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Carver’s Ending of Cathedral: “It’s Really Something”

One of the things that I like best about asking fellow writers to write for my blog during these “A Week With…” posts is the variety of response. Yesterday, Dr. Heidi Moore talked about how, at this stage in her life, she questions the “ease” of the ending that Carver gives us. Today, writer and creative writing teacher, Sara McDaniel focuses on the simple words that Carver uses to reveal this epiphany of the narrator.

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Anton Chekhov once wrote, “I think that when one has finished writing a short story one should delete the beginning and the end. That’s where we fiction writers mostly go wrong” (quoted in Ivan Bunin, Memories and Portraits). To me, ending a story at the right moment is the toughest decision to make as a writer since that’s where your reader will leave your story and (hopefully) reflect on it deeply moved.

This is why I admire the ending of Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral.” Carver doesn’t prolong the ending, but stops the story as soon as his narrator experiences empathy. Earlier in the story, the narrator hears the blind man say, “Learning never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn.” But it is the narrator who learns something important when he draws a cathedral for the blind man whose hand touches his. He draws windows, arches, and buttresses. The blind man tells the narrator to close his eyes, and the narrator experiences the world through the blind man’s eyes, which forces him to see life in a new way, expand his horizons, and leave his isolation.  At the end, the blind man asks the narrator what he thinks of the drawing, and the narrator comments, “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.” Carver ends the story there.

Carver could have added more scenes to show how the moment with the blind man affects the narrator’s relationship with his wife, or he could have shown what happens after the blind man leaves. Instead Carver ends the story the moment the narrator experiences a deeper connection to another person. The ending statement, “It’s really something,” conveys the narrator’s awe, which deeply contrasts the narrator’s anecdotal and familiar tone in the beginning of the story. (“This man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night…I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit.”)

In the beginning of the story, the narrator is an insecure, jealous man, who is emotionally detached from his wife and resentful towards the blind man. He narrates what he knows and fears about his wife’s connection to the blind man—how his wife let the blind man touch her face once (“He touched his fingers to every part of her face, her nose—even her neck!”), how she wrote a poem about it because she could never forget it, and how the narrator didn’t understand.

This touch resonates in the end as the narrator feels the blind man’s hand on his as he draws the cathedral. The ending moment not only reflects the beginning of the story but also coveys a transformation in the narrator from his earlier statement that he didn’t believe in anything. Carver’s ending shows enough for his reader to understand the narrator’s change without drawing it out, making Carver’s ending, as his narrator says, “really something.”

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Sara McDaniel teaches creative writing and literature at Principia College in Illinois. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina. During her undergraduate education, she received the Pittman Prose Award in 2008 and William Selmeier Literary Award in 2009. Currently, she is working on a collection of short stories.

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