1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (9): Cathedral by Raymond Carver

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Apr 11, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver. You can find a copy of the story here.

    According to Wikipedia, Raymond Carver was a short story writer and poet. I've never read anything by him before, though I know he's one of most influential American writers of the late 20th century. So I'm looking forward to reading this story.
     
  2. Joe Outofthepast
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    Joe Outofthepast New Member

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    New to writing forum, fan of Raymond Carver.

    If you haven't read Carver before you're in for a treat. I will be re-reading Cathedral and hope to participate in the discussion. I registered with Writing Forums today.
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Great! It's good to have more people join in on the discussion. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

    Welcome to the forums!
     
  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I'll be contributing to the discussion too, I've not read this story yet though.
     
  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I just finished reading the story. I've read a couple of Carver's stories before and haven't really liked them much, mostly because his subjects seem so ... domestic, somehow. It's like his characters never leave the house, let alone do anything interesting. So I approached "Cathedral" with a bit of a bias and some trepidation.

    The first thing I noticed was what I'd noticed about Carver before: I don't like his style. He confines himself to short sentences - often very short - and uses a lot of repetition. I keep getting the impression that his narrator is a bit dull-witted, or that he thinks his readers are dull-witted. There isn't a lot of variety or excitement in his prose.

    That said, I found the last part of "Cathedral" fascinating. When the narrator realizes that his blind guest has never seen a cathedral and doesn't really know what one is, the story starts going. That almost seems to be the true beginning of the story. I know there has to be a set-up, and it has to be made clear that the narrator doesn't really want this guest and feels uncomfortable with a blind man in the house, but it sure took Carver a long time to get his ducks in a row there. I think there's a lot of padding in the beginning of the story. But the part about the cathedral opens the story up a lot, and for the first time I got the impression that we were leaving the confines of the house and the narrator's narrow-mindedness and getting into something deep. I really started appreciating what Carver was doing when he had the narrator drawing a cathedral with the blind man's hand on his - that's a powerful level of communication.

    I loved the end of the story. The blind man tells the narrator to keep drawing with his eyes closed, and finally lets him open them to see what they've drawn. "What do you think?" "It's really something." But the narrator said that without looking. Was he just saying that to please the blind man? Was he saying it because for the first time he himself felt the communication working and had his own eyes figuratively opened by the experience? Were they both just stoned and drunk? (Carver made it clear that they'd been drinking a lot, as well as smoking dope.) Maybe the narrator wasn't opening his eyes for the same reason his wife, equally stoned and drunk, had closed hers (no, I'm not talking about sleeping).

    Of course, I prefer the second option: the narrator finally understands the blind man and has had his eyes figuratively opened, though they remain physically closed. He's experienced one of those Joycean epiphanies.

    One thing struck me about the end. It seemed to echo, in a way, the end of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in that the narrator tells the blind man what he wants to hear even if it isn't exactly the truth. In Conrad's story, the narrator Marlow goes to Kurtz's fiancee and says "The last words he spoke were ... your name." It's what she needed to hear, but wasn't true. Of course, Conrad's narrator says what he says to liberate Kurtz's fiancee, and Carver's narrator says what he says to liberate himself. Still, I was reminded of Heart of Darkness by the end of this story. Maybe that's weird; I don't know.

    It's the best Carver story I've read, and I'm surprised I like it as much as I do. I just wish the style was a bit more expansive and I wish the beginning was shorter.
     
  6. Eliemme
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    Eliemme Member

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    I liked the story a lot. I agree that the style is somehow dry but I liked that too, I find it is suited to the narrator, a matter-of-fact, straightforward sort of person. You get the idea that he won't spend much of his time phylosophising...

    I enjoyed the paragraphs in which the story of the friendship is described ( par 2,3,4 and 5). We got to know quite a lot of stuff: his wife attempted suicide, went through a divorce, writes poems and mostly held a long term correspondpence by tape with the bind guest. I think the latter is a really amazing feature of the characters...


    By paragraph 5 I thought the story would develop around them two, which is not the case. The story takes a turn and in the end revolves around the narrator and the blind guest. In this sense, I find that too much attention was given to the wife. The author invests a lot in her character but then leaves her kind of hanging. I kind of feel
    that "her story" is left unfinished.

    Carver does a great job at tackling and resolving the ackwardness of talking about disability. With the aid of dope and alcohol he manages to create a beautiful scene, one in which prejudice is overcome getting two people to share a unique moment.
     
  7. Hambone
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    Hambone Member

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    I'll have to read this story again. The last time I read it was in a writing class in college. As an assignment, I wrote a "follow-up" short story that took place ten years after when the narrator visited the man but he was no longer blind. It was a fun project, I still have it buried somewhere.
     
  8. jeepea
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    jeepea Member

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    Eliemme: Perhaps the wife's fades from the story because she already empathizes with the blind man and so when the narrator makes his leap in understanding, she is already there. In fact, I wonder if the husband and wife will become closer together because of his epiphany. Also, in coming to have some understanding of the blind man's plight, the narrator may also temper his jealousy.

    minstrel: I'm not sure about your comparison with Heart of Darkness, but it is one of my favorite novels. I think it is almost perfect.
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    The comparison is very weak, but it did strike me as I read the end of "Cathedral." It was simply that both narrators lie when asked the most important questions at the end of the stories. The motivation for lying is different, though. Marlow lies to protect Kurtz's fiancee from knowing the truth about how her man, who was supposed to be such a titan, fell apart in the jungle. Carver's narrator is protecting himself - he wants to keep feeling the way he's feeling that moment, so he won't spoil it for himself by looking at what is probably a mess of a drawing. It's a trivial point, because it really isn't there, but I heard that little echo when I read the story and thought I'd mention it.
     
  10. Eliemme
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    Eliemme Member

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    Thanks Jeepea, i do take the point that the wife already felt the empathy and like you I feel that the wife and husband will feel closer to each other after the story. But I guess that the story would have held also without us knowing about the attempted suicide and depression. As this are major aspects of a person's life and personality, I feel that if a writer outs them there there should be a reason, they should be justified... I feel they are not, so I am left wanting to know more...
     
  11. blackstar21595
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    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

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    As a lover of Carver's stories, I have to say that he characterizes the three characters very well. i really liked how the husband changed his perspective on blind people after him and the man drew the cathedral together. It also reminded myself of how I bonded with people in my life. And the MC's dislike of blind people reminded me of how people blindly(no pun intended) discriminate against others before meeting them. But I thought the wife was cheating on the husband with the blind man at the start. I like Carver's style. Gives you what is needed,without any excess. And is it just me, or did the story flow faster after the dinner?
     
  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Let me start by saying that I didn't like the first half or so of the story. One issue I had was Carver's style. I felt that the short sentences really didn't do much for the story. The story really picks up after the dinner, however, and the ending really brings the whole story together quite nicely.

    The narrator experiences something new when he closes his eyes and draws the cathedral. For me, there's evidence that this experience has the potential to the change the narrator. However, there's no evidence that the narrator actually does change. In that regard, the narrator and the blind man are the same. I have to wonder how much the blind man really learns when the cathedral is being drawn. He definitely experiences it, but does he learn anything about how cathedrals look from that experience? Similarly, the narrator has a novel experience, but it's hard to say whether this experience teaches him anything. Therefore, based on my interpretation, there's no clear indication of an epiphany or transformation taking place.

    I'll have to reread the story. I might change my thoughts on this.
     
  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    It seems that a lot of us don't like the first half of the story. I really didn't like the style or how drawn-out it all was. The story would be stronger, I think, if the first half was cut way down. It might even have been possible for Carver to have eliminated the wife character completely and found another excuse to bring the narrator and the blind man together. It would have been a much shorter story, and much more to the point.

    Thirdwind, I know what you mean about the experience possibly not teaching the narrator anything. Carver isn't very clear there. (Personally, I think his reputation as one of the best short story writers is undeserved.) The only thing that saves the ending for me is that the narrator answers the blind man's "Take a look. What do you see?" without looking, without opening his eyes. That introduced just enough about the character's response to his situation to allow me to believe an epiphany had taken place.

    I do think the story could have used a thorough rewrite, though.
     
  14. jeepea
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    jeepea Member

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    I am a fan of Carver. I have all of his books on my shelf but haven't read a story by him in years. This story is a little heavy on the front end, but I think that it is written this way to set up the narrator's state of mind and how much he resented the blind man. The short sentences reflect the way the narrator thinks in short choppy thoughts, barely able to concentrate on anything but the encroachment on his life by this man who may even have had an affair with his wife.

    I was thinking that the last line had more to do with the narrator's explorations and what he was discovering at the time than as an answer to the blind man's question about how their drawing looked. He was so lost in the intensity of his experience doing this drawing hand-in-hand with the blind man that when he said, "It's really something," he wasn't so much answering the blind man as he was announcing that he'd found himself in a place he'd never been before.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. The blind man's question just gives the narrator an excuse to say "It's really something," and that response doesn't mean to the blind man what it means to the narrator (or to the reader). But it was stated as a response to the blind man's question.

    As I said, I think Carver could have made all this a little clearer without violating his artistic intent. And I do think the story could use a rewrite.

    I have to say I'm not a big fan of these epiphany stories. Who started them? Chekhov? Joyce helped popularize them in English, I guess. But to me, too often they come across as little more than games, tricks played by the writer on the reader. The writer seems to be challenging himself to say something big as quietly as possible, as if that's some kind of literary virtue. A little of that goes a long way. After a couple of stories like this, I find myself yearning for a more traditional narrative structure, in which big themes are expressed in big ways.
     
  16. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Joyce definitely popularized it. In fact, I'd say the majority of his stories end with epiphanies. His novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man also has an epiphany at the end if I remember correctly. I believe a handful of Hemingway's stories had epiphanies as well.

    In this story, Carver leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not there was an epiphany (based on what I wrote in my last post). And I think this was his goal all along. I think the reason why people may see the ending as an epiphany is because they expect some sort of transformation in the character based on their previous reading experiences. Readers expect characters to change over the course of a story/novel, so it's natural to assume that when a character experiences something new, he/she always changes because of it. This is why the ending of the story worked for me. Carver took the traditional idea of an epiphany and played with it so that the reader isn't truly sure what happens to the narrator after the story is over.
     
  17. Eliemme
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    Eliemme Member

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    Thanks thirdwind, I like your insights on reader expectations... it helps me reinterpret the story...
     
  18. Joe Outofthepast
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    Joe Outofthepast New Member

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    I am a fan of this story start to finish. I certainly respect everyone's opinion here, I simply disagree. Regarding the negative things written about his short sentences, I am reminded of a story about the comedian Bob Newhart. A young director once asked him to try not to stutter. Newhart replied that he had been perfecting that stutter for twenty years. You can't ask Carver to abandon the short sentences without asking him to stop being Carver.

    I haven't heard anyone mention laughter. Did anyone laugh at (not with) the narrator during the first half?
     
  19. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    For me, it wasn't about the short sentences themselves. I just didn't see the purpose in using them. It's like he takes a single idea and splits it between multiple sentences even though a single sentence would have sufficed (and been better in my opinion). I agree that it's a stylistic issue, but after reading writers like Hemingway, the short sentences just don't seem as powerful here.
     
  20. blackstar21595
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    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

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    Depends on the idea conveyed, but even though I'm a fan of Carver's style, I agree that he should have use a longer sentence to convey the info in the first half which characterizes the blind man. And did anyone else laugh when the MC covers up his wife's legs and then uncovers them?
     
  21. Joe Outofthepast
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    Joe Outofthepast New Member

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    laughs

    There are laughs scattered all around this story: the former lover not being given a name, his clueless anxiety about the visit, "A beard on a blind man! Too much I say.", the use of the nickname Bub, the near-miss of the train window question, the first smoking dope experience and, yes, the uncovering of the wife. Guilty laughs, sure, but laughs none the less. In the end it either enhances Bub's progress or gives the reader cause to doubt he has made any.

    I agree that the epiphany is intentionally left ambiguous. I like that about the story as well.
     
  22. edamame
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    edamame Contributing Member Contributor

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    I also thought the beginning was too "padded." I liked the setup and backstory, but felt some of it was unnecessary (for example, that bit about the ex). I was wondering why there wasn't more description about the setting, but perhaps it was the author's personal choice to be minimal about it in reflection of the story. I actually think the wife and narrator had two different experiences with the blind man. The wife was touched, she was given an immediacy by the way the blind man tried to make sense of her, while the narrator learned to see the world through the blind man's perspective which was almost an abstract world because everything the narrator felt was solid was suddenly taken away. The wife felt an affirmation of "I am here," but the husband more of a "What is here?"
     

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