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Characterization in "Cathedral"

[Spoiler Alert]

Three dimensional characters have more depth than those rendered merely on a physical or social plane. Each of these dimensions has its purpose and place, but it is that third dimension, psychological depth, that ensures a strong emotional response in the reader. When compelling dramatic or comic appeal are at stake, the details of how a character looks and his or her place in society (cab driver, mother, teacher, cop, sales clerk) don't go very far. For maximum effect, readers need a deeper understanding of how a character thinks, how motivated he or she is to overcome obstacles. It's from the third dimension of psychology that writers find the rich clues about a character's strength of will, desires, phobias, weaknesses, insecurities, prejudices, repulsions-the grist of great and compelling characters.

In Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," there are four characters (in order of appearance): 1. a first-person narrator, 2. the narrator's wife, 3. a sightless man, Robert, and 4. the blind man's deceased wife, Beulah. The first-person narrator is the central character, who overcomes insecurity toward his marriage and achieves profound enlightenment in an electrifying moment connected with sightlessness.

At the beginning of the story, the narrator is anxious and insecure about his wife's relationship with Robert and shows prejudice toward sightless people. Gradually a bond of trust emerges between him and "the blind man" through sharing a meal, talking, having drinks and smoking marijuana, and finally, engaging in an intimate exercise of drawing a cathedral together.

Robert holds the narrator's hand while the narrator draws, first with his eyes open. Then Robert urges him to continue drawing with his eyes closed, enabling him to experience a sensation of freedom through sightlessness. Narrator: "My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything."

The narrator's wife is an effective secondary character despite the sparseness of her dialogue and action and the absence of her name and any details about her physical appearance. Her key role in the story is as a tool to develop the character of the narrator. It is through his reactions to her that his insecurity and other traits are revealed. Instead of using her name he refers to her as "my wife," depersonalizing her and emphasizing his claim on her, thereby revealing his insecurity.

Her supreme importance to the narrator is shown as he interacts with her during the course of the evening and ruminates over what he knows of her life. He describes in painful detail how she has confided in Robert over the years, sharing with him various intimacies about her life via audio tape recordings. The narrator seems baffled, even threatened, that his wife has such a close male confidante. 

The deceased Beulah is a character in absentia, but she, too, helps in putting the reader inside the narrator's head. His perception of Robert's relationship with Beulah deepens our understanding of him, showing his prejudice toward sightlessness people and his racial prejudice.

[Narrator] "All this without his ever having seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding. ...Hearing this I felt sorry for the blind man... ." 

Racial prejudice is revealed in his following comment:  "Beulah! That's a name for a colored woman. ‘Was his wife a Negro?' I asked."

Both Beulah and the narrator's wife, neither of whom is described in physical terms, operate as tools for developing the narrator's character as he reacts to their presence or to his own thoughts about them.

What Carver doesn't reveal about his characters is also useful. The only character described in physical terms in "Cathedral" is Robert, spotlighting him to convey a sense of the narrator's obsession with him.

Omitting description of the wife also draws the reader into the narrator's point of view. It's not necessary to describe someone to people who have already met them. The omission of any description of her places the reader in a position of such assumed familiarity, whereas providing a description would have reduced the reader to the status of a stranger.

By omitting description, the illusion of intimacy is established between reader and narrator. Less is more.