Short Story Review - Cathedral

Sunday 18 August 2019


Who wrote it?
Raymond Carver (1938 – 1988) was an American short story writer and poet.

What’s it about?
The story’s unnamed narrator is a married man. His wife has invited an old friend, a blind man, to visit. The narrator is uncomfortable with having to accommodate a blind man, but he feels obligated.  
I appreciate this sounds incredibly dull. But so many stories do sound dull when broken down into a short synopsis. Raiders of the Lost Ark can be described as the story of an archaeology professor searching for a specific piece of objet d’art.  To my mind that does not sound exciting. Most James Bond films can be described as the story of a British civil servant struggling to manage the jobs he’s been given, despite interference from external agencies. Again, that does not sound like two hours of car chases, sophisticated technology and scantily-clad supermodels.

More importantly, in ‘Cathedral’, we’re looking at Raymond Carver’s writing and it’s not about the story: it’s the telling of the story.

Why is it worth reading?
This is a powerful piece of storytelling. Carver knows how to make a story seem realistic and he knows how to make his readers care about the characters he has created.

What’s so special about it?
This is an exchange from early on in the story.

Now this same blind man was coming over to sleep in my house.
“Maybe I could take him bowling,” I said to my wife. She was at the draining board doing scalloped potatoes. 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. But if you had a friend, any friend, and the friend came to visit, I’d make him feel comfortable.” She wiped her hands with the dish towel.
“I don’t have any blind friends,” I said.
“You don’t have any friends,” she said. “Period. Besides,” she said, “goddamn it, his wife’s just died! Don’t you understand that? The man’s lost his wife!”

Carver manages so much with this short piece of dialogue. It’s an exercise in absolute efficiency. The narrator’s suggestion, “Maybe I could take him bowling…” tells us so much about the character of the narrator. He’s callous and insensitive. He’s making jokes about the limited abilities of a blind man. He’s meant to be the person who guides the reader through this story and we’re quickly beginning to realise he’s a jerk. We can understand why his wife says he doesn’t have any friends – we’d be surprised if he could bring up a counter argument to this accusation. And when the narrator’s wife explains that the blind man’s wife has just died, we understand that the narrator’s lack of sensitivity really makes him a horrible person.

In this exchange we also get an insight into the stakes that are involved in this story.

“If you love me, you can do this for me.”

This is not just a friend visiting. This is not just the narrator’s wife asking the narrator to turn down the volume on his sick sense of humour for one night. This is an ultimatum that will show whether or not the narrator loves his wife, and whether or not their relationship will continue.  

If you want to buy your own copy, this is the Amazon Link to a book where you’ll find it:  
There are also freely accessible versions of this story online, such as this one:

And, if you have dreams to write to this standard, please take a look at my book, How To Write Short Stories and Get Them Published:


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