The Difference between Looking and Seeing
In “Cathedral,” the act of looking is related to physical vision, but the act of seeing requires a deeper level of engagement. The narrator shows that he is fully capable of looking. He looks at his house and wife, and he looks at Robert when he arrives. The narrator is not blind and immediately assumes that he’s therefore superior to Robert. Robert’s blindness, the narrator reasons, makes him unable to make a woman happy, let alone have any kind of normal life. The narrator is certain that the ability to see is everything and puts no effort into seeing anything beyond the surface, which is undoubtedly why he doesn’t really know his wife very well. Robert, however, has the ability to “see” on a much deeper level than the narrator. Even though Robert can’t physically see the narrator’s wife, he understands her more deeply than the narrator does because he truly listens. The wife obviously has a lot to say and has spent the past ten years confiding in Robert on the audiotapes she sends him. The only interaction we see between the narrator and his wife, however, are snippy exchanges in which the narrator does little more than annoy her. True “seeing,” as Robert demonstrates, involves a lot more than just looking.
Art as Insight
The narrator, his wife, and Robert find insight and meaning in their experiences through poetry, drawing, and storytelling. According to the narrator, his wife writes a couple of poems every year to mark events that were important in her life, including the time Robert touched her face. The narrator doesn’t like the poems but admits that he might not understand them. The narrator gains insight into his own life when he draws a picture of a cathedral with Robert, realizing for the first time that looking inward is a way to gain greater knowledge and a deeper understanding of himself. Robert, too, gleans insight from the drawing. Although it’s unlikely that he was able to visualize what the narrator drew, he shares the experience of the narrator’s awakening. The narrator’s mere act of retelling the story of his epiphany helps him make sense of his newfound understanding. Even though his narrative is choppy and rough and he frequently interrupts himself to make a defensive comment or snide remark, he gets the story out, passing along some of his insight to us. The narrator doesn’t fully understand what happened when he closed his eyes and drew the cathedral, but he knows that it was an important experience.