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Characterization is defined as the way an author portrays a particular character in a work. Although characters are typically characterized based on initial actions, they are prone to change over the course of a story. Consider, for example, the narrators of both short stories featured in “Sonny’s Blues” and “Cathedral”, who ultimately relinquish their obstinate opinions by seeking to empathize with the struggles of other characters. While both authors display significant character growth in their conclusions, “Sonny’s Blues” employs auditory description to convey a brother’s ultimate acceptance of his sibling’s passion. In contrast, “Cathedral” relies on a lack of sight to demonstrate an entirely new perspective. Throughout “Sonny’s Blues”, Sonny’s brother is detached from him and confesses, “I’d never played the role of the oldest brother quite so seriously before, had scarcely asked Sonny a damn thing. I sensed myself in the presence of something I didn’t really know how to handle or understand” (Baldwin, 85). In this passage, the narrator is grappling with understanding Sonny’s future plans. Learning that his brother aspires to be a musician leaves the narrator speechless because he was never deeply invested in Sonny’s life, and hence, struggles to understand his interests or the struggles he faces. This is perhaps best exemplified when he observes, “I simply couldn’t comprehend why he’d want to spend his time in nightclubs, fooling around on bandstands while people jostled each other on the dance floor. It seemed beneath him, somehow” (Baldwin, 86).
Later, he confronts Sonny regarding his fear that choosing a musician’s life may intensify his heroin addiction. However, Sonny reckons that the drug will not exacerbate his suffering because he will never forget his past. He argues that nobody uses heroin just for the sake of it, but as an escape. At the conclusion of the story, Baldwin utilizes auditory symbolism to epitomize this escape when the narrator listens to his brother’s performance in the nightclub and witnesses his struggles sublimating unreservedly into his music. The narrator explains:
How it works
“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music permeates our consciousness, what we hear, or corroborate, are personal, private, and fleeting evocations. But the creator of the music hears something else – he is wrestling with the tumultuous void to impose order on it as it enters the air” (Baldwin, 98).
Through Baldwin’s strategic use of the auditory sense, we see that the author, from the vantage point of a stage spectator, experiences a change of heart. He evolves into a supportive, understanding sibling who is finally able to comprehend Sonny’s life and the struggles he has overcome through his music. “Then he stepped back, very slowly, poignantly indicating that Sonny should speak for himself…Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life” (Baldwin, 99).
In “Cathedral,” Carver plays on the theme of sight, or lack thereof, to show a rather drastic character change of his own, similar to that seen in “Sonny’s Blues.” In the beginning, the narrator is ignorant and insulting. He can’t understand why the blind man had a full beard, or a wife whom he couldn’t even see or appreciate. He acted as if Robert somehow didn’t have the same rights as those who were capable of sight. His ignorance is displayed in the following few lines from the story:
“And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to” (Carver, 34).
Having never actually met, or even previously known someone who was blind, all he had was a pre-conceived notion of how the blind were supposed to behave. It isn’t until the conclusion of the story when the narrator finally starts to see Robert, and in fact himself, in a different light. As the two sit and share a joint, Robert asks the narrator to describe for him a cathedral. He then proceeds to draw a cathedral for him by placing his hand on the pen and having Robert follow the tracing of his hand. Eventually, the narrator begins to draw with his eyes closed and keeps them closed even after finishing the drawing. “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything” (Carver, 46). The narrator then seems to “observe” the cathedral with his eyes still closed. He can’t physically see, but he can finally spiritually “see” and understand from Robert’s perspective what it’s like to be blind and yet still appreciate the beauty of the world.
While it’s clear that the narrators in both works undergo a dramatic change, there are a lot of similarities in the way they arrive at their new destinations despite the authors’ use of different physical senses to help them get there. In the end, it really comes down to a matter of being able to empathize with the plight of others, with sound and sight respectively just serving as conduits to a greater means of understanding what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
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