“Cathedral” is a small, intimate story, one which effectively revolves around two characters – the narrator, a regular average joe, and Robert, a blind man who is an acquaintance of the narrator’s wife. One fateful night, invited over for dinner, the narrator attempts to understand Robert and his way of life, as well as his relationship to his wife. In the process of this, he begins to understand things about himself, life, and Robert that he could not imagine otherwise – this level of understanding is the ‘sight’ that is discussed in the story.
There is a direct discussion of physical sight, as Robert is blind and has to deal with all the issues that come into that. However, in the process Robert has come to see in a much different, possibly more enlightened way as a result. He gains a subtle understanding of the world, which comes from the ability to comprehend things without being distracted (or blinded) by what the eyes present.
The narrator in the story goes through a significant character transformation over the course of “Cathedral”. In the beginning, he is somewhat shallow and overly protective of his wife, being slightly wary of the friendship that Robert and his wife share. Due to his sightedness, he assumes that he is superior to Robert, looking down on him as someone who does not carry sufficient skills or quality of life. Because Robert is blind, the narrator assumes that his wife left him because she could not stand the thought of loving someone who could not see her, equating his physical blindness with his inadequacy as a man. The narrator places a great amount of importance on sight, making it the most crucial value to a person. As a result, he does not often use his other faculties and relies on superficiality, making him blind in a sense to the real natures of people (including his wife).
Robert, because he cannot see, relies more on listening and understanding; because he listens to the narrator’s wife, he knows her more intimately than the narrator does. He “sees” her in ways the narrator cannot, as is clear from their truncated, brief interactions. Instead, the narrator’s sense of physical sight comes from the arts – stories and drawing. When it comes time to draw a cathedral, he has the narrator join him, leading the narrator to close his eyes and look within for inspiration to draw the building. Robert instructs the narrator to draw the cathedral while Robert holds the drawing hand; this is how Robert ‘sees.’ In the course of this drawing, the narrator understands more about himself, though he cannot articulate it properly in the story.
Besides the superficial issues of physical sight and blindness, the narrator’s journey toward true understanding comes from the drawing of said cathedral. Drawing the cathedral is easy for the narrator; however, when it comes time to describe the building on television to Robert, he finds that he cannot. While one may think it is because the sight strikes awe in him, the truth is that he is disaffected by its beauty, since he is only looking at it and not seeing it. Sight can also indicate belief; the cynical, superficial personality of the narrator may well be a secular one, and his inability to describe the cathedral indicates his distance from religion. The narrator even says “I guess I’m agnostic or something,” indicating his blindness to faith and God. When it comes time to really delve into the details of the cathedral in order to draw it for Robert, however, that is when the narrator starts to comprehend what he is going through.
“Cathedral” presents sight as something to be embraced. The main journey is the protagonist’s path towards experiencing true sight – he was blind to his wife, blind to faith, and blind to the positive qualities of others, until Robert came along and showed him just how important and transcendental things were under the surface. Carver’s use of sight is meant to enlighten and uplift the audience. The narrator and Robert share a very intimate connection, and the initial conflict is subtle; Robert is merely pitied by the narrator as opposed to outright rejected. What’s more, the end of the story sees a greater understanding between them; instead of the narrator being punished for his hubris, the blind character helps him to see what he needs to see, which is the glory of life that lives beneath the surface of sight. With their joining of hands to make the cathedral, they become a close fraternal partnership, understanding one another more closely. In this way, the theme of sight is elegantly worked into the main theme, and the narrator actually grows as a result.
In conclusion, because the use of sight is subtly handled, on an individual, human scale, it can be argued that Raymond Carver skillfully utilizes the theme of sight in his short story “Cathedral.” The narrator in “Cathedral” learns about other people just as much as himself through his interactions with Robert; he realizes that he does not know his wife as well as he should, and that Robert is a much more well-equipped man under the surface than he. What’s more, the ambiguity of the possibility of change within the narrator’s character lends it more towards a relatable, hopeful response. In short, Carver uses these discoveries about sight to inspire rather than warn, and as such it has a much more constructive effect on the audience.
Carver, Raymond. "Cathedral."