Raymond Carver tends to be noted for his “everyman” characters, but I always thought that was simplifyingwhat he set out to do. I think a large part of Carver’s success is how he deftly taps into our need to be saved, for someone to enter our lives and bring us to safety.
“Cathedral” tells the story of a man (the unnamed narrator) who reluctantly plays host to his wife’s blind friend, who is visiting from out of town. Initially, it seems that the man’s ignorance towards the blind is his biggest problem, and then it seems like he’s jealous, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that these are simply excuses to keep himself isolated from others. At times awkward, and at times funny, “Cathedral” builds and builds so subtly that when the revelation comes, it’s practically orgasmic.
In this scene, the man and the blind man are watching a documentary on building cathedrals, when the blind man asks the man if he could describe to him what a cathedral looks like:
I stared some more at the cathedral before the picture flipped off into the countryside. There was no use. I turned to the blind man and said, “To begin with, they’re very tall.” I was looking around the room for clues. “They reach way up. Up and up. Toward the sky. They’re so big, some of them, they have to have these supports. To help hold them up, so to speak. These supports are called buttresses. They remind of viaducts, for some reason. But maybe you don’t know viaducts, either? Sometimes the cathedrals have devils and such carved into the front. Sometimes lords and ladies. Don’t ask me why this is,” I said.
He was nodding. The whole upper part of his body seemed to be moving back and forth.
“I’m not doing so good, am I?” I said.
He stopped nodding and leaned forward on the edge of the sofa. As he listened to me, he was running his fingers through his beard. I wasn’t getting through to him, I could see that. But he waited for me to go on just the same. He nodded, like he was trying to encourage me. I tried to think what else to say. “They’re really big,” I said. They’re massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”
“That’s all right, bub,” the blind man said. “Hey, listen. I hope you don’t mind my asking you. Can I ask you something? Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no. I’m just curious and there’s no offense. You’re my host. But let me ask if you are in any way religious? You don’t mind my asking?”
What comes next is a thing of beauty.
What makes Carver’s work so interesting is how he has a tendency to end the story right at its climax with no denouement. Carver’s approach to writing was to isolate the exact moment when the protagonist changes, either by epiphany or deliverance, and once this moment occurs, it doesn’t matter what happens next. In fact, when Carver does feel the need to move beyond the climax (such as “Fever”), it tends to feel a bit redundant. Thankfully, the ending of “Cathedral” is one of the greatest short story endings of all time.