Term Paper: Emergency," by Dennis Johnson and "Cathedral

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¶ … Emergency," by Dennis Johnson and "Cathedral," by Raymond Carver, were published about a decade apart but are remarkably similar in tone, style, language, motifs, point-of-view, and themes. Both stories are told in the first person point-of-view, in a language and tone that is thoroughly familiar and commonplace so as to draw in the reader and impart a sense of hearing a friend speak. Slang and curse words are used in both stories to underscore the familiarity of the characters. The protagonist in "Emergency" is a hospital clerk; in "Cathedral," the narrator does not discuss his career and it is irrelevant to the unfolding of the narrative just as it is in "Emergency." However, the hospital setting in "Emergency" does offer a symbolic setting for the story. Both of these stories use the motif of drugs and addiction, which are pivotal elements in the psychological unfolding of secondary or supporting characters like Georgie in "Emergency" and the wife in "Cathedral." Core themes of life and death and the search for existential meaning are iterated via the rich and nuanced use of irony and paradoxes in both the Carver and the Johnson stories. Moreover, both these stories use the motif of sight and blindness as a core paradox referring to the spiritual dimension of seeing as knowing.

A cynical and yet somehow hopeful tone provides the paradoxical foundation for these two short stories. The narrators are stunningly matter-of-fact, as Carver and Johnson use common vernacular to emphasize this point. Neither narrator is overly concerned with existential or deeper issues, but other characters in the story are (such as the wife in "Cathedral" and Georgie in "Emergency"). This allows the authors to present overarching themes through the eyes of the Everyman. It also lightens the tone and mood and enables the emergence of a hopeful dimension to otherwise and potentially morbid themes. In "Emergency," the narrator uses a matter-of-fact tone just as the narrator of "Cathedral." Fuckhead and his counterpart in "Cathedral" use little in the way of self-reflection or introspection, which is ironic given the reader projects self-seeking elements on the respective narrators. Fuckhead, the narrator of "Emergency," and the narrator of "Cathedral" both use curse words and frequently allude to their cynicism. A sardonic tone permeates these two short stories, but they also end on a hopeful note because neither narrator is crippled by cynicism.

First person point-of-view establishes trust between the reader and the narrator. This is true even when the narrator is unreliable. In "Emergency," the narrator is especially unreliable. The reader needs and relies on the ancillary characters for information. Johnson is particularly interested in presenting the reader with multiple points-of-view or facets of issues and characters, while still relying on a first person narrator. This creates a complex and paradoxical point-of-view. For instance, the narrator notes that the floor in the emergency room was "clean enough" for him. The reader at first believes that maybe he as a clerk is simply not that attentive to detail or concerned with the level of sterility required to maintain an emergency ward. Georgie's actions are not necessarily pathological, and his seeing blood not necessary hallucination. Yet later, it turns out Georgie most certainly does have some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as he is always cleaning the floor. The narrator cannot tell us this, though. We cannot rely on him for all the information needed to piece together the mystery of Georgie. The Fat Nurse needs to step in and offer another version of Georgie and another piece of the puzzle. She presents a facet of Georgie that is clearly disturbed when she says, "again" he is cleaning the floor incessantly. The narrator did not provide a reliable enough insight to Georgie even though (or perhaps because) they are good friends. The Nurse offers a more objective look at Georgie's behavior and puts it into perspective. Georgie has a problem. Likewise, Terrance Weber, the almost-blind man says Georgie's face is "dark." He even repeats this statement. With the emphasis on this image of a "dark" or shadowy face, the reader receives a multifaceted picture of Georgie as hiding or being subsumed by his own shadow.

Drugs play an important role in "Emergency" and "Cathedral," serving as a motif of altering consciousness and escapism. Both narrators enjoy drugs, but arguably the narrator of "Emergency" uses more heavily and uses heavier drugs. The inclusion of drugs as a motif corresponds well with the authors' respective use of vernacular and familiar language. Nicknames like "Fuckhead," for example, remind the reader that any serious existential issues are covered within the framework of a rebellious alternative culture. Drugs are much more than rebellion, though, as neither narrator is young enough to be using them in this way. However, the narrators of both "Cathedral" and "Emergency" use drugs to alter their perception of reality.

Drugs have differential functions in "Emergency" versus "Cathedral," though. In "Emergency," drugs are explicitly a form of escape and a coping mechanism to deal with the drudgery of daily life at the hospital. More than that, the narrator perceives the senselessness of society's rules and constraints. Only Georgie is able to articulate a deeper, existential angst that prompts escapism through drugs. "What am I crying for?" Georgia cries out, in reference to the "goop" inside that wants to get out (p. 31). The "goop," referring literally to blood and guts, is an apt metaphor for the emotional garbage that finds release and catharsis through death or in a genuine spiritual experience. Whereas the narrator simply wants to be able to tolerate the end-to-end night shifts that control his life, Georgie understands the need for spiritual liberation, the need to be liberated from social convention, and the need to find the meaning of life outside of the context of organized religion.

In "Cathedral," cannabis offers a completely different view of the function of drugs psychologically and socially. Psychologically, drugs provide relaxation and a calmer perspective, as well as open-mindedness. The narrator needs cannabis to connect with the blind man, and through cannabis relaxes his inhibitions so that he can help the blind man to "see" through his hand while drawing the titular cathedral. Moreover, cannabis is a strong social salve that permits the two men to connect with one another on deep levels. The pharmaceuticals Fuckhead and Georgie use in "Emergency" are not a social salve, and they do not use together in the same way as passing a joint. Taking pills is a solitary activity. For Georgie, pills leads to morbid self-reflection and difficult encounters with fear of mortality. Death is a recurring theme in these two short stories, albeit one that is buried beneath other motifs such as religion and the most compelling symbol, sight.

The use of common vernacular provides a remarkable counterpoint to the discussion of deep issues. In "Cathedral," the deeper issues are related to levels of seeing, and alternative points-of-view. Diversity is a core theme, with the elimination of prejudice and bias a main goal. The protagonist achieves this goal, of liberating himself from the tyranny of his own bigotry, through an interaction with the blind man. He and the blind man ironically find a point of convergence in the image of a cathedral -- something that holds no actual religious import for either of them but which becomes a powerful spiritual symbol for both.

In "Emergency," the deeper issues are also related to levels of seeing. However, alternative viewpoints and diversity are not the themes discussed. Instead, Johnson uses "Emergency" to elucidate the themes of freedom, meaning, and self-liberation. Picking up the hitchhiker Hardie at the end of the story, the narrator comes face-to-face with the core domain of freedom: choice. Hardie has the choice to avoid the draft by running to Canada. What Hardie does is illegal, just as what Georgie does in stealing drugs is also illegal. Avoiding the draft and stealing drugs are methods by which the characters subvert the senselessness of life in modern America. The narrator notices the useless eye patch on Terrance Weber, for instance, and notes outright it was "for no reason, really." The man's eye was fine; he needed no patch. On several other occasions, sight is called into question, as during the snow storm and the loss of their headlights. There are different types of seeing, just as there are in "Cathedral." Physical sight is differentiated from insight into social and psychological truth, which is also different from religious or spiritual reality.

Metaphor and symbolism provide the means by which to convey the central themes in Carver's "Cathedral" and Johnson's "Emergency." The emergency room symbolizes a spiritual emergency or crisis. Georgie is the character in crisis: Georgie likened to "child soiling his diapers. He does not achieve liberation in the end, but the beginnings of hope do unfold through the image of snowflakes that appear like flowers. There is great hope in the "snow resembling an abundance of blossom," whereas winter and snow typically signify… [END OF PREVIEW]

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