"Cathedral" is narrated by a man whose wife has invited an old friend to visit their home. The old friend, Robert, is blind, which the narrator identifies as Robert's defining characteristic. As the story begins, the narrator is troubled by the impending visit for reasons he can't quite explain, though he attributes it to Robert's disability.
As the narrator explains, Robert's wife had died recently and so he was visiting her family in Connecticut. As the narrator and his wife live nearby, Robert arranged to visit, and is on his way. The wife had worked briefly for Robert a decade before in Seattle. They have kept in touch by mailing tapes to one another, on which each narrated his or her life in detail. His wife had been living on the West coast with a man she was going to marry, and found Robert's ad seeking someone to read to him. On the last day she worked there, Robert (who the narrator continues to call "the blind man") asked to touch her face and she agreed. He ran his hands sensitively all over her face and neck, and the experience proved profound to the wife, who is an aspiring poet and has tried to memorialize his touch. She showed it to the narrator when they started dating, but he didn't care for it. He admits he might not understand poetry.
The narrator tells more of his wife's past. The man she was waiting for in Seattle had been her "childhood sweetheart," and after they married, they lived a military life as he was transferred to bases. One year after leaving Seattle, she contacted Robert, and they thereafter began to exchange the tapes on which they would tell each other their deep secrets. They continued to exchange tapes as her life as an Air Force wife got lonelier and lonelier, until she finally tried to kill herself with pills. She ended up throwing them up, but used the occasion to pursue a divorce, which was followed by her dating the narrator.
She once asked the narrator to listen to one of Robert's tapes. On it, he heard his own name spoken, a strange experience. They were interrupted by someone knocking, an interruption which pleased him.
The story jumps into its main action as the wife prepares dinner and the narrator glibly suggests taking Robert bowling. She begs him to welcome Robert and chides him for having no friends, "period." She tells him that Robert's late wife was named Beulah, which he finds bizarre. He asks her if Beulah was "a Negro," which makes her angry but also leads her to share more of Robert's past. Beulah began reading for Robert the summer after she had left, and they were soon thereafter wed. After eight years of marriage, Beulah was diagnosed with cancer and died. He feels sorry for Beulah, "a woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved." He imagines her life as miserable.
His wife leaves to fetch Robert from the depot, and he settles with a drink in front of the TV until he hears the car park and his wife's laughter. He watches from the window to see her helping Robert out of the car and down the drive. He is greatly surprised to see Robert has a full beard. He turns off the TV and finishes the drink, and then welcomes them in. His wife is "beaming" when she introduces them. They shake hands, and then she leads him to the sofa. The narrator considers making small talk, but only asks which side of the train Robert sat on. Though the wife think it a strange question, Robert answers it and says he had "nearly forgotten the sensation" of being on a train, it had been so long. The narrator sees his wife finally look at him, and he gets "the feeling she didn't like what she saw."
The narrator is impressed with how little like a stereotypical blind man (dark glasses, a cane) Robert looks. He does notice that Robert's eyes are creepy up close in various ways. The narrator offers to fix drinks and Robert says, "Bub, I'm a scotch man myself." The narrator is tickled by the use of the term "Bub" (which Robert continues to use through the story), and fixes the drinks.
They drink several rounds and talk, mostly about Robert's trip. The narrator is surprised to see Robert smoke cigarettes, since he thought the blind did not smoke. After a while, they sit to a huge dinner that the wife prepared. Before they start, the narrator offers to lead prayer, which confuses his wife, until he says, "pray the phone won't ring and the food doesn't get cold."
They eat heartily in silence, as the narrator admires Robert's proficiency with utensils and his willingness to use his fingers at times. After dinner, all are stuffed. They return to the living room with more drinks, and talk more about the past 10 years. Mostly, the narrator just listens (it's about what happened "to them," not him, he thinks), occasionally chiming in so that Robert doesn't think he's left the room. He is a bit contemptuous of how "Robert had done a little of everything…a regular blind jack-of-all-trades." Occasionally, Robert asks the narrator some questions, which he answers without much conviction.
After a while, he finally turns on the TV. His wife is annoyed, and spins it to ask Robert if he has a TV. Robert answers that he has two – one color, one black-and-white – and knows the difference. The narrator has "no opinion" on this. The wife confesses she's tired and heads upstairs to put on her robe.
They're alone for a while, which makes the narrator feel awkward. He pours them another drink and asks if Robert would like to smoke marijuana. He agrees and they smoke, Robert a bit awkwardly since he seems never to have done so before. When his wife returns, she gives the narrator a "savage look" for pulling out drugs, but Robert seems to enjoy it. They smoke for a while, until the wife tells Robert his bed is fixed upstairs and then she falls asleep on the couch. He notices her robe is open on her thigh, but doesn't bother to correct it since Robert can't see anyway.
He feels awkward again, and offers to lead Robert to bed, but Robert says he'll "stay up until you're ready to turn in," since they hadn't talked much. The narrator says he's "glad for the company," and realizes right away that he is. He confesses to the reader that he stays awake later than his wife each night, stoned, and often has dreams that frighten him.
They switch between the channels, but the only decent program is "something about the church and the Middle Ages." Robert says that works fine, since he's "always learning something" and now can be one of those times.
They are silent for a while, Robert turned with his ear to the TV, a position that disturbs the narrator a bit. The program shows medieval monks at work, and the narrator begins to explain the image to Robert. The TV shows a cathedral, and the narrator tries to describe it. Robert asks if the paintings are frescoes, but the narrator can't remember what frescoes are.
It suddenly occurs to the narrator that Robert might not know what a cathedral looks like at all. Robert knows only that they took generations to build, but doesn't really know what they look like. The narrator considers how to describe them, but can only muster simple descriptions – "They're very tall…they reach way up." He knows he's doing poorly, but Robert is encouraging and he continues trying. The narrator shares that "men wanted to be close to God" and hence built them high. After a while, Robert asks whether the narrator is at all religious. The narrator confesses, "I guess I don't believe in it. In anything." Knowing his descriptions are poor, he adds that cathedrals mean nothing to him, and are simply something on the TV.
Robert clears his throat and asks the narrator to do him a favor: find some paper and pen, and they will draw a cathedral together. He heads upstairs – his legs feeling "like they didn't have any strength in them" – and finds some supplies. They sit near one another and Robert closes his hand over that of the narrator, and tells the latter to draw.
Slowly and with little skill, he begins to sketch, Robert's hand following his own. He draws a "box that looked like a house" – "it could have been the house [he] lived in" – and continues to add onto it. Robert compliments the work and suggests the narrator never expected an experience like this one. The narrator keeps going – "I couldn't stop" – even as the TV station goes off-air. He keeps drawing, even as his wife wakes and is curious about what's happening. Robert's encouragement intensifies, and he suggests the narrator add people in the cathedral.
Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes, which he does, and then encourages him to draw that way. The narrator acquiesces, and the experience is "like nothing else in [his life up to now." After a bit, Robert tells him he thinks it's done, and suggests the narrator take a look. But he doesn’t open his eyes; he feels compelled to keep them closed. He knows he is in his house, but he doesn't feel "like [he] was inside anything." Robert asks him how it looks and the narrator, without opening his eyes to look, answers, "It's really something."
At the center of "Cathedral" is a significant irony: a narrator who ignorantly disdains blindness while being oblivious to his own limitations in sight. Of course, the narrator can see with his eyes but does not realize the limitations he has placed on himself, and how those prevent him from seeing or wanting anything greater in life. The story is ultimately about transcendence; that is, an existence beyond the limitations of physical things. What Robert has that the narrator lacks is a sight into the wonder of things, the potential for greatness and tenderness in humanity, and the curiosity that can make one truly alive and free even if one is limited by physical factors.
To understand the narrator, it is helpful to analyze the masterful first-person voice of the story. The narration is arguably one of Carver's most vivid. The narrator is forthcoming with his listener, both in terms of what he shares (his insecurities are myriad) but also through the personal qualities he reveals. He's crude and he's mean, but he's also glib. There's a wicked humor in the way he talks. While he certainly is detached from himself at the beginning, he is unusually talkative and clever for a Carver narrator. It's a voice worth reading aloud, especially when one notices that the glibness is noticeably absent from the final pages. This absence delivers as powerfully as anything else how shaken and affected the narrator is by this experience.
The characterization does a lot to disguise the narrator's primary problem: he is detached from his life. As with most of the stories in this collection, the character seems to observe himself more than to feel himself in control. The nightly drug use and clear alcohol abuse are easy ways to understand this. It's telling that for all his seeming honesty, he never admits aloud his jealousy of Robert based on the blind man's past relationship with his wife. There is obviously sexual intimidation – look at his language when he describes the touching of the face – yet he never acknowledges it. But this jealousy doesn’t hide a functioning relationship; he is dismissive of his wife, and speaks of her great emotional experiences with a particular glibness. Likewise, he seems contemptuous of her desire to write poetry. His detachment from himself is well-reflected in the incident where he listens to one of Robert's tapes with his wife.
I heard my own name in the mouth of this stranger, this blind man I didn't even know! And then this [from Robert's tape]: "From all you've said about him, I can only conclude—" But we were interrupted, a knock at the door, something, and we didn't ever get back to the tape. Maybe it was just as well. I'd heard all I wanted to."
For all his judgment of others, the narrator is more than happy to not turn his critical eye on himself, or to be confronted with as much. But he is alone – he has no friends (as his wife says), and he stays up watching TV stoned each night when she goes to bed. It's telling that, in the early stage of his time alone with Robert, he confesses that he truly was happy to have the company. There is an interesting aside when he listens to Robert and his wife talk about their past decade apart. He says, "They talked of things that had happened to them—to them!—these past ten years!" Whether he is simply annoyed that they are neglecting him (even though he seems uninterested in answering Robert's questions about himself) or if he means to suggest they live more fulfilling lives that he doesn't understand, his aside speaks to his sense of isolation. As he tells Robert late in the story, he "doesn't believe in anything." He has no connection to anything greater or smaller than himself.
This sense of isolation helps to demonstrate his obstinate close-mindedness, most apparent in his feelings and pre-conceived notions of blindness. He immediately identifies the blind as remote and distinct from a 'normal' person. As he admits, his idea of blindness comes from the movies. His ideas are frankly absurd: for instance, he thinks blind people can't smoke, or that they don't wear beards. But what is not in many movies is the hatefulness he exhibits – "who'd want to go to such a wedding in the first place?" he asks about Robert and Beulah's nuptials. And his attitude about Beulah is harshly insensitive. He seems legitimately sorry for Beulah because of her marriage to Robert, as though his lack of sight meant he couldn't appreciate her.
Of course, the irony is that Robert most likely appreciated his wife more than the narrator does his own, despite the latter's visual sight. The narrator is more than remote from his wife – he's dismissive of her. Worse is his behavior when Robert arrives – he himself notes that she is "beaming" with Robert's presence, and nevertheless says or does things that earn angry looks from her on three occasions. He thinks Beulah must have been unhappy solely because she was deprived physical compliments – likewise, the only possessiveness the narrator shows over his wife is sexual, in the moment with the robe.
And the greatest irony of all is of course that the blind man sees more than anyone else. This theme is at least as old as Tiresias in Greek mythology, though it's likely older. The irony is that the blind are wise because they 'see' some greater truth because they are not blinded by the limitations of the physical world. In another sense, they transcend the physical. Robert is interested in traveling and learning, with attempting to find a depth in relationships (seen in the symbol of the tapes they send), in attempting to connect with others.
What Robert sees and teaches the narrator is to see this transcendent reality. Robert senses a depth in reality that confuses the narrator. Even before they sit together to draw the cathedral, Robert has begun to affect the narrator. It's nothing particular, he says, but nevertheless the narrator finds himself realizing that he does enjoy company, and then feeling compelled to explore the limits of Robert's sight, and to help the blind man visualize a cathedral. He tries to describe the cathedral, but when he can't, he attempts to retreat back into cynicism. He says, "The truth is, cathedrals don't mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They're something to look at on late-night TV." But of course, the dramatic irony is that we're well aware that he has indeed been affected, and can't retreat to his detached persona so easily. In the end, with his eyes closed, not at all focused on what he has been drawing but rather on something he can't comprehend, the narrator feels free – "I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything." He is not trapped and isolated in his own body and situation, but rather part of a greater existence.
It might be a mistake to talk about the story as religious, but certainly the transcendent view of reality to which Robert leads the narrator is connected to Christianity. Most obvious is the central image of a cathedral. Robert's view of a cathedral emphasizes its function as a place for community. He's less interested in its size than in the fact that the building exists through the dedication of generations of people. And when the narrator is drawing the cathedral, the final instruction Robert gives is, "Put some people in there now." So while Robert is not attempting a conversion necessarily, he is attempting to indicate to the narrator the power of faith in something greater. The fake-out prayer that the narrator uses is a bit befuddling in terms of story, unless you think of it as a set-up for the later conversation. When the narrator makes the joke, Robert lowers his head. And later, he asks the narrator whether he is religious, and the narrator confesses he "doesn't believe in anything." The experience they have could be viewed as a religious ritual – they share a communion of pot, and then the blind man leads him across the gulf of his self-imposed isolation to accept a place in a more free reality. Notice the way Robert listens so quietly as the narrator fumbles to explain what he sees, and then consistently encourages him to continue. It's the gentleness of a priest or a confessor, someone who is devoting himself to your spiritual benefit for the moment.
Of course, included in Robert's conception of a cathedral is that the people who work on them rarely live to see their work completed. The effusive optimism of this story is a powerful end to the collection, which more often dwells in failure than hope, and in context should not be taken to reduce Carver's worldview to a celebration of the power to transcend. But it does celebrate the power that beauty and communion in the face of overpowering isolation can have, the way it can brighten our daily struggles and failures, as though to say that we must confront our isolation, loneliness and limits, continuing to work against it day-by-day even if we will, like the cathedral creators, never see our work completed.]