Three Blind Families: A literary analysis
Three Blind Families
By Justin W. Price
One of the joys of reading prlifically is discovering themes and motifs in different works. This is especially gratifying when the works are completely different from one another, written in different eras and by different authors. While many stories tend to have numerous themes woven throughout, many of them discuss the differences between people and, oftentimes, the desire to understand them.
This desire can be expressed in a number of ways; sometimes a character, or characters, in a story explicitly state that they are seeking understanding; sometimes, the characters are unaware of this desire; and sometimes, it just happens in the natural course of the story. In any case, the astute reader picks up on it and seeks understanding along with the characters in the story. To explore this idea further, we will be examining two short stories and a poem; Raymond Carver’s short story Cathedral, Alice Walker’s short story Everyday Use and Billy Collins’ poem, I chop parsley while listening to Art Blakely’s version of ‘Three Blind Mice’. These three pieces of literature share the exploration of understanding differences in vastly different ways.
Let’s look first at Cathedral. Not only is the unnamed narrator in this story ignorant of the need for understanding, he also doesn’t appear happy and doesn’t seem overly interested in making changes either. A blind man, a friend of his wife’s whom he has never met, is coming to stay the night. The blind man’s wife just passed away and the narrators’ wife figures he could use some company. He, the narrator, clearly views the blind man as lower than himself. This is evidenced in the first line of the story: “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.” (Carver, 209) The blind man is not given a name, he is given an attribute. Substitute “black man” or “Jewish man” or “gay man”, and the point remains the same. The man was just an unnamed blind man. He is referred to as “the blind man” until right before he makes a “physical” appearance in the story, about four pages in. We find out then that his name is Robert and, from that point forward he’s referred to as such.
However even after he’s been given the dignity of a name, our narrator is still ironically blinded by stereotypes (likely from television, since our narrator spends a good deal of time watching television). Robert has a beard, Robert smokes, Robert does not carry a cane, Robert does not wear sunglasses. These are characteristics that our narrator did not suspect, and they begin to break down the generalizations he has grown accustomed to believing. Without really making note of it, the narrator is starting to understand the differences while also discovering the ways that he is similar to Robert.
The narrator’s wife, whom invited Robert in the first place, spends most of the story asleep, forcing the two men to interact. As the night goes on and they spend more and more time together, the walls of difference are broken down, and similarities begin to surface. Although Robert is obviously still blind, the narrator begins to see him as an equal; as more than a handicap. This is brought even more to light as the story concludes and our narrator closes his eyes, becoming blind, in order to show Robert what a cathedral looks like. The epiphany is realized with the closing line of the story: “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.” (Carver, 228)
It is then that the reader sees that it is the narrator who was truly blind; blind to Robert, blind to his domestic problems (he refers to the master bedroom as “my wife’s room”) and blind to his own prejudices. As he engages in conversation with Robert and spends more time with him, his understanding becomes apparent.
While in Cathedral there may not be a motive for change, after all, our narrator has no emotional connection to Robert; in Alice Walker’s Everyday Use we encounter the conflict of a mother and daughter who have grown apart. With a familial attachment, the desire to understand is stronger because of the feelings involved. In this case, mother, younger daughter (Maggie) and older daughter (Dee), have a strained relationship; which, even before Dee went off to college, was complicated. In fact, it seems likely that the mother and the daughter (Dee) have been at odds for years. This is evidenced in part the way Dee celebrated when the house burned down, the house fire which caused Maggie (younger sisters) scars years earlier. Additionally, Dee would tease Maggie, for her scars, and apparent simpleness.
Mother and Maggie were simple, while Dee went to college and “[W]anted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old suit somebody gave [mother].” (Walker, 2716) Dee was educated and also seemed to look down on mother and Maggie, neither of whom attended college.
After some time away, Dee is returning for a visit. When she arrives, Dee is with a man, presumably a Muslim and her boyfriend (He greets the mother and sister with “Asalamalakim” and his name is Hakim). Mother is somewhat familiar with another family up the road who uses the same greeting. She tells Hakim “You must belong to those beef cattle peoples down the road.” (Walker, 2718) this shows some of her ignorance, assuming that he knows a family simply because they use the same greeting. Also, Dee has changed her name to Wangero, which the mother doesn’t understand. The mother does, however, accept this name change, referring to her alternately as Wangero or Wangero (Dee) through the rest of the narration and saying that “If that’s what you want us to call you, we’ll call you.” (Walker, 2718)
In the end, even though there is a logical understanding between the two, they are still far apart; and, after fighting over a pair of quilts, Wangero and her new man leave and mother and Maggie begin the story as they started it: on the porch. The characters in this story may have understood each other, but they did not accept one another, and they remained worlds apart. The story leaves the reader wondering which character is unable to understand the other. Is the mother out of touch and ignorant because she’s simple minded, or is Wangero stubborn and overly educated and unempathetic? Certainly mother was willing to change and understand, by referring to her daughter by her new name, but was Wangero willing to provide the same courtesy?
I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakely’s Version of “The Three Blind Mice'
Lastly, we turn to Billy Collins’ poem, I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakely’s Version of “The Three Blind Mice.” Like much of Collins’ work, it is playful; yet, it cuts to the core of some serious human truths and I view it as a metaphor. The narrator thinks about these three blind mice and seeks to understand how they came to be blind. He asks questions: Was it congenital? Was it an accident? “Or, if not/if each came to his or her accident separately/how did they ever manage to find one another?” (Collins, 2702) Collins really delves into the psyche mice and empathizes with them.
He then tries to understand the actions they’ve undertaken in light of their condition. Why are they acting the way they’re acting? What’s the meaning behind their actions? This silly little children’s nursery rhyme is being expressed to Collins through a jazz number, and it forces the narrator to ask questions; and, ultimately, to understand and empathize: “ By now I am dicing an onion/which might account for the wet stinging/in my own eyes…” (Collins, 2703) Through asking questions and placing himself in the shoes of another, he was able to empathize with the mice, and, perhaps, with others who suffer from disabilities.
All three of these pieces seek to make sense of human differences, and each does it in its own way and with differing results. Interestingly, they are all told in first person and climax with little epiphanies. They all deal with blindness, two of them explicitly. In the tradition of resonant literature, they, perhaps, ask more questions than they answer. These pieces seek to understand the human condition and human differences and each is successful, to varying degrees. They teach lessons by asking questions and providing narratives. They don’t judge or force change on the reader, they let the reader ask questions and come to their own conclusions.
Thanks for Reading.
A FREELANCE WRITER, HONORS STUDENT AND GOVER PRIZE FINALIST, JUSTIN W. PRICE (AKA, PDXKARAOKEGUY)IS A POET, SHORT STORY, BIOGRAPHY AND HUMOR WRITER. HIS POETRY COLLECTION, DIGGING TO CHINA, WAS RELEASED FEBRUARY 2ND, 2013 BY SWEATSHOPPE PUBLICATIONS AND IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.COM, BARNES AND NOBLE AND THROUGH YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER.
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Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” Cathedral. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1989. Print.
Collins, Billy. “I chop parsley while listening to Art Blakely’s version of ‘Three Blind Mice.’” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Shorter 8th edition. Eds. Nina Baym & Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 2702-2703. Print.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Shorter 8th edition. Eds. Nina Baym & Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 2715-2721. Print.