A Comparison between Raymond Carver’s Cathedral and Dudley Randall’s Ballad of Birmingham
Raymond Carver’s short story Cathedral and Dudley Randall’s poem Ballad of Birmingham are very different in terms of form and of the literary techniques used. Cathedral is written in a bare and colloquial style, meant to correspond to the point of view of the narrator. Gradually, the style and the tone of the story change when the narrator himself suffers a transformation. The prosaic style that marks the beginning of the story precipitates into an abstract and highly symbolic one, towards the end of the text. Randall’s poem, Ballad of Birmingham, dramatizes a real event in the history of segregation: the bombing of a church in Birmingham that resulted in the death of four children. The poem combines the narrative structure with the dialogue, imitating the form of a ballad. As it shall be seen however, the two texts do share the main background image: the cathedral or the church. This image is pivotal to the overall message of the text, in both cases.
Raymond Carver’s Cathedral narrates a seemingly ordinary experience: the unnamed narrator prepares for the visit of a blind man, a friend of his wife. The language and imagery of the first part of the story is notably spare. The plot is relatively simple: the blind man arrives at the narrator’s house and the three have dinner together and watch television. There is no concern for the actual setting or context of the story. The author offers no details about the time and place where the action takes place. The narrator is an ordinary man who only recognizes and understands the immediate reality. He is married, yet he speaks of his wife in a very detached manner. He appears to be jealous of the blind man and of the relationship he has with his wife, yet he does not speak of his feelings. This detachment is also obvious in the tone of the narrative: the narrator seems to gloss over the surface of events without stopping to ‑
measure the depth of what happens to him or to the others. He tells the story of his wife’s relationship with the blind man and with her former lover, without the slightest appearance of emotion. He even describes his wife’s suicide attempt without making any comments on either his or her feelings. One of the particularities of his narrative style is therefore the manifest lack of figurative language, at least in the first part of the story. The narrator describes the succession of events with simplicity, without making any comments about his feelings regarding the blind man’s arrival. When he does comment, he uses one-word sentences meant to summarize his impression about something. For instance, he concludes the description he gives of the blind man’s appearance and his fashionable clothes with a single word, “spiffy” (Carver 219). The same happens when he describes the blind man’s eyes. The narrator uses only one word to render the impression these eyes made on him: “creepy” (Carver 219). What is more, the narrator is obviously bothered by anything that seems to be out of the ordinary. He uses stereotypes from movies and books to prepare for the blind man’s arrival. He is notably uncomfortable when he discovers that the blind man does not wear the typical dark glasses or when he notes that he has a full beard and is elegantly dressed: “I’d always thought dark glasses were a must for the blind. Fact was, I wish he had a pair” (Carver 219). The narrator seems to hold a mechanical view of the world: nothing should fall out of the ordinary pattern he has drawn in his mind. When his wife tells him about the blind man and the recent death of the latter’s wife, the narrator remains equally unflinching. He is bothered by the unusual name of the blind man’s wife, Beulah, and also by the tragedy that his wife recounts. The story of the love between the blind man and his now dead wife does not impress the narrator. Instead, he finds such a love story impossible, not being able to comprehend how any woman could live with a blind man. In his opinion, the demonstrations of love that the blind man and his wife made to each other are “pathetic”: ‑
“Robert was left with a small insurance policy and half of a twenty-peso Mexican coin. The other half of the coin went into the box with her. Pathetic” (Carver 219). The syntax and the vocabulary used in the story are therefore very significant for its overall theme. The narrator uses short and economical sentences, limiting commentaries to one-word sentences. The vocabulary is, for its most part, colloquial, corresponding to the narrator’s use of language. While there are barely any similes or metaphors in the first part of the story, the style of writing used does have its particularities. For instance, to emphasize an idea the narrator uses repetitions that describe the same idea in a few different ways. When he describes the heavy meal that they have together as well as the mood of the characters, he uses several reiterative images to show how everyone is concentrated on his own plate: “We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed the table. We were into serious eating” (Carver 223). The bare style of the language and of the description matches the theme of the story. The symbolic elements are present throughout the story, although they are obviously ignored by the narrator. In the beginning, the narrator is unable to see beyond the surface of things. Blindness and prejudice are two of the main themes of the work. The narrator is very skeptical and afraid of looking beyond the immediate facts. The idea of a blind man coming to visit them bothers him precisely because he perceives blindness as something unusual and mysterious. Thus, the person who tells the story is clearly not ready at first to understand and guides his thought by the stereotypes that he has taken from the movies. At the end, he begins to finally see the depth of things. The evening that the three people have together ends with the narrator and the blind man drawing together a cathedral on a piece of paper. But the one who actually learns what the cathedral is and what it looks like is not the blind man, but the narrator himself. Symbolically, the narrator closes his eyes when the blind man tells him to ‑
open them and look at the picture; he realizes he sees it better in his inner vision: ‘Are you looking?’ My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. ‘It’s really something,’ I said.”(Carver, 227) The final revelation is a symbol for the narrator’s final illumination after this experience. The veil lifts off his eyes and he is suddenly able to see beyond the prejudicial and stereotypical thinking he had before. The cathedral is obviously the most important symbol of the text. The image of the cathedral itself is obviously a symbol of spirituality, since it is a temple that men erect in the name of religion.
Randall’s poem, Ballad of Birmingham, captures a part of the tragedy that took place after the bombing of a church in Alabama in 1963. The poem takes the historical event and dramatizes it, thus pointing to the actual meaning of the story beyond the evident tragedy. The poem has only two characters, the mother and her young girl. The text begins with the dialogue between the child and her mother. The child pleads for permission to go on the streets of Birmingham on a “Freedom March”. The mother warns against the dangers of the streets, the wild dogs, the hoses, the clubs and the guns, thus drawing an accurate historical picture of the means that were used for repression during the segregation conflicts. The church is here a symbolic image as well. The mother tells the child to go to church instead, associating the place with holiness and implicitly with safety: “But you may go to church instead/ And sing in the children’s choir” (Randall) The mother believes in the sacredness of the church and the protection it must offer to her child. Her belief is however denounced by the historical reality: “The mother smiled to know that her child / Was in the sacred place, / But that smile was the last smile/ To come upon her face” (Randall). The church which was specifically frequented by the black people becomes the target of an attack that kills all the four young black girls who were attending Sunday school there. The poem thus shows how the symbol of sacredness can be ‑
desecrated and destroyed by violence and hatred. The racial and political conflict makes people blind to the importance of spirituality. Thus, the church symbolizes the value of spirituality and of being able to see beyond the immediate reality. In many ways, the church in Randall’s poem functions in the same way as the cathedral in Carver’s short story. They are both images of spirituality and allusions to man’s blindness to the actual reality. The narrator in Cathedral and the man who drops the bomb on the church in Randall’s poem are both blind to any reality that is beyond the immediate scope of their limited vision. The attacker in Randall’s ballad focuses only on immediate political interests and ideological concerns, ignoring any other principles of humanness and morality.
The figurative language of the poem sustains the main theme of the text. The vocabulary and the language are simple, but they also are loaded with symbolism. The shoe that the mother finds while “clawing through bits of glass and brick” is thus a symbol of the destructive power of human hatred. The preparations of the girl before going out to church are also very significant: her cleanliness also symbolizes her purity and her joy of living, which are ultimately destroyed at the same time as her life. The poem follows the abcb rhyming scheme and the rhythm proper to the traditional ballad form. The tone of the narrator is mostly elegiac and thus suitable to the context of the ballad and the historical tragedy described. There is little figurative language as such, although there are many symbols. The author masks the historical reality of the events told, writing the poem in the form of a song or folk ballad.
Both Carver’s Cathedral and Randall’s Ballad of Birmingham focus therefore on the same symbol: that of the cathedral or the church. The church symbolizes spirituality and the blindness and meanness of man in front of the higher realities of the spirit.
Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. New York: Harvill Press, 1997.
Randall, Dudley. “Ballad of Birmingham.” The American Reader. Harper Collins Publishers, 1991. 336.