The Baker’s Dilemma: Status in “A Small, Good Thing”
In Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing,” the Baker’s helplessness is caused by his apparent class status and by an unknown financial stability, which results in a sense of isolation and loneliness. The baker resolves his sense of helplessness when he realizes that all classes experience the unknown through his connection with Ann and Howard. Through auditory imagery, the text illustrates the monotonous and depressing routine in the Baker’s daily life as a result of his class status that requires him to constantly work to maintain his financial stability.
When Ann first surveys the bakery, she notes that “a radio was playing country-Western music” (60). The auditory imagery of the radio creates an atmosphere of loneliness and emptiness. The imagery suggests that the Baker is isolated from human contact and is instead reliant on technology to create company. This emphasizes the Baker’s loneliness as a result of his inability to separate himself from the bakery to form connections with those around him. The text reveals this through the repetition of the radio. Howard associates the radio with the Baker, saying “I think there was some radio music. Yes, there was a radio going” (84). The ever present radio reveals the routine life in which the Baker lives as a result of his constant need to make money. Furthermore, the constant association of the radio with the Baker reveals the Baker’s desire for company but inability to achieve it as a result of his isolation from society.
Along with the radio, the text also establishes the presence of noise in the background of Ann and Howard’s phone calls with the Baker. The text says “It was five o’clock in the morning…machinery or equipment of some kind in the background” (75). The auditory imagery of the machines highlights the never ending work of the Baker. By noting that a central character cannot identify the sounds of the bakery, Carver establishes the contrast in social class between the Baker and Anne as Ann appears to have not experienced the same form of labor. Furthermore, the accompaniment of the detail “five o’clock in the morning” establishes the hard work the Baker’s constant work and Ann’s surprise—evident in the way she takes note of the detail. With the Baker’s consistent background machinery and Ann’s surprise at it, the text determines the contrast between the two socioeconomic classes. Due to the lack of connection and misunderstanding between the Ann and the Baker, tension is created as both characters fail to understand each other’s personal struggles., believing that their situation is worse in comparison to the opposing character However, at the end of the short story, the two characters create an understanding and their tension is resolved as they recognize the similarities between their struggles.
Carver’s text illustrates this shift in character through tone. During the Baker’s first phone call, his tone is reserved and to the point, saying “There’s a cake here that wasn’t picked up” (63). Here, the Baker attempts to accomplish his job, reinforcing the notion of the Baker’s focus on the success of his bakery. Yet, due to Howard’s rude behavior of hanging up the phone on the Baker, the tone of the Baker shifts. This is because Howard has disrespected the Baker. Having established that the Baker already feels helpless due to his social class, the Baker experiences an increased sense of helplessness when he is disrespected and becomes angry. The text reveals this when the Baker calls Howard back and immediately hangs up. The detail of the Baker continuing to hang up on Ann and Howard displays his desire to possess the power in their relationship. Because the Baker does not understand the root of Ann and Howard’s behavior, he assumes that he is the only character suffering. Carver reveals this in the scene where the Baker assumes that Ann and Howard are at his bakery to receive their cake. The Baker carries a tone of annoyance as he believes Ann as a privileged woman who has taken advantage of his time and resources, aspects that are crucial in his helpless financial state. The Baker says “I’ll give it to you for half of what I quoted you” and continues to say “No. You want it? You can have it” (87). The short syntax of “no” and “you want it” displays the Baker’s anger at the situation as he is impatient for wasting his time on Ann and Howard.
The syntax in “A Small, Good Thing” also reveals the tension behind the Baker’s words as he tries to show that he does not care. His tone is tense as he does not want to be lowered even further in front of Ann and Howard for desiring money from an old cake. The Baker desires further to disassociate himself from Ann and Howard when he says “Lady, I work sixteen hours a day in this place to earn a living” (87). By addressing Ann as “Lady”, the Baker is showing a sign of respect, differentiating himself as a lower class in front of Ann. Yet, the pause before Lady also emphasizes the Baker’s annoyance at Ann for interrupting his work, wasting his time and resources. Furthermore, by labeling his bakery as “this place”, the text highlights that the Baker is not proud of his occupation, revealing his insecurities and helplessness at being put in his socioeconomic situation. With this, the Baker’s tone emerges, ultimately, as one of annoyance and tension.
The Consequences of Loneliness: Short Fiction by Carver and Hood
Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” follows the story of a family that tragically loses their son in a car accident. After the son’s death the parents continually receive phone calls from the baker of their son’s birthday cake, enraging the grieving parents. Mary Hood’s “How Far She Went” portrays a young and rebellious girl fighting to escape the confines of her grandmother’s oppressive rule. When the girl takes her rebellion too far and gets into trouble, her grandmother comes to her rescue, in turn strengthening their frail relationship. In both Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” and Mary Hood’s “How Far She Went”, the narratives’ conclusions have a cathartic effect through the use of finely-coordinated literary techniques.
Varying forms of diction are employed in both of the texts as a means to mark a sudden change in the narrative. In “A Small, Good Thing”, Carver utilizes abstract diction. The baker specifically shows immense regret and asks the parents to “Forgive me, if you can.” (Carver, 9). His diction denotes his emotional distress concerning the death of Scotty and his unfortunate part in the parent’s anguish. This is emphasized when he pleads Scotty’s parents to forgive him and see that he is “…not an evil man…” (Carver, 9). This is the first time that the baker has realized the consequences of his actions and has apologized to Scotty’s parents. The abstract diction highlights this shift from the baker being angry at the parents, to empathizing with their pain. While the baker can not know the depth of their pain, being childless, he has such deep reserves of sadness that, when they arrive in such a vulnerable state, he is compelled to open up himself. Scotty’s parents listen and appreciate what the baker has to say. The abstract diction illustrates the resolution of the conflict between the baker and Scotty’s parents and the two parties sympathizing with the others pain.
In “How Far She Went”, Hood utilizes concrete diction in order to stimulate a sensory response. The concrete diction portrays the events in a very factual manner. Unlike the girl’s usual responses, she comes out and says “I’m sorry…” ( Hood, 15), to her granny for the first time in the text. This straightforward diction provides a sense of clarity. The relationship between granny and the girl is known to be constantly filled with anger and disagreement. However, granny too, is shown to have turned a corner as she finally puts her granddaughter’s needs before her dog’s and tells the girl, “It was him or you…” (Hood, 16). The shift to concrete diction illustrates that the two are finally communicating with one another and suggests an end to their toxic relationship. While both authors employ different types of diction, they both mark the end of a conflict and the beginnings of a healthy relationship.
Symbolism is also prominent in both of the texts. In “A Small, Good Thing”, the title itself is symbolic and comes into play in the passage as well. The title is seen in the passage when the baker is trying to reconcile with Scotty’s parents and offers them comfort in the form of food. The baker says that eating is “…a small, good thing…” (Carver, 19), in their time of distress. Nothing drives home the tenderness of attempted connection more strongly than their final scene with the baker. The baker has revealed the depth of his suffering, so that for the first time, Scotty’s parents can begin to process the depth of their own suffering. These people are not the same and they can only approach each other so much, and yet because they try to connect, they are all profoundly affected. Carver’s suggestion is that we are all connected in our smallness, in our lack of control. And while it might be impossible for us to ever truly know one another, or ever take full control of our lives, our attempts to be kind and understand other people is “…a small, good thing….” (Carver 19), that makes our lives worthwhile.
In “How Far She Went”, symbolism takes place in the form of personification. The girl is said to have been, “…shedding water like a garment.” (Hood, 9-10). This takes place after discovering her grandmother’s unlimited love for her. Like the baptism of a christian symbolizing their acceptance of Jesus Christ she rises from the water a new person, shedding her old sins and more shallow self for a new more mature person that is able to sympathize with her granny and look beyond her stubborn outer shell. This in turn assists her in mending her relationship with granny.
In “A Small, Good Thing”, Carver employs characterization to highlight the benefits of sympathizing with another person in order to settle an argument. The baker begins to characterize himself, and opens up to Scotty’s parents about his own struggles and insecurities as a way to relate to them in their time of need. Both Scotty’s parents and the baker sense that this occasion is sacred in that they can connect with one another through a shared understanding of pain and disappointment. He refers to himself as “…just a baker…” (Carver, 2), saying that he “…doesn’t know how to act anymore…” (Carver, 10-11). Scotty’s parents relate to the baker’s struggles of not having any children as they too are newly childless. They find particular comfort when the baker began to speak of loneliness, as they too feel this common loneliness now that their only child has died. The commonalities of the baker and Scotty’s parents emphasized by the various interactions, explore the relationship between helplessness and uncertainty. When put into situations where they lack control, each of the characters falls prey to the overwhelming fear and isolation. Throughout the story, the characters reconcile their difference, resulting in the creation of new hope in learning from the unknown and the alleviation of their previous helplessness.
Characterization is also utilized by Hood in “How Far She Went”. Granny is characterized as being a strong and independent figure. She emphasizes her own independence by saying that where they are from, “…we beat our own burdens.” (Hood, 23-24), illustrating to her granddaughter that she must be able to rely on herself to solve her own problems. She is also further characterized as being very self-reliant when described as having “…country grace…” (Hood, 27). Up until this point in the text, granny had been characterized as cruel and having difficulty emotionally investing in others due to her past hardships. This passage marks a shift in the way that granny is characterized. From a negative point of view, granny is now portrayed as being a powerful and self-determining woman. This suggest that although a person may seem insensitive and forsaken, this may simply be a persona, not necessarily an accurate depiction of who the person truly is.
Although the two texts prominently utilize varying literary techniques, they both create a similar effect. Carver and Hood alike create a commentary that criticizes the act of judging another person when one is not fully aware of their personal conflicts. In both “A Small, Good Thing” and “How Far She Went”, the conclusions of the texts are imperative to understanding the author’s overall commentary. All of the major characters begin to more fully relate to their adversary, and begin to sympathize with their individual struggles. The literary techniques employed highlight that we are all separate from one another and yet still endeavor to connect in our loneliness. We are all alone, and yet we persevere in hope of making a connection with others. The conclusions create a cathartic effect as all members of the parties are able to set aside their past, and begin to create a healthier relationship with one another.
Raymond Carver’s Cathedral of Irony
Raymond Carver’s preferred method of delivering information to readers in his short story “Cathedral” is one that is entirely coherent with the underlying theme of the impact of alienation and isolation upon those who fail to master the art of communicating with others. Carver employs a technique of storytelling in which everything that can be learned about the other characters is filtered through the perspective of a narrator who is less than fully articulate. Ultimately, “Cathedral” is the story of a man who has difficulty connecting with other people because he lacks sophisticated communication skills which is told by a man with such limited communication skills that the reader is forced is to piece together necessary information that the narrator has left out because the story is being related by a storyteller whose very inarticulateness is the driving force behind his transformation.
The story contains a certain level of irony in that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what is going on even though the narrator uses plain language and an unsophisticated vocabulary. Carver seems to be suggesting something about the power of words here to effectively communicate thoughts. Many people assume that a story is more difficult to understand if the writer uses a sophisticated vocabulary or engages metaphorical language or long, complex sentences. While those elements require greater attention, they would not necessarily make it more difficult to communicate meaning. Understanding is all about effectively communicating meaning and this truism is addressed through narrator’s wife efforts to more efficiently communicate with the blind man: “The blind man made a tape. He sent her the tape. She made a tape. This went on for years.” Some—including, perhaps, the narrator—might think the very idea of long-distance communication with a blind man would be a difficult if not impossible undertaking. Even the simplest word choices would fail to communicate any meaning if the narrator’s wife had chosen to write letters; or, at best, writing letters would have mandated that someone be there with the blind man to read them to him. (And that is not even to get into the much deeper arena of how a reader could choose to communicate the written words of another!) The narrator’s wife may be alienated and isolated from her husband as a result of marrying an underachieving communicator, but she clearly is operating at a level above him when it comes to communication with others. She seeks out two-way interaction even through the one-way medium of recording her missives. Communication is not just about succeeding in the effort, it is about actually making the effort.
The narrator starkly defines his difference from his wife on this point when he chooses to turn on the television rather than actively seeking to intensify the level of conversation with the visitor. Indeed, the narrator confesses that his nightly routine is one in which he “smoked dope and stayed up as long” as he could all alone after his wife had already fallen asleep. The narrator provides little insight into why this should be his nightly routine, but one can piece together through what is not said with what one does learn about him that watching television when there is only one other person in the room is an open act of rebellion. The narrator’s decision to watch television when the only other person in the room is blind is nothing less than a declaration of war against conversation and the act of communication. To watch television is to situate yourself as a receiver of information only; no transmission is required on your part. This decision places the narrator as the polar opposite of a wife so eager to connect with others that she seeks out common ground on which to declare peace. Whereas she makes an extra effort to communicate with the blind man, the narrator almost goes out of his way to avoid communication.
Irony is also exhibited in the fact that the narrator undergoes a transformation directly as a result of his lack of skills as an effective communicator. Cathedrals mean nothing to the blind man because he has never seen one; ironically, the narrator is no more capable of communicating the majesty of these architectural wonders than the man who has never seen one. This status changes only as a result of the narrator’s confession: “[I] can’t tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn’t in me to do it. I can’t do any more than I’ve done.” What he means, of course, is that he lacks the skill to take the information he has received via television and transmit it; a skill that, it can be assumed, his wife does not lack in light of the many years of transmitting information audibly on the tapes. The opportunity to communicate with “the blind man” opens up the potential for actually connecting with him as a human being named Robert. That opportunity arises only as a result of the narrator’s inability to articulate.
Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is about the ability to communicate as a way of connecting to other people, but also about the ability to learn how to communicate. The narrator’s wife has learned how to communicate with her blind friend, and the result has been transformative for her. While she is still alienated and withdrawn from her own husband, that is a state of affairs arising from his lack of ambition to discover how to communicate with her. He is so withdrawn and isolated that even when relating the story of one of the most important moments in his life, he still manages to have difficulty communicating effectively, thus forcing the reader—like the blind man—to reach out and do the work of figuring out how to connect with this prickly human being. The irony of the story is not that it takes a blind man to help the narrator see the value of communication; the irony is that he only experiences his epiphany because he lacked the necessary skills to communicate the majesty of cathedral architecture to a blind man.
Sweet Poison: The Use of Intoxication in Carver’s Short Stories
In Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, humans are described as exhibiting three types of coping mechanisms in order to relieve themselves of the suffering that they experience. One of these mechanisms is intoxication: to intoxicate one’s self with various physical substances in order to become inebriated. In Raymond Carver’s short stories, intoxication (drinking, in this case) is used not only as a means to cope, but also as a social lubricant that tears down the inhibitions of the characters that use it. As Carver himself was an alcoholic, his stories reflect his perspective on such experience; there is no glamour or romance in the act of drinking in his short fiction. Although intoxication is used for similar purposes by both authors, Carver presents it in a more subtle way, using examples to demonstrate its causes and effects while Freud directly defines it. Carver also uses intoxication to reveal something hidden that would have otherwise remained hidden had the characters not been intoxicated.
In “Why Don’t You Dance”, the older man is first introduced pouring himself another drink. Although he doesn’t directly state it, Carver implies that the man is dealing with the emotional suffering resulting from his loss by drinking by associating the two closely with each other, as shown when the narrator says, “His side, her side. He considered this as he sipped the whiskey” (3). The man doesn’t seem to derive any happiness from it and seems to just become more uncaring of what people think of him as shown when he thinks, “Now and then a car slowed and people stared. But no one stopped. It occurred to him that he wouldn’t, either” (4). He is now indifferent to what ordinarily would be potentially embarrassing to him. This change from self-consciousness to indifference is also paralleled in the young couple that stop by to take a look at his display. Initially they are reserved and worry about what other people think of them. Compare this hesitation to when they have a few drinks and then dance: “Arms about each other, their bodies pressed together, the boy and the girl moved up and down the driveway. They were dancing. And when the record was over, they did it again, and when that one ended, the boy said. ‘I’m drunk'” (9). Compared to just lying on a man’s bed, drunk-dancing in a stranger’s front yard is much “weirder”, but the young couple no longer cares what people think of them. “Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said. ‘It’s okay,’ the man said. ‘It’s my place,’ he said. ‘Let them watch,’ the girl said” (9). Weeks later when she is sober again, she attempts to spin the story so that it seemed like he was the only uninhibited one. “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying” (10). Carver shows the effects of intoxication by displaying their inhibitions (or lack thereof) before, during, and after becoming drunk. He also reveals something hidden about the girl – her demeanor completely changes after becoming sober again; what does this reveal about her? She could be lonely, or somehow profoundly affected by the dance with the man.
In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, Carver uses the cheap gin to again reveal hidden emotions. At the beginning of the evening, Mel and Terri seem to have a strong relationship, albeit with some disagreements. As Mel begins to become drunk, the first major crack in Mel and Terri’s relationship is shown when he quietly tells her to “Just shut up for once in your life” (146). Mel speaks of how love is only a temporary memory, and “’…what real love is,’ Mel said… ‘And the terrible thing is, the terrible thing is, but the good thing too, the saving grace, you might say, is that if something happened to one of us–excuse me for saying this–but if something happened to one of us tomorrow, I think the other one, the other person, would grieve for awhile, you know, but then the surviving party would go out and love again, have someone else soon enough. All this, all this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory.'” He continues by telling Laura and Nick of an old couple that he had to treat in the emergency room. He exasperatedly says, “‘Can you imagine? The man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.’ Mel looked around the table and shook his head at what he was going to say. ‘I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman'” (151). As he progressively becomes more intoxicated while telling the story of the old couple, his true insecurity is shown: Ed is the only person that ever loved Terri with the sort of permanent love that Mel wishes that he could have. This is why he is so unwilling to admit that Ed loved Terri, and why Terri thinks that Ed loved her so much and keeps mentioning him. By using alcohol to make Mel speak about other people, Carver reveals more about Mel’s character than if he had bluntly written that Mel was jealous of Ed.
Both Freud and Carver defines the concept of intoxication in a similar manner: that it is used to deal with suffering and as a social lubricant. However, Carver subtly uses it in order to reveal people’s hidden emotions and feelings instead of directly defining what they are in the manner that Freud does.
Epiphanies of ‘Ugly’ Mrs. Turpin and the ‘Blind’ Narrator
Both Mrs. Turpin in Flannery O’Conner’s Revelation and the narrator in Raymond Craver’s Cathedral hold prejudiced worldviews. However, Mrs. Turpin is religious and expresses her self-satisfied thoughts openly, while the narrator dismisses others because he does not believe in anything. Both characters need to be saved by epiphanies, yet their distinct natures shape how each character experiences the epiphany.Mrs. Turpin judges people by stereotypes of class, race, and disposition in order to raise her self-satisfaction. As soon as she enters the waiting room, she immediately categorizes others based on their appearances: the “well-dressed lady” (150) is the ‘pleasant lady’, the “lank-faced woman” (150) is the ‘white-trashy mother’, and the girl with a face “blue with acne” (150) is the ‘ugly girl’. In fact, Mrs. Turpin is so obsessed with these stereotypical classifications that “sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people…then next to them…were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged”(151). Mrs. Turpin uses these stereotypes to justify her condescending manners to others. She scrutinizes how the ‘white-trashy mother’ has on bedroom slippers that are “exactly what you would have expected her to have on” (151), thus confirming Mrs. Turpin’s prediction that she is ‘trashy’. As Mrs. Turpin engages in a conversation with the ‘pleasant lady’, she gives the ‘white-trashy mother’ the “merest edge of her attention” (152) because she does not deserve her attention. Mrs. Turpin feeds herself with self-satisfaction as she judges herself as better than all the ‘niggers’, ’white-trashes’, and ‘ugly people’.Furthermore, although Mrs. Turpin claims to be a strong believer of Christ, her belief system is superficial. Mrs. Turpin always goes to church and “never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent” (155). Yet, the fact that she prides herself so much for giving to less fortunate people suggests that she only does so to raise her self-satisfaction that she is superior to those people. Throughout the story, she constantly praises Jesus for giving her a little of everything: “When I think who all I could have been besides myself…I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’”(156) Although Mrs. Turpin may be expressing her appreciation to God, she is also condemning all the others who she could have been if she has not been herself. She claims to have everything, but lacks sincerity in her beliefs.With her self-satisfaction and superficiality, Mrs. Turpin mistakenly considers herself superior to Mary Grace, the ‘ugly girl’: “Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age…Mrs. Turpin herself was fat but she had always had good skin”(150). She clearly disapproves the girl’s coarse manner, as the girl “looked directly at Mrs. Turpin and smirked” (151). Yet, Mrs. Turpin fails to see that the girl’s coarse manner is a mirror of her own prejudiced and judgmental attitudes towards people she does not know: “It was the ugliest face Mrs. Turpin had ever seen…She was looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life…Why, girl, I don’t even know you, Mrs. Turpin said silently.”(154). Mrs. Turpin remains unaware that her ugly thoughts do not make her any more beautiful than the ‘ugly girl’.Similarly to Mrs. Turpin, the narrator relies heavily on rigid stereotypes in judging people. Despite never having known a blind man in person, the fact that Robert is “blind bothered him. His 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” (732). The narrator clearly conveys uneasiness of having Robert in his house just because of the stereotypes of blind men he knows.However, unlike Mrs. Turpin who believes in divine power, the narrator does not believe in anything beyond his concrete and physical perspective. The narrator devalues the connections and attachments his wife may have with Robert through ongoing tape conversations of trivial everyday life matters. Instead, he gets upset with even one slight physical act when Robert touched his wife’s face, although for his wife the physical action itself may not matter at all, compared to the feeling involved in the memories of it. The narrator laments over how the blind man “touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck!”(732), yet disregard the poem his wife writes about “what she had felt at the time about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips” (732). Because he does not care to engage in any other experiences outside his own perspective, the narrator fails to connect to his wife and Robert.Consequently, the narrator retreats into his own world, smoking dope and watching TV while dismissing others. Rather than expressing self-satisfied thoughts like Mrs. Turpin, the narrator implies his self-centered and limited nature by disregarding others’ views: “But she was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc.”(732). The casual narrative technique and the use of ‘etc.’ suggest how he does not bother to care about his wife’s relationship with her ex-husband. Similarly, when the narrator’s wife tells him about Beulah “with more details than [he] cared to know” (734), he dismissively comments on Robert’s love towards Beulah as being “pathetic”. Therefore, the narrator reveals that “a blind man in [his] house is not something [he] looked forward to” (732) because he does not expect a blind man to be able to interest him.By doing so, the narrator prevents himself from the chance of exploring different perspectives that others may hold. Rather than getting to know Robert as the person he is, the narrator is stuck seeing Robert through the lens of his stereotypes. The narrator secretly ridicules Robert for wearing a full beard: “A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say.”(734). Furthermore, the narrator is surprised to know that Robert doesn’t use a cane, and doesn’t wear dark glasses: “I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind”(735). Because Robert does seem to fit the narrator’s stereotype of blind men, the narrator dismisses these qualities by calling them “creepy” rather than appreciating Robert’s self-reliance.Both characters experience epiphanies that challenge their worldviews. Additionally, they are able to do so through the help those who they initially despise. Nevertheless, each character’s unique nature shapes how they receive help into their epiphanies. Mrs. Turpin is forced to confront her ‘ugly’ thoughts through the ugly girl’s ugly action, while the narrator is gradually able to ‘see’ through the blind man’s guidance.It is due to the ugly girl’s coarse action that Mrs. Turpin is able to realize her faults. Because Mrs. Turpin persistently expresses her self-satisfied manner, ‘ugly girl’ finally reaches her limit and hurls the book symbolically titled “Human Development” right at Mrs. Turpin’s eye. With such a direct and forceful action, Mrs. Turpin, finally shows a potential of gaining the epiphany she longs for. Despite getting upset, Mrs. Turpin accepts the possibility that the girl “knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition” (157) and is sending a message from God. However, a message to such a self-satisfied and pretentious character like Mrs. Turpin cannot be gentle and beautiful. Holding her breath, “waiting, as for a revelation” (157), Mrs. Turpin is told “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog” (157). This is particularly shocking to Mrs. Turpin considering how she has always regarded herself (far from ever being compared to a hog) as being superior to anyone else. The trigger is sudden and unpleasant, but because of Mrs. Turpin’s overt self-satisfied nature, an overt incident is also necessary for her to recognize her flaws.Mrs. Turpin’s religious believes, although superficial, eventually saves her. Despite not wanting to believe that she is called an ‘old wart hog’, Mrs. Turpin’s “denial had no force” (158). She cannot neglect this God-given message and is very much troubled by it. Hence, she finally confronts God: “What do you send me a message like that for?…How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”(161). It is when Mrs. Turpin admits her image as a hog and challenges God to tell her why it is so that Mrs. Turpin experiences a divine vision:“A vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics…And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people…like herself and Claud…even their virtues were being burned away.” (162)Mrs. Turpin is hit by a terrifying divine vision that challenges her self-righteousness. The imagery of ‘bands of black niggers’ and ‘battalions of freaks and lunatics’ conveys the turmoil Mrs. Turpin experiences in her vision. She is paralyzed between her old prejudiced views and this horrifying celebration. She tries to utter her vision of everyone being equally blessed but lacks the vocabulary to express it, as she ends up classifying groups of white-trashes’, ‘niggers’, or ‘lunatics’. Nevertheless, Mrs. Turpin is forced to surrender to this terrifying yet beautiful vision and feels secure at the same time. There is the most beautiful life waiting for her up there, but this beautiful life is also waiting for everyone—black or white, decent or trashy—all the same.Unlike Mrs. Turpin who is forcefully hit and must forcefully hit back in order to attain her epiphany, the narrator is smoothly built up into his epiphany. Robert constantly surprises the narrator with his self-reliance and openness. Consequently, the narrator eventually comes to stop ridiculing these characteristics that are inconsistent to his stereotypes and starts to appreciate them. As the narrator “watched with admiration as [Robert] used his knife and fork on the meat” (736), he slowly and progressively dissolves his initial stereotypes. Furthermore, the narrator is awed by how Robert is not only able to smoke dope for the first time “like he’d been doing it since he was nine years old” (738), but also is open to try new things. Through Robert’s persistent attempts in showing the narrator how “there’s a first time for everything” (737) and staying up late “until [the narrator is] ready to turn in” (738), the narrator begins to feel appreciative of Robert’s presence that he initially dismisses. “I’m glad for the company” (738), the narrator admits.Consequently, the narrator begins open up to Robert. As they watch the cathedral on TV, the narrator feels the urge to share his experience with Robert: “They’re showing the outside of this cathedral now…There’s painting on the walls of this one church” (739). However, this reveals how the narrator is still confined in his superficial perspectives as he tries to explain his tangible and visible experiences while failing to understand that Robert is gaining an equally notable experience through other intangible senses. Thus, the narrator is surprised that Robert is gaining much more knowledge than he is from this TV show. “Are those fresco paintings, bub?”(739), Robert asks a question to which the narrator does not know the answer. Through this, the blind man who sees everything that comes into life as an opportunity to broaden his perspectives teaches the narrator that “learning never ends”(738) as long as the narrator opens up to take in new perspectives.The narrator eventually learns from Robert and tries to take Robert’s perspective as Robert has taken his. He begins to step outside of his limited perspective and questions what is out there in other point of views. For the first time, the narrator wonders how Robert conceptualizes a cathedral: “Do you have any idea what a cathedral is…If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about?”(739). He initially struggles to describe a cathedral to Robert because “cathedrals don’t mean anything special to [him]” (740), but he continues to try and gradually develops his understanding of other’s perspectives. “They remind me of viaducts…But maybe you don’t know viaducts, either?”(740), the narrator corrects himself upon stepping in Robert’s shoe. Finally, the narrator fully explores a new perspective as he engages in drawing the cathedral with Robert. Together they construct a cathedral in the world outside of the paper they are drawing on and beyond physical boundaries: “I put in windows with arches. I drew flying buttresses. I hung great doors. I couldn’t stop.”(740). “It was like nothing else in my life up to now”, the narrator reveals. It is only when the narrator closes his eyes that he is able to see.Having experienced epiphany, Mrs. Turpin remains ‘immobile’, physically positioned in equal standing with the ‘hogs’ and mentally absorbing the voices of everyone equally “climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah”(162). Likewise, the narrator remains on the blind man’s side, with his eyes closed, and still closed, as he finally sees: “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.”(741) Mrs. Turpin and the narrator are empowered by an idea too powerful to be articulated, as they grasp the ‘life-giving knowledge’ that will change their lives forever.
Metaphors of Blindness in “Cathedral”
In Raymond Carver’s short story, “Cathedral,” the close-minded speaker is forced to spend a civil evening with a blind man. Initially, the narrator despises the blind community. However, after interacting and connecting with the blind man in the story, the speaker finds himself with a transformed opinion. He discovers the blind man’s immense and unique wealth of wisdom. While blindness is an obvious theme of the story, the author may have executed it through more than merely the blind man’s physical condition. Just as he lacks his vision, the speaker and his wife are blinded socially and emotionally. These dynamic personalities allow the characters to construct a strong bond and a sense of growth throughout the story. “Cathedral” illustrates the nature of blindness, both physical and metaphorical, and demonstrates its effect on the characters.In order to apply blindness as a metaphor, Carver must first introduce his physically blind character. This man, Robert, serves as the foundation for the core theme of the entire story. This wise and smooth character is genuinely interesting. His charm and intelligence nearly have a way of compensating for the absence of his vision. This scenario is not uncommon in literature. A challenged character, like Robert, is often portrayed as exceedingly admirable and sympathetic. This enables the reader to conclude that a human’s exterior does not necessarily reflect his or her inner self (Ozer). The author employs Robert’s blindness and the resulting mannerisms to both shape and contrast several aspects of the story in relation to the other characters. For this reason, a thorough understanding of his personality and lifestyle is crucial. Fortunately, Carver provides an ample amount of descriptive details pertaining to the blind man.Immediately, the reader is informed of Robert’s profession in the social-service department. The speaker’s wife met Robert through assisting him with this job, reading him case studies and reports. In this manner, the story wastes little time in illustrating Robert’s determination and refusal to allow blindness to affect his productivity. From the moment Robert arrives at the speaker’s home, he is polite and conversational. Unlike his host, he seems to be very relaxed and comfortable. During various discussions, he is nearly always prepared with a clever response and he rarely hesitates. Robert, perhaps to the reader’s surprise, is a confident and secure man. In spite of his physical limitation, he operates with undeniable stability.Robert’s nature is not only defined by what he does, but also what he does not do. As the speaker observes, the blind man does not wear dark glasses or use a cane to aid him. Contrastingly, he is not at all similar to the portrayal of blind men seen in entertainment. When offered help with his luggage, Robert repeatedly declines. Instead, he notifies his hosts that he can manage tasks of that sort on his own. Additionally, he does not take advantage of the excessive catering offered by the speaker’s wife. Robert is content and capable, despite certain expectations of the speaker and even his wife. Though vision is significant, the blind typically adapt to their sightless days and carry out satisfying lives (Bennett). As technology continues to advance, blindness becomes more of an inconvenience than a handicap. Such a condition can be overcome with time and practice, not unlike poor handwriting or fear of public speaking (Kurzweil). The blind are fully capable of achieving assimilation and normalcy. Still, people such as Robert are regularly met with low expectations and high prejudice.Few exemplify this discriminatory behavior more effectively than the speaker of “Cathedral”. This indicates the first appearance of metaphorical blindness in the story. The narrator does not see the essence of a blind man, such as Robert. His own dark perception of the blind prevents him from initially understanding the rich personality and potential of his guest. He expresses this feeling right away: “I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me” (Carver 81). His wife diligently attempts to persuade her husband, telling him about Robert and his delightful attitude. This effort is to no avail, however, and the speaker continues to dread the experience. It is evident that, in the early portion of the story, the only consideration in the speaker’s mind is his heavy distaste for the visually impaired.Upon the revelation of one’s disability, he or she may easily become the victim of many assumptions. Among these hasty conclusions, one of the most common is the sense that any non-disabled persons present know best. This robs the disabled of power and credit (Ray). Such is the case in the story, at Robert’s expense. He, in all likelihood, may be quite aware of the narrator’s feelings. However, his wisdom does not affect his host’s opinion. Regardless of his knowledge, he is not respected or taken seriously by the speaker. As previously mentioned, this is most likely the product of rampant misconceptions concerning the physically challenged. Therefore, the speaker’s ignorance acts as a blindness of his own.One may question this notion, arguing that such a blindness is entirely voluntary. However, while ignorance is an aspect of character, it is not necessarily so easily eliminated. Typically, a rational human being does not willingly elect to be blind. The story certainly represents its speaker as an average, healthy man. The issue is not found in his mind, but rather, in the information with which he is surrounded. Misinformation is one of the most notorious causes of prejudice and rejection. Furthermore, certain pieces of information are emphasized more heavily than others. Some information is omitted altogether. These ingredients often produce prejudice (Lewis). The speaker supports this theory upon openly admitting that his idea of the blind is a product of dramatic and glamorized media. Finally, competitiveness and displaced aggression can also lead to prejudice (Aronson). These are personality traits clearly displayed by the speaker throughout the story, as shown later. All of these contributing factors influence him and provoke his ignorant behavior. Just as the very man he rejects, the narrator is blind.In contrast to her husband, the speaker’s wife is dearly fond of the blind man. She and Robert are old friends, and the two of them have kept touch with each other during their time apart. Naturally, she is extremely respectful and accommodating toward him. Even so, despite her benevolence, she exhibits more than one blindness. These flaws may be difficult for the audience to initially recognize, due to the wife’s amiable disposition. She, herself, may be equally oblivious to the deep-set issues that lie beneath her facade. This possibility, however, only further reinforces the presence of her personal blindness.Out of two major types of metaphorical blindness displayed by the speaker’s wife, the first is in direct regard to her own well-being. Though subtle, Carver inserts details of the woman’s dark and painful past. This revelation is heavily overshadowed by the central plot between Robert and the speaker. Regardless, it is instrumental in the development of the wife’s character. Carver informs us that, after constantly relocating with her previous husband, the wife suffered from extreme loneliness and depression. She eventually reached her limit and tried to end her life by ingesting massive amounts of pills and gin. The stunt did not kill her, but rather, merely made her sick. She divorced her husband and later found the speaker. Though she did remarry and settle into a comfortable life, the tale of her suicide attempt is not to be taken lightly. A traumatic experience of such caliber can never be forgotten, and it has presumably had permanent effects on the speaker’s wife. This information is indicative of a person incapable of handling tension in a healthy manner. With such an extreme degree of struggle and volatility, it is difficult to deduct that the wife has ever achieved a full recovery. There is a high probability that, in the present, she remains blind to her own needs.The second way in which the wife is blind is, perhaps unexpectedly, in her interaction with Robert. Indeed, she is endlessly kind to the blind man. She never ceases to consider his comfort and needs during his stay. As the story progresses, though, her hospitable offers begin to appear excessive. While far from conscious prejudice, her actions suggest that she underestimates Robert. Whether she is protecting him from the speaker’s comments or repeatedly reminding him to go to bed, her true opinion of him is clear. Even the way she speaks shows her nonstop need to baby the blind man. In some ways, she is just as easily swayed by perceptions and assumptions as her husband. Her intentions are not malicious, but nonetheless, the speaker’s wife is clearly blind to Robert’s capability.With the acknowledgment of these flaws, it is apparent that Robert is not the only blind character in the speaker’s home. Furthermore, in addition to the speaker and his wife’s individual imperfections, the married couple possesses several forms of blindness within their relationship. This is one of Carver’s most heavily emphasized metaphors in the story. It is revealed that the husband secretly awaits the affectionate affirmation he never receives, and the wife often goes to bed alone. Both the narrator and his wife appear to have a stronger bond with Robert than they do with each other. Also, their interactions paint the picture of a pair with poor communication and absent respect. Each partner seems to be blind to the true wants and needs of the other. The dissatisfaction in their relationship could be a direct result of this fact.The story immediately demonstrates the speaker’s unwillingness to respect his wife, as he nearly refuses to have the blind man stay in their home. His reluctance is an obvious insult to Robert and other visually impaired people. But the deeper observation to be made is this action’s implications within his marriage. One widely well-known aspect of successful relationships is the element of sacrifice. Having a guest in his home is hardly taxing for the speaker, yet he relentlessly argues with his wife over the subject. He is consumed with his own happiness and therefore objects to the notion of having a stranger take attention away from him. In the process, his selfishness acts as a blindfold, preventing him from seeing the pain such an attitude causes his wife. The anticipated visit reminds the speaker of his loneliness, and he becomes too preoccupied with his inadequacies to be concerned with anything else (Facknitz).As the story shows, the wife is capable of as much cruelty as the speaker. He may appear to be a hardened man, immune to criticism and hurtful words, but he clearly values his wife’s opinion more than she may realize. Like her husband, the wife is blind to the harm she causes their relationship. The true reason for the narrator’s rejection of Robert may be jealousy. Whether or not she is aware of it, she is largely responsible for this jealousy. The speaker endures tale after tale of his wife’s endearment toward Robert, and this makes the speaker feel threatened. The wife is guilty of repeatedly putting Robert’s needs above the comfort of her own husband. She also provides excessive details regarding her past with Robert, such as the poem she wrote about him. This poem is based on an experience in which the blind man touched her face, and its nature clearly sounds erotic to the speaker. Such tension only provokes further hurtfulness. While discussing Robert’s impending visit, she burdens him with a cold statement: “If you love me, you can do this for me. If you don’t love me, okay” (Carver 83). Her words are spoken with such disdain, the damage is irreversible. Finally, the wife tells her husband that he has no friends, deeply wounding him to the point of his total surrender and withdrawal. Though it is evident to the reader, the wife is unable to see the way in which she is personally responsible for the animosity in her relationship.The final metaphor of blindness in “Cathedral” differs from the others in that it is voluntary. The story features frequent use of drugs and alcohol. These substances serve as a method of escapism and relaxation in an otherwise tense environment. Not long after Robert’s arrival, the speaker offers him a drink. Later, the two and the speaker’s wife all smoke marijuana together. Conversation flows between Robert and the speaker, and the atmosphere appears social and civil. However, the blind man and the narrator did not get along so easily before the introduction of drugs. One must not forget the inevitable effects of drinking and smoking.Though the interaction may seem friendly, it is truly a gesture of cowardice and surrender often seen in society. Many turn to drugs to ease stress and improve relations. This is particularly true for the speaker, though each character participates. The speaker is physically able to see, but he regularly chooses to blind himself with mind-altering substances. It is this mindset that contributes to the speaker’s poor performance as a husband. This alcoholic behavior is also partly responsible for his lack of friends (Facknitz). In addition to the narrator, the other characters choose to blind themselves as well. The three are clearly aware of the drugs’ ability to relax tensions. It is quite possible that, without the addition of this activity, the characters would not have connected as they did. Without blinding himself from his own objections, the speaker may not have experienced the life-changing epiphany expressed in the story’s end. In this way, the metaphorical blindness of substance use is bittersweet.In Raymond Carver’s story, “Cathedral,” a blind character acts as the doorway to a world of metaphors. Though he cannot see, he is a fully knowledgeable and capable character. Beyond visual impairment, blindness is illustrated in numerous areas of the story. These metaphors can be found in the speaker’s prejudice and ignorance, or his wife’s inability to look after her own needs. Even she, despite her kind demeanor, is guilty of underestimating the blind man and making assumptions regarding the disabled. As a married couple, the speaker and his wife continue to prove their blindness through their unintentional disrespect toward each other. With so many tensions in the air, all three of the characters naturally turn to drugs and alcohol to ease their minds. In this way, regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses, they willingly blind themselves. What begins as a tale of a blind man’s visit becomes a complex story of the various types of metaphorical blindness found within each and every person.Works CitedAronson, Elliot. “Causes of Prejudice”. Bigotry, Prejudice and Hatred: Definitions, Causes & Solutions.Ed. Robert M. Baird. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992. 238. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.Bennett, Drake. “Perfectly Happy”. The Boston Globe. 10 May 2009. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral”. Backpack Literature,3rded. Longman, 2006. Print.Facknitz, Mark A. R. “’The Calm,’ ‘A Small Good Thing,’ and ‘Cathedral’: Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth”. Studies in Short Fiction. 1986. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.Ray, Shreya. “Fighting Prejudice Called Disability”. The Times of India. 8 Mar. 2005. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.Kurzweil, R. “The End of Handicaps, Part 1”. Library Journal 117.7 (1992): 68-69. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.Lewis, Michael. “Many Minds Make Madness: Judgment Under Uncertainty and Certainty”. Psychological Inquiry3.2 (1992): 170-172. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.Ozer, Irma Jacqueline. “Beauty or the beast: The depiction of the physically challenged in literature from an Adlerian perspective”. Journal of Medical Humanities11.2 (1990): 67- 73. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.
Blind Freeing the Blind: Transcendence in “Cathedral”
Rarely does a story portray self-discovery and personal enlightenment as honestly and tenaciously as Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” This story depicts the encounter between an initially close-minded narrator and a free-thinking blind man. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that both characters need each other in order to evolve and attain fresh perspectives. Carver achieves this end by embedding the reader into the story, through his use of the limited and progressive narrational point-of-view. He explores the theme of transcendence through his use of tone, setting, imagery, and character development in order to portray the narrator’s climactic enlightenment.The tone of “Cathedral” initially contains a considerable amount of indigestible satire, which Carver represents in the form of choppy, staccato-esque sentences. The narrator (who is commonly referred to as “Bub”) speaks sardonically and indifferently to the people around him – regularly displaying an air of nonchalance regarding his wife. He belittles her frequently – largely due to his overall, insecure nature – and her longtime friendship with the blind man embitters him deeply. He is essentially “walled in by his own insecurities and prejudices.” (Nesset 116) He despises the fact that his wife previously worked for the blind man and formed a close relationship with him, which she “enjoy[s].” He envies their intimate history and is extremely jealous of the fact that, “on her last day in the office […] he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose-even her neck.” (Carver 91) Carver makes it quite clear from Bub’s perspective that “a blind man in [his] house – [especially one who caressed his wife’s face!] – was not something [he] looked forward to.” (Carver 90) This is a prime example of the narrator’s bleak, sheltered perspective, which Carver portrays in order to provide a clear starting point. However, as the story progresses, the narrator – whose “prejudices and cynicism [previously comprised] limitations he [was] too boorish or lazy to free himself from” (Hathcock 31) – takes a turn for the better, subsequently causing the tone of the story to become more personable and optimistic.The dinner scene (in which the narrator, his wife, and Robert truly establish a form of common ground for the first time) provides an ideal, image-laden setting while also solidifying a foundation for the tonal change in the story. Bub, mid-chomp, happens to notice the efficient eating habits of Robert, as he admittedly “watched with [great] admiration as he used his knife and fork.” (Carver 95) It is the first compliment the narrator offers Robert; obviously he is astounded by the fact that a blind man might be so adept with his kitchen utensils. Following the meal, the three characters find themselves sharing some pot in the living room, and the narrator, once again, pays Robert a compliment. He is greatly impressed by Robert as he “inhaled, held the smoke, and […] let it go.” (Carver 97) Watching Robert smoke his first joint, Bub states, “It was like he had been doing it since he was nine years old.” (Carver 97) Carver uses this imagery and tonality to emphasize the shift that is taking place within the narrator. Bub is beginning to apprehend the falsity of his preconceived ideas about Robert, and is now acknowledging there is something undoubtedly special about the blind man. This, in turn, causes a shift in the reader as well, due to the fact that the narrator has not displayed any type of compassion – toward anyone – thus far. Carver then takes this initial “spark” of the narrator’s transcendence and magnifies it considerably. Shortly after the pot smoking, the narrator’s wife passes out, causing Robert and Bub to be alone for the first time. When Robert decides to stay up a little longer for a friendly chit-chat, the narrator admits – in reference to the once “bothersome” blind man’s presence – that he is “glad for the company.” (Carver 97) Utterly perplexed by his own words, Bub ponders his newfound appreciation for Robert’s company as if he had never experienced anything like it before. At this point, Carver suggests that an even deeper shift is taking place within the narrator – foreshadowing the climax of the story.The focal point of transcendence in “Cathedral” begins with the men stoned and gathered around the television. A historical program about cathedrals is on, and Bub and Robert begin to discuss the events taking place on the screen. When asked by the narrator, Robert states that he knows little about cathedrals, with the exception of a few basic facts; he is obviously limited in his knowledge due to his blindness. The narrator then tries to explain the magnificence of one to Robert but becomes temporarily dumbfounded as his words fail him. He is extremely limited in his description of the televised cathedrals, and admits “[they don’t] mean anything special to [him].” (Carver 99). After all, Bub is not a religious man and doesn’t really believe “in anything.” (Carver 99) This displeases Robert somewhat; he clears his throat and asks Bub to get some pen and paper so that the two of them may attempt to draw a cathedral. Beginning the illustration, Robert holds onto the narrator’s hand as he “drew a box that looked like a house [which] could have been the house [he] lived in.” (Carver 100) Robert repeatedly states, “Draw. You’ll see. You’ll see. Draw.” (Carver 100) Then, a remarkable change, occurs as the narrator realizes he isn’t as limited as he once thought. He continues to draw the cathedral in great detail – adding windows, arches, doors, and, most importantly, people – as Robert’s encouragement grows. With Bub’s eyes closed, the final, climactic shift occurs: Bub reveals that “It was like nothing else in my life up to now.” (Carver 100). He achieves freedom, finally does not “feel like [he is] inside anything.” (Carver 101). Carver then underlines the narrator’s ultimate transcendence in Bub’s words: “It’s really something.” (Carver 101) With this statement, it is apparent that the narrator no longer subscribes to his cynicism, insecurities, or close-minded and stereotypical perspective. He has achieved a new state of consciousness. He has become enlightened and gained a new sense of vision through his experience with a blind man.