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Critical Essay by Ewing Campbell
SOURCE: "Maturity: Cathedral," in Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992, pp. 48-66.
In the following excerpt, Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M University, traces the changes in Carver's writing, noting that in Cathedral he exhibits great skill in adopting a softer, more hopeful tone.
If a great number of critics hailed the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981 as the establishing event of Carver's career, it is the arrival of Cathedral three years later that confirms his place among short-story writers of the first rank. The confirmation results in part, however, not from a continuation of what established him, but from his manifest growth and the more generous spirit visible in his work.
The defining features of Carver's fiction alter during the period between the two books. The voice remains the same, but the vision becomes less grounded in despair. The fictional framework is enlarged and reinforced by traditional structures. Empty spaces fill with beginnings, middles, ends. Truncations vanish; where once the narrative halted in emotional tumult, the story continues and equilibrium is restored. Despair becomes redemption; the alienated are reconciled. Hardboiled realism turns out to be allegory with a soft center.
The techniques, situations, and effects of popular forms become the tools, material, and goals of his fiction. He exploits the melodrama of what was once the exclusive province of daytime television (now also under primetime lights and cameras), the thrills of detective fiction, and the convictions of a culture's assimilated lessons.
It is a sign of Carver's maturity that he makes these adjustments skillfully, with a power and quiet confidence seldom seen in the toilers of such genres. The sureness of a writer at case with himself is felt in his willingness to develop complete narratives that shun the old poetics of withholding, in his willingness to permit affirmative resolutions, and in his opening up of the narrative to include aspects (sentimentality, for example) traditionally dismissed by literary critics as unsuitable for serious fiction.
Aside from being exemplars of maturity in a fine craftsman who has enlarged his reach and grasp, certain stories in Cathedral provide excellent opportunities to note the retrieval of sentimentality and religious melodrama from the storehouse of cultural assumptions and the restoration of their aesthetic value during the 1980s. When literary historians look back, they will wonder what so modified tastes that melodrama could move from radio to the hot klieg lights of daytime television, from afternoon to primetime drama, and finally from the electronic medium to award-winning serious fiction. "But in a knowledge of authors and their times," as Paul Valéry observes, "a study of the succession of literary phenomena can only excite us to conjecture what may have happened in the minds of those who have done what is necessary to get themselves inscribed in the annals of the History of Letters":
If they succeeded in doing so, it was through the concurrence of two conditions which may always be considered as independent: one is necessarily the production of the work itself, the other is the production of a certain value in the work by those who have known and liked it once it is produced, those who have enforced its reputation and assured its transmission, its conservation, its ulterior life.
That value bestowed by others—editors who like and select a work for publication, critics who transmit its reputation, and members of grants and awards panels who determine material and symbolic stamps of value—was denied for most of the twentieth century, as Jane Tompkins has pointed out, to works that were accused of trading in "false stereotypes, dishing out weak-minded pap to nourish the prejudices of an ill-educated and underemployed female readership."16 However, with the major institutional changes of the 1980s, a visible shift in literary criteria took place, and no story better illustrates this shift than "A Small, Good Thing."
"a Small, Good Thing"
"A Small, Good Thing" provides a clear contrast between the quintessential Carveresque, as represented by "The Bath" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the new fiction of Cathedral. Certain therapeutic themes highly charged with iconographic intensity make their appearance in the story, reinforcing convictions so deeply held that we are often unaware of their presence or force. Moreover, the story's record of awards and reprintings testifies to the cultural shift toward sentimentality that characterizes the decade of the eighties and expresses the degree to which devalued elements appreciated during this shift.
Unlike numerous stories by Carver in more than one version, "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing" are not variations of the same story, although the characters, initiating situation, and crisis remain the same. In the McCaffery-Gregory interview, Larry McCaffery identifies them as two versions of a story taking radically distinct courses. Carver amends his interviewer's definition, calling the narratives "two entirely different stories" that he found difficult to think of "as coming from the same source" (McCaffery, 66). On this point, the author can be trusted, for certain parallels between Vladimir Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" and Carver's "The Bath" insist that the former exercised an influence on Carver as he composed the latter. To that extent "Signs and Symbols" was a source for the "The Bath," but not for "A Small, Good Thing."
In both omniscient narratives, parents of a hospitalized son spend his birthday worrying about his life in the care of medical people. In the Nabokov story, the son is grown, suffering from insanity, and in danger of killing himself in the asylum; in the Carver story, the son has been struck by a car, is in a coma, and in danger of dying from the trauma. In both stories three telephone calls function as menacing signs. The falling back on signs and symbols in "The Bath" underscores Carver's fondness for a sense of threat, which he confesses to in "On Writing": "I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine" (Fires, 17).
"The Bath" opens with Ann Weiss's visit to a baker and an order for a birthday cake. On Monday, the day of Scotty's birthday party, the boy is struck by a hit-and-run driver: "He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall" (What, 48). Here Scotty resembles Nabokov's image in "Signs and Symbols" of an unfledged bird knocked from its nest and twitching in a puddle.
Scotty picks himself up and returns home where, before slipping into a coma, he tells his mother what happened. At the hospital, the parents begin their vigil, watching for signs of recovery, dealing with medical people as they search for signs of the problem and taking turns going home for a bath. During the father's trip home the baker, without identifying himself, calls twice, making cryptic remarks about the cake that was not picked up. Disoriented in his fear for Scotty's life, the father does not make the connection or mention the calls to Ann upon his return to the hospital.
Finally persuaded to go home and freshen up, Ann encounters an African-American family waiting at the hospital for news about their son Nelson. A moment of mistaken identity and a disconnected exchange underscore the emotional states of the respective individuals. In the last brief scene, Ann reaches home, and the story closes with the third and final telephone call from the baker: "'Scotty,' the voice said. 'It is about Scotty,' the voice said. 'It has to do with Scotty, yes'" (What, 56).
The effect of this closure is powerful in the context of Ann's emotional state, even to the reader who knows the caller is the baker. She is terrified. Her only child is in a coma at the hospital. She has just encountered another mother waiting for word about her hospitalized son. She has not slept for a long while and is disoriented. The last thing she needs to hear at this moment is the jarring ring of a telephone with a sinister voice from the other end of the line encouraging her worst fears with ambiguous words.
Unlike many of Carver's stories that end in overt loss of control, this one provides clear motivation for a breakdown. However, because Carver has made the provision this time, an actual breakdown becomes unnecessary, and he leaves it out. In the empty space following the last full stop, the reader involuntarily experiences the powerful emotions that Ann would feel. The result is a story that exemplifies the Carveresque as well as any story Carver ever wrote.
And yet, he rewrote "The Bath" as "A Small, Good Thing," expanding it to three times its original length, giving it a fully developed structure with a beginning, middle, and end, and a resolution of reconciliation, effectively removing both the Nabokovian influences and its distinctly Carveresque qualities, while at the same time creating for it a much wider appeal than his stories usually enjoy.
As a truncated, indirect work of fiction, "The Bath" remains consistent with the other stories of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Along with the title story of the collection, "So Much Water So Close to Home," and "Why Don't You Dance?" it is one of the most memorable fictions in the book, but the synergetic force of the whole collection is what makes itself felt among those readers and critics who respond favorably to the work.
Readers without patience to seek out the hidden complexities of indirect or elliptical narration tend to reject Carver's fiction on grounds that the stories are incomplete. They fail to find a sense of development or proper closure. Accustomed to overt conflict and its clear resolution, they believe the stories are devoid of significance, of events that would explain the characters' motivation and retarded emotional states, and of consequences when explanatory events do occur, as in "The Bath." Even when taken together as a coherent mosaic of scaled-down narratives, the stories portray unpleasant realities without relief. All too often, these readers complain, Carver chooses to eliminate character-shaping relations and to give only the result of the character's static confusion.
Such objections ought not to be dismissed without consideration, yet a little reflection reveals that they fail to take into account the method of indirection, which has become the technique of choice in this century. This method, in conjunction with Carver's desire to focus on a limited time or action for the sake of realism, has contributed to his minimalist reputation, a designation that irritated him. It also helps to form what I call his defining signature. Granted, the technique derives in part from an obsessive desire to avoid great glares and had evolved in Carver by the time of this collection to the point that even the epiphany—which might have created a sense of closure, dynamism, and meaning—had been trimmed of all devices that would render its meaning immediately clear. And yet, the patterns of Carver's fiction—repetition, parallelism, opposition, shared elements—have the power to reveal missing scenes, relations, explanations, the past, and the future. The lesson of these truncated narratives is that much of their merit can be found in the omitted parts, which patience and care can flesh out.
However, no such claim can be made about "A Small, Good Thing," for neither its structure nor its theme owes anything to truncation or the signs and symbols of Nabokovian menace. Instead, it depends on sentimentality and a different category of characterization, on cultural myth and a therapeutics of passion for its effect.
Howard and Ann Weiss, their child Scotty, and the unregenerate baker appear in both stories, but compare the two Howards:
It had been a good life till now. There had been work, fatherhood, family. The man had been lucky and happy. (What, 49)
Until now, his life had gone smoothly and to his satisfaction—college, marriage, another year of college for the advanced degree in business, a junior partnership in an investment firm. Fatherhood. He was happy and, so far, lucky—he knew that. (Where, 282)
College, an MBA, a junior partnership in an investment firm. This Howard is like no previous character in Carver's fiction, and the family doctor is a stereotype that viewers of soap opera will recognize immediately: "The doctor was a handsome, big-shouldered man with a tanned face. He wore a three-piece blue suit, a striped tie, and ivory cuff links. His gray hair was combed along the sides of his head, and he looked as if he had just come from a concert" (Where, 284-85). The only stock items missing are the overcoat and silk scarf these doctors are usually wearing when they come from the symphony to take pulses and lift eyelids. There is, furthermore, the melodramatic scene of Ann and Howard performing their vigil while Scotty lies in a coma:
"I've been praying," she said.
She said, "I almost thought I'd forgotten how, but it came back to me. All I had to do was close my eyes and say, 'Please God, help us—help Scotty,' and then the rest was easy. The words were right there. Maybe if you prayed, too," she said to him.
"I've already prayed," he said. "I prayed this afternoon—yesterday afternoon, I mean—after you called, while I was driving to the hospital. I've been praying," he said.
"That's good," she said. For the first time, she felt they were together in it, this trouble. She realized with a start that, until now, it had only been happening to her and to Scotty. She hadn't let Howard into it, though he was there and needed all along. She felt glad to be his wife. (Where, 286)
Whether Scotty will live in "The Bath" is an open matter—he is alive when the story ends with the baker's telephone call underscoring the menace—but he must die in "A Small, Good Thing" in order to fulfill the thematic requirements of sacrifice and redemption. As Tompkins argues, "Stories like the death of little Eva [in Uncle Tom's Cabin] are compelling for the same reason that the story of Christ's death is compelling" (Tompkins, 127). The pure die to redeem the unregenerate, and through Scotty's death, the baker will be brought back into the world, where people know how to behave.
In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault notes the moral tenor of water treatments and travel for disturbed behavior and emphasizes the correlation between salvation and a return to the world: "If it is true that the techniques of immersion always concealed the ethical, almost religious memories of ablution, of a second birth, in these cures by movement we can also recognize a symmetrical moral theme, but one that is the converse of the first: to return to the world, to entrust oneself to its wisdom by returning to one's place in the general order of things, thus forgetting madness."17
Along with a therapeutics of movement and immersion, Foucault devotes attention to beliefs in cures by passion: "By subjecting the nervous fibers to a stronger tension, anger gives them more vigor, thus restoring their lost elasticity and permitting fear to disappear" (Foucault, 181). Foucault's emphasis on the necessity of the immediate, on cures by passion, and on cures by regulation of movement wonderfully parallel the conceits of Hemingway's anachronistic hunter in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." Here are the white hunter Wilson's explanations of Macomber's newfound courage: "Hadn't had time to be afraid with the buff. That and being angry too. Motor car too. Motor cars made it familiar. Be a damn fire eater now. He'd seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear."18 It is Macomber's need to react without thinking, what Foucault calls the necessity of the immediate, that forestalls his fear. When he had time to think about the wounded lion earlier, he became frightened, and in Wilson's world, cowardice is a sign of disturbed behavior. Having been a car racer, Macomber's reaction in the moving car is nothing more than a familiar reaction brought on by the regulation of movement. And of course he is angry about his wife's infidelity—Foucault's cure by passion. Along with other eighteenth-century notions and cultural traces, a therapeutics of passion has leached down to us through the centuries and is still with us in the fiction of Hemingway and Carver.
Elaborating his morality play and perhaps taking his cue from Hemingway's example, Carver resorts to cures by passion, giving Ann Weiss an angry vigor as she realizes the telephone calls have come from the baker. She insists on their going to the shopping center. Confronting the man, "She clenched her fists. She stared at him fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men" (Where, 299). This correlation of Foucault's curative anger purifies Ann's condition, concentrating her thinking, fortifying her resolve, leaving her, as Wilson might say, with "no bloody fear."
For the baker's anger and consequent behavior, Carver administers a prescription of fear, curing his patient, according to Foucault, just as eighteenth-century doctors would have done: "Fear, in the eighteenth century, was regarded as one of the passions most advisable to arouse in madmen. It was considered the natural complement of the constraints imposed upon maniacs and lunatics" (Foucault, 180). Confronted by the infuriated Ann Weiss, the baker loses his bluster, which is replaced by a constraining fear. "A look crossed Ann's face that made the baker move back and say, 'No trouble, now'" (Where, 299).
A conversion follows. He confesses, repents, and asks forgiveness. Bread and coffee are brought out, and the three of them commune until dawn. A sense of redemption is everywhere felt in the atmosphere of this resolution. What we have here is religious allegory, for the iconography of this reconciliation belongs, not to the neorealist phase of Carver's earlier fiction, but to the tradition of typological narrative with its doctrine of theological types, what Tompkins calls "a narrative aimed at demonstrating that human history is a continual reenactment of the sacred drama of redemption" (Tompkins, 134).
The popularity of a work is certainly indicative of the values of its time, but not necessarily of literary values. In the twentieth century, at least, there has been a clear line between popular literature and serious literature. However, when popularity and critical opinion agree, the convergence speaks with authority about the aesthetics of the period, expressing something profound about the culture that produces such a convergence.
"A Small, Good Thing" was published in Ploughshares, honored in Prize Stories 1983: The O. Henry Awards and The Pushcart Prize (1983–84), and reprinted in the Ploughshares Reader: New Fiction for the Eighties (1985). And yet, there has been some dissent, noted by Carver when he told McCaffery and Gregory, "I've had people tell me they much prefer 'The Bath,' which is fine, but 'A Small, Good Thing' seems to me to be a better story" (McCaffery, 66).
If the author's judgment can withstand the passage of time, a radical shift in literary values must be seen to have occurred in the 1980s, a shift that may seem perplexing to future critics. However, Jane Tompkins, asserting the power of nineteenth-century sentimental narratives, may have located the source of that shift. In "A Small, Good Thing," Carver creates the illusion of realistic fiction, but, as Tompkins explains about Uncle Tom's Cabin, "what pass for realistic details … are in fact performing a rhetorical function dictated" by the story's ruling religious paradigm of sacrifice and redemption (Tompkins, 136).
A set of governing beliefs, organizing and sustaining a pervasive cultural myth, "invests the suffering and death of an innocent victim with just the kind of power that critics" have traditionally withheld from such literature (Tompkins, 130), but critics are not free-floating entities unaffected by powerful social currents. When a cultural shift occurs, they react to prevailing attitudes just as others do, adjusting literary criteria to meet cultural pressures. It may be that this need to adjust best explains the critical reception of "A Small, Good Thing." It may be that, at the deepest levels, even tough-minded critics are governed by our most persistent cultural myths.
Although evidence of the melodramatic stands demonstrably present in "A Small, Good Thing," the story is just one of several in Cathedral that rely on emotional effects and materials drawn from popular forms. The fictional situation of "Vitamins," which exploits the thrills of risky sex, personal danger, and racial fears found in much detective fiction, is another. It develops in the following manner: Patti sells vitamins door-to-door and supervises other women doing the same. The characters forming the core of the group—Patti, Sheila, Donna—are experiencing bad times. Vitamins aren't selling well, and their personal lives are falling apart. Sheila is the first to forsake the business, taking off for Portland when she finds Patti unresponsive to her advances: "One night this Sheila said to Patti that she loved her more than anything on earth. Patti told me these were her words. Patti had driven Sheila home and they were sitting in front of Sheila's place…. Then Sheila touched Patti's breast. Patti said she took Sheila's hand and held it. She said she told her she didn't swing that way" (Where, 184). Sheila's sexual advance is the first of three such events in the story, Patti's rebuff the first of three such rejections. Together, they shape the informing patterns of the story.
The second occurs at a Christmas party thrown by Patti to cheer up the group. Attached to Patti, but attracted to Donna and finding himself with her in the kitchen, the narrator embraces her, receives a warm response, but is told, "Don't. Not now" (Where, 186).
This refusal is clearly more deferral than rejection, a conclusion that is confirmed when Donna shows up later as the narrator is leaving the hospital, where he works nights on the cleaning crew. They begin their night together by going to an after-hours jazz bar owned and frequented by African-Americans. They are joined in their booth by Khaki, Benny, and Nelson, the latter just back from Vietnam with a human ear in his silver cigarette case and $500 in his wallet.
The central event of the story occurs in the booth. It is also in this crucial scene that we discover significant parallels with popular detective fiction. Indeed, we encounter specific parallels with a chapter from Timothy Harris's detective novel Good Night and Good-bye (1979).
Like Donna and Carver's narrator, Harris's detective, Thomas Kyd, finds himself in a bar booth threatened by hostile blacks. At one juncture, "Mojo's hand snaked out and grabbed my collar while the guy next to me leaned his weight against me and took hold of my ear…. 'He got two, Mojo. He don't need this ear. Let's take him in the back,'"19 Then later, Mojo tells the detective, "You thought Baltimore was jiving you when he talk about cutting off your ear. The dude's bad, man. How many ears you cut in Nam, Baltimore?" (Harris, 149).
We might also compare two other passages, the first from Harris's novel: "I stood up, and this time Moth and Baltimore moved quickly to let me out of the booth. 'I haven't got the stomach for the work. I was in Nam. I've seen guys cut ears off stiffs. It never did anything for me except make me sick.' I smiled into Baltimore's watchful ill-humored face. 'That's strictly an animal act you got there, friend. That shit belongs in a cage'" (Harris, 150). And the second from Carver's story:
He looked around the booth. He looked at Nelson's wallet on the table and at the open cigarette case next to the wallet. He saw the ear.
"That a real ear?" Khaki said.
Benny said, "It is. Show him that ear, Nelson. Nelson just stepped off the plane from Nam with this ear. This ear has traveled halfway around the world to be on this table tonight. Nelson, show him," Benny said.
Nelson picked up the case and handed it to Khaki.
Khaki examined the ear. He took up the chain and dangled the ear in front of his face. He looked at it. He let it swing back and forth on the chain. "I heard about these dried-up ears and dicks and such."
"I took it off one of them gooks," Nelson said. "He couldn't hear nothing with it no more. I wanted me a keepsake." (Where, 194)
Carver's handling of the situation seems mythic in its use of a blind character (metaphorically blind in this instance) as intervening agent, clairvoyant in perceptions, oracular in pronouncements. Nelson looks at the couple with his alcohol-reddened eyes as if trying to place the narrator and sees that they are betraying Patti. "What I want to know is, do you know where your wife is?… while you setting [sic] here big as life with your good friend" (Where, 192). He suggests that Patti is also out with someone and makes the third sexual advance of the story, offering Donna $200 to perform fellatio on him.
Donna's rejection of this offer is the final refusal of the story, but like her protestation at the party, it is not sincere. She confesses to the narrator as they return to the hospital parking lot, having made their escape, that she needs the money and is sorry she did not accept the $200. Now, she too will leave for Portland. "I'm not going in. I'm leaving town. I take what happened back there as a sign" (Where, 195).
It takes a particular state of mind—as Isak Dinesen simply, but convincingly demonstrates in Out of Africa—to find a sign in an event. The state is brought on by a maelstrom of disasters. What seems at first a mere coincidence of circumstances becomes the dominant factor of one's life, evolves into an obsession, and eventually is seen as having a necessary central principle, which if only known could bring the chaos into a coherence that can be dealt with. In that final stage, the individual is prepared to find a sign in anything that lends itself to the situation.
For Dinesen it was the confrontation between a white cock and a chameleon. In an attempt to save himself, the chameleon opened his mouth and shot out his clublike tongue, which the cock plucked out. The gruesome event struck her profoundly and left her shaken. In her state of mind, it was irrefutable testimony to danger: "I looked down on the stones and dared not look up, such a dangerous place did the world seem to me."20 Donna has also seen the cock pluck out the chameleon's tongue, so to speak, in her willingness to take money for sex, and she has taken it for a sign, which makes up her mind for her.
When the narrator reveals that he has also been thoroughly shaken by the event, we are left with but one conclusion. Although not admitting it, he has had a sign, as well, and the experience has altered him. He returns home and starts looking through the medicine cabinet, spilling pills in the sink, making a racket, and disturbing the fully dressed but sleeping Patti, who wakes and blames him for letting her oversleep.
It is true that the narrator reacts to Nelson's threats in a way similar to Mr. Harrold's reaction in "Pastoral" to having a gun on him, and were it not for the pattern of sexual advances and rejections in the story, suggesting human relations as the theme, we might suspect "Vitamins" of being a variation on the theme of mortality. However, there can be no dismissal of the pattern.
First, the narrator is told by Patti that Sheila made a pass and was gently rebuffed. Then he makes a pass at Donna and is put off. Finally, Nelson makes a pass at Donna. She refuses him while actually wanting to accept. Such a pattern strongly suggests that saying no is not final for these characters. In two out of three instances the narrator can be certain of that.
And what about Nelson? Is he an avenging angel or oracle? Whatever he is, the narrator cannot dismiss his words. His judgment must be reckoned with, for he takes one look at the couple and says to the narrator, "You with somebody else, ain't you? This beautiful woman, she ain't your wife. I know that" (Where, 192). Then he says that Patti is out with another man. He also reads Donna correctly. She would, admittedly, have taken the money for the sex.
And finally, he yells after the couple, "It ain't going to do no good! Whatever you do, it ain't going to help none!" (Where, 195). That too is true. Like a spirit, Nelson's presence seems to follow them. In three out of four instances, the narrator can be certain that Nelson's reading is accurate. Perhaps he is also accurate about the fourth. Perhaps Patti is with another person.
Badly shaken by his encounter with Nelson, the narrator cannot be certain of much, least of all that Patti has not betrayed him with Sheila or someone else. Like Wyman in "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" he may have failed to see Patti's potential for passion—or seen it and refused to acknowledge it. In either case, he must confront the possibility, and that makes him an altered person.
Recalling Carver's past use of the themes of mortality and human relations, we might be justified in asking if he is merely repeating himself or contributing something new to his old preoccupations. After a moment's thought, we can observe one difference immediately: the two themes, treated separately in earlier stories, are rendered complex in "Vitamins" by combining them in a narrative pattern that subordinates the mortality issue to the question of human relations, although the threat of death or harm is the catalyst that directs our attention to the characters' relations.
All of the events—the drinking, the sexual disruptions and disappointments, the futile attempts to escape their dismal plights by fleeing to Portland or Arizona, as Patti and the narrator speak of doing—underscore the narrator's recognition of what their lives have become: empty, meaningless, oppressed by poverty and the pressures of trying to make ends meet. As Patti says early in the story, "I don't have any relief. There's no relief!" (Where, 187), then later, "Middle of winter, people sick all over the state, people dying, and nobody thinks they need vitamins. I'm sick as hell myself" (Where 188). And it's true. These characters are spiritually sick, beaten down by a life over which they have no control. Things are falling apart, and there are no vitamins that will help. In this condition, they are typical Carveresque characters confronting a depressing nihilism.
Typical they may be, but Nelson is another matter altogether. Like Scotty in "A Small, Good Thing," he possesses mythic qualities; Scotty is a Christ figure, and Nelson both the blind seer and avenging angel. Both are representations of the symbolic in someone real. Carver's essays "On Writing" and "Fires" offer helpful information about Nelson's function. The first essay underscores Carver's fondness for creating a feeling of threat, the "sense that something is imminent" (Fires, 17), that certain forces are relentlessly set in motion. The second essay reveals the origin of Nelson, who changes the direction of "Vitamins." In "Fires," Carver recounts how he was once interrupted by a telephone caller seeking someone named Nelson. Noting the inflections of black English in the caller's speech, Carver imagines his characters in a situation that demands the Nelson we encounter: threatening, the sole custodian of judgment and prophecy, perceiving the scene and foretelling the outcome, able to transcend everyday realism. Nelson is a character, in essence, much closer to Sophocles' Tiresias than to the powerless, inarticulate people we are accustomed to seeing in Carver's fiction.
Carver's exploitation of white America's fear of the black male and other persistent myths separates the fiction of Cathedral from earlier Carveresque fiction while, at the same time, linking it with detective and sentimental genres. Even when Carver returns to his old form, as he does in "The Bridle," capturing the colloquial diction and syntax of his narrator, there is something different about the work. It is fleshed out, no longer without resolution, and there is a felt sympathy, a pathos not always present in the early stories and almost always missing from stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Sympathy emanates from Carver's enterprising narrator-apartment manager, Marge, who has installed a professional chair with sink and turned the front room of her living quarters into a beauty parlor, where she collects the rents, writes receipts and, most important, talks to interested parties. As up-to-date as any current member of the National Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association, she disdains the title of beautician and calls herself a stylist.
In charge of a corporate-owned apartment complex in Arizona, Marge and her husband, Harley, observe the arrival of a family of four in flight from the chaos of their life in Minnesota. Marge rents them an apartment, but it is not until later, when she gets the new tenant into her beautician's chair and relaxed by a manicure, that Betty starts talking.
Back in Minnesota after his first wife left him, Holits met and married Betty. Their life together began well enough, but then something happened. Holits bought a horse, took to betting on it, and gambled away the farm. Although Carver does not include the scene in this story, one need not imagine what passed between the travelers before their departure; Carver provides the prototype in "Vitamins":
Then we got to talking about how we'd be better off if we moved to Arizona, someplace like that.
I fixed us another one. I looked out the window. Arizona wasn't a bad idea. (Where, 187)
The idea occurs, distilled in the alembic of a mind beholding nothing. The character contemplates the prospect of departure, its unfulfilled promise, and symbolic escape. It is a familiar scene in Carver's fiction, and Carver leaves it out in "The Bridle."
Now in Arizona, their possessions reduced to an old station wagon, clothes, and a bridle, they are hoping for a change of luck and a new life. However, once again, something happens. Under the influence of drink and at the urging of others, Holits attempts to leap from the roof of the pool cabana into the water, misses, splits his head open, and is left permanently addled. Before long, the family gives up the apartment and moves on, leaving the bridle behind.
No doubt Holits had retained the tackle to flatter himself about his knowledge of horses, but by the time it is overlooked or left intentionally, the harness, reins, and bit have come to be, not an instrument Holits's uses to control and guide brute force, but rather the symbol of Holits's condition, controlled rather than controlling. As Marge puts it at the end of the story, "If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you'd know it was time. You'd know you were going somewhere."21
One feels the power of that image, a negative force that life exercises on individuals, especially those on whom Carver focuses his attention. More often than not, they are incapable of stating with any precision what they sense. Consequently, we must interpret their strange physical reactions or indirect comments that say important things in commonplace utterances.
Still under Marge's spell in the chair, Betty remembers that her school counselor once asked what her dreams were. It was a question without an answer then, but asked the same question now, she would reply, "Dreams, you know, are what you wake up from," adding to Marge, "You don't know what it's like" (Cathedral, 200).
But Marge knows. She is on the point of revealing just how clearly she knows when Carver deftly restrains her by guiding Harley into the room. She never finishes, but the reader sees the affinity between these two wives, sees as well the similarity between Holits and Harley. Betty's burden is Marge's too. As Marge expresses it, "Sometimes I lie awake, Harley sleeping like a grindstone beside me, and try to picture myself in Betty's shoes. I wonder what I'd do then" (Cathedral, 201). Her curiosity is rhetorical, for she must know that she would continue her life as it is, exchanging one stonelike husband who sees and understands nothing of the drama she is witnessing for another.
After the family leaves, Marge inspects the apartment and finds it clean: "The blinds are raised, the bed is stripped. The floor shines. 'Thanks,' I say out loud. Wherever she's going, I wish her luck. 'Good luck, Betty'" (Cathedral, 208). With this sympathetic farewell expressed across an unknown space, Marge once again acknowledges her affinity with Betty. She may not be able to articulate the significance of what she has experienced, but she can hardly fail to detect the presence of forces that control people against their will and damage them. She expresses as much by thinking of the bridle.
To weave sympathy, sentimentality, and melodrama into the fictional fabric of Cathedral with the assurance of an artist unburdened by lingering doubts and have the mature quality of the writing widely acclaimed by critics and readers alike—these are notable accomplishments perhaps best explained by the originality of the title story, which first appeared in Atlantic Monthly and was reprinted in Best American Short Stories, 1982. Carver's imaginative invention may find its explanation in something as simple as his use of the rarely seen opposite of an archetypal pattern.
"Cathedral," more than any other story, is the emblem of the new Carver. The disillusioned first-person narrator, often but not always a child, is one of literature's most familiar structures and a chief example of dynamic characterization. In the paradigm, the protagonist discovers a profound truth that is necessary in order to take one's place in mature society. The structure goes back as far as Oedipus, and individuals who have read Turgenev's "First Love," Joyce's "Araby," and Sherwood Anderson's "I Want to Know Why" will recognize this paradigm immediately. "Cathedral," however, provides the rare opposite of this familiar type: a narrator who discovers a life-affirming truth without the pain. While it is true that such a story runs a risk of sinking into the sentimentality of "A Small, Good Thing," Carver contrives to avoid the hazard in an instructive manner.
Robert, a blind friend of the narrator's wife, who comes for a visit, is the catalyst of the story, serving as the Tiresias figure. His reception is mixed: enthusiastically welcomed by the wife, grudgingly received by the narrator. Bub, as Robert calls the narrator, is mean spirited, asocial, and governed by questionable assumptions about the blind and members of ethnic groups. To his remark that he has no blind friends, his wife responds,
"You don't have any friends."…
I didn't answer. She'd told me a little about the blind man's wife.
Her name was Beulah. Beulah! That's a name for a colored woman.
"Was his wife a Negro?" I asked. (Where, 268)
Although a grown man, Bub is no better informed than the adolescent narrator who must be disabused of a mistaken notion about the world. Carver's way of setting up the theme on the first page is to show how little Bub understands about blindness, then to anticipate the final and central event of the story: "She told me he touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck! She never forgot it. She even tried to write a poem about it…. She wrote a poem or two every year, usually after something really important had happened to her…. In the poem, she talked about what she had felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips" (Where, 266-67). This will eventually form one of the harmonious parts of the story, but here, Bub can no more see the point than Oedipus could. He goes on to compound his folly by revealing his contempt for the blind: "Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one. A woman who could go on day after day and never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved. A woman whose husband could never read the expression on her face, be it misery or something better" (Where, 269). One need only recall Oedipus's taunt to Tiresias in order to compare the contempt shared by the two protagonists: "for thee that strength is not, since thou art maimed in ear, and in wit, and in eye."22 Oedipus and Bub possess full sight, but are blind, while Tiresias and Robert are blind, but can see clearly. As Tiresias warns, "And I tell thee—since thou hast taunted me even with blindness—that thou hast sight, yet seest not" (Sophocles, 380). Ultimately, both will be instructed by the blind.
After dinner, the three of them settle down comfortably in the living room so that Robert and Bub's wife can talk about the past 10 years. When Bub thinks they are about through discussing old times and the intervening years, he turns the television on. She leaves to change into her robe, and Bub invites the blind, middle-aged man to smoke marijuana with him. Returning to find them smoking, Bub's wife joins them, but soon falls asleep.
The two men give their attention to a program about the church in the Middle Ages, Bub watching, Robert listening, one ear turned toward the set, as Bub attempts to explain what a cathedral is, but discovers he cannot express what he sees. Undaunted, Robert suggests some heavy paper to draw on. As Bub draws, Robert places his hand over Bub's drawing hand. When the picture is finished, he runs his fingers over the lines. Then he has Bub close his eyes and continue drawing:
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, "I think that's it. I think you got it," he said. "Take a look. What do you think?"
But I had my eyes closed, I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
"Well?" he said. "Are you looking?"
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.
"It's really something," I said. (Where, 279)
Thus, in a replication of his wife's much earlier experience, the narrator discovers the refutation of his assumptions about the blind and seeing. We can imagine the shape of the cathedral materializing before his inner eye as he learns that conventional vision is not the only way to see things and that the eyes are not the only organs with which one can view the world. We can also see that he has not quite grasped the meaning of his experience, but he has acknowledged that special quality his wife experienced and tried to recapture in a poem when he says, "It's really something."
To express such a lesson would be didactic and the worst possible way of developing the theme, not only sentimentalizing the story, but also rendering Bub more articulate than he is. Bub never seems to notice that his experience is identical to his wife's; the discovery is left to our powers of inference. Moreover, in the context of the smoking, Carver allows for a belief on Bub's part that the something he experiences is an effect of the marijuana. And therein lies Carver's success.
Although Bub, like his wife 10 years before when she let Robert feel her face, receives a profound, perhaps a character-altering, experience, it would be too much to conclude from what has passed that he experiences a conversion like the baker's in "A Small, Good Thing." Nothing suggests that he will have any more friends from this point on or be governed any less by such spurious notions as, for example, blind people don't smoke because they can't see the smoke. What we can conclude, though, is that he will view from now on his wife's experience in a manner different from his initial attitude, that his attitude toward Robert will be wholly different also, and that he has experienced an event that has the power to trigger the imagination.
With all of his imperfections, Bub remains thoroughly realistic, not a symbol in a modern allegory. We can believe him when he says, "My wife finally took her eyes off the blind man and looked at me. I had the feeling she didn't like what she saw" (Where, 270). However, there is the indisputable sense that she may well like what she sees after Robert departs, for in a single event her husband has moved considerably closer to sharing her values—intuitively perhaps, unconsciously, but also convincingly.
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