Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Narrative Transformation and New Media in "Cathedral"

This is the second in a series of posts entitled "New Media Community in Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral' and the Bloggernacle" presenting my my conclusions from exploring connections between Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" and the Mormon blogosphere, known as the "Bloggernacle." This series of posts will evolve and expand over the coming days and weeks as I continue to present my conclusions and alter them based on your comments and suggestions.

Raymond Carver’s most well known work, “Cathedral,” is a first person narrative about a blind man who learns to see. The narrator’s internal dialogue shows that he resists commun
ication, leaving him ignorant and isolated until his life changes through an encounter with his wife’s blind friend, Robert. Although Robert is blind, he is better able to “see” because he communicates through a variety of mediums. The new mediums of communication Robert introduces to the narrator transform him and open his eyes to a new world. The transformative effect of new communication mediums in “Cathedral” invites comparison to the potential of new media platforms made possible by digital technology. Just as Robert helps the narrator of “Cathedral” overcome his isolation and "blindness" by introducing him to new forms of communication, new media has the power to connect and educate society.

Internal Dialogue
From the beginning of “Cathedral” the narrator’s internal dialogue reveals his reluctance to communicate. For example, wh
en he recounts the beginning of his relationship with his wife, the narrator recalls a poem she wrote about Robert and how “I didn’t think much of the poem. Of course, I didn’t tell her that” (357). This early statement of the narrator’s reticence establishes his general reluctance to share his feelings, and echoes throughout the story in statements like “I didn’t answer” (359), “But I didn’t say anything” (361), “For the most part, I just listened” (364), and “I had absolutely nothing to say to that” (365). In all these situations, whether in response to a question from his wife or during conversation with Robert, the narrator thinks to himself, but does not share his feelings with the people around him. This inner dialogue shows that the narrator rarely communicates verbally to express his feelings.

One reason for the narrator’s uncommunicativeness is his wife’s negative reactions to his questions. The few times the narrator does attempt to communicate, the wife responds negatively. Such an instance occurs when the narrator’s wife tells him that Robert’s wife’s name is Beulah. The narrator immediately identifies Beulah as an African-American name, and asks “Was his wife a Negro?” (359). Rather than validating the narrator’s attempt at communication, the wife explodes “Are you crazy? . . . Have you just flipped or something? . . . What’s wrong with you? . . . Are you drunk?” (359). It is no wonder that the narrator rarely communicates when his wife responds to his questions with such displeasure. Later, when Robert arrives, the narrator “wanted to say something else, small-talk” (361), so he asks Robert which side of the train he sat on during his trip. Fearing that a question about the scenery will offend Robert, the narrator’s wife again smothers his attempt to communicate, exclaiming “What a question, which side! . . . What’s it matter which side?” (362). The wife’s continual rejection of the narrator’s attempts to communicate discourage his outward dialogue.

New Media
The wife’s scornful attitude toward the narrator’s attempts at communication recall many people’s attitude towar
d new media. For example, Steven Johnson, in “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live,” recalls his early reaction to Twitter:
You hear about this new service that lets you send 140-character updates to your "followers," and you think, Why does the world need this, exactly? It's not as if we were all sitting around four years ago scratching our heads and saying, “If only there were a technology that would allow me to send a message to my 50 friends, alerting them in real time about my choice of breakfast cereal."
As Johnson goes on to describe the revolutionary effects of
Twitter, he explains why this initial attitude, and attitudes like the wife’s in “Cathedral,” are incorrect. The consequences of disregarding new media can be seen in the effect that not communicating has on the narrator.
The narrator’s inner dialogue reveals that ignorance and isolation accompany his lack of communication. For example, some time before Robert’s visit the narrator and his wife are interrupted while listening to one of Robert’s tapes, but the narrator doesn’t care, claiming “I’d heard all I wanted to” (359). Later, while the narrator’s wife is preparing dinner, she tells him about Robert’s relationship with his wife, Beulah. Again, the narrator complains “my wife filled me in with more detail than I cared to know” (359). In both these instances the narrator’s unwillingness to communicate goes hand in hand with resisting learning. The narrator even admits his own ignorance when he thinks about Robert never being able to see Beulah’s face, conceding to himself that such a relationship “was beyond my understanding” (360). This inability to understand relationships also reveals the narrator’s isolation. Later, when the narrator’s wife begs him to be polite to Robert, arguing that she would be hospitable to any of his friends, the narrator argues that the situation is different because he doesn’t have blind friends. “You don’t have a
ny friends . . . Period” she responds (359). Obviously the narrator can’t argue this assertion, because he says “I didn’t answer” (359). Again, the narrator’s inner dialogue reveals the ignorance and isolation accompany his lack of communication.

Robert: A Master Communicator
The narrator char
acterizes Robert, on the other hand, as the master communicator in “Cathedral.” In the very first page of the story Robert uses several mediums to communicate with others. For example, the event that gives rise to the whole story is Robert communicating by telephone. The narrator says “he called my wife from his in-laws” to set up a visit (356). Even Robert’s relationship with the narrator’s wife originated from Robert using the newspaper to communicate, creating an ad that included “HELP WANTED—Reading to Blind Man, and a telephone number” (356). By putting this ad in the paper Robert invited others to communicate with him. In addition to the telephone and newspaper, Robert uses cassette tapes and mail to communicate. According to the narrator, “they made tapes and mailed them back and forth” (356). The narrator’s early characterization of Robert as a master communicator establishes the role he will play in bringing new forms of communication later in the story.

Just as ignorance and
isolation accompany the narrator’s lack of communication, using so many forms of communication makes Robert a more connected, educated person. For example, while the narrator has no friends, Robert’s use of ham radio allows him to have conversations “with fellow operators in Guam, in the Philippines, in Alaska, and even in Tahiti. He said he’d have a lot of friends there if he ever wanted to go visit those places” (365). The social network Robert has built through ham radio recalls the connectedness that new media platforms like Twitter facilitate what social scientists call “ambient awareness.” Just as Clive Thompson says in his landmark article "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy," “ambient intimacy becomes a way to ‘feel less alone,’” Robert’s use of ham radio allows him to avoid isolation. In addition to expanding his social network, Robert’s willingness to communicate also makes him a more informed person than that narrator. As mentioned before, the narrator often limits the amount of information he receives, while Robert, when asked about watching a television show about cathedrals, says “I’m always learning something. Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight. I got ears” (369). Robert’s willingness to communicate, even through television, a difficult medium for a blind man, has obviously made him a more informed person. The difference between the narrator and Robert illustrates how communicating through a variety of mediums can combat isolation and ignorance.

When the narrator’s wife falls asleep, he is left alone with Robert, giving them an opportunity to communicate. A change in the narrator’s dialogue signals the transformation that occurs when he is able to communicate. Robert initiates conversation, saying “We haven’t had a chance to talk. Know what I mean? I feel like me and her monopolized the evening.” The narrator responds “That’s all right . . . I’m glad for the company” (368). This statement is significant because it is the first time the narrator verbally expresses his feelings, a narrative shift that signals his transformation. Robert continues to encourage the narrator to communicate by asking him to describe the television program. And not only does Robert invite the narrator to communicate, but also to communicate through new mediums. When the narrator does not have the words to explain what a cathedral is, Robert encourages him to draw one. The narrator’s claim “I’m no artist” reveals that this medium of communication is new to him. Robert places his hand on the narrator’s and says “Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you” (373). This promise acquires deeper meaning as experimenting with these new forms of communication, specifically drawing and touch, opens the narrator’s eyes to a new world. He begins to escape from his isolation and ignorance, saying “I didn’t feel like I was inside anything” (375). The most compelling evidence of the narrator’s transformation is the very fact that he is a narrator. By telling the audience the story that is “Cathedral,” even the narrator’s internal dialogue becomes external as he shares his feelings with the audience.

Just as the narrator is able to escape the isolation and ignorance that accompany his lack of communication, a recent study from the Pew Research Center suggests “that people’s lives are likely to be enhanced by participation with new communication technologies, rather than by fearing that their use of new technology will send them into a spiral of isolation".
The narrator’s transformation in the end of “Cathedral” through his introduction to new mediums of communication illustrates the importance of embracing rather than resisting or ignoring the advent of new media.


  1. Good idea to use one post to analyze the text, while also drawing in discussion on new media. Maybe you could break up the post a little bit with headings or pictures or something. It was all interesting, just a little long. Also, I think maybe your thrid and second posts are out of order.

    The "stakes" for my thesis are the same as yours... Basically, understanding new media based on what we learn teaches us not to be afraid of it, and how to deal with it. I think you maybe did a better job of articulating that than I did, so good job.

  2. I really like the way you're pointing us to quotes from the text starting in your second paragraph.

    I think your analysis of the wife shutting down the narrator is very well done. I question a little bit the relationship between the wife's negative attitude and negative attitudes about new media (twitter, etc.). Because you earlier relate Robert's instruction with new media, it seems like there might be some mixed metaphors here, because you are now relating the negative attitudes towards the narrator, not Robert...or at least that I may need a little more explanation about how and why each metaphor links with each portion fromt he story.

    I hadn't quite thought through all the ways that Robert communicates, and I think that the way you highlight those ways and connect them with new media is very substantial.

    I wonder as I'm reading this if you need to include in your analogy the WAY that Robert teaches the narrator...how might his gentle, respectful, mild prompting fit in with New Media? Because maybe partly why the narrator learns is because of Robert's method. How does that method compare to the way that New Media interacts with us?