Symbolism And Imageryin A Good Man Is Hard To Find
In my opinion, there are three key elements in a work of fiction that result in a great story. The first is characters, how well the author develops his main characters. The next is point of view, does the narrator do a good job telling the story? The last is symbol, a great story must have great symbolism. If the author can effectively use these three things, the result will be something I want to read.
Cathedral, by Raymond Carver, is a short story that focuses on three main characters; the narrator, the narrator’s wife and Robert (a blind man). The narrator’s wife use to work for Robert and he is coming to visit the narrator and his wife. The narrator isn’t very happy about this because he thinks blind people are sad and depressing. We then get some backstory on the relationship between Robert and the narrator’s wife, they have stayed in contact with one another through sending audio tapes.
“On one tape, she told the blind man she’d decided to live away from her officer for a time…She and I began going out, and of course she told her blind man about it…Once she asked me if I’d like to hear the latest tape from the blind man…” (Carver 63). The narrator’s wife tells him that if he loves her, he will make Robert feel welcome. Robert finally shows up, drinks are served and gradually throughout the night the narrators view on Robert changes as he stops calling him “the blind man” and begins to refer to him as Robert. Finally, at the conclusion of the story we see the narrator and Robert drawing a cathedral together, and the narrator doesn’t feel like he’s “inside anything” now, and he loves the feeling. And that is the end of Cathedral.
In fiction, character plays a crucial role in developing fictional incidents and themes and affects how the story is received. Henry James argues in his seminal essay on Anthony Trollope that “character is action, and action is plot, and any plot plays upon our emotion” (James 200). Jonathon Culler also points out that “for many readers character serves as the major totalizing force in fiction” (Culler 230). William Harvey even asserts that “most great novels exist to reveal and explore character” (Harvey 23). The characters we will be looking at are the narrator of Cathedral, and Robert.
Even though the narrator of Cathedral is not literally blind, he has many things about him that make him more blind than Robert (the actual blind man). Unlike Robert, the narrator can see fine with his eyes, but has a hard time understanding the thoughts and feelings of a person that lay beneath the surface. He feels bad for Robert’s dead wife Beulah because he was never able to look at her, the narrator doesn’t realize Robert could see Beulah in a nonphysical way. The narrator also doesn’t try to get to know his own wife, and instead of welcoming her old friend into his home, he just sees Robert as a part of his wife’s past which makes him bitter and jealous. Every comment the narrator makes to his wife, makes you think he is trying to annoy and anger her. The narrator is insensitive and has no idea who is wife is or how she feels, which is ironic because he thinks Robert was unable to really know his wife because he could not see her.
Robert is an understanding and kind man who takes the time to listen to others, which helps him to “see” them better than he could with his eyes. Robert and the narrator’s wife have been listening to each other for the past ten years through the audiotapes they send back and forth. All the difficult details from their lives have been shared with each other. The narrator’s wife is glad to see him, but since he cannot see her, their interaction is only slightly different than the tapes. Robert becomes wholly real, however, when he asks the narrator to draw a cathedral.
When the narrator and Robert draw the cathedral, the narrator has an epiphany during which he can see more than he ever could with his eyes open. Although he has been rude to Robert all evening he is forced to interact with Robert when his wife falls asleep. After being awkward for a little while, the narrator starts describing what’s on the television, but his good intentions are foiled when he can’t accurately describe a cathedral. The two of them attempt to draw the cathedral, “His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now’ says the narrator (Carver 76) The act of drawing a cathedral with Robert with his eyes closed, however, forces the narrator to look inside himself and understand a greater meaning. This liberates the narrator and allows him to really see for the first time.
How do fiction writers tell us stories? By establishing a position from which the storyteller tells the story, this is known as point of view. First, we determine who it is telling the story, a character within the story, or maybe an outside narrator? Next, we figure out how much they really know, how much can this person see into the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the story? By considering these things we find out if the narrator is limited or omniscient. The narrator in Cathedral is a first-person narrator that has limited knowledge of characters outside of himself and what he observes.
First person narrators are characters who tell the story from the perspective of “I’” or “we”: here’s the story the way I saw it, thought about it and felt about it. Because these are first person human perspectives, naturally they are limited with respect to how that character perceives the surrounding world, what they can know and see. This tends to make first person narrators somewhat unreliable and untrustworthy as sources for information, but this doesn’t mean you can’t rely on them at all. What other choice do you have but listen to the storyteller? You need to take what the narrator gives you and run it through a critical filter. Based on the available information, can you believe this narrator? Is he or she filtering the events, selecting how to see them based on the individual’s character traits? In other words, it is important to treat the narrator as a character in the story.
In Cathedral, for instance, the narrator speaks in clipped, cursory and chopped sentences. As we witness the way he sees things and reacts to them, we infer some character traits: his attitude is insecure, arrogant, out of touch, insensitive, and lacking self-awareness. There are many examples in the story where this is borne out. This first-person narrator betrays himself. His own words implicate him, revealing how biased, ignorant, and insensitive he is. Those same words also reveal how lonely and in need of human contact he is.
Now let’s talk about symbol, the cathedral that the narrator draws with Robert represents true sight, the ability to see beyond the surface to the true meaning that lies within. Before the narrator draws the cathedral, his thinks he can see, and Robert cannot. But when he attempts to describe the cathedral that’s shown on television, he realizes he doesn’t have the words to do so. More importantly, he decides that the reason he can’t find those words is that the cathedral has no meaning to him and tells Robert that he doesn’t believe in anything. However, when he takes the time to draw the cathedral and to really think about it and see it in his mind, he finds himself pulled in, adding details and people to make the picture complete and drawing some of it with his eyes closed. When the drawing is finished, the narrator keeps his eyes shut, yet what he sees is greater than anything he’s ever seen with his eyes open. The narrator says, “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything” (76). He has a weightless, placeless feeling that suggests he’s reached an epiphany. Just as a cathedral offers a place for the religious to worship and find solace, the narrator’s drawing of a cathedral has opened a door for him into a deeper place in his own world, where he can see beyond what is immediately visible.
“Cathedral offers a variant on the Sophoclean irony of seeing the truth only when literally blind. Before meeting Robert, the sighted narrator sees nothing of what is true about blind people. At the end, temporarily deprived of sight when he closes his eyes, the narrator comes close to seeing liberation from his claustrophobic existence.” (Bethea 90).
When initially asked to describe the cathedral on TV, the husband admits his inability to communicate what he saw: “I’m just no good at it” (Carver 74), and “I can’t do any more than I’ve done” (74), but this changes at the end when he puts himself in Robert’s shoes and is able to achieve something he didn’t think possible.
The audiotapes that Robert and the narrator’s wife send back and forth to each other represent understanding that has nothing to do with sight. The narrator believes that Robert’s wife, Beulah, must have suffered because Robert could never see her, but in his own way, the narrator has never truly seen his own wife. Robert’s relationship with the narrator’s wife is much deeper than anything the narrator can understand. When he hears a part of Robert’s tape, he says it sounds only like “harmless chitchat” (63). Not realizing that this sort of intimate communication is exactly what his marriage lacks. Only when the narrator closes his eyes to finish drawing the cathedral does he approach the level of understanding that his wife and Robert have achieved through their communication via tapes over the years.
This paper set out to explore how three elements of fiction could make or break a story. In this instance I think Raymond Carver did an excellent job writing this story, he uses well developed characters, especially the narrator as he is dynamic. The point of view in this story reveals the feelings and attitudes of the narrator that otherwise, we may not have known. Finally, the symbolism from this story is bursting from the seams, with the blind man and the audiotapes. In my opinion, this is a good story.
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