Teaching Composition II is one of my absolute dream jobs. It mixes literature with writing, but not only that – since it is not a specific literature course, I can span genre, time period, region, etc. I really enjoy it, and I try to ensure my students do as well. Every once in a while, you hit on something pure gold in the classroom, and today was one of those days.
If you haven’t read this story and aren’t really sure about the short story as genre, I would really recommend it. At the end of this post, I’ll recommend a couple other short story collections. “Cathedral” is a first-person narrative about a man whose wife was once a reader for a blind man, Robert. One of the most meaningful points in her life was at the end of her employ with him, when he asked to learn her face by putting his hands on it. The reader can tell that, for the wife, this was a transformative experience. The narrator (who remains nameless) even says she tried to write a poem about it, but as is often the case with him, he just doesn’t get it.
The blind man is coming for a visit, and the narrator is threatened and jealous. He isn’t sure what blindness is all about, which is more and more evident in his generalizations and poor attitude toward the man. He expects him to have a seeing eye dog and use a cane. He is disconcerted because the man does not wear glasses, AND he smokes and drinks. He never calls him by his name but refers to him, in his thoughts, as the blind man. He resents the man in his home; he and his wife do not communicate that well, and he makes no concerted effort to do so with Robert. However, by the end of this relatively quiet experience, our narrator has arguably had a transformative experience himself when he tries and fails to explain to Robert, the blind man, what a cathedral is. This last scene is one of the most compelling, and I urge you to read it.
This story, for me, is beautiful on a number of levels. Personally, I always try to remain open to other individuals’ life experiences and backgrounds, even though I will never quite know where anyone, outside of myself, is “coming from.” The collision of perception and actual experience is an enormous theme here. The narrator anticipates Robert to behave a certain way, but Robert’s actions circumvent these preconceptions. Carver also has an excellent way of portraying his characters and imbuing the smallest gestures and comments with great meaning. Full of imagery and spare sentences, “Cathedral” is one of my favorite Carver stories, depicting the breakdown of language and explaining what real communication looks like.
I was so pleased my students “got it” and actually enjoyed the story. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the characters smoke pot in one scene, but hey – I’ll take what I can get.
Other Short Story collections:
David Sedaris – any and all (although these are more personal narrative)