1. An overview
6. What if…?
Published in 1983 in a collection of stories of the same name, ‘Cathedral’ is often held up as one of the shining examples of short-fiction writing. Combining a mastery of structure and pace with a telling and uniquely strong voice and texture, the story has become a staple of creative writing and English literature syllabuses.
The collection as a whole has been remarked upon as a breakaway from the already-successful Carver’s previous work. Unlike earlier stories, such as ‘Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets’ and ‘Sixty Acres’, which are bleak in nature and nihilistic in meaning, many pieces in Cathedral hold a powerful moral message and are generally optimistic.
Carver himself commented on this change in mood, telling interviewers, ‘The first story I wrote was “Cathedral”, which I feel is totally different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before. I suppose it reflects a change in my life as much as it does in my way of writing.’
The collection remains a literary masterpiece to this day, and ‘Cathedral’ is the jewel in its crown. But what is it exactly that makes the story tick?
Click here to read the story before diving into the analysis.
‘Cathedral’ is a story that takes place over three acts, in one location, with three characters: an unnamed narrator and his unnamed wife, plus Robert.
Robert plays a key and interesting role in the story. He’s not the protagonist, nor the antagonist. Rather, he’s a disruptor. It’s his arrival – after visiting his recently deceased wife’s family – that pulls apart the status quo. It’s his blindness that deeply unsettles the narrator. It’s his relationship with the narrator’s wife that stirs up bitter jealousy. And it’s his presence that ultimately triggers the most famous set piece of the story: the narrator’s cathedral-inspired epiphany.
Not unlike Amber in Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Robert is less of a character and more or a literary device – an almost-divine force brought in to drag the characters through their necessary arcs.
And it’s the narrator – who Robert nicknames ‘Bub’ – who goes through this transformation. Thanks to the strikingly caustic first-person narrative put in play by Carver, we see Bub go from suspicious, mean and deeply prejudiced to infantilised and wide eyed.
The immediate and most striking part of ‘Cathedral’ is the first-person narrative. It’s a brutally honest insight into the character, written in a casual, almost vernacular style, exposing Bub’s personality from the off.
We quickly learn that Bub is unenthused by the idea of meeting Robert, holds strong prejudices against the blind and has a jealous nature, among other things – and that’s just in the first page.
I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My 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. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
In fact, the whole first act of ‘Cathedral’ is an introduction to the three characters’ back stories and Bub’s narrative style. Before even introducing Robert, Carver sets out the tone – a fundamental step before what unfolds later.
Such a strong narrative voice is often attempted in fiction, but it’s usually to paper over the cracks that appear elsewhere. With ‘Cathedral’, it’s an integral part to the overall plot, and an excellently written one at that.
Once Robert is introduced to the reader and we enter act two, we see the development of Bub – and Carver’s brilliance in action.
Below is the first passage following Robert’s entrance.
My wife said, “I want you to meet Robert. Robert, this is my husband. I’ve told you all about him.” She was beaming. She had this blind man by his coat sleeve.
The blind man let go of his suitcase and up came his hand. I took it. He squeezed hard, held my hand, and then he let it go.
“I feel like we’ve already met,” he boomed.
“Likewise,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. Then I said, “Welcome. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
After Bub’s vitriolic first-person narrative toward Robert in act one, this is hardly the reception we would have expected when they actually meet for the first time. It’s cordial, polite – friendly, even.
Such dissonance between a character’s inner thoughts – portrayed either through first-person narrative or free indirect speech – and their external exchanges with other characters is a powerful writing device, when employed well. The moment Carver introduces us to Bub’s external, cordial side, we see a different part of his personality. He’s not as aggressive as we were previously led to believe. Maybe he’s afraid, a little cowardly, even; he might not believe what he’s telling himself in his internal narrative. He certainly doesn’t have the courage of his convictions.
In terms of plot, it splits it wide open. Yes, the tension remains – and we’ll come onto that next – but this new side to Bub is laying the foundations to the ultimate payoff at the story’s end.
The trouble with this school of writing … is that it obliges the reader to be something of a semiologist, an interpreter of the faded signs of culture. The drama is almost always offstage, beyond the characters.
This was what writer and literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote when reviewing the whole Cathedral collection in the New York Times in 1983. And it raises an excellent question about the presence of drama in ‘Cathedral’.
All fiction, whether it’s a short story, novel, film or theatre piece, requires drama. This usually manifests itself as a conflict between two opposing forces. Those could be two characters, a character and the embodiment of something less tangible – like nature or technology – or a character’s battle with themself (check out our article on ‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin for a deeper analysis of protagonists and antagonists).
The tension surrounding the drama is the lifeblood of the story. It’s what drives the characters forward and keeps the reader/audience interested. But what’s interesting about ‘Cathedral’ is that this drama – or at least key components of it – seems to be missing. Where’s the release of tension? Who are the opposing characters?
Broyard suggests that this all happens offstage. However, I don’t find this idea that plausible. Drama offstage usually involves mysterious pasts that are evoked subtly and with foreshadowing throughout the story. You could better make this point for other stories in the Cathedral collection, such as ‘Fever’ and ‘A small good thing’, where the story’s obvious antagonist exists far away from the main action, on the other side of a telephone call. But not so much in ‘Cathedral’, where Carver goes to great lengths to describe the characters’ backstories in act one, and where there are no obviously implicated characters elsewhere.
So where does that leave us?
Well, putting opposing forces and breaks in tension aside for a moment, what’s clear throughout ‘Cathedral’ is the sense of danger. We’ve already seen that the first act builds up an expectation of direct conflict between Bub and Robert; and despite Bub’s friendliness with Robert, this expectation continues deep into act two. As a reader, we’re constantly waiting for something to tip the scales in this outwardly affable scene, for Bub to externalise his internal thoughts and for the tinderbox to blow.
Of course, this doesn’t happen, and it makes the epiphanic theme of act three – Bub’s realisation – all the more powerful. Carver plays a sleight of hand on his reader. By leading us to believe that we’re heading toward a great conflict, he shocks us when almost the reverse happens.
Subverting the storytelling model like this isn’t uncommon, especially for masters of the form like Carver. A lesser writer trying the same trick would’ve wound up creating something bland and insipid. But Carver knows his art so well, he’s able to fiddle with the foundations to achieve his preferred outcome.
Let’s move on to act three, and the most recognisable part of the story: The cathedral scene.
In a haze of fatigue and marijuana smoke, Robert and Bub form a strong connection, first with Bub asserting his supposed dominance over Robert, offering to describe a cathedral to him, and then Robert turning the tables and helping Bub to see a cathedral in a way he never has done before. With the wife watching on, Bub has an experience that neither he nor the reader could’ve imagined at the beginning of the story, and it’s perfectly framed with the piece’s final lines.
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.
This is precisely why the cathedral scene – and indeed the whole story – is such a masterpiece. Because of the significance of Bub’s transformation.
Like all character arcs, Bub’s has a profound impact on us as readers. First, we dislike him. We find him mean and repulsive. By the end of the story, we marvel at his childlike wonder. We might even like him a little. None of this happens by accident. Again, it’s Carver’s mastery of the art that allows it to occur. We’re shocked by Bub’s change, but it doesn’t strike us as out of character when we’re reading it on the page. That’s because all along, Carver has been subtly shifting Bub’s image and our perspective of him. Whether it’s by being surprisingly cordial with Robert upon his arrival, or later telling him that ‘he’s glad for the company’, or the moment when Bub realises he’s incapable of describing the cathedral in the way he thought he could:
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”
Each action and line of dialogue nudges Bub slightly along on his arc, never going so far that it sits wrong with the reader, but just far enough to avoid stringing out the story too long.
As we’ve seen, ‘Cathedral’ hangs together so well, that tinkering with any small part of it could disrupt its delicate balance and ruin it entirely.
That said, to better understand a story, it can be helpful to imagine how it might look if the author had taken a different choice during their writing process.
We’ve seen that Bub’s external character is very different to that of his internal narrative. He rarely acts on or says the things he’s thinking. But what if he did? What if, at some point during act two, his inner anger got the better of him and he lashed out? What if some of that internal narrative was externalised and directed to Robert’s face? How would his wife act? You’d imagined she’d be mortified, but what about beyond that? And Robert, who’s normally so calm and collected – would it bring out a dark side in him?
As mentioned above, Robert doesn’t seem to fit into the protagonist or antagonist role. Rather, he plays the disruptor, or the ‘Sage’ in Carl Jung’s twelve archetypes.
However, what if he was the antagonist? What if he arrived at Bub and his wife’s home with an agenda? It could be that he’s looking to seduce Bub’s wife, or steal from them. Of course, such a shift would have a significant impact on act two, and require a complete rewrite of act three, but it’s interesting to think how Carver could’ve gone about giving Robert a motive of some kind. Would it be teased out, or made aware to the reader suddenly? How would Bub and his wife find out? And how would they react? What might the ending look like in this scenario?
‘Cathedral’s’ first-person narrative is one of the story’s strongest themes, and it requires a real leap of imagination to envisage it not being told through Bub’s twisted lens. However, it’s interesting to think if it were.
Let’s consider Robert, for instance. What does he make of meeting Bub? Does he pick up on any of his inner anger? How does the cathedral-drawing scene play out from his perspective?
A more interesting narrator than Robert may well be Bub’s wife. By giving her the more active role of storyteller, we could see both sides – Bub and Robert – from her point of view. How nervous would she be hoping that Bub and Robert get along? What does she make of walking in on Bub and Robert drawing together?