We will start our week with Raymond Carver’s story, Cathedral, with an essay about the choices Carver made, as written by my friend, Brad Windhauser.
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Authors make several decisions when it comes to choices they make in any given story. One of these choices can involve the degree to which the author’s opinion of the character in their story surfaces. This apparent judgment can effectively direct the reader’s opinion of said character if the goal of the story is show how awful a particular character’s attitude is. In Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, the author uses his judgment of the bigoted, self-centered narrator to manipulate the reader into seeing him as a jerk in the beginning of the story in order to set up his personality shift by story’s end. The clear judgment presented by the author allows for the message about the necessity in this personality shift to resonate more.
In the opening paragraph, we learn that a friend of the narrator’s wife—a friend whose wife has just died—is coming to visit. This friend is blind, a fact that makes the narrator uncomfortable. The story addresses this bigotry head on. The story builds until the narrator learns to appreciate the blind man as a human being (and not just someone with a disability).
The story immediately establishes the narrator as a self-centered bigot. The author’s language choice makes clear that this is negative. The narrator’s indifference to the blind man comes through in the thought “He was no one I knew,” and that “[him] being blind bothered me.” Clearly, the narrator only cares about things involving himself. This perception builds as the narrator relays sitting with his wife while listening to a tape she made for the blind man. He agrees to listen to it because he’s mentioned on it. And when his part passes and they are interrupted, he is fine to not return because he heard all that he wanted to hear.
His insensitivity that results from this attitude surfaces in his invitation to take the blind man bowling. The wife’s reaction to this insensitivity conveys the author’s attitude towards this point of view: “What’s wrong with you?” she says. We also learn that the wife does not like what she sees in her husband’s face when the blind man enters their home—she’s disgusted with his look, and her reaction conveys the judgment about the narrator’s poor attitude.
But once the narrator notices that the blind man defies some stereotypes—he, for example, does not wear dark glasses—the narrator eases his harsh pre-conceived notions and allows a change in his outlook. This leads to the story’s climax when he attempts to describe the cathedrals that are profiled on the TV program and then have the blind man follow the narrator tracing a cathedral to get a better feel for how they appear. The narrator has changed at this point, for he appreciates the blind man: he finally offers to do something for the benefit of someone else.
The narrator is a selfish, self-centered bigot and the author uses these details to create a character the reader is supposed to judge in the beginning. If you look down on his negative characteristics, this sets up a deeper appreciation for the narrator’s change that occurs in the end. If you did not judge him and this outlook on certain things, the shift in this character’s attitudes would not be as significant. This would dull the story’s message about being open-minded and learning to appreciate what you can’t see in a person (like the cathedrals, “the interior stuff”) and not what is easily seen but able-sighted people, the exterior.
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Brad has a Master’s in English from Rutgers University (Camden campus) and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Temple University. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review and a few online journals. His first novel, Regret (a gay-themed thriller set in Philadelphia) was published in 2007. He is currently looking for an agent for his recently completed second novel, This Too Shall Pass. He is one of five regular contributors to 5Writers.com