I wish to preface this post with the following statement: These two short stories were what inspired me to first pursue writing and literary studies. I read them many times in high school and again in college, and every time I return to them, I notice how closely linked they are.
In this post, I will focus primarily on prevalent thematic similarities between Carver’s “Cathedral” and Cheever’s “The Swimmer.”
One such theme in “Cathedral” is the difference between looking at someone or something and actually seeing that someone or something. This theme is also visible (ha, solid pun) in “The Swimmer.” Looking in “Cathedral”and “The Swimmer” is more centered on one’s physical vision, whereas seeing appears to require a deeper level of engagement and understanding.
Carver’s narrator shows that he is perfectly capable of looking. He can look at his house, his wife, his television, and at Robert; he also has a superiority complex in regards to Robert because he can look at everything and Robert cannot. However, the narrator is so confident in his looking that he cannot see beneath the surface of anything, and, in fact, he does not even try. He does not know his wife very well, and the only interactions between them that the reader gets are snarky exchanges in which all the narrator seems to do is irritate her. Robert, however, understands the wife far better than the narrator does because Robert truly listens to her. It does not matter that he cannot look at her, because through their ten years of exchanging tapes, he sees her.
Similar can be said for Neddy in “The Swimmer.” Neddy’s day spent swimming through every pool is condensed telling of his life, of which he took every day for granted. Every time Neddy encounters a new yard and a new pool, he looks at the people, the landscape, the weather and the seasonal changes, but he does not see what has happened in his life. Each drink, each invitation gets colder and colder until it is an outright refusal, and the homeowners he has short conversations with ask him about and even seem to pity him for things that had happened in his life, things that Neddy seems to be blissfully unaware of, like the loss of his home or his wife leaving him and taking the kids with her. Neddy looks at the World War II style plane and the litter-covered highway, but he does not see that the world is moving forward without him. He does not see these things because he does not want to; he does not want to look deeper into his life than the surface level because he is ashamed of it. He has lost everything and everyone he loved, and he has lost himself in drink.
At the end, when Neddy is worn out, weak, and old, he arrives at his old empty house and finally truly sees that he has wasted his life and taken the people in it for granted, and he must face death knowing and seeing that emptiness, that live devoid of meaning. At the end of “Cathedral,” the narrator and Robert finish their drawing of a Cathedral and he refuses to open his eyes because he now understands that truly seeing it and feeling its beauty is better than looking at it without comprehension, and he would very well see that that was what his marriage had been missing.