One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Raymond Carver’s Cathedral made their top ten list.
Cathedral starts simply enough.
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.
The narrator is a bit unnerved that his wife has invited an old friend of hers, a blind man named Robert, to come have dinner and sleep at their house. He describes how his wife used to work for this man for a summer years ago, and how afterward, they traded audio tapes in the mail instead of letters. We learn the blind man later was happily married for several years before his wife recently died. The blind man has built himself long lasting relationships through the years.
As Carver tells the backstory between the narrator’s wife and this blind man, we learn much about the narrator’s personality. He is a man who doesn’t believe in much. He is sarcastic and self centered, though humorous as well.
When the blind man arrives, they drink scotch, eat a huge dinner and retire to watch television. The blind man takes to calling the narrator, “bub,” which reinforces what we’ve come to learn about the narrator’s personality.
After dinner, the narrator rolls a couple of joints and the three of them get stoned. The wife sits on the couch between the men and falls asleep.
The narrator flips through some television channels and catches a documentary about cathedrals. They start watching. Throughout the show, the voice over pauses and the camera sweeps over these grand cathedrals, showing their magnificence. The narrator feels compelled to describe these scenes to the blind man. Eventually, he asks the blind man if he knows what a cathedral is.
The blind man replies:
“I know generations of the same families worked on a cathedral. I heard him say that too. The men who began their life’s work on them, they never lived to see the completion of their work. In that wise, bub, they’re no different from the rest of us, right?”
The narrator attempts to describe the cathedrals to the blind man.
“In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral building. 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.”
The blind man asks him, “But let me ask if you are in any way religious?”
I shook my head. “I guess I don’t believe in it. In Anything. Sometimes it’s hard. You know what I’m saying?”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” I said. “But 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.”
The blind man suggests the man get a pen and paper and draw a cathedral while the blind man holds his hand. The narrator does this and starts drawing a cathedral. He finds himself quite moved by the experience as his wife wakes up and wants to know what they are doing. The blind man tells him to close his eyes and draw.
“Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”
“They’re closed, I said.
“Keep them that way, he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”
In the end, this man of no faith is transformed by his encounter. His life is the opportunity to build something magnificent and he must close his eyes and have faith in doing so.
This is a magnificent story because of Carver’s everyday language and scenes. The story is realism at it’s best. The story has no fantasy plot, no magical realism. In fact, the story was written after Tess Gallagher’s friend, who was blind, visited her and Raymond.
I’ve personally always believed Carvers A Small, Good Thing, which touches on the theme of faith through the mourning process, was his greatest short story. Together with Cathedral, these two tales create the twin spires in Carver’s own legacy.