Short stories have the ability to convey a great deal of information in a short space of time through careful use of literary tools such as imagery, narration and contrast. By using these tools to deliver a consistent message, writers are able to question many of our assumed knowledge and force us to take a new look at an old idea. Raymond Carver, for instance, manages to question our assumptions about vision, what it is and what is important for us to see, by using narration, imagery and contrast to convey his story “Cathedral.”
The narrator admits from the very beginning that he is nervous about having a blind man in his house, suggesting that he himself is actually quite blind to the reality of the world around him. He says, “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.” The narrator quickly emerges as a man blinded by ignorance as he first wonders whether he should take a blind man bowling for entertainment or if his wife was black based upon her name, Beulah.
His concerns and ideas regarding the blind man seem completely unfounded and irrational, such as his surprise that a blind man might choose to wear a full beard, while his ideas regarding what to talk about remain hopelessly figured on the visual. When he turns the TV on, it is clear he does so out of boredom with the conversation and as a means of synthesizing some of the information he’s received regarding the blind man, simply by watching him. The narrator has proven himself to be blind in his thoughts and ideas and this has made him mute in the company he’s keeping.
Imagery provides the reader with a picture of what is going on in the story and, in this story, provides the first indication that the blind man is not as ‘blind’ as the narrator. The narrator tells us what his wife has told him about the blind man coming to visit, evoking a tender scene in which a very intimate and deeply moving connection was made between the wife and the blind man. “She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it … In the poem, she recalled his fingers and the way they had moved around over her face.
In the poem, she talked about what she had felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips.” As he tries to decide what to talk about with the blind man, the narrator cannot seem to get away from the visual, wanting to suggest which side of the train to sit on for the best view of the Hudson. Finally, though, it is imagery that marks the difference between the two men as one thinks only in terms of pictures and the other, upon reflection, must admit that he really has no idea of what is meant by the word ‘cathedral’.
Although the blind narrator is perfectly capable of seeing what the cathedral looks like, he is not able to describe it in any means other than the simple visual ideas of height and space while the blind man is capable of determining a means of both ‘showing’ him what a cathedral might look like and instructing the blind narrator regarding another means of ‘seeing.’ The image later in the story of the blind man with his hand covering the hand of the narrator as they draw a picture of a cathedral on the side of a shopping bag invokes images of the parent helpfully guiding the hand of the child as they learn their letters.
It is through contrast between the sighted and unsighted men that the author manages to bring out questions regarding our understanding of the concept of vision and where we place our importance. This begins to emerge as the blind man is described in contrast to the narrator’s previous speculations regarding the outlandish clothes Beulah might have worn giving that no one would be able to tell what her color choices might have been.
The blind man “wore brown slacks, brown shoes, a light-brown shirt, a tie, a sports coat. Spiffy. He also had this full beard. But he didn’t use a cane and he didn’t wear dark glasses. I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind.” While the narrator is obviously not that interested in learning about things, the blind man is open to new experiences and new ideas.
This is evident not only in the many professions he talks about having engaged in but also as he casually tries marijuana for the first time and the way he demonstrates his interest in learning more about cathedrals simply because they’re on the TV and there is an opportunity presenting itself. In encouraging the narrator to draw a cathedral together as a means of ‘showing’ the blind man what a cathedral is, the blind man manages to open the narrator’s eyes, and the reader’s as well, to the various ways in which the world might be seen differently. “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.”
Through imagery, narration and contrast, Raymond Carver manages to demonstrate how many people are blinded by their fixation on a single sense or a single, ill-informed idea. In presenting the blind man as a normal human being capable of thought and adventure, Carver contrasts this far-seeing man with the sighted blindness of the narrator and suggests that blindness is often a matter of choice. Only by trying something new, attempting to ‘see’ things from another’s perspective and leaving oneself open to the possibilities of new experiences can growth and true sight be obtained.
Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” Name of book. Place of publication: publisher’s name, date of publication: page numbers where story is found.