The most intriguing short story plot I've read is Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" because the plot is so integral to the compelling main character and nameless first-person narrator, a man who struggles with insecurity over a visit by his wife's sightless long time male friend, Robert. As with Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, the reader is trapped in the head of the narrator as he works through his problem.
There's no great physical combat or melodrama; just the narrator's internal conflict. Most compelling is the ending, where the reader shares a shift in awareness in concert with the narrator in his moment of epiphany. The overall strength of the plot resides in its atmosphere of tension and the subtle way in which the inner feelings of the narrator are revealed in his thoughts and actions without stating them outright.
I was hooked from the start by the narrator's anxiety over the the sightless guest's impending visit, a male friend of his wife whom her husband has never met. "The blind man" (Robert) has traveled five hours by train to see her. In the end, the narrator overcomes his insecurity as he and Robert forge a close bond during the course of the evening.
The narrator's insecurity is revealed in ruminations about his wife's relationship with Robert, consuming more than a fifth of the story's ten pages. The wife's closeness with Robert is evident in the way she has shared with him via tape recordings various intimacies, including her first marriage, her suicide attempt and even her relationship with her current husband, the narrator.
The wife's attentiveness toward Robert is a source of anxiety for the narrator. Whereas she objectifies the narrator by calling him "my husband" when introducing them, she refers to the sightless visitor more intimtely, by his name.
"'I want you to meet Robert. Robert, this is my husband.' She was beaming. She had this blind man by his coat sleeve.'"
Indeed, the wife makes overly frequent use of the blind man's name: ‘"You look distinguished Robert,' she said. ‘Robert,' she said. ‘Robert it's just so good to see you."'
In contrast, for the entire story the narrator avoids using Robert's name, referring to him instead as "the blind man," distancing himself from his perceived emotional threat.
The narrator's sensitivity to his wife's interest in Robert is further reflected in the way he interprets subtleties in her behavior. "My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn't like what she saw. I shrugged."
The word, "finally" conveys the narrator's impatience and jealousy. In other places the narrator makes note of his wife's attentiveness toward Robert. "My wife said things like, ‘To your left here, Robert. That's right. Now watch it, there's a chair... .'" The reader can almost feel the narrator wince whenever his wife says Robert's name or attends his needs.
Tension accumulates as the narrator's concern about the visitor is established early and reinforced steadily. Tension rises like smoke from the friction between the narrator and his wife. "'Maybe I could take him bowling,' I said to my wife. ...She put down the knife she was using and turned around. 'If you love me,' she said. ‘you can do this for me. If you don't love me, okay.' ‘...I don't have any blind friends,' I said. ‘You don't have any friends,' she said, ‘goddammit, his wife just died!'"
The husband-wife tension is illustrated again after she notices the smell of marijuana smoke. "'What do I smell?' she said. ‘We thought we'd have us some cannabis,' I said. My wife gave me a savage look." "Savage" is a strong term, denoting fear and confusion on the part of the narrator.
Tension is also present when the narrator offers Robert a drink and Robert refers to him as "Bub." "'Bub, I'm a scotch man myself,' he said fast enough in his big voice. ‘Right,' I said. Bub! ‘Sure you are. I knew it.'"
The story progresses through drinks and dinner, with conversation centering around Robert and the narrator's wife, causing the insecure narrator to feel left out. Only after the wife nods off to sleep does the tension subside. Then the relationship between the two men begins to shift.
The elephant in the room, blindness, is addressed as the two men "watch" a television program about cathedrals. The climax scene arrives when the wife awakens to see them, hand-over-hand, drawing a cathedral together. Through this profound act of intimacy, Robert shares the unsighted world with the narrator. Mutual respect and trust is forged as the narrator's anxieties are relieved and he achieves a new level of understanding and acceptance of the sightless.
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