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.
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