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“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
In the list of modern literature writers Raymond Carver belongs to the cohort of fierce minimalists. After Salinger, Carver became the most talented narrator within American literature genres. His life experience and epoch of childhood and youth affected the outlook as well as future occupations. Consequently, he wrote in a modernistic manner within the style of dirty realism. This type of writing requires minimum details and poverty of language, emphasizing separate dramas in the life of undistinguished people.
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The short story “Cathedral” has a much deeper meaning as it does not only remove the curtain between opposite representatives of American society but also shows communicational isolation between the government and citizens that makes obstacles on the way to American development and prosperity. The paper provides an analysis of Raymond Carver’s creativity in a historical, social, and political context and defends the idea of the communicational gap as the main conviction in his short story “Cathedral.”
Historical, Political and Social Background of Raymond Carver’s Creativity
Raymond Carver is an American poet and prosaic, the author of short stories that critics recognize as the best novellas of the new generation of writers after John Cheever and Flannery O’Connor. The period of his creativity is marked by the historical background of the post-war and Cold War periods. which has various impacts on the creativity of lost generation writers and brought up new modern and postmodern branches. His first novel was published in 1967. While minor writers did not suffer from poverty and abandoned condition, the majority combined writing with doing hard work. The writers attempted to bring back the sophisticated humanism after the lost generation decadent pessimism. The “1960s decade” can not be described as successful in the history of the United States, except for Apollo 11 landing on the Moon (Weber 63). Thomas C. Reeves makes an accent on “the gap between rich and poor, recurrent recessions and depressions” (10) that marked America for several decades of the 20th century.
The “Depression decade”, “Watergate scandal”, and presidential cadency of one of the most scandalous presidents did not increase the number of satisfied Americans (Weber 101, 198). However, during this period, numerous generations of Americans, who were born after the war, graduated. This first generation grew up in a state of prosperity. The youngsters had not seen mass unemployment and poverty, they considered social security and material supplies as the daily norm, hence, their values differed from the values of their parents. The youth was inclined to deny the values of consumer society; they advocated a far more simple life, free from conventions and hypocrisy. They created their own vision of how American life should be managed through counterculture. The symbols of this epoch are the widely popular jeans and rock ‘n’ roll.
The younger generation was disappointed with the old ideas and people were looking for new mentors. Their ideals were Mao Zedong, Herbert Marcuse, Che Guevara, etc. The views of young people had no clear definition and created a dangerous mix of communism, anarchism, existentialism, etc. As a sign of protest against the system, young burned flags evaded conscription for military service and demanded the release from custody of military universities. Along with the youth movement, the USA has passed through the activation of ultra-extremist organizations and organized crime. Along with that, “Several farseeing observers complained about racial and sexual discrimination” (Reeves 10). In the 1960s, some tragic events caused political and social resonance, including the murder of John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert and Martin Luther King, which in turn led to mass black riots the government had to suppress with the army.
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In the 1970s, the mass movements declined, because of the elections in 1968, when the party of Republicans won, and the economic crisis of the 70s that changed the problems faced by the people. In addition, most of the requirements of mass movements were satisfied. American troops withdrew from Vietnam, general conscription was abolished, racism was against the law, and in 1972 the US Constitution gave voting rights to eighteen years old young people. However, the further crisis of overproduction caused a reduction in production and an increase in unemployment accompanied by rising prices. Thus, the background of the development of Raymond Carver’s artistic taste was majorly influenced by this historical and social period. The writer responded to contradictory tendencies happening in America as he felt alone among all consequences they brought. He was convinced that Americans wanted to achieve new frontiers, create a new society, and overcome poverty. Within the context of his short story “Cathedral,” Carver does not express any political, social, or historical positions directly. However, the manner of the narrator’s conversation and decisions the characters made during one evening provide convincing arguments proving that he protests against the frameworks and social stereotypes typical for his time. For him and for his audience it was a time of one crisis after another, and America needed changes.
Carver’s Writing Style on the example of His Short Story “Cathedral”
The style of Carver’s novellas can be compared to the style of Hemingway, but Carver stated that he was inspired by Chekhov and Russian literature. Je even wrote about the last episodes of Chekhov’s life and created a film script about Dostoevsky. In 1973, the 36-year-old Carver and 60-year-old Cheever incidentally met in Iowa and became friends. They both conducted workshops for writers and regularly got drunk. This impact of Cheever was so obvious that Carver did not write actively and even did not touch his typewriter. His surroundings, financial conditions, and sad private life affected his ability to communicate, hence, the problem of communication is important to Carver and he promotes his communicational convictions. The same happened in social and political spheres where the resource of conflicts was not only inequality and discrimination but also a lack of people’s skill to communicate properly.
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The Carver’s style is minimalism that was cultivated by his mentor John Gardner, who taught him to cut each paragraph consisting of twenty-five words up to fifteen. Carver’s editor Lish was even more ruthless and required to raise this reduction up to five words. In America, this style also gained the name that defines the entire prosaic mainstream literature of the ’70s and ’80s of the 20th century – the “dirty realism” (Kita 385). “Dirty realism” requires a higher economy of words. Any description is brought to the basic minimum and stays thin. Everything else is given to dialogue and there is no reasoning for details. The characters are undistinguished people that are in the center of content in a minimalistic story. Sometimes they don’t even have names. They play such a minor role in the world that the writer does not even see any necessity in this detail. However, within this minimalism, as well as in any Carver’s novella, there is a place for serious drama or even tragedy in the lives of those undistinguished characters.
The novella “Cathedral” is a good example of dirty realism by its topic, manner, and language, which are simple, and dialogues, which are elliptical: “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.” (Carver 12). In addition, Carver’s style in the novella is conversational and colloquial: “She read stuff to him… that sort of thing” (Carver 13). The simple language has no metaphors or literal imagery: “In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed” (Carver 17). There is regular repetition of the blind man and overuse of nouns and pronouns, which means statically combined episodes without any dynamics. Consequently, there is an impression as if Carvel consciously made his text as constricted as his own life was.
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Speaking about content, in the “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver depicts a short one-night story that happened in a married couple’s life when the wife’s blind friend came from far away. The author provides a brief reflection on the described events in the form of the protagonist’s retrospection and personal remarks of the main character. The blind man does not provoke any empathy, his behavior and expressions are not miserable. Vice versa, he shows confidence and deeper knowledge than anybody around. In turn, the narrator seems close-minded, which is one of the reasons why his attitude towards the blind man is so offensive. In the end, the couple and their guest have dinner and a small party with alcohol and drugs after which Carvel provides key dialogue making sense of the contradiction between the blind man and the host. It creates a fascinating feeling of connection between sight and blindness. When the man closes his eyes and draws a cathedral by the blind man’s hand: “Well? Are you looking?” – “It’s really something” (Carver 24). This sensitive, even intimate conviction covers all previous simplicities of dirty realism and minimalism as this dialogue of few words, which actually means transcending of the narrator’s limitations became louder than any metaphor. Robert shares a greater life he sees even though he is blind. Hence, the drawing of the image of the cathedral is the moment of catharsis, because it induces the narrator to dialogue with himself about what he needs, though he cannot express it with words.
The second half of the 20th century is famous for a number of key historical, social, and political events and movements that led to mass protests and economic crisis that affected the life of every American. In this context, the writers lost romantic moods and started to depict real things and events without additional details. Raymond Carver belongs to minimalists who knew what the real consequences of gaps between people are. This is why his dirty realism style is not coincidental. In his short story “Cathedral,” the readers see almost no names and extended phrases. The technical manner shows that the author does not know much about interpersonal communication, just as Americans cannot find common sense in peaceful and equal existence. Hence, communication is one of the key convictions the author maintains as a way to make America great again.
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