Every month, I have a few people ask me what the next “book of the month” will be, so this month I thought that I’d finally choose a story that was just that: a story, not a book. (After all, it is called “Story of the Month,” not “Book of the Month.”) So allow me to present That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for February 2009, which just so happens to be my favorite short story of all time: “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. (I’ve included a link to “Cathedral” at the bottom of this entry so that you have no excuse not to drop everything and read this beautiful story immediately!)
When I first read “Cathedral,” I had no idea that I liked it so much. Similar to my experiences with Crime and Punishment and Catch-22, the reading of this story was slow-going and not particularly memorable. I read it during a summer school class a few years ago during a short story unit, just one story among a multitude of other classic and contemporary literary short stories. It wasn’t until my teacher posed the question What was your favorite short story we read? to the class that I realized “Cathedral” had stuck with me, that it was in fact my favorite. Which led me to ask myself what it was about the story that I liked so much. Having just read it again (and I mean I just finished it a few minutes ago), I think that I finally have the answer.
“Cathedral” is about a man whose prejudices are put to the test when his wife’s blind friend Robert comes to spend the night with him and his wife. This man, whom Robert calls “Bub,” has all these preconceived notions about blind people and how they are supposed to act. That is, Bub has ideas about how blind people should act to make people who aren’t blind more comfortable. For example, Bub can’t understand why Robert doesn’t wear sunglasses. Bub tells us that he would be more comfortable if Robert wore shades because he can’t handle looking at Robert’s pale irises and wandering eyes. He doesn’t even tell us about “Robert.” He only tells us about “the blind man.”
Bub is our first-person narrator, a very biased first-person narrator. But the story wouldn’t exist outside of Bub’s internal perceptions of blind people in general and Robert in particular. The more you read the story, the more nuances you pick up about Bub’s character (like how he never really refers to Robert by his name, only by the label “the blind man”). At times Bub is even cruel, waiting for Robert to flounder and falter in a given situation. But Robert surprises Bub every time by somehow managing to cope. Even Robert’s ability to maintain a well-groomed, full-length beard shocks Bub to no end. It’s almost comical watching the two of them react to each other.
But the beautiful thing about “Cathedral” comes at the end, which I can’t bring myself to mention here for fear of ruining the whole story for you. I will say that the end of the story has to do with cathedrals and something metaphorical about “sight” and truly “seeing.” The impact of the story’s one-word title hits you hard at the end, and not in a supernatural or spiritual way, despite that connotation of the title.
Like I said, “Cathedral” is all about sight and seeing, and what it means to be blind. And, more than that, the power of having no sight, as well as that of having sight. Upon finishing the story, it’s difficult trying to figure out which is more powerful, sight or a lack of sight. Whatever you decide, whether you sympathize with Bub or Robert at the end, you will certainly be a different person after taking a brief journey with the two of them.
To read a full-text version of “Cathedral,” please click here. (Thanks to North Dakota University for posting this story.)