Cathedral by Raymond Carver: Theme of Stereotypes
Cathedral is a post-modern story written by Raymond Carver, that shows the way in which stereotypes changed its protagonist, that will be described in the following essay. The story shows the narrator’s dilemma in progress, which is in overcoming the conscious narrowing of the outer world to the size of the convenient set of stable characteristics.
It is obviously easy to have a prejudged view point on the things the person does not understand. Though, it is problematic to say who suffers more from the prejudice, a stereotypical thinker or the object of stereotypes. It is possible to say that stereotypical thinking is even more damaging for a person who believes in a stereotype than for the others. Its negative impact varies from ostracism to oversimplifying the reality, and ruins the personality from inside.
Cathedral is the narration of an average American middle aged man, who used to live in his stereotypical world and who thinks that he knows everything better than the others. That is why his life is the example of the right life. Once the narrator makes an acquaintance with a blind friend of his wife and his prejudice about people who can not see changes due to a singe night experience. Though, the change will happen in the end of the story, and before it the narrator suffers from his incompetence, jealousy, prejudged opinion and subconscious feeling that it is not the blind man who is handicapped, but it is he himself, who is deprived of essential things in life.
It is first necessary to emphasize that the person who is operating with the stereotypes about the surrounding people is constantly in bad mood. It is quite challenging to recollect a prejudice that is praising someone or something, they are mostly always negative. Such constant negative thinking is a sign of apathy and depression. In addition, it shows that on the subconscious level the person has more psychological problems that he/she can cope with. Total dissatisfaction is visible in verbal aggression that the protagonist of the story expresses. Morgan (p. 47) writes that verbal aggression and sarcasm decreases the level of trust in the family, provokes verbal aggression as the answer.
From the very beginning of the story the narrator shows vivid signs of sarcasm, verbal aggression and thus entire dissatisfaction with his life. He is touching the theme of love many times and this theme seems to be a problem for him. For example, when the narrator talks about the first husband of his first wife, he says that he does not even deserve a name, he was the sweetheart of his wife’s childhood. Such sentiments seem to be stereotypically unworthy of a man, but still he can not apparently cope with his jealousy towards her first man. He describes the ex-husband as “this man who’d first enjoyed her favors” (Carver, p.7).
Another peculiar incident that characterizes the narrator in his attitude to Robert’s, the blind man’s, wife. Her name, Beulah, makes him ask whether she was a “Negro” and this fact seems to tell him something (Carver, p.14). The power of stereotypes makes the assumption that she was a Negro to be a reasonable explanation to the fact that she married a blind person. The narrator just can not imagine that a normal person will do it. He also feels no compassion to the tragedy of the blind man and laughs that it might have been horrible for Beulah to live with the husband who did not know how she looked like. He says that perhaps she could wear whatever she wanted and was using green eye-shadows.
The last aspect that makes the narrator shudder from partly jealousy and partly disgust is the episode when Robert touched the face of the narrator’s wife and she wrote a poem about it. The narrator was not thinking about a blind person as about someone who can touch a woman and who can be viewed as a man at all. In addition, Robert and the narrator’s wife talked very intimately about previous 10 years of their lives and there was nothing about the narrator at all. His self-esteem was touched and the prejudice that he is obviously better than a blind man made him even more jealous and depressed. He turns on the TV in order not to hear them talking so intimately and thus shoes his impolite attitude. Such behavior is quite usual for people suffering from relationship dissatisfaction. Andersen and Guerrero (p. 177) write that such state is characterized by avoidance, verbal aggression and jealous cognition.
The attitude of the narrator to Robert starts to change during dinner. He is shocked that a blind man can eat without help and seems to be a normal person who can live without problems on his own. At the first sight the narrator was impressed that a blind man has a beard and can shave by himself. These episodes show that it is not the reality that forms the world view of the narrator, but wide-spread stereotypes he somehow acquired during his life. This is the sign that in fact the life of the narrator is artificial and despite his age he still has no understanding of the real life.
The last episode of the story is drawing of the cathedral. The narrator draws it and tries to perceive with his eyes closed like the blind man. It is possible to state that thanks to this experience the narrator learned how to see with his eyes closed and how to understand the meaning of the things without referring to the stereotypes. He said that he disconnected from his body, separated from the prejudice against the things that seemed to be not normal to him and let the materialistic surrounding go. This is a happy end of some kind for the narrator, because he managed to overcome the depressive state caused by dissatisfaction with the world, the negative thinking mode and the artificial nature of life caused by stereotypes.
It is difficult to say whether Robert suffers from the stereotypical attitude to blind people. Perhaps, he is used to it and overcame pity for himself. He seems to have much things in common with the philosophical ideas of existentialism. For example, Sartre (pp.35-42), one of the ideologists of existentialism, writes that the ideas of value of human existence and freedom depend upon the individual’s point of view. He states that all people are alone in their life. They can be compared to subjective isolated islands in the ocean of objective things. That is why a human can find value only in him\herself, just like only internal nature can be called absolute freedom. Robert is obviously alone and he knows how to cope with it. Understanding is the first step towards accepting. He is absolutely introspective, because the outer world can not disturb him with its visual images. In fact, it is possible to assume from these ideas that Robert is a free person, or at least he is more free than the narrator of Cathedral, who is smothered by his negative stereotypical word view.
According to the existential viewpoint, existence is prior to essence. Sartre supports this position with the following arguments. First, people do not have predetermined essence or nature that is responsible for their actions, decisions and place in life. Second, outside issues can not influence the person’s right to chose freely from a variety of possible decisions. As the result, an individual creates his/her own personality him/herself, that is characterized by freedom of choices and set of values. Robert obviously determines his essence and forms his personality actively, because the life for him is a never ending struggle. The narrator, in his turn, prefers not to make choices and not to form his individual essence, because it is much easier to continue thinking that everything is predetermined.
Another philosophical idea that is related to the problem of stereotypical thinking is the concept of rhizome, introduced by Deleuze and Guattari in their work Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Deleuze and Guattari state that it is impossible to find an end, a beginning, or a center in a rhizome, that is an image of thought (p.21). In fact, the issue that is important in this theory in the context of the problem of stereotypical thinking is that a rhizome is similar by its structure to the reality and thinking processes. Thinking in prejudices is the conscious killing of the rhizome and thus preferring to live in the handicapped world.
Two protagonist of Cathedral shows that stereotypes influence the person who uses them more than the person who is perceived in stereotypes. The narrator of the story does not see the reality around him before he learns to think more freely. He is deeply depressed and his dissatisfaction on the subconscious level is intensified by negative thinking. All these emotions are intensified by the fact that a blind handicapped person is living a fuller life that the narrator does. Robert, who is blind, is a more freely thinking person. Perhaps, his individuality was formed under the surrounding stereotypical attitude to him, but he fits perfectly int the ideas of freedom of post-modern philosophers like Sartre, Deleuze and Guattari.
Andersen, Peter, A., Guerrero, Laura K. Handbook of Communication and Emotion: Research, Theory, Applications, and Contexts. Academic Press, 1997. Print.
Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. Vintage; Reissue edition, 1989. Print.
Deleuze. Gilles, Guattari. Felix. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.
Morgan, James P. Focus on Aggression Research. Nova Publishers, 2004. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotion. Citadel; Reissue edition, 2000. Print.