Cathedral Summary & Study Guide

This Study Guide consists of approximately 40 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Cathedral.
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Cathedral Summary & Study Guide Description

Cathedral Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on Cathedral by Raymond Carver.

Cathedral is a collection of short stories centered on working-class people who are or have been alcoholics, and are or have been ignorant or prejudiced. Many characters are trying to stop drinking, or else they are still in the clutches of their drinking addiction, and other characters are trying to get them to stop. This drama is repeated throughout the stories, but it is typically not resolved nor redeemed. Carver generally leaves his characters where he finds them. Instead of bringing them to a point of enlightenment or bringing them through a crisis, he simply tells their stories. With subtle authorial techniques, he makes it clear he, as the author, looks back at this kind of behavior and feels disgusted by it, even though at the same time he might feel he needs to bear witness to it. He does not seem to mind bearing witness against himself or the people he knows.

There are a number of types of characters who show up again and again in the stories. The most common is the somewhat ignorant or limited man who thinks drinking is the way out of every situation, or who thinks he can just get what he wants without consulting the people around him. This character typically has affairs or a failed marriage in his background, and doesn’t feel much obligation to act disciplined like the people around him want him to act. This character exists within a finely-crafted literary short story collection, though, so his behavior is at odds with the penetrating and subtle description readers get from the author, himself. There is some irony, as a result, and readers perceive the author does not entirely share the characters’ perspective.

One of the other characters recurring throughout the stories is the woman who loves the alcoholic man. This might be a girlfriend or a wife, but typically the woman is somewhat hardened, and has to work to be patient with a man who does not really know her feelings or know how to give her what she needs for herself. This person generally introduces a sense of tragedy into the stories, because the reader can see the man’s behavior through the woman’s eyes. The reader wants the man to behave, to make the woman happy, but Carver is more subtle than this, and the women are not merely angels or mothers. They have their own limitations, and in some cases, the women are the ones driving the men to drink, or drinking themselves into oblivion along with the men.

There are also, typically, children in the background of these stories, and they have generally made people miserable. In Feathers, Jack and Fran visit their friends Bud and Olla who have just had a baby, but the contentment Jack and Fran feel after their visit is the last contentment they’ll feel. They have a child themselves, and the kid is manipulative and makes them ashamed of themselves, so they don’t talk to Bud and Olla any more. The children that do exist are in the distance, or else the father doesn’t bother to visit, as in the Compartment, or the child dies, as in A Small Good Thing. Basically the male and female characters have a hard enough time holding themselves together—they do not have an easy time or good results with their children or families.

These stories would be bleak if they were not told from the perspective of a deeply compassionate author who loves his characters in spite of - and probably even because of - their faults. The ironic distance between author and characters ends up being reassuring to the reader, who knows the author sees the same terribleness and heartlessness and indifference as they see, themselves. There is, therefore, a complicity between author and reader that redeems the disconnection and even the hostility between the characters themselves.

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