Raymond Carver (1938-1988) was a poet and short story writer. According to the Wikipedia he was "a major force in the revitalization of the short story in the 1980s". Being a latecomer to the short story form, I didn't realize that it needed to be revitalized, but I'm not really surprised if that was the case. Considering my own experience and attitude in the past, I was never a great lover of short stories until very recently, I wonder if many other readers fall into that same category. I wonder (maybe I already know the answer), too, if it is much harder to sell a collection of short stories than a novel.
In any case, I was happy to finally get around to reading Raymond Carver. I chose "Cathedral" as it was the next story up to be discussed at A Curious Singularity. I was quite impressed by what I read. Carver presented an ordinary situation with ordinary people, but what he managed to convey in just a very few pages was really quite extraordinary. Does all his work leave the reader with so much to think about? I'm afraid there are going to be a few plot spoilers from here on out. If you've not read it, go ahead and click on the link above. It's a story you can read quickly, but you'll be left with plenty to think about after.
I can't say that I took very well to the unnamed narrator of "Cathedral" at first. He seemed ignorant and insensitive, spending his time watching TV and drinking, smoking a little weed and being generally unpleasant to his wife. He goes into great detail about his wife and her past, which included working for a blind man named Robert. She helped organize his office and read to him, and when she had finished the work and was ready to move on she allowed Robert to touch her face, so he could 'see' her. Unlike the narrator, his wife seems like a very sensitive person, writing poetry about important events in her life including her experience with Robert.
She had been married previously to her childhood sweetheart who was an officer in the military, but she couldn't handle the constant moving his job required. She ended up taking a bottle of pills and passing out in a steamy bathtub filled with hot water. She didn't die, however, it only made her sick. I wondered how someone like her could end up with someone as insolent as the narrator. Perhaps he didn't start out that way. Or perhaps one needy, insecure person searches out another.
The narrator's wife had kept in contact with Robert, exchanging audio taped letters, since the days she worked for him. After the death of his wife Beulah, Robert decided to visit his Beulah's relatives in Connecticut, which would also allow him to drop in on the narrator's wife. The narrator is less than pleased about this visit. He's never met anyone who's blind and has only preconceived notions of what the blind are like, based on false assumptions. It turns out that though Robert is blind, he's actually quite self-sufficient. He's also very open-minded and very mellow, taking the situation in his stride.
Over the course of the evening dinner is eaten and the conversation has moved from topic to topic. Robert talks about his travels, his late wife and the work he's accomplished. Later the narrator's wife will fall asleep leaving the two men watching TV. A program about cathedrals is on, and the narrator tries to describe what a cathedral is to Robert. He finds his words are woefully deficient to convey the meaning to him. In the end Robert tells him to pull out paper and a pen. He draws a cathedral with Robert's hand over his, so he can visualize what it looks like. It clicks for Robert and he understands what the narrator is trying to show him.
I thought it interesting that the roles or stereotypes were reversed. The narrator can see, but really he's quite blind. He can only see his own prejudices. It's Robert, the blind man, who can really see the truth. It's not until the narrator is drawing the cathedral, and Robert tells him to close his eyes that he has this moment of realization. The narrator says, "It was like nothing else in my life up to now". Even when Robert tells him to look, he keeps his eyes closed. "I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. 'It's really something', I said". No doubt even more meaning can be attributed to the fact that it is a cathedral Carver chose his narrator to draw, and the fact that it took a human touch for the narrator to reach his epiphany. The words have religious connotations as well. It was such a moving experience for the narrator that he was compelled to write it down and tell us. Like I said, lots to think about!
You can read an interesting interview with Carver here. Carver was married to author Tess Gallagher. I know at least one of her short stories is included in one of my anthologies, so I'll be curious to read her work as well.