The Language of Empathy

Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” (1989) is not a short story about cathedrals. At a first
glance, it is a straightforward tale of an encounter between the story’s narrator and his wife’s blind friend who comes for a visit. The narrator is initially irritated about the sudden guest, but then reconciles with the blind man over a discussion about cathedrals. This simplicity, however, is deliberately deceiving. In a few brief pages, Carver manages to weave an intricate tale of personal transformation, all the while exploring the complex nature of language and communication. Together with the narrator, we eventually realize that there is an immense distance between mere words and actual things, that these words are meaningless without people who utter them, and that communication is less about language and much more about empathy.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of a man unhappy with his life. The
narrator’s language is informal, full of colloquialisms, broken sentences and segues from one unrelated thought to another. Such linguistic peculiarities normally go unnoticed in an everyday conversation, but they become a powerful literary tool on paper. Carver uses it to his full advantage. On the one hand, although very informal, his language feels very natural: we do not stumble over words but are rather drawn deeper into the story. This simple and easy to read prose feels so natural it almost disappears, giving way to lively images of the characters unencumbered by heavy-handed literary tropes.
On the other hand, this linguistic transparency is deceiving. Carver makes his language
simple in order to show us that there is nothing simple or transparent about language. The narrator asks the blind man: “If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about?” (Carver, p. 99). Surely, the bling man knows the word “cathedral” as well as that there are usually frescoes inside and that it takes a long time to build one. However, we realize at this moment, as the narrator does, that there is no cathedral in the word “cathedral”: that no matter how simple or sophisticated is our language, the actual world cannot be contained by words. The narrator’s simple manner of telling the story, therefore, at first lulls us into taking
language for granted. But then, all of a sudden, this final encounter with the blind man yanks us right out of the comfort zone. How does one convey an experience of being in a cathedral, or even just seeing a picture of one, to someone who had been denied such an experience? Words alone suddenly seem insufficient. Together with the narrator, we undergo a certain transformation. Carver makes us see something to which we initially were blind: the role of empathy in communication.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator appears to us in a rather negative light. He is jealous and irritated when he imagines the blind man touching his wife’s face. He jokes, but the jokes seem rude (“Maybe I could take him bowling”), racist (“Was his wife a Negro?”) and sexist: he pities the blind man’s wife because he cannot see her beauty, as if her beauty is all that matters (Carver, pp. 92-93). However, by the end of the story, the narrator redeems himself: he learns to empathize with the blind man, to understand both him and himself better. They forge a manner of communication which is much deeper than a mere exchange of words. The blind man teaches the narrator that communication, first and foremost, is a matter of empathy, readiness and willingness to connect with other people.
Despite its relative brevity, Carver’s “Cathedral” explores a great number of topics. It touches upon the issues of a failing marriage, drugs and alcohol, and even the nature of reality.
All of the above, however, can be viewed through the lens of a bigger issue: the failed and then restored model of interpersonal communication. The message, in the end, is hopeful and humanistic. The narrator loses his smug attitude by trying to genuinely connect with another human being. And by doing so, he remedies his own figurative blindness. “It’s really something” (Carver, p. 101), remarks the narrator, as if inviting the reader to try and do the same: go ahead, let people in, and, who knows, it might even solve some of your lesser problems.


Carver, Raymond. Cathedral : stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

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