75 pages 2 hours read

Raymond Carver


Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 1983

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more. For select classroom titles, we also provide Teaching Guides with discussion and quiz questions to prompt student engagement.

Summary and Study Guide


Cathedral is a short story collection published in 1983 by the American author Raymond Carver. Its twelve stories center around themes of loneliness, broken relationships, and working-class dissatisfaction. His fourth published volume of short stories, Cathedral won Carver the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He also earned an O. Henry Award for the collection’s fifth short story, “A Small, Good Thing.”

Although Carver did not subscribe to a particular literary movement, scholars generally consider the author a minimalist. His early work bears the heavy influence of Esquire editor Gordon Lish, who constantly challenged Carver to use fewer words. While Carver considered Cathedral a stylistic break from Lish’s influence, the prose in the collection is still spare and economical, as the author employs very little description or figurative language. Carver is also associated with the “dirty realism” movement, a category which depicts the sordid mundanities of everyday life and unremarkable people. Other authors associated with this movement include Charles Bukowski, Cormac McCarthy, and Carson McCullers.

Plot Summary

In the first story, “Feathers,” Jack and Fran, a blue-collar couple who dream of a better life they never expect to achieve visit the home of Jack’s coworker who recently had a baby. Although the visit is strange and the baby is ugly, it spurs Fran to encourage Jack to impregnate her that night. The couple never wanted children, and Jack feels trapped by his growing disconnection with his wife and a child he doesn’t particularly like.

The second story, “Chef’s House,” concerns Edna, who leaves her new partner to stay with her recovering alcoholic ex-husband Wes in a home owned by Chef, another recovering alcoholic. When Chef asks the couple to move out because his daughter needs to live in the house, Wes breaks off the relationship with Edna because he doubts his ability to remain sober once they leave the isolation of the rented house.

In “Preservation,” Sandy’s husband loses his job is unable to venture far from the couch and living room. Upon discovering that the refrigerator is broken, Sandy insists that her husband accompany her to an appliance auction. At the end of the story, they both stare at unexplained puddles of water that accumulate before Sandy’s husband returns to the couch.

Myers boards a train in “The Compartment” to visit his estranged son who is a student in France. Anxious about the reunion and unimpressed with Europe, Myers impulsively decides that he won’t get off at his destination because he has no desire to reconcile with his son.

At the beginning of “A Small, Good Thing,” Ann orders a birthday cake for her son, Scotty. But on his birthday, a car strikes Scotty. During the three-day coma leading to their son’s death, Ann and her husband receive mysterious harassing phone calls from a baker who is angry that Ann never picked up her son’s cake. After Scotty dies, Ann confronts the baker. Horrified by his own behavior, the baker apologizes and comforts the bereaved parents with baked goods and kindness.

The narrator in “Vitamins” works a dead-end job and talks emotionlessly about his wife, Patti, who becomes a successful vitamin salesperson. When vitamin sales plummet, Patti is frustrated and the narrator has a brief, passionless tryst with Patti’s coworker.

“Careful” is about Lloyd, who lives in a small apartment after separating from his wife Inez. As Inez helps Lloyd deal with an uncomfortably blocked ear, she sees Lloyd’s alcoholism slip further out of control.

In “Where I’m Calling From,” the alcoholic narrator checks in for his second stay at a rehabilitation clinic. There, he befriends J.P., a man who wants to repair his life and his marriage. The narrator reflects on his own wife, who forced him to move out of their house, and his live-in girlfriend who is also an alcoholic. While the narrator’s attempts to call his wife go unanswered, J.P. reconciles with his own wife.

In “The Train” Miss Dent awaits a train after threatening a man at gunpoint, waiting for a train. An older couple enters and argues about the party they just left. They all board the train, and the author leaves their stories incomplete and unexplained.

In “Fever,” Carlyle is a teacher whose wife left him and their two children to run away with his colleague. Mrs. Wallace, an older woman hired to care for his children, transforms his home. One day, Carlyle grows very ill. As Mrs. Wallace cares for him, she tells him that she and her husband plan to move out-of-state. Left with his children, Carlyle develops a new sense of peace about his broken marriage.

“The Bridle” centers around Marge, who manages an apartment building with her husband. A family from Wisconsin moves in, having lost their farm when the husband, Holits, gambled away their savings on a racehorse. His wife, Betty, raises his two sons from a previous marriage while working as the family’s sole earner. One night, as Holits and his friends are drink by the pool, he sustains a head injury while performing a drunken stunt. Unable to support themselves, the family breaks their lease and moves away.

In the title story, “Cathedral,” the narrator is annoyed when his wife invites Robert, her blind friend, to stay with them. Uncomfortable around blindness and jealous of his wife’s friendship, the narrator nevertheless accepts Robert after a moment of mutual understanding. After watching a documentary about cathedrals, the narrator lets Robert feel his hands as he draws a cathedral to show him what they look like, thus changing the narrator’s perspective on blindness and his own life.