Sonny’s Blues, Bartleby the Scrivener, and Cathedral

As I revealed earlier, I’m reading every story from my college English text; The Norton Introduction of Literature by Kelly J. Mays, just because. My bookmark currently rests between pages 69 and 70 in the Norton book. My goal was to read it cover-to-cover, but the syllabus wouldn’t cooperate with that idea. For the last few classes, I had to read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, and “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville. Bartleby was assigned most recently and is still the freshest story on my mind.


The professor confessed in class that “Bartleby, the Scrivener” was his favorite short story of all-time. It’s a somewhat humorous yet somewhat depressing tale. There’s a lot going on between the lines of the text, it seems, and there are countless different analyses and interpretations of the story. Personally, the thoughts and opinions about the text from others make for an even more interesting read than the story itself does. We discussed many of the analyses that have been made popular over the years; the ever-imploding-into-itself essay by Deluse, Fish’s slightly more understandable essay, and a few others. Was the text literal? Was the narrator homosexual? Was the text sort of a metaphor for Melville’s unwillingness to write a story just to make money? Also, why ever do anything at all?

I had a hard time with “Sonny’s Blues” at first; I had trouble making certain connections and the theme I pulled from the text originally wasn’t the dominating one that most of the rest of the class had grasped. I only saw the surface details; somehow the facts of the narrator growing up on the streets of Harlem with his brother and the narrator trying desperately to make a connection with him over the years didn’t reach me. Another classmate brought up the struggle that the brothers had growing up black and never being able to get out from under the lower expectations that society had of them because of their race. I hate to say that I was a sad little white guy who didn’t get it, but I was a sad little white guy who didn’t get it – until the professor discussed it with us.

When I read “Cathedral”, the theme of “connection” clicked a little easier for me than it did in “Sonny’s Blues”, although possibly only because we had just discussed that theme in the previous story. There’s some marijuana smoking involved, some television watching, and an epiphany of sorts. We discussed the different connections between the characters; the narrator and his wife, the wife and the blind man, and the blind man and the narrator. We tried to discuss the brief mention of the wife’s attempt at suicide, and we tried to discuss what it meant when the narrator wasn’t worried about his wife who had fallen asleep on the couch being exposed to the blind man. I don’t think we really got anywhere as a class with those topics.

The other stories that I read were the first stories in the Norton book, “20/20”, which is a short short story by Linda Brewer, the “Shabbat”, an excerpt from the graphic novel “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, and Flight Patterns, by Sherman Alexie. “20/20” was incredibly short. It was included in this text to serve as an example for a short short story, as well as an example of how to interpret and analyze literature. It served it’s purpose. “The Shabbat” was surprising, because I’m not used to literature books including graphic novels (probably because I’ve never attempted to read one cover-to-cover before! I know, the shame.) Anyway, props to Kelly J. Mays for that. I’ll definitely check out the rest of the story, as well as the film as soon as I have the time. Anyway, both of these first two stories were obviously quick examples to showcase the author’s introduction about responding and writing to literature; this is of course what the book is about.

The third story, “Flight Patterns”, was the story that stuck with me, and one that I found to be the most useful. We didn’t discuss it in class because it wasn’t assigned. Again, the theme of connection is very strong here. This story was just behind “Cathedral” in the book, probably for that reason. I happened to come across Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, published in 2007. I plan on reading it if I ever have the time.   

By Eric Shay Howard

Eric Shay Howard lives in Indianapolis. He's a teacher, a literary editor, and writer. He's a graduate student in the Bluegrass Writers Studio MFA in Creative Writing program at Eastern Kentucky University. He also has MBA and BA degrees.

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