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Examining the Sample Student Essay

Please revisit Bethany Qualls’s essay (SEE BELOW ESSAY) To examine for language and tone, not for global issues as you did last week.

1.  Read this paper as you would one of your peers’ papers, looking for opportunities for the writer to improve her presentation.  Is the language consistently appropriate for academic writing?  Please give examples of appropriate academic writing from Qualls’s essay that contribute to the serious tone of her paper.  

2.  If you spot any sentences containing language that appears too informal, quote it.  Explain how the writer might edit to improve her presentation.

PLEASE SEE “Bethany Qualls’s Essay” BELOW:

Bethany Qualls’s essay “A Narrator’s Blindness in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral'”

Bethany Qualls

Professor Netherton

‘English 301

16 January 2017

A Narrator’s Blindness in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

A reader in search of an exciting plot will be pretty disappointed by Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” because the truth is nothing much happens. A suburban husband and wife receive a visit from her former boss, who is blind. After the wife falls asleep, the two men watch a TV program about cathedrals and eventually try to draw one. Along the way the three characters down a few cocktails and smoke a little pot, but that’s about as far as that action goes. Instead of focusing on plot, then, the story really asks us to focus on the characters, especially the husband who narrates the story. Through his words even more than his actions, the narrator unwittingly shows us why nothing much happens to him by continually demonstrating his utter inability to connect with others or to understand himself. 

The narrator’s isolation is most evident in the distanced way he introduces his own story and the people in it. He does not name the other characters or himself, referring to them only by using labels such as “this blind man,” “his wife,” “my wife” (par. 1), and “the man my wife was going to marry” (par. 2). Even after the narrator’s wife starts referring to their visitor as “Robert,” the narrator keeps calling him “the blind man.” These labels distance from the other characters and also leave readers with very little connection to them.

At least three times the narrator notices that this habit of not naming or really acknowledging people is significant. Referring to his wife’s ”officer,” he asks, “why should he have a name? He was a childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?” (par. 5).  Moments later he describes how freaked out he was when he listened to a tape the blind man had sent his wife and “heard [his] own name in the mouth of this. . .blind man [he] didn’t even know!” (par. 5). Yet once the blind man arrives and begins to talk with the wife, the narrator finds himself ”wait[ing] in Vain to hear [his] name on [his] wife’s sweet lips and disappointed to hear nothing of the sort” (par. 46). Simply using someone’s name suggests an intimacy that the narrator avoids and yet secretly yearns for.

Also reinforcing the narrator’s isolation and dissatisfaction with it are the awkward euphemisms and cliches he uses, which emphasize how disconnected he is from his own feelings and how uncomfortable he is with other people’s. Referring to his wife’s first husband, the narrator says it was he “who’d first enjoyed her favors” (par. 4), and Antiquated expression even in 1983, the year the story was published. Such language reinforces our sense that the narrator cannot speak in language that is meaningful or heartfelt, especially when he tries to talk about emotions. He describes his wife’s feelings for her first husband, for example, by using generic language and then just trailing off entirely: “she was in love with the guy, and he was in love with her, etc.” (par. 2). When he refers to the blind man and his wife as “inseparable,” he points out that this is, in fact, his “wife’s word,” not one that he’s come up with (par. 16). And even when he admits that he would like to hear his wife talk about him (par.46), he speaks in language that seems to come from books or movies rather than the heart. 

Once the visit actually begins, the narrator’s interactions and conversations with the other characters are even more awkward. His discomfort with the very idea of the visit is obvious to his wife and to the reader. As he says in his usual deadpan manner, “I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit” (par. 1). During the visit he sits silent when his wife and Robert are talking and then answers Robert’s questions about his life and feelings with the shortest possible phrases: “how long had I been in my present position? (3 years.) Did I like my work? (I didn’t.)” (par. 46). Finally, he tries to escape even that much involvement by simply turning on the TV and tuning Robert out.

Despite Robert’s best attempts to make a connection with the narrator, the narrator resorts to a label again, saying that he “didn’t want to be left alone with a blind man” (par. 57). Robert, merely “a blind man,” remains a category, not a person, and the narrator can initially relate to Robert only by invoking the stereotypes about that category that he has learned “from the movies” (par.1). he confined to the reader that he believes that blind people always wear dark glasses, that they never smoke (par. 43), and that a beard on a blind man is “too much” (par. 18). It follows that the narrator is amazed about the connection his wife and Robert have because he is unable to see Robert as a person like any other. “Who’d want to go to such a wedding in the first place?” (par. 16), he asked rhetorically about Robert’s wedding to his wife, Beulah.

Misconceptions continue as the narrator assumes Beulah would “never receive the smallest compliment from her beloved,” since the compliments he is thinking about are physical ones (par. 16). Interestingly, when faced with a name that is specific (Beulah), the narrator immediately assumes that he knows what the person with that name must be like (“a colored woman,” par. 11), even though she is not in the room or known to him. Words fail or mislead the narrator in both directions, as he’s using them and as he hears them.

There is hope for the narrator at the end as he gains some empathy and forges a bond with Robert over the drawing of a cathedral. That process seems to begin when the narrator admits to himself, the reader, and Robert that he is “glad for Robert’s company” (par. 84) and, for the first time, comes close to disclosing the literally nightmarish loneliness of his life. It culminates in a moment of physical and emotional intimacy that the narrator admits is “like nothing else in my life up to now” (par. 131) – a moment in which discomfort with the very idea of blindness gives way to an attempt to actually experience blindness from the inside. Because the narrator has used words to distance himself from the world, it seems fitting that all this happens only when the narrator stops using words. They have a tendency to blind him.

However, even at the very end it isn’t clear just when or how the narrator has really changed. He does not completely interact with Robert but has to be prodded into action by him. By choosing to keep his eyes closed, he not only temporarily experiences blindness but also shuts out the rest of the world, since he “didn’t feel like [he] was inside anything” (par. 135). Perhaps most important, he remained unable to describe his experience meaningfully, making it difficult for readers to decide whether or not he is really changed. For example, he says, “it was like nothing else in my life up to now” (par. 131), but he doesn’t explain why this is true. It is because he is doing something for someone else? Because he is thinking about the world from another another’s perspective? Because he feels connected to Robert? Because he is drawing a picture while probably drunk and high? There is no way of knowing.

It’s possible that not feeling “inside anything” (par. 135) could be a feeling of freedom from his own habits of guardedness and insensitivity, his emotional “blindness.” But even with this final hope for connection, for the majority of the story the narrator is a closed, judgmental man who isolates himself and cannot connect with others. The narrator’s view of the world is one filled with misconceptions that the visit from Robert starts to slowly change, yet it is not clear what those changes are, how far they will go, or whether they will last. 

Works Cited

Carver, Raymond.  “Cathedral.”  The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Portable 12th ed., W.W. Norton, 2017, pp. 33-46.


Qualls, Bethany.  “A Narrator’s Blindness in Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral.’”  The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Portable 12th ed., W.W. Norton, 2017, pp. 53-56.


Tips on Writing Style – The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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