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The Cathedral by Raymond Carver is a short story revolving around three characters, the narrator, his wife, and Robert, a blind man and a friend to the wife. The wife invites Robert in the narrator’s house, something that does not go down well with the narrator. He disapproves this act immediately after he enters the house and states clearly that, he is not ready to share his house with a blind man.
However, as the evening approaches, the narrator relaxes his stance and engages the blind man in all sorts of questions as they watch a documentary on TV about cathedrals. Ironically, the blind man cannot see the documentary. The story closes on high note as the narrator changes his attitude about the blind man and learns a lot about humanity.
On the other side, A Clean, Well-lighted Place, written by Ernest Hemingway, revolves around three characters; an old man, a young waiter and an old waiter.
As the night closes in, these two waiters are left with only one customer, a visibly drunk old man. The old man asks for another drink; something that the young waiter disagrees with strongly. Nevertheless, the old man persists until he gets a beer to the irritation of the young waiter.
We learn that the old man attempted suicide a fortnight ago. Finally, the young waiter forces the old man to leave the place as they close the café. The story ends with the old waiter going to a bodega to kill time for he cannot sleep even if he goes home. The blind man and the narrator in “The Cathedral” shares emptiness and nothingness with the old man and the old waiter, in A Clean Well-lighted Place.
As aforementioned, characters in these two short stories share emptiness and this comes out clearly in the way they act throughout the story. As The Cathedral opens up, the narrator in shows his outright fears and prejudice. After learning of the blind man in his house he says, “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to” (Carver Para. 3). This comes out as prejudice but it sprouts to cover deep emptiness that lies within.
On the other side, the blind man, Robert, is also experiencing emptiness in his life. We learn that he does not have friends as narrator’s wife asks, “You don’t have any friends?” (Carver Para. 6). The fact that this blind man does not have friends indicates that he is a lonely man; consequently, full of emptiness. Hearts of men are filled with joy that comes from friendships and healthy relationships. Unfortunately, for Robert, the space for friends remains void causing a resounding emptiness.
Emptiness in lives of these characters portrays itself through the way the talk and feel. The narrator reveals that if he had a choice he would change his job for he loathes it, his wife attempted suicide after a failed relationship. These memories throw her relationship with the narrator off balance for she fears that the narrator may not trust her. On the other side, Robert is blind and his wife had died sometimes before.
These people are empty from within and to do this, they all spend time drinking and smoking illegal stuff. This emptiness makes the narrator to get lost in the conversation between his wife and Robert. He says, “’Likewise,’ I said. I did not know what else to say. Then I said, ‘Welcome. I’ve heard a lot about you’” (Carver Para. 19). This lack of concentration sprouts from the deep emptiness in the narrator’s heart concerning humanity. The narrator is emotionally empty concerning humanity issues.
Emptiness on part of the narrator comes out again due to his insensitivity. He turns on the TV to watch cathedral documentaries and even though he knows Robert cannot see, he engages him in discussing the contents of the documentaries.
The narrator tries to put cathedrals in words; however, this task proves challenging for he cannot put it across. Eventually, he takes Robert’s hand and draws down a cathedral whilst holding this hand. This experience changes the narrator’s attitude towards Robert and emptiness that is deeply rooted in these two men comes out clearly.
Robert feels appreciated and admits that lack of appreciation left him feeling empty from within. He had never thought that anyone could be concerned about him and the fact that the narrator makes him draw a cathedral makes him feel honored. He says. “Terrific. You are doing fine. Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime?” (Carver Para 26).
This experience expounds on how empty Robert was. This had not happened to him before and as appreciation fills that void, he cannot help but sigh “terrific!” On the other hand, the narrator says, “So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper.
It was like nothing in my life up to now” (Carver Para. 27). The issue here is that, the narrator was insensitive and proud but this sprouted from deep emptiness from within that could not be explained, not even by his pride. This feeling of “nothingness’ as the narrator admits serves to echo how empty he was on issues pertaining to humanity.
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On the other hand, the old man and the old waiter in A Clean Well-lighted Place, share this emptiness. The old deaf old man frequents this place to drown his sorrows in beer. We learn that he had attempted suicide a fortnight ago. First, he stays in café until late hours.
Logically, someone who wants to stay up late outdoors is expected to be partying with his friends in bars. However, this old man chooses to spend the night alone in a quite café. This is a clear indication that the reason why he is up late is not to enjoy drinking but to drown something that is eating him from within.
The fact this old man had tried to commit suicide is a clear indication that he finds this life empty such that he has no reason to keep on living. The young waiter tells him, “He tried to commit suicide two weeks ago” (Hemmingway Para 9). Only emptiness and loss of hope can make someone think of suicide leave alone attempting it.
Going back, the older waiter explains to the young waiter why this old man wanted to kill himself. This old man’s despair does not come from lack of money; no, he has plenty of money. He is just a lonely man. Therefore, if money is not the problem, there has to be another bigger problem, that is, ‘nothingness’ which dominates this man’s life.
The older waiter is also an empty man and he goes on to defend this old man. Probably, he understands challenges that come with old age. He tells the young waiter, “Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling, even now drunk, look at him” (Hemmingway Para. 15). This defensive stance indicates that the old waiter has something in common with the old man or he had experienced what the old man was going through.
Eventually this waiter admits emptiness when he says, “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night, I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe” (Hemmingway Para. 16). He cannot go home for fear of nothingness and emptiness greets him on arrival. He is reluctant to close the café because he has nothing at home but emptiness.
Fear of nothingness comes out clearly in the older waiter. He doe not want to go home because even if he goes, he will not get sleep and will stay awake until morning. He says, “It is probably only insomnia. Many must have it” (Hemmingway Para. 26). This is a clear indication that this man does not love to work late in the night, only that he has nothing to do at home not even sleeping. The first thing that an old man like this should enjoy is sound sleep; unfortunately, insomnia has stolen it leaving him empty.
The older waiter and the old man have fear; fear of feeling empty and nothingness; fortunately, this fear backs out during the day or when in lighted places.
As the older waiter leaves the bodega where he passes by before going home, he examines himself. There are numerous questions that lay deep in his mind and as he thinks of what he fears, an answer pops up in his mind and concludes that he fears, “nada y pues nada y pues nada” (Hemmingway Para. 35).
This means, “Nothing, and then nothing, and then nothing” (Donley Para. 4). This conclusion caps it all. This older waiter is empty and just like the old man, his life is surrounded by great “nothingness” that none can fathom.
These two stories, The Cathedral and A Clean, Well-lighted Place, though written by two different people in different settings, they have characters that share a common feature in their lives; emptiness. The narrator and Robert in The Cathedral both have a lot of emptiness and both try to fill it differently.
While the narrator fills his emptiness with pride and insensitivity, Robert, the blind man tries to learn something new every day, something that makes him feel good. In A Clean, Well-lighted Place, the two old men share the same emptiness for they fear being nothing in this life. They deal with their emptiness by staying up late, not to enjoy drinking or working, but to escape darkness, loneliness, and emptiness that surround their homes. Emptiness stands out conspicuously in the lives of these characters.
Carver, Raymond. “The Cathedral.” Weekend Short Story. 2009. Web.
Donley, Carol. “Cathedral: A short story by Raymond Carver.” N.d. Web.
Hemmingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” N.d. Web.