Cathedral

In the short story “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, a husband is narrating his experience meeting his wife’s close friend for the first time. This friend, Robert, is a blind man and the wife’s true confidante in life. At first, the husband is very discontent with the prospect of having a blind man in his home because he had never really spoken to or known anyone personally who was blind. This seems very insensitive at first, but to some degree I can understand why he might be nervous to interact with Robert. However, I think that the husband felt threatened by his wife’s and Robert’s closeness, and was anxious more because of that jealousy and resentment than anything else. The entire evening, the husband takes careful note of just about everything the blind man does, from the way he eats dinner to the way he lights his cigarettes. Eventually, Robert & the husband are left by themselves watching television while the wife sleeps on the couch. It occurs to the husband that, while they were watching (or listening to as in Robert’s case) a program about cathedrals, Robert may not have a clue as to what a cathedral looks like. He tries to explain to Robert what it looks like, but feels that his explanation is inadequate. It seems significant to the husband that cathedrals mean nothing to him; they have no spiritual or religious value at all. Robert suggests that they draw the cathedral together, and this is an extremely moving part of the story. Finally, the husband closes his eyes in order to assess his work. This creates a beautiful irony seeing as the husband held so much animosity towards Robert for his blindness for the majority of the story.

Ironically, I don’t necessarily feel that the cathedral tells the most about the husband’s character. It’s obviously very significant, but I think the first place we’re made aware of is the husband’s home. He feels very threatened by Robert’s and his wife’s relationship, and the fact the Robert was being invited into his home, his territory, is very significant for the husband. What’s also clear is the constant separation between the husband & Robert physically—they never sit next to each other. Any time the husband, wife, and Robert go into the living room to talk, the wife & Robert sit next to each other on the couch and the husband sits apart on the sofa chair. This points clearly to the emotional distance between Robert & the husband (as well as the distance between the husband and wife, for that matter). Even when Robert and the husband are on the same couch sharing a joint, the wife sits herself down in between them, separating them instantly. It’s only at the very end when Robert & the husband begin to draw together are they close, and this experience is what breaks the barrier between them. It’s clear that the differences the husband felt between he and Robert are completely broken when he appreciates the image he drew by temporarily becoming like Robert and closing his eyes.

Published in: on March 3, 2011 at 12:59 pm Comments (0)

To Room 19, Rough Draft

In the short story “To Room Nineteen” by Doris Lessing, Susan Rawlings is a woman living what seems like the perfect life with the perfect marriage. However, it soon becomes clear that Susan isn’t as happy with her life as one might think upon first glance. Slowly but surely, Susan begins to drift away from her home life in attempts to find freedom through solitude. This reaction can be analyzed by taking a closer look at how Susan relates to the places in her life such as her beautiful home with her family and the small hotel room she escapes to. Yi-Fu Tuan also helps us to understand these counterintuitive notions of space and freedom in the fifth chapter of his book Space and Place.

From the outside, it seems as though Susan lives the ideal life in a big house with a beautiful garden for all of her children and loving husband. However, as the story progresses, we see that Susan becomes more and more “reluctant to enter her big beautiful home” (Lessing 530). This same attractive and picture-perfect house begins to push Susan away, for in it were the many responsibilities that come with adult-life and motherhood. The more these responsibilities weighed down on Susan, the more it felt “as if something was waiting for her there she did not wish to confront” (530). Typically, “spaciousness is closely associated with [freedom]” explains Tuan in Space and Place (52). For this reason one would think that Susan should feel plenty free in her big home with a huge, lush garden to wander through. However, although “freedom implies space,” space does not always imply freedom (52). What Susan truly needed was space from her family, and freedom from her responsibilities.

This becomes evident when Susan takes her vacation to the mountains in Wales. Physically, she had all the space in the world, from huge mountains to tall skies and deep valleys. But with her family calling her multiple times a day, Susan felt like “the telephone wire [was] holding her to her duty like a leash” (Lessing 538). Tuan explains this phenomenon by stating that “solitude is broken not so much by the number of organisms in nature as by the sense of busy-ness—including busy-ness of the mind” (61). This is exactly what Susan felt, for although she was alone physically, her family weighed down on her mind constantly, ruining her sense of solitude.

For all of these reasons, Susan felt it necessary to seek out Room 19 in Fred’s Hotel. This was Susan’s escape, not because it was a vast, open land like the mountains were, but because no one knew she was there. Because of this, it didn’t matter that “the room was hideous” because “she was free” (Lessing 541). The room she was shown was small and dingy, with only one small window and cheap looking sheets on the only bed that was there. None of this mattered because Susan’s escape was not only of her family, but of anyone else as we saw the first time she attempted escape in the lonely Miss Townsend’s hotel. Here we can compare Susan to the pianist Tuan discusses on page fifty-nine of his book. He explains that for a shy pianist practicing alone in a room, the presence of just one person shatters his world and forces him to stop his work immediately. Susan needed to be “alone and with no one knowing where I am” (Lessing 537). Through this relationship, the one between Susan and the dreary motel room, we can understand the counterintuitive notion of freedom as relating to space. This was the only place she could get away from herself and be free. Here, “she was no longer Susan Rawlings… she had no past, no future” and this is exactly the feeling she was seeking when she searched out Room 19 (542).

Clearly, Susan’s solitude was tarnished by the presence of others. Tuan touches on this idea as well when he says that “the company of human beings—even [one] other person—has the effect of curtailing space” (59). He explains that when we are alone, we can allow our thoughts to “wander freely over space,” but that “in the presence of others, [our thoughts] are pulled back by an awareness of other personalities who project their own world onto the same area” (59). He also explains why Susan’s solitude is tarnished even with someone’s mere knowledge of her location, because “crowding is an awareness that one is observed” (60). Once Susan felt that her husband was keeping a close eye on her, the feeling she got from the room “was not the same, [for] her husband had searched her out” (544).

Throughout the story we get more and more evidence that Susan needed to escape her responsibilities at home. Between hiring a fulltime au pair girl and running off to London for the hotel, it is clear Susan had no interest in being with her family at home. Even when she was home for supper, all she could think about was how desperate she was to be alone again. The association she made between her responsibilities and her house drove her away to be in Room 19 where she was completely alone and hidden from the outside world. There, she could let go of her life completely for the duration of the day and go back to pretending to love her home life at night.

By understanding Susan’s relationships to her spaces, we can understand her fears and desire. Her detachment to her beautiful home signifies the way she let go of the perfect life she created with her family while her need for Room 19 highlights how much she wished to be completely alone. Once her husband found her out, that solitude that Susan had searched for so desperately was tarnished. After this, Susan felt cornered into escaping life altogether. No amount of space could satisfy her, because now it seemed that her family would find her even in the smallest and most hidden of places. The only way Susan could leave her life behind completely was by taking it herself, and she finds this permanent escape in Room 19, the only place that allowed her to be completely free.

Published in: on at 11:23 am Comments (0)

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