Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Cheever’s story is about social pretense and about how his middle-class characters maintain it. On the surface, Charlie Pastern, the protagonist, wants others to think of him as a strong man who is successful in life and honest about his feelings. This is why he belongs to the country club and harangues his golf cronies with his political conservatism, and why he makes no secret about his bomb shelter, which is not only an eyesore but also a blatant symbol of his patriotism and his commitment to free enterprise—as opposed, one assumes, to communism. However, underneath Charlie’s veneer of strength and patriotic hostility lies the truth, which turns his outward demeanor into a pretense. He has, in fact, squandered everything by which spiritual and worldly success is measured in the suburban milieu that he inhabits: fidelity and money. He is habitually unfaithful to his wife—and would be, the story suggests, to Mrs. Flannagan were their affair to last long enough. He has wasted the money that his mother left him and has critically overextended his credit. He is not, in short, a preserver of values but a destroyer of them, victimizing in the process his wife, his children, and himself. The intelligence to which he pretends as a successful member of his suburban community is no more than stupidity. He fails to make smart investments, relies on gambling to recoup his losses, and entrusts his well-being to a woman (Mrs. Flannagan) who is too selfish to further it.

Charlie’s wife is also interested in being well thought of by her...

(The entire section is 634 words.)