Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Repetitionalism: a stylistic analysis of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”
One cannot discuss the style of a Raymond Carver story without confronting the issue of minimalism. Carver was a perhaps unwitting poster boy for the literary school when it was first hyped by editors and publishers in the late 70’s. In Marshall Gentry and William L. Stull’s Conversations with Raymond Carver, Carver credits his editor Gordon Lish with instilling in him “that if you could say it in five words instead of fifteen, use five words.” (183) “Cathedral,” as it is anthologized in the Norton Introduction to Literature, is certainly pared down in certain ways. It has been pruned of nearly any introspection, psychological motivation, or extraneous detail. But what remains doesn’t bear out the idea that Carver has chosen to say what he has to say in five rather than fifteen words. In fact, a good deal of repetition is taking place here.
Consider the following passage:
“She called him up one night from an Air Force base in Alabama. She wanted to talk. They talked. He asked her to send him a tape and tell him about her life. She did this. She sent the tape. On the tape, she told the blind man about her husband and about their life together in the military.” (21)
Carver repeats words such as “tape” throughout—it’s used five more times in this paragraph and at one point on the following page it appears no less than eleven times in one paragraph—and juxtaposes short sentences with recurring words: “She wanted to talk. They talked.” He also describes the same action in several ways: “She did this. She sent the tape.” In addition, the next three sentences all begin with the clause “she told the blind man,” a phrase already introduced in the preceding sentence. This is but one of many uses in the story of anaphora—a scheme based on repetition. Surely if Carver’s intent was “to say what I wanted to say… us[ing] the minimum number of words to do so” (32)—as he claims in the title essay of his book Fires—he would eschew this repetition and yoke some of his short sentences together with conjunctions. Using significantly less words, the last three sentences of the above quoted passage could be rendered as, “She did this, telling him about her husband and their life together in the military.”
I’m not trying to suggest that the tendency towards minimal representation of events isn’t present in the style Carver employs in “Cathedral.” For instance, other than the blind man, whose exotic quality elicits a bit of commentary, we’re never told what anything or anybody looks like. We know that there is a man, his wife, their house, and a television set. Even the slightest descriptive detail about the household—the fact that it’s a color T.V.—is revealed only in the dialogue, where it serves to strike a colorful, bizarre note: “‘This is a color TV,’ the blind man said. ‘Don’t ask me how. But I can tell.’” (25) Ellipsis is an oft-used tactic in service of brevity throughout “Cathedral.” And at other times the descriptive shortcutting is done in a totally blatant manner: twice on pg. 21 “etc.” is inserted in lieu of finishing a thought, once at the end of a sentence describing the clichéd beginnings of a love affair, and the other time here: “I’m saying that at the end of the summer she let the blind man run his hands over her face, said goodbye to him, married her childhood etc., who was now a commissioned officer, and she moved away from Seattle.” Here the “etc.” is used, apparently, to replace but a single word—an example of Carver using a technique that appears to lean towards minimalism, but is actually stylistically idiosyncratic. The finely tuned narrative that Carver has trimmed all the fat from is overwhelmed by instances of repetition and it, not minimalism, seems to be the organizing principle at work here. Call it “repetitionalism.”
Repetition of a single word in successive sentences is taken to absurd heights on page 21, where the word “poem” appears in seven straight sentences. The repetition employed in the narration seeps into the story itself, as well. The character of the wife has the tic of habitually repeating herself, using mostly different words to express the same sentiment two or three times consecutively: “‘Same here,’ she said. ‘Ditto. Me too.’” (26) “Are you crazy? … Have you just flipped or something? … What’s wrong with you? … Are you drunk?” (22) Strangely, when his wife falls asleep, the narrator starts to exhibit the same speech pattern: “Are you tired? Do you want me to make up your bed? Are you ready to hit the hay?” (27) The repetition of bland, mundane sentiments serves to reinforce the banality of the domestic scene—but it also creates a rhythm, a rhythm that is nicely in sync with the attitude of our narrator and erstwhile protagonist.
Emphasizing and maintaining this rhythm in another way is the scheme of anaphora. In addition to the example of anaphora on pg. 21 previously alluded to, it appears in a pure form, with the phrase “A woman who…” repeated three times at the beginning of successive clauses, on pg. 23. Many other times throughout “Cathedral,” two successive sentences begin with the same phrase (some interesting ones: “Now and then,” pg. 27, “In those olden days,” pg. 29.) And even more frequently, groups of sentences will all begin with the same pronoun. Five sentences in a row on pg. 21 begin with “She,” four in a row on pg. 23 begin with “I,” eight in a row on pg. 25 begin with “We,” and so on.
Another scheme, frequently employed in the first half of the story, is parenthesis. It is most often used between two sets of dashes to slightly modify or throw a different angle on the main clause. Occasionally, though, it used for increased emphasis—and more repetition—as on pg. 25: “They talked of things that had happened to them—to them!—these past ten years.” Taking advantage of the opportunity to use extra punctuation is typical of the way parenthesis is used throughout “Cathedral,” as on pg. 22: “It was a little wedding—who’d want to go to such a wedding in the first place?—just the two of them…” The same type of structure is used a page earlier in this wondrous sentence: “Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?—came from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance.” (21) Interestingly, the use of parenthesis is curtailed once the thrust of the story switches from backstory to exposition of action. This is, perhaps, indicative of a narrator’s tendency to double back and spiral into further explanation when trying to represent the intricacies of the past, while charging forward and giving mostly external, action-oriented details for the present.
The story is divided into two parts in another much more obvious way as well. At the bottom of the seventh of ten pages, the structure is interrupted by a section break. Carver wants us to know that what comes below that break is different than what comes above it, but he isn’t willing to sacrifice any of the rhythmic momentum he’s built up throughout the first section, so the actual narrative flow isn’t disturbed in the slightest. Although the first seven pages have been full of digressions into backstory and slight shifts in time and location, this new section begins on the same scene the other one ended on. The first two sentences after the break are both in service of continuity with the scene of the two men watching T.V. that has come directly before: “We didn’t say anything for a time. He was leaning forward with his head turned at me, his right ear aimed in the direction of the set.” (27) Because of this total continuity with what has immediately preceded it, and the extraordinary rhythmic movement of the writing, the break between the two sections is barely noticeable on first read. It isn’t until closer inspection that its obvious that Carver is signaling to us that there is to be a shift in the narrative. The stark banality of what has come before is going to give way to an epiphanic profundity at the conclusion.
One final reason for the repetition Carver insists on in “Cathedral” is the theme of learning that runs through it. Repetition is a fundamental tool used in teaching, and this fact sometimes comes into play in narratives—although these are most often aimed towards children (think Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer.) But “Cathedral” doesn’t aim to teach as these children’s entertainments do. It, instead, takes learning as a theme. The last few sentences before the section break introduce the idea, and the entirety of the second section is dependent on it. Here are those last few sentences:
"Something about the church and the Middle Ages was on the TV… I turned to the other channels. But there was nothing on them, either… “Bub, it’s all right,” the blind man said. “It’s fine with me. Whatever you want to watch is okay. I’m always learning something. Learning
never ends. It won’t hurt me to learn something tonight.” … (27)
And this, of course, is what our narrator learns from the blind man in the end.
Carver, Raymond. Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1989.
Gentry, Marshall and William L. Stull. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1990.
Norton Introduction to Literature, 9th edition, ed.’s: Allison Booth, J. Paul Hunter, Kelly J. Mays. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.