At the center of "Cathedral" is a significant irony: a narrator who ignorantly disdains blindness while being oblivious to his own limitations in sight. Of course, the narrator can see with his eyes but does not realize the limitations he has placed on himself, and how those prevent him from seeing or wanting anything greater in life. The story is ultimately about transcendence; that is, an existence beyond the limitations of physical things. What Robert has that the narrator lacks is a sight into the wonder of things, the potential for greatness and tenderness in humanity, and the curiosity that can make one truly alive and free even if one is limited by physical factors.
To understand the narrator, it is helpful to analyze the masterful first-person voice of the story. The narration is arguably one of Carver's most vivid. The narrator is forthcoming with his listener, both in terms of what he shares (his insecurities are myriad) but also through the personal qualities he reveals. He's crude and he's mean, but he's also glib. There's a wicked humor in the way he talks. While he certainly is detached from himself at the beginning, he is unusually talkative and clever for a Carver narrator. It's a voice worth reading aloud, especially when one notices that the glibness is noticeably absent from the final pages. This absence delivers as powerfully as anything else how shaken and affected the narrator is by this experience.
The characterization does a lot to disguise the narrator's primary problem: he is detached from his life. As with most of the stories in this collection, the character seems to observe himself more than to feel himself in control. The nightly drug use and clear alcohol abuse are easy ways to understand this. It's telling that for all his seeming honesty, he never admits aloud his jealousy of Robert based on the blind man's past relationship with his wife. There is obviously sexual intimidation – look at his language when he describes the touching of the face – yet he never acknowledges it. But this jealousy doesn’t hide a functioning relationship; he is dismissive of his wife, and speaks of her great emotional experiences with a particular glibness. Likewise, he seems contemptuous of her desire to write poetry. His detachment from himself is well-reflected in the incident where he listens to one of Robert's tapes with his wife.
I heard my own name in the mouth of this stranger, this blind man I didn't even know! And then this [from Robert's tape]: "From all you've said about him, I can only conclude—" But we were interrupted, a knock at the door, something, and we didn't ever get back to the tape. Maybe it was just as well. I'd heard all I wanted to."
For all his judgment of others, the narrator is more than happy to not turn his critical eye on himself, or to be confronted with as much. But he is alone – he has no friends (as his wife says), and he stays up watching TV stoned each night when she goes to bed. It's telling that, in the early stage of his time alone with Robert, he confesses that he truly was happy to have the company. There is an interesting aside when he listens to Robert and his wife talk about their past decade apart. He says, "They talked of things that had happened to them—to them!—these past ten years!" Whether he is simply annoyed that they are neglecting him (even though he seems uninterested in answering Robert's questions about himself) or if he means to suggest they live more fulfilling lives that he doesn't understand, his aside speaks to his sense of isolation. As he tells Robert late in the story, he "doesn't believe in anything." He has no connection to anything greater or smaller than himself.
This sense of isolation helps to demonstrate his obstinate close-mindedness, most apparent in his feelings and pre-conceived notions of blindness. He immediately identifies the blind as remote and distinct from a 'normal' person. As he admits, his idea of...