Cathedral Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss the theme of sight in "Cathedral." What does the narrator come to see? What does he learn about sight?

    The narrator's epiphany at the end of "Cathedral" comes with his ability to 'see' outside of himself, to imagine himself as part of something bigger. The irony is that he is taught to 'see' by a blind man, and he 'sees' only through refusing to open his eyes and behold the drawing he has made. The narrator's attitudes about sight at the beginning of the story exhibit his close-mindedness: he judges Robert for blindness, even though he himself is 'blind' to the truth of what blindness is (he admits he only knows it through TV). What he learns about sight is that it can be limiting when turned only to the particulars of one's own life, instead of directed outwards to how we are all connected to something greater.

  2. 2

    Why do you think Jack and Fran are so affected by their visit to Bud and Olla's in "Feathers"? Use specifics to explain your thoughts.

    Jack and Fran are affected by experiencing the strangeness of Bud and Olla's life. Jack's narration paints their lives as comfortable but bland. They don't have friends and Fran knows little of Jack's life at work. They don't dine with others frequently, as seen in their difficulty deciding what to bring. The strange qualities of their hosts – in a house marked with an X on a map, they find plastered teeth, an ugly baby, and a peacock – shake them and make them change their minds about having a child. One could also describe their epiphany as inspired by the warmth of Bud and Olla's, the way they speak to one another and are accepting of their baby's ugliness, since it's just one stage before "another stage."

  3. 3

    At the end of "A Small, Good Thing," Scotty's parents have a type of communion with the baker. What in the baker's confession do the parents relate to?

    Ann and Howard, through Scotty's hospitalization, become closer to one another and more aware of how alone they truly are. Their general perspective throughout the tragedy is how far the rest of life is from their monumental pain – the doctors and nurses are essentially distanced, and images like cars in the parking lot have a disproportionate effect on Ann. The baker's confession about his long-standing loneliness is something they are able to empathize with, having realized the tragedy of how little their pain can be controlled or stopped.

  4. 4

    What does Portland mean for the characters of "Vitamins"?

    Portland becomes a symbol of escape from desperation in "Vitamins." After Sheila first tells the narrator she is going to Portland, he is taken with the image, suggesting the city as a means of escape to Donna even though he knows nothing about it. It illustrates how truly desperate the characters are; Portland is an arbitrary destination, as any change will do. The arbitrariness also illustrates how unhappy they are.

  5. 5

    What does J.P.'s story teach the narrator of "Where I'm Calling From?"

    J.P.'s story illustrates two points about the narrator's state of mind. The first is how much he wants diversion from his own life, and how little he wants to focus on himself. He asks J.P. to tell the story at such length partly because it's a distraction – he says he was interested in the story, but that he would have been interested in horseshoes. But it affects him anyway, as it is a story about action, in which J.P. goes after Roxy and wins the girl, before drink takes him over. The narrator asks Roxy for a kiss in hopes of also acquiring the agency to confront his own problems, which he begins to do by deciding to call his girlfriend.

  6. 6

    Discuss how alcoholism affects the characters of any three stories in the collection.

    Alcoholism is sometimes the cause, sometimes the symptom, and sometimes a symbol of a character's problem, depending on the story. In "Chef's House," it is a symbol of Wes's desire to be someone different. When he realizes that his vacation at Chef's will not make him someone else, Edna realizes his battle with drink is over, and that drink has won. In "Vitamins," it is a symptom of the characters' greater unhappiness with themselves. In "Careful," it seems to be the cause of Lloyd and Inez's separation. In "Where I'm Calling From," it is so involved it can be described as all three. In "Cathedral," it is a symptom of the narrator's blindness and separation from others.

  7. 7

    Explain the symbol of the cathedral in "Cathedral."

    The symbol of the cathedral helps to understand the epiphany. It is a symbol of a process that continues past the end of any individual's lifetime, as Robert observes. In the same way, self-discovery is something that must continue; as Robert says, he learns something new every day. Its spiritual quality is also important; while the story might not be overtly religious, it is about a transcendence that can be discussed in spiritual terms.

  8. 8

    Explain the symbol of the bridle in "The Bridle."

    A bridle is used to control a horse for maximum effect. Placed into a horse's mouth and controlled by the rider, it is an extreme way to force restraint on the part of a wild horse. And yet it produces results. The bridle then represents the thematic conflict between restraint and impetuousness. While Marge's restraint in taking control of her life only isolates and stifles her, so is impetuousness seen as the source of destruction, both in terms of Holits's gambling and his accident.

  9. 9

    What does the wax in "Careful" symbolize?

    Lloyd's ear buildup helps to illustrate his inability to take action and listen to others. His alcoholism has helped cause the end of his marriage, and yet he deludes himself about this fact, unwilling to realize that his alcoholism is keeping him from closeness with his wife as much as the wax keeps him from hearing her speak. He cannot hear Inez throughout the story; his problem is too deep-rooted. Even after the wax is removed, he finds himself ignoring her words and without any sense of what time it is. He will not experience the pleasure of release from his larger problems until he learns to 'hear' them, to look them straight in the face.

  10. 10

    Explain the role Mrs. Webster plays in Carlyle's recovery in "The Fever."

    Mrs. Webster personifies dependability for Carlyle. He is growing progressively more anxious about his difficulty finding a babysitter. But she offers him far more, in the same way that his problem is far broader that the immediate need to take care of the children. Carlyle is unable to truly get over Eileen because he is fixated on the past, and the impossibility of reconciling his memory of the good parts of his relationship with Eileen with the way the relationship ended. This manifests in a physical fever, and Mrs. Webster, both through her tenderness and her confession about her own vulnerability in the world (her age has required her to move), inspires Carlyle to confess and thereby find the courage to move on.