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Carver’s Cathedral: Different Interpretations at Different Stages of Life

Heidi Moore writes wonderfully re-imagined modern stories based on Greek mythology, among other things. She is also a medical doctor and non-fiction feature writer, as well as mother and wife and friend. It’s a pleasure to host her here on the blog as she takes on Carver’s ending of Cathedral:

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Raymond Carver has always been one of my favorite writers.  If I could choose a style to emulate, it would be the minimalist. In Cathedral, Carver writes sentences like, “She told me.” And “He was no one I knew.” I would love to get out of my own way when I’m writing and just say what needs to be said. But as much as I expect such straightforward prose to be transparent, it ends up being multi-layered, and the complexities have followed me through more than a decade (gasp) of re-readings.

The first time I experienced Cathedral, I was in college, and I couldn’t get past the fact that the characters were smoking pot in the story.  Pot!  Seriously?  (FYI, if you had been offered a million dollars to pick out a square at a party, you’d be ecstatic when I walked through the door.) I didn’t understand the concepts the professor talked about, all symbolism and theme, because his words smelled too much like skunk for me to understand.

Years later, probably during my own religious experience, I was struck by the way the narrator finally “saw” life and relationships, the way his own self-absorbed metaphorical blindness disappeared.  Of course during his own revelation he had no compunction about lying whether his eyes were open or not. Later though, (was I in a relationship crisis at the time?) I understood the insecurities of the narrator, the way his wife’s ex-husband or ex-employer could be valid threats to his happiness.

That leaves me with where I’m at now, and how I respond to the story after living with it for so many years, in so many stages of my own life.  Is it really fair to hold one story up against the stages of a person’s life and ask it to stand its ground? Maybe I’ve reamed the story out so many times that all that’s left is a shell, and I should just be grateful for all the substance I’ve consumed over the years. Either way, here’s my current impression, likely influenced by too many small group workshops and critiques of my own work, and regretfully said when the author can’t defend his actions.

I think the ending is too simple. The narrator has an epiphany at the end of Cathedral, and although I’ve had a few in my life (no I shouldn’t stay married to the man I wed as a teenager), the narrator of Cathedral seemed to come to his insights too easily. He should have reached his nirvana a few joints before he did. The blind man was too much of a sage, a tool for the narrator to use to get to a level of wisdom previously unattainable. Although I was happy with the ending before, now I want something nebulous, ambivalent, uncertain. No one comes to understand the meaning of life after a few tokes and an etch-a-sketch moment. At least that’s what I’m telling myself—in middle age, when I’ve had to give up on absolutes and certainties and concentrate on a whole lot of compromise and maybes and we’ll get back to yous.

We’ll see what I think next year.

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Dr. Heidi Moore is a recent graduate of Queens University with her MFA in Creative Writing. Her short story, Coydog, was featured in The Masters Review in 2012. Heidi is a practicing pediatrician in upstate New York, and she spends her life divided between medicine and writing. You can connect with her on Twitter @hj_moore.

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