Point of View Within Carver’s Cathedral (New Criticism)

Raymond Carver, Cathedral, New Criticism literary theory
The exact book I used for this New Criticism essay

ABOUT THIS ESSAY: This New Criticism essay was written for a college-level English class a few years ago and received 18/20 points total. I found this particular essay to be some of my finest work and I hope it helps any college student struggling with the New Criticism literary theory. Although the theory itself has become rather passé,  it is still a mandatory part of early English classes, especially for those majoring in English. Good Luck!

Point of View Within Carver’s Cathedral

New Criticism uses many important elements that factor into its makeup when closely examining the texts of different types of literary works. Formal elements like irony, voice, and speaker all have different functions when communicating what’s being read between the lines of poetry and prose.  Point of view is one of the more important and logical formal elements when used to construct the many ideas behind Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral”. In the short story “Cathedral” , Carver constructs a thorough examination of the narrator’s apprehension, with point of view, of an imminent visit from his wife’s blind friend Robert. By not giving the reader a specific name to the narrator confronted by Robert and his impending visit, Carver successfully gives the reader the tool to personalize that specific character and relate him to a more realistic, particular person. “Cathedral” ends with Robert and the narrator hand in hand, drawing a cathedral. The narrator has his eyes closed while Robert guides him through the process of constructing an image while not able to see. Both men become equals and on the same level, giving the reader a different outlook from the apprehension the narrator succumbed to before the visit.

New Criticism, contrary to the name, is not new to the literary world. Its defining moments of popularity and widespread use was a trend of the early 20th century, ending somewhere in the early 1960s. New Criticism ignores analyses of texts, biographical works, and any historical context and instead focuses on a close reading of the actual text with regards to the many formal elements prevalent within-which can include plot, rhyme, tension, irony, and setting (to name a few). Using the aforementioned formal elements, the New Criticism approach focuses on a section of prose or poetry and carefully scrutinizes the passages to establish a primary elucidation of the text. By coming to a plateau on the fundamental interpretation of the text, the reader can determine the gist of the material and the author’s intentions at the many uses of the formal elements.

“Cathedral” is a short story written in 1983 by Raymond Carver. Carver’s works are critically acclaimed worldwide and tend to deliver true-to-life characters with disconsolate outlooks on life and unreceptive emotional attachments to others. “Cathedral” opens up with the point of view of the narrator describing his wife’s past working relationship with a blind many years ago before their marriage. The blind man, Robert, is currently en route to the narrator’s house for an unceremonious sleep-over following the death of his wife. Robert plans on sleeping over at the narrator’s house before continuing on to visit his wife’s family nearby. The narrator is very negative towards Robert, in part because of his wife’s past relationship with Robert, but mostly due to Robert’s blindness. The narrator has a stigma towards blind people, while also stating that he has never been around a blind person before.Throughout the night, the narrator’s interactions with Robert become fluent yet uneasy with the exiting of the narrator’s wife as she goes to bed. As the narrator and Robert sit o the couch with a program pertaining to cathedrals as background noise, the narrator asks if Robert is aware of what a cathedral is, while then proceeding (and failing) to describe one to him. This, in turn, gives Robert an idea to draw a cathedral together. Robert and the narrator then proceed to draw, hand in hand, while the narrator closes his eyes at the behest of Robert. What becomes of the drawing is unknown, but the narrator seems to become spiritually aware of the “sight” Robert actually appears to own. Carver’s proposal of the blind man becoming the light-bearer of a closed-minded individual captures a quintessential ideal: Never judge a book by its cover.

The narrator’s point of view is not one of happiness and joviality. In order for Carver to want the reader to appreciate and care for the narrator’s point of view, he causes the narrator to reflect on his wife’s past marriage, her too-close-for-comfort relationship with Robert, and his own dysfunctional reality between himself and his wife, “My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had a feeling she didn’t like what she saw. I shrugged” (215). Carver’s use of point of view breaks the dysfunctional entities into many fragmented problems for the narrator, consuming his existence and garnering empathy from the reader. At the same time, the narrator’s racial and derogatory remarks towards Robert and his departed wife give the reader an opportunity to shun the narrator and take his point of view for granted. The narrator’s point of view is the embodiment of the story. therefore causing an inner struggle for the reader to sympathize with his tyrannical conceptions. Such remarks from the narrator like, “Maybe I can take him bowling,” (212) tend to push the reader away from him because of this curt attitude. The again, sympathy can be gained as the narrator’s awkwardness begins to settle upon Robert’s arrival. The narrator opens up with an awkward question regarding which side of the train Robert sat on. The discomfiture on the narrator’s part causes his wife to question the validity of the question, but Carver uses point of view to help the reader determine that the narrator only wanted to create small talk, “I wanted to say something else, small-talk, about the scenic ride along the Hudson. How going to New York, you should sit on the right hand side of the train, and coming from New York, the left side” (215). This shows how nervous and uneasy the narrator actually is as he inadvertently asks a question that conflicts with Robert’s reality.

As mentioned before, Carver’s use of point of view brandishes two very polarizing and opposing approaches to the narrator; this also controls the reader’s expectations about the proverbial ending and possible resolution between the two conflicting entities. Will Robert confront the narrator and his ill attitude? Will the narrator continue his simpleton-like remarks and continue to speak his mind in his brash and effective way? These are the types of questions that point of view gives to readers as they choose their own paths to the conclusion. Throughout the rest of the evening, the narrator seems to come to a comfortable conclusion about Robert. Although he still feels nervous towards him, the narrator begins to open up slightly to Robert with the introduction of cannabis. Robert, the narrator, and his wife enjoy a marijuana joint together until the wife falls asleep between the two, leaving the narrator uncomfortable. He responds to this sudden face-time with Robert by offering him some more pie. When that idea goes south, he tries to ease his nervousness by offering Robert’s room for the night. When Robert declines, stating, “I feel like we haven’t had a chance to talk…I feel like me and her monopolized the evening” (222). This gives the narrator a sense of unease, yet he responds politely, “That’s all right. I’m glad for the company.” The narrator is desperately clinging to his humane attitude and not succumbing to the brashness that he displayed to his wife pre-Robert’s visit.

As the night drones on, the point of view suddenly shifts and merges with that of Robert. The television is the catalyst to the inevitable conversation about cathedrals and pious beliefs. Carver’s idea of having the narrator explain, in detail, what a cathedral looks like to Robert forms the concluding pieces to the type of connection the two men are on the verge of having. During the narrator’s bumbling attempt at describing cathedrals to Robert, he mentions, “In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral building” (225). This sets up Robert’s question regarding the narrator’s religious beliefs. Robert learns that the narrator has none. With this conclusion, Robert requests a pen and a heavy sheet of paper so that they may both construct a cathedral together. The narrator does this without reluctance and in no time both he and Robert are hand in hand, drawing their own cathedral. Carver sways the point of view from the narrator to Robert by giving him complete control over the scenario. As the narrator is no artist, his construction of the cathedral impresses Robert. The shaping of the cathedral becomes fluent to both of them. Carver attributes this last act of both men’s construction of the cathedral to Robert leading the narrator closer to God. This is evident in the narrator’s own words earlier, As the narrator mentioned earlier, “…God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral building,” (225). Robert gives the narrator a much-needed new pair of eyes; whist having him close them in the process of drawing the cathedral.

While shrewdly assembling two polarizing attitudes connected to the narrator, Carver explicitly gives the reader full reign on what attitude to side with. choosing one or the other ultimately brings the reader to the same satisfactory conclusion of redemption and forgiveness. By having the bulk of the story under the narrator’s point of view, we are treated to a certain decisive conclusion of the morality of this nameless entity. However, with Robert’s clear point of view in the latter half of the story, we know of Robert’s intentions and the humility he plans to bestow upon the narrator.

Carver, Raymond. Cathedral: Stories. New York: Knopf, 1983. Print.




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