"And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to."
This admission from the narrator illustrates his close-mindedness and unwillingness to experience something new. The epiphany at the end of the story finds the narrator opening himself to new experiences, to a new way of looking at the world. But before that, the narrator is disassociated from himself – he sees the world through the TV and movies – and has no interest in seeing how things work in the real world. Much of his personality defect is apparent in this quote.
"Then I said, 'I'm glad for the company.'
And I guess I was. Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I fell asleep. My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the same time. When I did go to sleep, I had these dreams. Sometimes I'd wake up from one of them, my heart going crazy."
Though generally glib and arrogant, the narrator in this passage reveals his intuition that he's not as happy or fulfilled as he might think. He probably isn't self-aware enough to admit his longing to himself, but Robert inspires him to realize that he is lacking for company. Further, "dreams," the metaphoric value of which are pretty clear, are something he deals with. He is haunted by dreams of what he doesn't have, and it's this unadmitted longing that is given shape through his experience of drawing the cathedral with Robert.
"So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, 'I think that's it. I think you got it,' he said. 'Take a look. What do you think?'
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
'Well?' he said. 'Are you looking?'
My eyes were still 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."
This passage details the epiphany that strikes the narrator at the end of the story. It details his shift towards freedom from the self-imposed confines of his own life. As he reconsiders the meaning of 'sight' (in the passage, he leaves his eyes closed but still confesses to 'seeing' something), he realizes that he has trapped himself in the walls of his life and house, while ignoring that a greater freedom of not being "inside anything" was available to him. By no longer looking at the life that surrounds him, he allows himself to 'see' the greater world.
"It was an ugly baby. But, for all I know, I guess it didn't matter that much to Bud and Olla. Or if it did, maybe they simply thought, So okay if it's ugly. It's our baby. And this is just a stage. Pretty soon there'll be another stage. There is this stage and then there is the next stage. Things will be okay in the long run, once all the stages have been gone through. They might have thought something like that."
Fran ultimately blames Bud and Olla for the unhappiness that she and Jack end up living with, but Jack knows it isn't true. In fact, what they realize at Bud and Olla's – detailed in this passage – is that life can be made of adventure and excitement and unique experience. So much about Bud and Olla's house is strange, epitomized by both the peacock and the ugly baby. And yet Jack learns from their positivity that life is a series of "stages" that can be enjoyed, each in its own turn. What makes Jack and Fran unhappy ultimately is that they have lived a comfortable, bland life that has disguised their unhappiness. By trying to have adventures – to live the life detailed in this passage – they realize their true loneliness and separation from one another.
"Then I said something. I said, Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time. Just suppose. It doesn't hurt to suppose. Say none of the other had ever happened. You know what I mean? Then what? I said.
Wes fixed his eyes on me. He said, Then I suppose we'd have to be somebody else if that was the case. Somebody we're not. I don't have that kind of supposing left in me. We were born who we are. Don't you see what I'm saying?"
This passage touches to the tragedy of the story, which is that the two spouses attempt to recapture the past and end up confronting the impossibility of doing so. They are both earnest in their attempt to be better people together, but when Chef asks them to leave, they must immediately confront the truth of who they are again. It is one of Carver's most recurring themes, that we are all trapped as who we are and so connection with others is difficult and often impossible.
"The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn't like that…She studied his coarse features and wondered if he'd ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker's age – a man old enough to be her father – must have children who'd gone through this special time of cakes and birthdays parties. There must have been that between them, she thought."
The tragedy of this story comes through Ann and Howard realizing that the comfort they prize in their lives is held together by the frailest of strings. Moreover, they come to realize that they are truly alone in the world, that it is difficult to connect with people. Ann is not a bad person, but in this passage, we see that she is a bit quick to expect others to respond to her the way she responds to them. She doesn't consider how lonely the baker might be – a sign that she does not yet realize how distant people are from one another, how little we know of each other. She will learn this through the story, so that the ending scene shows a communion wherein she and the baker find comfort in acknowledging the sadness of living separate from others.
"They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in the middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty."
After feeding Ann and Howard the warm buns, the baker talks to them. Unlike at the beginning, when Ann is unable to empathize and consider that the baker might know true loneliness, now they understand because of their tragedy how easily life can make one bitter, unhappy and sad. There is an ironic communion over cinnamon buns wherein the three adults bond over recognizing how alone they all are. It is one of the main themes of the story – that we can be together by commiserating in the tragedy of our loneliness.
"Then we got to talking about how we'd be better off if we moved to Arizona, someplace like that.
I fixed us another one. I looked out the window. Arizona wasn't a bad idea."
In this story, the city of Portland stands as a symbol for a theme that runs through several stories: the desire to escape without any real sense of how to do so. This passage shows that Portland isn't the only place that people wonder about without knowing anything about it. Here, the narrator and his wife, while deep in drink, talk about Arizona as an arbitrary escape. Of course, the irony is that they discuss change while immersed in their co-dependent alcoholism, a stagnant behavior. They want deep down to make a change, but intuit, like the characters "Chef's House," that they cannot escape who they are.
"I try to remember if I ever read any Jack London books. I can't remember. But there was a story of his I read in high school. "To Build a Fire," it was called. This guy in the Yukon is freezing. Imagine it – he's actually going to freeze to death if he can't get a fire going. With a fire, he can dry his socks and things and warm himself.
He gets his fire going, but then something happens to it. A branchful of snow drops on it. It goes out. Meanwhile, it's getting colder. Night is coming on."
The narrator thinks about Jack London's story on the last page of the story, in order to gain the strength to call both his wife and girlfriend. Throughout the story, he attempts not to think too much about his own troubles, focusing rather on J.P.'s story. He seems imbued with a deep pessimism about his chances for recovery, having just checked himself into Frank Martin's for a second time. The potential for failure keeps him from calling his girlfriend, but his thoughts on "To Build a Fire" help illustrate his feelings. He realizes that, even though life can drop a "branchful of snow" on a good situation (the bad news about his girlfriend's cancer led him into his recent binge), we have no choice but to persevere unless we want to fade in the cold. He realizes through the story that he has to try if he wants to succeed, regardless of difficult things that might come. He can only take one step at a time (a philosophy very much in line with the AA mantra), and hope he is ultimately able to save himself from the cold.
"Carlyle went on talking. At first, his head still ached, and he felt awkward to be in his pajamas on the sofa with this old woman beside him, waiting patiently for him to go on to the next thing. But then his headache went away. And soon he stopped feeling awkward and forgot how he was supposed to feel."
As Carlyle finally begins to talk to Mrs. Webster, he feels his sickness dissipate. Throughout the story, he has considered his main problem to be how to take care of his children. However, this problem only distracts him from his more serious problem: he cannot reconcile the past with his present misfortune. He remembers how happy he was with Eileen, and doesn't understand how it could have come to this. When his girlfriend lambasts him earlier in the story for not expressing his feelings, she has identified how he has closed himself off to others. This deep sickness and sadness manifests into his "fever" and it's only once he confronts the fact that the past is past and that he now must look to the future is he able to get better and turn "to his children," as he does at story's close.
Cathedral Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Cathedral is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
In drawing the cathedral, the narrator (husband) comes to understand what it means to see below the surface..... to truly see the things around him and embrace what is inside of him. Art has opened his world, and I believe the changes will be...
Cathdral's narrator is unnamed. He is attentive, often seems unfeeling, and is the host of the blind man. The narrator, however, is in his own way blinder than the blind man.... although not literally.