Many of the stories in Cathedral feature characters who are unaware of the truth, usually regarding themselves. Sometimes this is implicit, while other times it is abundantly clear.
In "Feathers," Jack and Fran are clearly not happy in their isolation, even though they don't realize it. When they visit Bud and Olla, they confront the dullness of their lives and attempt to change that by having a child. In the time at which Jack is narrating, they have discovered the deeper unhappiness that plagues them.
In "Chef's House," Edna and Wes allow themselves to pretend that they are changing through their vacation at Chef's. But it's obvious that will one day have to end, and they will have to face themselves and their problems again.
In "The Compartment," Myers does not acknowledge his ambivalence towards reconnecting with his son until circumstances force him to that realization. He has no interest in such a reunion, but pretends all the way to Europe.
In "Careful," Lloyd continues to pretend he is recovering from his alcoholism, even as he drinks champagne for breakfast. This ties into his deeper delusion about the problems with Inez.
In "Fever," Carlyle on several occasions convinces himself that he is over Eileen, but it's not until his sickness brings out his confession to Mrs. Webster that he realizes how truly tied to the past he has been.
In "The Bridle," Marge is only slightly aware of how unhappy she is. But she still lacks the strength to acknowledge her loneliness and try and befriend Betty, instead relying on a pretense that her job is important and that her identity as a stylist is meaningful.
In "Cathedral," the narrator does not confront the depths of his loneliness. Instead, he turns his unhappiness towards others, attacking people even for their disabilities (as with Robert). It's not until Robert forces himself into the narrator's life that the latter realizes he is lonely and desperately seeks more from life.
Most of Carver's characters are separated from others, either physically or emotionally. Sometimes they are aware of this as a source of their deep discontent, while others are unaware of how deeply their loneliness affects them.
In "Feathers," Fran and Jack live apart from others. They don't have many friends or much social interaction, and Fran attempts to stop them from visiting Jack's friend. Where Bud and Olla are also isolated physically, they nevertheless seem to be entirely happy in their own little bizarre world. Seeing them affects Jack and Fran, but having a child only makes them further apart from one another.
In "Chef's House," both Wes and Edna live lonely lives. Edna talks only about having a "friend" who she leaves to join Wes. Their relationships with others hold little weight, and so they try desperately to reforge what they've lost from one another. They are even isolated from their children. This is what drives them to attempt reconnecting, and what makes the failure to do so tragic.
In "The Compartment," Myers has committed himself to an isolated life in which he sees few people, in order to control himself after the bad times with his wife and son. His trip to Europe represents an attempt to reconnect with others, but he spends most of his time in Europe alone, and ultimately decides he doesn't want such reconnection at all.
In "A Small, Good Thing," Ann and Howard are separated from one another even though they don't realize it. Ann recognizes late into Scotty's hospitalization how she feels distant from Howard, and they grow closer through the experience. The story illustrates how far away from each other humans are through the many doctors the parents encounter. But the richest illustration is the baker, whose initial cruelty is actually just a mask for his deep loneliness. The story is sad but ends beautifully as the three people commiserate in their shared loneliness.
In "Vitamins," all of the characters are desperately lonely. The symbol of Portland illustrates how badly they want to be somewhere else, away from a life where their only friends are those with whom they work. Patti and the narrator live together but are clearly separated emotionally from one another.
"Careful" finds Lloyd nursing the failure of what seems a once-healthy relationship with Inez. His main desire is to get better so they can return to a happy marriage, but he constantly defeats himself through his drinking.
"Where I'm Calling From" is ultimately a story about a character who learns to accept himself and his connection with others. He refuses to call his girlfriend from fear of learning bad news, but the story ends with him deciding to try and connect with others, in hopes of ultimately helping himself.
"The Train" has three characters. Miss Dent doesn't know anything about the people in the train station, and defines herself primarily by the secret that separates her from them. They are all hoping to disappear into the anonymity of the late night train to address their own problems.
In "Fever," Carlyle's deepest issue is the loneliness he feels since Eileen left. Carol is only some comfort, since she has her own problems.
"The Bridle" is set in a landscape of intense loneliness. The apartment building itself is far away from much life, and the characters are so separated that they play games to win divorces. Marge, so lonely with Harley, wants badly to have a friend in Betty.
In "Cathedral," one of the first times the narrator gives Robert credit for anything is when he acknowledges that he is actually is happy to have company at night. From there, Robert shows the narrator the pleasure of freedom and transcendence, the pleasure of feeling part of the world outside of himself.
Several stories feature characters who have to confront the tragedy inherent in life. Tragedy can be understood as forces outside of human control.
In many characters, time itself is the tragic force – time passes and people cannot recapture what once was. The good times pass, and no matter how much people want to return to them, they only make things worse by trying. Examples are the couple in "Feathers," in "Chef's House," in "Preservation," in "Careful," in "Where I'm Calling From," and in "Fever." In each of these stories are scenes of recollection where the main character remembers their relationships as they once were.
The most extreme example of tragedy is in "A Small, Good Thing." The tragedy of Scotty's death is devastating, but it ironically brings the couple to serious realizations about themselves and opens them up to a greater understanding of their loneliness and desperation to be connected to others.
Many of Carver's characters come to realize the depth of their unhappiness, but are unable to take action to change their situations. Others are unable to take action because they are unaware of its necessity.
In "Feathers," Jack and Fran are living a life of stasis until Bud and Olla's situation changes them. Of course, the action they take only brings to light their deeper unhappiness.
"Preservation" is fundamentally a story about inaction. The central image of the frozen man illustrates the husband's inability to address the problems in his life. He is frozen in his unhappiness and memory of his failure.
Myers in "The Compartment" is a character who has chosen to stop taking action, instead choosing a life isolated from others. The action of the story is of a time when he has chosen to change this, by visiting his son. His epiphany in the story is that he is fine living a static life, and that he does not want to reconnect with the boy.
Part of the pain in "A Small, Good Thing" is the lack of action anyone can take to help Scotty. This feeds into the theme of tragedy – no matter how deeply the parents feel, they cannot do anything to help the boy. Part of what connects them with the baker is their shared recognition of lack of options they have to confront the world.
Though the characters in "Vitamins" are aware of their unhappiness (to varying degrees), they don't have much impulse to take any action. There is talk of leaving for Portland, and yet nobody (save maybe Sheila) does anything to make a change. The few actions that do get taken – like the date between the narrator and Donna – only illustrate how mired they all are in their unhappiness, and unable and unwilling to make it better.
In "Careful," Lloyd wants to be happier but cannot seem to control his alcoholism, so mired he is in his alcoholism.
"Where I'm Calling From" details alcoholism as a problem of inaction. The fear that the narrator has is not choosing to drink, but rather slipping into drink from lack of diligence. He is torn between impulses, and hence unable to commit to trying to reconnect with his girlfriend. Instead, he wants J.P. to talk. The epiphany at story's end comes from his willingness to ask for a kiss from Roxy and then to call his girlfriend.
In "The Train," Miss Dent has taken action to correct a wrong, by holding a gun on the man who has treated her badly. But that action is followed by passive waiting. She can't do anything until the train arrives.
In "Fever," Carlyle has every intention of taking action to find a babysitter but is helpless to do so. What action he takes produces no results, and he even has to rely on Eileen, who he views as antagonist, to help him. His epiphany comes from finally accepting his helplessness when he confesses as much to Mrs. Webster.
In "The Bridle," Marge is unable to take action to improve her life. She almost confronts Harley at the end, but ends up falling back into her delusions.
In "Cathedral," the epiphany comes when the narrator, a man who chooses to live in front of the TV ignoring the rest of his life, finally takes action to create something for himself. Robert, who is interested in travel and learning new things, leads the narrator to take action towards being a part of the greater world, to transcending his loneliness.
Detachment/Disaffection from Oneself
Many (if not most) of Carver's characters are detached from themselves. They have a lack of self-awareness, and feel distant from their own identities.
In "Chef's House," the characters (especially Wes) want to pretend they don’t have the problems they have. They act as though a change in house can help them be someone different, but ultimately, they have to face themselves again and so is change impossible.
In "The Compartment," Myers is unable to figure out whether he wants to connect with his son. He long ago chose to live a life away from others, and yet clearly yearns for a connection, or he would not have made this trip. Though he finally sleeps at story's end, it's easy to imagine he does not have firm control of his desires. He is torn between who he wants to be and who he is.
In "A Small, Good Thing," the characters feel as though their tragedy is happening to other people. It takes a long time for them to confront the true depth of what is happening to them, and at times it only happens by associating with others (as happens with the African-American family). The simplicity of the final scene is powerful in part because they accept their helplessness and don't try too hard to be anyone different than they are.
In "Vitamins," Patti says "maybe I don't dream." This is true enough of anyone in the story. They all go through motions in their lives and are unable to express the depth of their longing. Life moves on and they don't change, and so are they locked in these depressing lives.
In "Where I'm Calling From," the narrator tries to live outside his own life. He doesn’t want to think about his problems, but would rather listen to J.P. or live only in the moment. His internal conflict is the confrontation with his realization that he must be a part of the world, and recognize his connection to others.
In "Fever," Carlyle is deep in emotional turmoil and yet still has trouble expressing his emotions. He finally gets to express them through Mrs. Webster's help, but through most of the story he is unable to really discover the depth of his feelings.
In "Cathedral," the narrator hides behind glibness and meanness when what he truly wants is to be connected to something. He is totally unaware of the depth of his problems (or at least he cannot express them) until Robert leads him to first look inside himself and then finally to see how that leads him into a greater communion with the world.
Alcoholism pervades Carver's work, to the point that it's a major theme.
The following stories have characters who are either current or recovering alcoholics. All of their problems and themes can be traced to their alcoholism, either as a cause, symptom or symbol of the problem.
"Where I'm Calling From"
Perhaps at the center of all the major Carver themes is the problem of communication. His language often exhibits this theme, with phrases like "nobody said anything."
The loneliness, the lack of connection, the disaffection, etc., all relates to the inability to express oneself.
There are times when narrators lack the vocabulary to express their longing, as in "Feathers," "Where I'm Calling From," or "Cathedral." In other stories, characters need connection badly but are not able to adequately express the depth of their longing. "A Small, Good Thing" is an example of this.
Perhaps "Cathedral" is the best indication of the theme, however. With perhaps the most optimistic ending, it features a man who transcends his limitations not through words but rather through a silent communion. In the same way Robert 'sees' greater life despite his blindness, the drawing of the cathedral leads the narrator to say more to himself about what he needs, even if he can't put it into words.
And throughout all the stories are indications of characters who can't speak to one another. Fran and Jack lack the playful language that Bud and Olla share in "Feathers." Lloyd is unable to tell Inez how he feels in "Careful." Marge lacks the strength to say aloud to Betty that she needs a friend in "The Bridle." In pretty much any of the stories, one can find illustrations of limitations on communication.
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.