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Raymond Carver's Cathedral

Updated on April 30, 2012

Defamiliarization in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

In “Cathedral”, Raymond Carver delves into the depths of perception with his major theme of blindness. The protagonist of Carver’s short story is also his narrator, an unnamed middle-class man. The narrator’s life changes with the visit of his wife’s blind friend, Robert. His familiar life becomes unfamiliar, as he tries to describe a cathedral to a blind man. Raymond Carver’s short stories have often been discussed under the genre of “dirty realism”. However, in “Cathedral”, Raymond Carver employs a special literary technique, which is called “defamiliarization”. Defamiliarization seeks to show the familiar objects of daily life (e.g. cathedral) in a new and unfamiliar way.

“Cathedral” s narrator says that he had only limited knowledge about blindness prior to Robert’s visit. In a way, the narrator himself is blind with regard to the blind people. His limited knowledge about blindness is derived from the movies, and he reveals his stereotypical understanding as follows: “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”. However, although his views are stereotypical, he is not prejudiced and openly admits that he lacked any idea. Yet he feels disturbed about the visit , the situation is simply uncommon for him. In fact, his disturbance may have been caused by the very unfamiliarity of the situation as new experiences could be scary for many people. Indeed, he also says to his wife that he feels uncomfortable since he never had any blind friend.

In “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, the blind man, Robert, shatters the narrator’s stereotypes about blind people. Upon their meeting, the narrator confesses that he had “always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind”. So the narrator begins to see blind people in a new way. He also had mistakenly thought blind men did not smoke. As the story goes, although the narrator still feels uncomfortable, he starts to see the blind man differently.

However, he feels reluctant to have any conversation with the guy till the middle of the story. After her wife slept, he watches TV in order to avoid conversation with Robert. However, silence becomes too disconcerting, and he begins to talk about what’s on TV. He tells about skeletons and the cathedrals. Then something happens to him and for the first time the narrator asks a question to Robert : “Something has occurred to me. Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about? Do you the difference between that and a Baptist church, say?” Until that time, the narrator was very reluctant to know the blind man. At this point, for the first time, he takes an active interest in Robert and tries to understand him and wonder if blind people could contemplate cathedrals.

The narrator and Robert slowly form a connection as the narrator desperately seeks to describe a cathedral to the blind man without success:

I turned to the blind man and said, “To begin with, they’re very tall.” I was looking around the room for clues. “They reach way up. Up and up. Toward the sky. They’re so big, some of them, they have to have these supports. To help hold them up, so to speak. These supports are called buttresses. They remind of viaducts, for some reason. But maybe you don’t know viaducts, either? Sometimes the cathedrals have devils and such carved into the front. Sometimes lords and ladies.

“Cathedral”s narrator realizes that words are not sufficient to describe a visual object to a blind man. Although he tried to describe the cathedral, as if his life depended on it, he could not succeed. His awkward descriptions reveal that although cathedrals are familiar objects for him, he never truly perceived and experienced them. In fact, cathedrals, like blind people, are unknown to him; he saw them only on TV. The narrator confesses that “The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV. That’s all they are.” However, as he tries to describe cathedrals to a blind man, they turn into unfamiliar objects.

The narrator feels sorry that he was not able to describe the cathedral, but Robert comes up with an idea that he could draw a cathedral for him. Indeed, drawing the picture of cathedral together, works for both of them. While the narrator finally makes Robert “see” the cathedral, he also perceives it in a new way. Till that time, the narrator’s perception was limited to his sight, but now he kinesthetically feels the cathedral by drawing it. In this sense, the narrator goes through an aesthetic experience. When he draws the cathedral, he feels excited and ecstatic: “I put in windows with arches. I drew flying buttresses. I hung great doors. I couldn’t stop. The TV station went off the air. I put down the pen and closed and opened my fingers.” The narrator cannot stop drawing; he takes up the pen again and keeps drawing. When he closes his eyes, he finally experiences how a blind man perceives a cathedral. It is a wholly new experience for him and he cannot hide his excitement: “So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now”. Although the narrator is not an artist, he feels the exuberance of an artistic creation.

In Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”, drawing the cathedral is not merely an artistic experience, but an intimate one as well. Indeed, the narrator, who did not like Robert at the beginning, truly connects with him at the end. Drawing the cathedral helps them to feel closer. The narrator’s wife also wakes up and joins them, they finish the cathedral by putting people in it. The following passage vividly sketches their artistic cooperation: “The blind man said, “We’re drawing a cathedral. Me and him are working on it. Press hard,” he said to me. “That’s right. That’s good,” he said. “Sure. You got it, bub. I can tell. You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? You’re cooking with gas now. You know what I’m saying? We’re going to really have us something here in a minute. How’s the old arm?” he said. “Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?”

At the end of the Carver’s short story, the narrator’s eyes, while being closed, are opened to the magnitude of perception. The artistic experience of drawing cathedral opens the narrator’s doors of perception. 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.” Even his house feels like a different and new place. At the beginning of the story, the narrator had merely known things, he did not perceive. He knew about the blind people and cathedrals, but he had not truly experienced them. However, at the end of Carver’s short story, he is enlightened and sees the things in a new and unique way. Known objects turned into novel ones, as he begins to perceive and experience them in a new light. Paradoxically, the fleeting moment of blindness enlightens him and alters his perception.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge defines defamiliarization as: "To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar [. . .] this is the character and privilege of genius." In the end of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”, the narrator is also filled with child’s sense of wonder, and the “known” objects of his everyday life, like cathedrals and his house turn into novel things. In an attempt to make Robert see the cathedral, the narrator begins to perceive the familiar objects of his middle class life differently as he finally establishes a truly human connection with Robert.


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