Eyes of the Beholder

Blindness is a condition that many have had to learn to live with, and some people ignorantly suppose that the person is almost completely unaware of the world around them and ought to be pitied. Being sightless is a limitation that people have to learn to overcome, but because society is obsessed with political correctness, people use words like “disabled” or “visually impaired” for fear of insulting a blind person. People are under the impression that somehow, because someone does not have the gift of sight, they are therefore uninformed of their surroundings and need help from everyone else. However, all is not lost, because some people know to see past the physical, one-dimensional portion, and instead see the wisdom that lies within those different from us. Two examples are Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” and Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus the King.” Both authors show their view on how physical blindness can mask the true vision and great knowledge found within.

In “Cathedral,” the nameless narrator tells how he was changed by a visit from a blind man. Years earlier, the narrator’s wife, who is also left unnamed, read a want-ad in the paper Help Wanted: Reading to blind man and was hired for the job. Over time, the blind man (Robert) and the woman form a friendship. On the woman’s last day of work, Robert asks her if he can touch her face, and she agrees. She knows he wants to get a sense of the area around him.

The narrator, however, is hesitant to learn about Robert and his condition; the narrator doesn't know what to say, and he feels sorry for Robert. When dinner comes around, though, the man quickly learns that Robert is not the helpless guy he’d imagined. Despite being blind, Robert has made friends from around the world and learned things through them. Later on that evening, the narrator turns on the TV and sees a program about cathedrals. When Robert asks the man to describe what one looks like, words quickly fail him, so Robert suggests that the man draw a cathedral, instead. Slowly he does so, unenthusiastically at first, but he becomes absorbed in the drawing. Robert encourages him and even feels around the paper with his fingers. He tells the man to do something he didn’t expect: “‘Close your eyes now,’ the blind man said to me. I did it. I closed them just like he said” (48).

In Sophocles’ "Oedipus the King," Oedipus is a man who is the king of Thebes. He becomes ruler shortly after his triumph over the legendary monster known as the Sphinx, a vicious creature who posed a riddle to the people of Thebes and killed all who could not solve it. Now the people look to their king to somehow find a cure for a plague that is ravaging the city. The king sends Creon, who is the brother of his wife Queen Iocaste, to the oracles at Delphi, hoping they will provide the solution to the plague. Creon returns with Teiresias, a blind prophet, and they tell him what the oracles have said. Creon is the first to speak, and he says, “It is / Murder that brought the plague-wind on the city” (964). He goes on to explain that the plague will leave only when the murderer of Laios, Thebes’ former king, is found and punished for his crime, thus avenging his death. The blind prophet knows the truth about Oedipus's parents. Oedipus calls on him to find who killed Laios but becomes furious when Teiresias claims that Oedipus himself is the killer. As the prophet leaves, he tells Oedipus that he is his wife's son and his father's killer, and that Oedipus will leave Thebes in shame, but Oedipus does not listen, instead accusing Teiresias of conspiring with Creon to overthrow him. Ultimately, Oedipus learns the truth: On his way to Thebes, he killed an old man, unaware that the man was Laios. As well, Oedipus’ wife is his mother, and he married her after becoming king, unaware of who she was.

In both stories, as different as they are, the blind man is the one who knows the truth. Physical blindness causes others to think of them as people who don’t know much. The blind man, Robert, is treated differently than Teiresias Robert and the man ultimately become friends, and the man learns just what it is like. He completes his painting of the cathedral, and he has learned a lot more about what blindness is like than Robert has about cathedrals. In “Oedipus the King,” the blind man despite the fact that he is a prophet is called a liar who has disrespected the king. The prophet is even accused of conspiring against the king. In both cases, though, the blind man has a “sixth sense,” not only of his surroundings but of the truth of the situation. Robert shows the man that being blind does not detract from the quality of life. The man starts out ignorant of what blindness is really like and pities Robert, but in the end he has changed, and is aware of the truth. Not only that, he likes it and accepts it. Oedipus, meanwhile, also learns the truth but pays the price for it: He blinds himself, his father is dead, and his mother hangs herself. Now Oedipus knows the truth but is physically blind, and the man from the other story was blind, but now he can see.