Three characters from different stories are explored in this essay: the husband from Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, the narrator from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and Connie from Joyce Carol Oates’ Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
All three characters changed throughout the course of the story as a result of their decision to act on the situation they are facing.
All three characters go through three stages as they grow and change in the story. At the outset, they are presented in the status quo, which means their condition before they are confronted with a crucial situation. Then, as the situation arises, they consciously act upon it either to resolve the situation or to respond to a revelation. Finally, at the last stage, they are transformed and become different from who they were when their story began.
In Cathedral the narrator admits that he is not comfortable at the prospect of having a blind visitor in his house, especially one who has a past relationship with his wife. Repeatedly referring to his wife’s friend as “the blind man,” the narrator is surprised at finding him to be as normal as anybody, except only for his blindness (Carver 209). This underscores his prejudice against the man, an attitude reflected in the way he doubts the blind man’s capability to actually connect to another human being. He sees only the man’s handicap and thinks that it prevents him from living normally. He feels sorry for him that he never saw the face of his now dead wife, thinking that intimacy comes only from seeing the person you love.
As the night progressed, however, the narrator discovers that Robert, the blind man, is interesting and every bit as normal as he is—smoking cigar, drinking scotch, devouring dinner by himself. The narrator discovers that despite what Robert lacks, he connects with others, maybe even deeper than he can. When Robert asks him to describe the cathedral being shown on the television, the narrator fails to make him see what a cathedral looks like. Robert then asks him to sketch it instead, but they have to do it together. As Robert holds his hand, following his movement, the narrator finds himself guided by Robert rather than the other way around. It is now Robert who makes him to see the cathedral. With his eyes closed as if he were blind, the narrator experiences a profound human connection. He discovers, as a result of his act to follow Robert, that human connection has no boundaries.
In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator goes through the same stages of being at a status quo, acting upon a situation, and eventually, transforming. At the beginning of the story, the main character is diagnosed with neurosis and is ordered to take rest in order to be cured from her condition. She is prohibited to do normal activities and even her private activity which is journal writing is taken away from her, “he [John] hates to have me write a word” (Gilman 420) leaving her with no means of expressing herself. This represses her individuality.
She acts upon the situation by consoling herself with daydreaming. She is drawn to the wallpaper from which her repression is directed. Her insistence on the moving patterns is an assertion of her imagination and her individuality, although it comes out negatively because the patterns are not actually real. However, she decides to do something with her repressive situation which, as a result, brings transformation to her character. Her obsession with the wallpaper changed her situation: “Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better now and am more quiet than I was” (Gilman 426).
The transformation, though, is seen on the surface as negative because her neurosis seems to get worse. However, the narrator begins to see the way her husband and sister turn her to a passive, docile, and unassertive individual. It is through her act of asserting herself that she becomes free in the end, as she tears down the wallpaper and exclaims: “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 430). Her freedom is symbolically dramatized in the end of the story where she repeatedly crawls over her unconscious husband.
Finally, in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, the protagonist, Connie, faces a much more tense situation than the first two characters discussed. Connie, a typical teenager, seems unaware of who she is or what she wants at the beginning of the story: “Everything about her has two sides to it…” (Oates 1010). She follows trends, falls for pop music, and mimics the ways of older people at a bar where she hangs out. She knows herself only in reference to other people. She “drew thick clear lines between herself and such girls” (Oates 1011). She compares herself incessantly to her sister who she thinks is less appealing than her. All of these actions demonstrate her lack of personal identity.
When a shady guy she met on the street comes over to her house to ask her out, the tense situation begins. Connie is confronted with a situation in which she needs to decide for herself. She discovers her lack of identity as everything around her and everything she thought she knew becomes strange, and she can no longer find bearing with which she can control the situation. Even her own heart seem “nothing that was hers, that belonged to her, but just a pounding, living thing inside this body that wasn’t hers either” (Oates 1020). The shady guy continues to flirt with her, which threatens Connie to a point of panic.
She loses control over herself and her vulnerability shows through her words. Finally, unable to bear the fear, she screams. At this point, an awareness of the danger involved in the situation dawns to Connie. Nonetheless, she has to make a decision. She acts on it, despite the consequences, and she chooses to be somebody. By confronting the situation, Connie “grows” as a character although her transformation may not be one that is hopeful or better.
- Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” Cathedral. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. 209-227.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Introduction to Literature Sixth
- Edition. Eds. Carl Bain, Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter. NY: Norton, 1995. 418-429
- Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The Story and Its Writer.
- Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford, 1995.1009-1021.