Raymond Carver | Critical Essay by Keith Cushman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Raymond Carver.
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Critical Essay by Keith Cushman

SOURCE: "Blind, Intertextual Love: 'The Blind Man' and Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral'," in D. H. Lawrence's Literary Inheritors, edited by Keith Cushman and Dennis Jackson, Macmillan, 1991, pp. 155-66.

In the following essay, which was originally published in Études lawrenciennes in 1988, Cushman states that although Carver was not influenced by D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Blind Man" when Carver wrote "Cathedral," the stories are very similar.

Anyone who reads Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral', the title-story of his 1983 collection, with a knowledge of D. H. Lawrence's short stories might easily conclude that 'Cathedral' is a shrewd, intriguing rewriting of 'The Blind Man'. Carver's tale presents a scrambled reprise of the crucial elements of Lawrence's great story. Lawrence's triangle of characters consists of a blind husband (Maurice Pervin), his wife (Isabel), and the wife's sighted friend (Bertie Reid). In 'Cathedral', the unnamed husband and wife are sighted, but the wife's visiting friend (Robert) is blind. The interplay of husband, wife, and visitor comprises the slight action of both stories. Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' conclude with a potentially transforming act of ritual communion between the two men. The husband in 'Cathedral' genuinely enters Robert's world of blindness; Maurice Pervin does not realize how badly his attempted communion with Bertie has failed. The evidence seems clear: Carver uses Lawrence's story as the scaffolding for his own.

'Cathedral' is typical of Carver's stories in presenting trapped characters leading lives at once banal and nightmarish. As in W. H. Auden's 'As I Walked Out One Evening', 'the crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead'. Carver is a master at presenting what Gary L. Fisketjon has called the 'terrifying implications of Normal Life' (qtd. in Stull 237). As Joe David Bellamy has put it, '[b]eneath the surface conventionality of [Carver's] salesmen, waitresses, bookkeepers, or hopeless middle-class "occupants" lies a morass of unarticulated [sic] yearnings and unexamined horrors; repressed violence, the creeping certainty that nothing matters, perverse sexual wishes, the inadmissible evidence of inadequacy' (qtd. in Stull 239). With failed communication and missed connections so ubiquitous in Carver's stories, the mysterious but unmistakable oneness experienced by the husband and Robert at the end of 'Cathedral' has a powerful impact, especially since the story concludes the collection. Indeed, beginning with 'Cathedral', Carver's work became somewhat less bleak and chilly.

In 'Cathedral', Carver enigmatically dramatizes the possibility of human change and redemption. This element of 'Cathedral' is made all the more compelling by the awareness that Carver is rewriting the end of Lawrence's story, where no real communion takes place. One story resonates against the other. 'Cathedral' offers a complex critique of 'The Blind Man' even as it draws upon it. Chalk up one more striking example of Lawrence's influence on contemporary fiction writers.

This argument is vitiated by one major flaw. Raymond Carver wrote me in autumn 1987 that though he 'had read those three or four stories of [Lawrence's] that are always anthologized—"The Horse Dealer's Daughter" and "Tickets, Please" and one or two others', he had not read 'The Blind Man' when he wrote 'Cathedral'. Carver does acknowledge that when he read 'The Blind Man', not long after writing 'Cathedral', he liked Lawrence's story 'a good deal'. He even had his students at Syracuse read 'The Blind Man' 'in the fall term of 1982 (when [he] first read the story)'. Still, he does not 'recall noticing any, or many, similarities' to his own story when he read 'The Blind Man'. He also supplies a fascinating account of the genesis of 'Cathedral':

The thing that sparked the story was the visit of a blind man to our house! It's true. Well, stories have to come from someplace, yes? Anyway, this blind man did pay us a visit and even spent the night. But there all similarities end. The rest of the story was cobbled up from this and that, naturally.

Thus, the Lawrentian scaffolding of 'Cathedral' collapses.1

Though my study of the influence of 'The Blind Man' on 'Cathedral' has abruptly ended, you will note that my essay continues. The very existence of Lawrence's strong text about three characters—wife, blind man, visiting old friend of the wife—creates a powerful intertextual relationship between the stories. To Julia Kristeva, intertextuality 'has nothing to do with matters of influence by one writer upon another, or with the sources of a literary work'. Rather, it is defined 'as the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another' (qtd. in Roudiez 15). Roland Barthes expands upon this definition in noting that

any text is an intertext; other texts are present in it, at varying levels, in more or less recognisable forms: the texts of the previous and surrounding culture. Any text is a new tissue of past citations. Bits of codes, formulae, rhythmic models, fragments of social languages, etc. pass into the text and are redistributed within it, for there is always language before and around the text. Intertextuality, the condition of any text whatsoever, cannot … be reduced to a problem of sources or influences…. (Barthes 39)

Though Carver had not read 'The Blind Man' when he wrote 'Cathedral', he nevertheless produced a story that resides within the intertextual orbit of 'The Blind Man'. The stories speak to and illuminate one another. Fredric Jameson, commenting on Lawrence Kazdan's movie Body Heat (which he sees as a new version of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice), notes that 'our awareness of the preexistence of other versions, previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself, is now a constitutive and essential part of the film's structure' (67). 'The Blind Man' is similarly present in our response to 'Cathedral'—and vice versa.

Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' associate blindness with a greater depth of being than is possible in the rational, limited sighted world. Over the centuries, the blindness trope has importantly signified the distinction between sight and insight. In classical mythology, the blind seer Tiresias perfectly embodies this tradition. When Oedipus gouges out his eyes, he is violently dramatizing his hard-won knowledge that all along he had been 'blind'. His decision literally to blind himself contains a triumphant element, for the deeper understanding associated with blindness is to be preferred to the superficial grasp of reality associated with sight. The blinding of Gloucester in King Lear follows the same paradigm: paradoxically, Gloucester can 'see' only after being blinded. Mr. Rochester is temporarily blinded at the end of Jane Eyre while selflessly trying to rescue his mad wife from the burning Thornfield Hall. Again blindness is associated with greater insight.

'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral', each in its own way, draw on this blindness trope, for Lawrence's blind Maurice and Carver's blind Robert see more deeply than their sighted counterparts. In 'The Blind Man', blindness is associated with instinct and the unconscious; in 'Cathedral', it finally represents an experience of self-abnegation and shared transcendence. Both tales rewrite a story central to the Western tradition. Both are rooted in the same cultural and literary heritage.

'The Blind Man', written in 1918 just after the Armistice, was first collected in England, My England and Other Stories (1922). World War I provides the background for many of these stories. Maurice Pervin, blinded and disfigured in Flanders has lived at the Grange with his wife Isabel for a year. He does menial work around the farm and discovers that his life seems 'peaceful with the almost incomprehensible peace of immediate contact in darkness'. He and the pregnant Isabel spend time talking, singing, and reading together 'in a wonderful and unspeakable intimacy'. She also reviews books for a Scottish newspaper, carrying on an 'old interest' (347).

The Pervins share a 'whole world, rich and real and invisible', but sometimes Isabel suffers from a 'weariness, a terrible ennui', and Maurice is overcome by 'devastating fits of depression, which seemed to lay waste his whole being' (347). Though Isabel believes that 'husband and wife should be so important to one another, that the rest of the world simply did not count' (349), the strain of her difficult, complex marriage makes her yearn for 'connection with the outer world' (348). When her old friend Bertie Reid, barrister, Scotsman, and minor literary man, writes, she invites him to visit.

Maurice has encouraged Isabel to invite Bertie, for, isolated in his blindness, he yearns to make contact with his wife's old friend. Like Birkin in Women in Love, he seems to feel that an intimate relationship with a woman is not enough. But the visit is not a success. The high tea prepared by Isabel for the two men makes Maurice restless, and he retreats to the barn, where he sits pulping turnips. Isabel sends Bertie out through the wind and rain to fetch her husband. In the barn, 'filled with hot, poignant love, the passion of friendship', Maurice is eager that he and his wife's friend should 'know each other'. He runs his hand over Bertie's skull and face and then grasps the 'shoulder, the arm, the hand of the other man'. When Maurice asks his visitor to touch his eyes, Bertie, trying unsuccessfully 'by any means to escape', lays 'his fingers on the scarred eyes'. Maurice covers Bertie's fingers 'with his own hand, [pressing] the fingers of the other man upon his disfigured eye-sockets, trembling in every fibre' (364). Maurice proclaims that he and Bertie have 'become friends', but Bertie cannot bear it 'that he had been touched by the blind man, his insane reserve broken in'. He is 'like a mollusc whose shell is broken' (365). No wonder Lawrence described the end of 'The Blind Man' as 'queer and ironical' (Letters III 303).

A Lawrentian schema can be discerned beneath the surface of 'The Blind Man'. Maurice and Bertie represent two Lawrentian poles of being. Maurice does not 'think much or trouble much' but lives in the 'sheer immediacy of blood-contact with the substantial world' (355). With his 'slow' mind and 'quick and acute' feelings, he is 'just the opposite to Bertie, whose mind was much quicker than his emotions'. The brittle Bertie is a 'man of letters, a Scotsman of the intellectual type, quick, ironical, sentimental' (349). He cannot 'approach women physically' (359). Maurice and his world of darkness are too much for him. At tea, Bertie, both fascinated and repulsed by the blind man, looks away from him and, 'without knowing what he did', picks up a 'little crystal bowl of violets from the table, and held them to his nose' (358), retreating to the safe world of polite civilization and refinement.

Isabel is caught between the extremes embodied in these antithetical men. Bertie is essentially neuter, and Isabel is devoted to Maurice. Nevertheless, the Maurice-Isabel-Bertie triangle includes a submerged erotic element. Isabel feels fulfilled by the 'blood-prescience' (355) she experiences through Maurice; she 'couldn't do without' his 'presence—indefinable—.' But she also feels isolated and incomplete and longs for Bertie's intellect. Of course, Bertie is unable to rise to the occasion. He observes to Isabel that there is '[s]omething lacking all the time' in her relationship with her husband but suggests lamely—and self-reflexively—that everyone is 'deficient somewhere' (361). The erotic tension is most visible in the scene in which Bertie and Isabel chat shortly after his arrival while 'helpless desolation' (356) comes over the shut-out Maurice.

The uninitiated reader of Lawrence is apt to conclude that 'The Blind Man' offers a simple lesson in the value of living in the darkness. The 'sheer immediacy of blood-contact with the substantial world' creates for Maurice a 'certain rich positivity, bordering sometimes on rapture'. We too should learn Maurice's 'new way of consciousness' (355) and should discover the 'peace of immediate contact in darkness' (347).

But as Janice Harris reminds us, 'Lawrence is not an advocate of any one way of knowing, blood prescience included' (278). The 'rich suffusion' (355) of Maurice's state sometimes becomes swamp-like and overwhelming. 'The Blind Man' is actually a parable of unintegrated being, of the impossibility of bringing together body and mind, darkness and light.

Carver's 'Cathedral' lacks such allegorical resonances, but it reads like a dream-image of Lawrence's story. As in 'The Blind Man', the intrusion of a visiting outsider breaks an imperfect marital equilibrium. As in Lawrence's story, Carver's characters eat together and talk inconsequentially while the husband grows jealous and uneasy. The husband is insecure; the wife feels that something is lacking in her marriage. The tension generated by 'Cathedral', like that in 'The Blind Man', is resolved by a surprising ending. Carver's story is also like Lawrence's in developing a fundamental dialectic between sight and blindness.

The husband narrates 'Cathedral', providing the story with the off-hand, colloquial texture characteristic of Carver's fiction. Robert, the blind man who is an old friend of the narrator's wife, does not conform to stereotypes of blindness. He has a beard and a booming voice, his clothes are 'spiffy' (216); he does not use a cane or wear dark glasses; he owns two television sets. Like Bertie Reid, the husband is uncomfortable with the other man's blindness: 'his being blind bothered me' (209). The narrator perceives the visitor as a threat.

The three people drink lots of scotch, they eat dinner, they smoke marijuana, they watch television (though of course the blind man cannot see). The wife falls asleep on the sofa as her husband and the blind man watch a late-night television program about medieval cathedrals. Robert asks the narrator to describe a cathedral to him—not an easy task. The narrator soon gives up, remarking that 'cathedrals don't mean anything special to me. Nothing'. Robert then suggests that they 'draw [a cathedral] together': 'He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. "Go ahead, bub, draw," he said'. Though the narrator is 'no artist', he starts drawing and can't stop. 'You got it, bub', encourages the blind man (226-7). The wife awakens, but the husband continues to draw. Robert asks him to close his eyes, and he does. The blind man's 'fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now' (228). The story ends enigmatically:

I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.

'It's really something,' I said. (228)

The submerged erotic tension of Lawrence's story is closer to the surface in 'Cathedral'. The narrator, emotionally estranged from his wife, is unable to make human contact with anyone. He conceals his self-pity behind cynical humor, meanwhile keeping everyone at a distance. Jealous of his wife's first husband, the 'man who'd first enjoyed her favors', he is also jealous of her blind friend, who years ago had said goodbye to her by touching 'his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck!' (210). The husband's jealous feelings are probably not misplaced: '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' (215).

The husband attempts to deaden his inner pain by pursuing various forms of sensory oblivion with his wife: the heavy drinking, marijuana smoking, and 'serious eating': 'We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn't talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed that table' (217). Bertie Reid is effete and intellectual, the husband in 'Cathedral' is crude and unintellectual, but both reveal the limitations of sightedness.

The wife also seeks oblivion, for she too finds herself in a bad way emotionally. Like Isabel in 'The Blind Man', she is an in-between character. This different woman suffers from aimlessness and anomie. Her suicide attempt at the breakup of her first marriage tells us that, unlike her husband, she at least does not hide from her emotions. She also writes poetry in order to confront and examine her life. (In contrast, the husband remarks sourly that poetry is not 'the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read' [210].) Her happiness over her old friend's visit also demonstrates her openness to human contact. The husband notices that she is 'wearing a smile' when she returns from the train depot with the blind man. 'Just amazing' (214), he says. She is one of the walking wounded, whereas her husband is one of the living dead.

In 'The Blind Man', Lawrence revisits, rethinks, and in some ways parodies important themes and ideas in Women in Love, which he had essentially completed by November 1917. Like the novel but in miniature, the story dramatizes and questions the possibility of significant relationship, man to woman and man to man (and man and woman to the cosmos). 'The Blind Man' also resembles Women in Love in its central fascination with wholeness of being. The butterflies Ursula looks at and the 'fleshy' water-plants in the 'soft, oozy, watery mud' both represent principles of life. How can a person incorporate both principles—the light and the darkness, the 'silver river of life' and the 'black river' (19, 172)—into his being?

In Women in Love, Lawrence explores these difficult questions with high seriousness and great intensity. The novel leaves the questions unresolved, for Lawrence is too great an artist to force resolutions where no real resolutions are to be found. Nevertheless, the novel's rawness and turbulence express his urgent effort to discover the dynamic unifying principle that would bring man and woman together, man and man together, body and soul together. 'The Crown' and the late additions to Twilight in Italy are characterized by the same restless quest after the absolute. Though he offers no clear answers in any of these works, he genuinely seeks such answers. The Rainbow had pointed hopefully toward the possibility of personal integration, but Women in Love is more troubled, problematic, and open-ended.

Any truths offered by Women in Love—if truths there be—are at best fragile and provisional. If in Women in Love Lawrence pursues ultimates, in 'The Blind Man' and most of the other England, My England stories, he seems content (or even pleased) to acknowledge that no such ultimates are available. Women in Love is urgent and impassioned; 'The Blind Man' is detached and sardonic. 'The Blind Man' revisits the notions of Blutbrüderschaft and wholeness of being, so crucial to Women in Love, but almost by way of playing artistic games with them. As brilliant as the story is, it has something of the jeu d'esprit about it.

Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' explore the possibility of male bonding. Isabel is not present in the final scene of 'The Blind Man'. The 'wife in 'Cathedral' is awake at the end of the story, but is excluded from the two men's experience. She does not join them in their darkness. 'Cathedral' is most powerfully like 'The Blind Man' in the attempted ritual communion between blind and sighted male characters with which both stories end.

Maurice's attempt to make contact with Bertie is both abortive and destructive. The conclusion of the story rewrites the naked wrestling match in the 'Gladiatorial' chapter of Women in Love. Birkin and Gerald almost seem to obliterate the boundaries separating them: 'Often, in the white, interlaced knot of violent living being that swayed silently, there was no head to be seen, only the swift, tight limbs, the solid white backs, the physical junction of two bodies clinched into oneness' (270). But if Birkin and Gerald come close to achieving oneness, Maurice's reaching out toward Bertie only accentuates the terrible gulf of separateness.

It is not often observed that the laying on of hands at the end of 'The Blind Man' is in part comic. Bertie agrees—'in a small voice'—to let Maurice touch him out of fear and 'very philanthropy'. When Maurice stretches out his 'strong, naked hand to him' (363), he accidentally knocks Bertie's hat off—a detail worthy of Samuel Beckett. Just as in 'Gladiatorial', Maurice's concerted laying on of hands includes a covertly sexual element. Maurice 'seemed to take him, in the soft, traveling grasp', and Bertie stands 'as if in a swoon'. Bertie is 'mute and terror-struck', afraid 'lest the other man should suddenly destroy him'. The final irony is that for all of his blood-prescience and instinctual connection with the dark forces of nature. Maurice Pervin does not know what he is doing in the final scene because—simply and comically—he is blind. Though Bertie is broken by the experience in the barn, the deluded Maurice feels triumphant: 'The new delicate fulfilment of mortal friendship had come as a revelation and surprise to him, something exquisite and unhoped-for' (364).

Bertie's eyes are closed when Maurice runs his hand over his face. At the end of the story, Bertie is 'haggard, with sunken eyes'; his eyes are 'as if glazed with misery' (364, 365). But, unlike the narrator of 'Cathedral', he has never entered Maurice's rich realm of darkness. Darkness and light, body and mind, all the familiar Lawrentian dualisms are doomed to remain forever apart. Lawrence's sardonic joke at the end of the story is at his own expense.

Raymond Carver has said that 'Cathedral' is 'totally different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before'. When he wrote the story, he 'experienced this rush and I felt, "This is what it's all about, this is the reason we do this'" ('Art' 210). The 'opening up' Carver experienced in writing the story is most strikingly reflected in the conclusion, which, as I have shown, powerfully rewrites the communion scene in 'The Blind Man'.

The details of touch in the two stories are similar. Maurice Pervin covers Bertie Reid's hand with his own, pressing the 'fingers of the other man upon his disfigured eye-sockets', and Bertie stands 'as if in a swoon, unconscious, imprisoned' (364). In contrast, in 'Cathedral' when Robert's fingers 'rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper', '[i]t was like nothing else in my life up to now' (228). Though the end of Carver's story is cryptic, there is no denying the oneness experienced by the two men in their community of touch and darkness.

It is no accident that the narrator and Robert draw a cathedral—a fact beautifully underscored by Carver's choice of title—for the implications of the story are somehow religious. Tellingly, the blind man asks if the husband is 'in any way religious'. He responds, 'I guess I don't believe in it. In anything. Sometimes it's hard' (225). Yet the shared experience at the end of the story offers a glimpse of religious belief. When the two men draw together, making physical contact, one blind and the other with his eyes closed, the narrator experiences transcendence, an experience 'like nothing else in my life', an experience in which he does not 'feel like I was inside anything' (228). The story even conjures up a vision of lost religious community when the blind man tells the narrator: 'Put some people in there now. What's a cathedral without people?' (227).

Lawrence's world of darkness is sacred but insufficient, for the darkness cannot be reconciled with its necessary antithesis. When Maurice forces the sighted Bertie to enter his all-encompassing darkness, he destroys him. In contrast, the narrator of 'Cathedral' truly enters Robert's darkness, and that darkness is redemptive.

'The Blind Man' communicates the unavoidable separateness between people. Sixty-five years later, Carver reimagines the story and finds a way to dramatize the possibility of renewed, revitalized human contact, to suggest that the barriers between self and self can be broken down. The story perfectly embodies Carver's remark that though he was not religious, he had to 'believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection' ('Art' 212). At the end of 'Cathedral', the bruised, strung-out, cynical narrator has reentered the human community. Lawrence may have considered himself a 'passionately religious man' (Letters II 165), but he believed in struggle and commitment, not miracles. Resurrection never comes easily in Lawrence's works.

No doubt 'Cathedral' had a personal dimension for Raymond Carver. He had much to overcome en route to becoming one of America's best, most influential short story writers: estrangement from wife and children, long years of dreary jobs, difficulty in getting established as a writer, a terrible history of alcoholism, before lung cancer finally killed him at the age of 50. The haunting affirmations of 'Cathedral' reflect the hopeful upswing in the last decade of Carver's life as much as the change in his way of writing. These affirmations connect with the sense of moral certitude he articulated in 1981, proclaiming that 'in the best novels and short stories, goodness is recognized as such. Loyalty, love, fortitude, courage, integrity may not always be rewarded, but they are recognized as good or noble…. There are a few absolutes in this life, some verities, if you will, and we would do well not to forget them' (qtd. in Stull 242). Such absolutes and verities were unavailable to the author of 'The Blind Man' two generations earlier, no matter how strenuously he sought them. 'Cathedral', which yearns for absolutes, contains 'The Blind Man', which denies that absolutes are possible.

Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' are spun out of one of the hoariest clichés of our culture: love is blind. In 'The Blind Man', Maurice Pervin's blindness finally convinces us of our irredeemable loneliness. But to love in 'Cathedral' is to become blind: to enter the darkness, to respond instinctively, to abnegate self. Though Carver had not read 'The Blind Man' when he composed 'Cathedral', how brilliantly he has rewritten Lawrence's story.


1. One former student of Carver's remembers 'only two occasions on which he spoke with any heat. On the first he said that D.H. Lawrence was one of the best writers in the language and one of the worst, and sometimes in the same story' (Naughton C1).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, 'Theory of the Text', Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, ed. Robert Young (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 31-47.

Carver, Raymond, 'The Art of Fiction LXXVI' (interview with Mona Simpson), Paris Review 25.88 (1983): 192-221.

Carver, Raymond, Cathedral: Stories (New York: Knopf, 1983).

Carver, Raymond, Letters to Keith Cushman, 17 November and 8 December 1987.

Harris, Janice Hubbard, The Short Fiction of D.H. Lawrence (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1984).

Jameson, Fredric, 'Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984): 53-92.

Lawrence, D.H., 'The Blind Man', The Complete Short Stories, Vol. 2 (New York: Viking, 1969), 347-65.

Lawrence, D.H., The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: Volume II: June 1913–October 1916, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981).

Lawrence, D.H., The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: Volume III: October 1916–June 1921, ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984).

Lawrence, D.H., Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey, and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987).

Naughton, Jim, 'Carver: The Master's Touch', Washington Post, 4 August 1988: C1, C6.

Roudiez, Leon S., Introduction, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, by Julia Kristeva; ed. Leon S. Roudiez; trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1980), 1-20.

Stull, William L., 'Raymond Carver', Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984, ed. Jean W. Ross (Detroit: Gale, 1985), 233-45.

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