. Even so, despite her benevolence, she exhibits more than one blindness. These flaws may be difficult for the audience to initially recognize, due to the wife’s amiable disposition. She, herself, may be equally oblivious to the deep-set issues that lie beneath her facade. This possibility, however, only further reinforces the presence of her personal blindness.
Out of two major types of metaphorical blindness displayed by the speaker’s wife, the first is in direct regard to her own well-being. Though subtle, Carver inserts details of the woman’s dark and painful past. This revelation is heavily overshadowed by the central plot between Robert and the speaker. Regardless, it is instrumental in the development of the wife’s character. Carver informs us that, after constantly relocating with her previous husband, the wife suffered from extreme loneliness and depression. She eventually reached her limit and tried to end her life by ingesting massive amounts of pills and gin. The stunt did not kill her, but rather, merely made her sick. She divorced her husband and later found the speaker. Though she did remarry and settle into a comfortable life, the tale of her suicide attempt is not to be taken lightly. A traumatic experience of such caliber can never be forgotten, and it has presumably had permanent effects on the speaker’s wife. This information is indicative of a person incapable of handling tension in a healthy manner. With such an extreme degree of struggle and volatility, it is difficult to deduct that the wife has ever achieved a full recovery. There is a high probability that, in the present, she remains blind to her own needs.
The second way in which the wife is blind is, perhaps unexpectedly, in her interaction with Robert. Indeed, she is endlessly kind to the blind man. She never ceases to consider his comfort and needs during his stay. As the story progresses, though, her hospitable offers begin to appear excessive. While far from conscious prejudice, her actions suggest that she underestimates Robert. Whether she is protecting him from the speaker’s comments or repeatedly reminding him to go to bed, her true opinion of him is clear. Even the way she speaks shows her nonstop need to baby the blind man. In some ways, she is just as easily swayed by perceptions and assumptions as her husband. Her intentions are not malicious, but nonetheless, the speaker’s wife is clearly blind to Robert’s capability.
With the acknowledgment of these flaws, it is apparent that Robert is not the only blind character in the speaker’s home. Furthermore, in addition to the speaker and his wife’s individual imperfections, the married couple possesses several forms of blindness within their relationship. This is one of Carver’s most heavily emphasized metaphors in the story. It is revealed that the husband secretly awaits the affectionate affirmation he never receives, and the wife often goes to bed alone. Both the narrator and his wife appear to have a stronger bond with Robert than they do with each other. Also, their interactions paint the picture of a pair with poor communication and absent respect. Each partner seems to be blind to the true wants and needs of the other. The dissatisfaction in their relationship could be a direct result of this fact.
The story immediately demonstrates the speaker’s unwillingness to respect his wife, as he nearly refuses to have the blind man stay in their home. His reluctance is an obvious insult to Robert and other visually impaired people. But the deeper observation to be made is this action’s implications within his marriage. One widely well-known aspect of successful relationships is the element of sacrifice. Having a guest in his home is hardly taxing for the speaker, yet he relentlessly argues with his wife over the subject. He is consumed with his own happiness and therefore objects to the notion of having a stranger take attention away from him. In the process, his selfishness acts as a blindfold, preventing him from seeing the pain such an attitude causes his wife. The anticipated visit reminds the speaker of his loneliness, and he becomes too preoccupied with his inadequacies to be concerned with anything else (Facknitz).
As the story shows, the wife is capable of as much cruelty as the speaker. He may appear to be a hardened man, immune to criticism and hurtful words, but he clearly values his wife’s opinion more than she may realize. Like her husband, the wife is blind to the harm she causes their relationship. The true reason for the narrator’s rejection of Robert may be jealousy. Whether or not she is aware of it, she is largely responsible for this jealousy. The speaker endures tale after tale of his wife’s endearment toward Robert, and this makes the speaker feel threatened. The wife is guilty of repeatedly putting Robert’s needs above the comfort of her own husband. She also provides excessive details regarding her past with Robert, such as the poem she wrote about him. This poem is based on an experience in which the blind man touched her face, and its nature clearly sounds erotic to the speaker. Such tension only provokes further hurtfulness. While discussing Robert’s impending visit, she burdens him with a cold statement: “If you love me, you can do this for me. If you don’t love me, okay” (Carver 83). Her words are spoken with such disdain, the damage is irreversible. Finally, the wife tells her husband that he has no friends, deeply wounding him to the point of his total surrender and withdrawal. Though it is evident to the reader, the wife is unable to see the way in which she is personally responsible for the animosity in her relationship.
The final metaphor of blindness in “Cathedral” differs from the others in that it is voluntary. The story features frequent use of drugs and alcohol. These substances serve as a method of escapism and relaxation in an otherwise tense environment. Not long after Robert’s arrival, the speaker offers him a drink. Later, the two and the speaker’s wife all smoke marijuana together. Conversation flows between Robert and the speaker, and the atmosphere appears social and civil. However, the blind man and the narrator did not get along so easily before the introduction of drugs. One must not forget the inevitable effects of drinking and smoking.
Though the interaction may seem friendly, it is truly a gesture of cowardice and surrender often seen in society. Many turn to drugs to ease stress and improve relations. This is particularly true for the speaker, though each character participates. The speaker is physically able to see, but he regularly chooses to blind himself with mind-altering substances. It is this mindset that contributes to the speaker’s poor performance as a husband. This alcoholic behavior is also partly responsible for his lack of friends (Facknitz). In addition to the narrator, the other characters choose to blind themselves as well. The three are clearly aware of the drugs’ ability to relax tensions. It is quite possible that, without the addition of this activity, the characters would not have connected as they did. Without blinding himself from his own objections, the speaker may not have experienced the life-changing epiphany expressed in the story’s end. In this way, the metaphorical blindness of substance use is bittersweet.
In Raymond Carver’s story, “Cathedral,” a blind character acts as the doorway to a world of metaphors. Though he cannot see, he is a fully knowledgeable and capable character. Beyond visual impairment, blindness is illustrated in numerous areas of the story. These metaphors can be found in the speaker’s prejudice and ignorance, or his wife’s inability to look after her own needs. Even she, despite her kind demeanor, is guilty of underestimating the blind man and making assumptions regarding the disabled. As a married couple, the speaker and his wife continue to prove their blindness through their unintentional disrespect toward each other. With so many tensions in the air, all three of the characters naturally turn to drugs and alcohol to ease their minds. In this way, regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses, they willingly blind themselves. What begins as a tale of a blind man’s visit becomes a complex story of the various types of metaphorical blindness found within each and every person.
Aronson, Elliot. “Causes of Prejudice”. Bigotry, Prejudice and Hatred: Definitions, Causes & Solutions.Ed. Robert M. Baird. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992. 238. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.
Bennett, Drake. “Perfectly Happy”. The Boston Globe. 10 May 2009. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral”. Backpack Literature,3rded. Longman, 2006. Print.
Facknitz, Mark A. R. “’The Calm,’ ‘A Small Good Thing,’ and ‘Cathedral’: Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth”. Studies in Short Fiction. 1986. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.
Ray, Shreya. “Fighting Prejudice Called Disability”. The Times of India. 8 Mar. 2005. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.
Kurzweil, R. “The End of Handicaps, Part 1”. Library Journal 117.7 (1992): 68-69. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.
Lewis, Michael. “Many Minds Make Madness: Judgment Under Uncertainty and Certainty”. Psychological Inquiry3.2 (1992): 170-172. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.
Ozer, Irma Jacqueline. “Beauty or the beast: The depiction of the physically challenged in literature from an Adlerian perspective”. Journal of Medical Humanities11.2 (1990): 67- 73. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.
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