In Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”, the conventional ideas often associated with blindness and sight are challenged. By juxtaposing his two male characters, Carver is able to effectively explore sight and its seemingly simplistic relationship with learning and knowledge. As well, he addresses the barriers imposed by the human tendency to rely on vision as the sole means of experiencing the world.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator’s perception on blind people as individuals who “moved slowly and never laughed” reflect not only his but also the views generally shared by society (720). The uneasiness experienced by the narrator at the prospect of “[a] blind man in [his] house” is a representation of the prejudices and fears that we often face when exposed and forced to deal with strange and foreign things (720). Blindness seems especially abnormal to us because vision plays such a heavy role in our everyday “normal” lives; not seeing equates to not being able to truly understand and experience the beauties of life. Just knowing that the blind man had a wife who he “lived, worked, slept [with]—had sex—and then bur[ied]. All without having ever seen what the goddamned woman looked like” baffles the narrator (722). “It [is] beyond [his] understanding” how anyone can exist in such an incomplete existence and thus is much deserved of his pity (722). As the story progresses the narrator finally meets the blind man who is introduced to him as Robert—before this, the speaker merely refers to Robert as “the blind man”. The establishment of “Robert” who “didn’t use a cane and didn’t ware dark glasses” surprised him—going against the conventions that he had always believed; seeing this begins the process of humanizing the blind man and the idea of blindness to the narrator (723). His preconceived notions of blindness gradually start to crumble as he spends more time with Robert and realizes how “normal” he is. As the night wears on the narrator challenges Robert’s blindness in all sorts of ways—drinking, smoking cigarettes dope, and turning on the TV—which leads to their drawing of the cathedral and the narrator’s “awakening.”
Carver develops the two main characters in his story to be completely contrasted to each other, in these characters not only does sight and blindness become conflicted with each other but also does the issue of knowledge. Carver uses the narrator to represent an individual who sees but cannot “see” and Robert as one who can “see” but lacks the ability to see. Through the interaction between them, Carver address societies misconception of vision and its connection with knowledge. He brings to the foreground the idea of sight being the handicap rather then blindness. This is illustrated through the narrator’s inability to understand his wife and her “poems” and Roberts ability to do so. Robert’s attitude of “learning never ends” and his ability to fearlessly experience new things such as “dope” and gain new knowledge regardless of his “disability” shows that he is not the one that is disabled (727). Rather it is the hesitance of the narrator that is the handicap and barrier that initially lies between them.
Our vision is perceived to be our most trusted sense, as the old saying goes “seeing is believing” thus sight often becomes our proof and our foundation for knowledge. Carver challenges this claim in his story by introducing a character whose vision actually deludes rather then shows him the truth. This deception can be attributed to the general over reliance on our sight to show us the truth. Often times relying too heavily on sight may cause the “blinding” of your other senses, creating a limit of possibilities in your mind. Being too accustomed to what is believed to be “normal” and the ideas attached to them create a sense of hesitation and fear that usually prevents a person from discovering new things. The narrator in “Cathedral” is an individual who understands life primarily through his eyes, only through his forced interaction with Robert and his blindness is he able to close his eye and open up his mind. This awakening reveals to him a form of communication, experience and expression that cannot just be seen.
In the end it is ironic that even though the narrator was attempting to teach Robert something it was the he who seemed to gain the most from the experience. The blind man and their drawing of the Cathedral are able to defy his previous conceptions of life and thus open a vast array of new possibilities. We are left wondering how much more the narrator learned about himself and about human communication than the blind man has learnt about cathedrals.
Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. The Norton Introduction