Dr. Anne Pluto
3 August 2015
Theme in “Cathedral”
(P1) “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” “Beauty is only skin deep.” “Looking is not seeing.” These ubiquitous maxims are present everywhere in our culture; they are found decorating the front of greeting cards, hanging on school walls, and rolling off the tongues of parents as they impart values to their children. The omnipresence of these sayings in our society lies in stark contrast to what is actually practiced within it, as physical appearance is often placed in higher esteem than other qualities. The story “Cathedral”, by Raymond Carver, explores this societal disparity, taking the traditional theme of “it’s not what’s on the outside, but what is on the inside that counts ”, and giving it a fresh twist by relating it to how we build relationships with others and ourselves.
(P2) In “Cathedral”, Carver compares “looking” to truly “seeing” by telling the story of a blind man, Robert, who comes to visit his old friend, the wife of the narrator in the story. The narrator cannot see beyond the outward appearance of the blind character, noticing “there was something different about” his eyes, considering him “creepy” because of his blindness, and feeling “sorry for the blind man a little bit” (Carver 104). He cannot understand why his wife would ever maintain a relationship with a man who is blind, and he finds himself “thinking what a pitiful life [Robert’s wife] must have led” without ever receiving “the smallest compliment from her beloved” (Carver 104). The narrator’s entire opinion of Robert is anchored in the blind man’s physical attributes and abilities; because he can see, the narrator feels superior to the blind man. Although there is an air of jealousy in the narrator’s description of Robert’s correspondence with his wife, he is not threatened by their relationship because he is oblivious to the possibility of emotional intimacy. He ignorantly assumes physical intimacy trumps anything below the surface.
(P3) By introducing his readers to the shallow perspective of his narrator, Carver conjures up an age-old message told and retold in fables, speeches, and stories: we should not judge others based on their appearance. Martin Luther king, Jr. famously implored us to judge each other not by the color of our skin, “but by the content of [our] character”. The beggar in Aladdin reminded him of the lamp, “Like so many things, it’s not what is outside, but what is inside that counts”. In Beauty and the Beast, the haggard old woman warns the prince “not to be deceived by appearances, because beauty is found within”. Several fables, including “The Fox and the Leopard”, in which a vain leopard and a clever fox argue over who is more beautiful, and “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, where a wolf wears sheep wool to trick the herd so he can get into their pack, consider the idea of outward appearance and beauty (Aesop’s Fables). Even the bible instructs followers to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” in Matthew, 7:15 (Biblehub). Carver’s message is not unknown to readers; it is one that reverberates throughout classic tales and moral guidelines that most have heard before.
(P4) Carver’s short story is different, however, in that it connects this trite message with the relationship between the narrator and the other characters, and more uniquely between the narrator and himself. The