Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Consistent with the story’s theme that even the mundane world contains much that is worthy of notice, Cheever’s writing is rich in detail; for example, in his careful description of the Weeds’ preparation for their yearly Christmas photograph. Moreover, the pattern of classical allusions that recur in the story emphasizes the reality of history, and in fact the lingering presence of the past in the modern world.
The classical allusions are diverse. The Weeds’ living room is said to be “divided like Gaul into three parts.” A neighbor says of his wife, “She makes me feel like Hannibal crossing the Alps.” Francis notes on Fifth Avenue the statue of Atlas bearing the globe on his shoulders, and his love for Anne, it is suggested, may result from some “capriciousness of Venus and Eros.” The beautiful woman glimpsed on the train becomes “Venus combing and combing her hair.” The classical allusions are capped by the fact that the neighbors’ retriever—“black as coal, with a long, alert, intelligent, rakehell face”—is called Jupiter. Although these allusions are used with an ironic tone, their cumulative pattern is enough to suggest that the distant classical world can still provide an enriching presence in the modern world. To see one’s neighbors, their living rooms and their pets, as analogues to the heroes and gods of classical antiquity endows them all with a certain dignity, even if tempered by gentle irony. At the end of...
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During the 1950s, the United States experienced dramatic social change. World War II had ended. Men returned home from the war changed by their experiences yet eager to begin new chapters in their lives. They came home to their families and took over as the traditional heads of their households. Some took advantage of the G.I. Bill, which offered financial aid for college tuition to those who had served in the war, while others resumed their previous careers. Women, who during the war had occupied jobs formerly performed by men, were expected to return to their domestic family duties. Children had been born and/or had grown up while their fathers were away, which often made family adjustments difficult and awkward.
At the same time, it was an era of swelling patriotism and hope for the future. The United States came out of the war victorious, and the use of atomic bombs in Japan was believed to have secured America’s place as a global superpower. However, the introduction of nuclear weapons also inspired fear and anxiety. Although the United States was the only nation to use nuclear weapons in the war, other countries possessed nuclear capability. In preparation for what many considered an inevitable nuclear war, many Americans built bomb shelters for their families. The Cold War, an era of struggle and suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union, began. Distrust gave rise to McCarthyism (a political stance...
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Complex Narrative Style
At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes with detachment the airplane’s near-crash. The narrator communicates facts rather than capturing the intensity of human crisis. As the story unfolds, however, the narrator enters Francis’s mind, telling the reader about his thoughts and feelings. The result is that the reader finishes the story with the sense that the airplane incident is not particularly engrossing, but the character’s reaction to it is. The narrator begins as a passive observer but becomes a commentator who frequently interprets the changes that take place in Francis.
One of the first insights into Francis’s psyche is revealed when he sees Anne. Francis is drawn to her innocence, purity, and youth, as the narrator relates:
All those endearing flaws, moles, birthmarks, and healed wounds were missing, and he experienced in his consciousness that moment when music breaks glass, and felt a pang of recognition as strange, deep, and wonderful as anything in his life.
The narrator’s intimate knowledge of Francis’s inner experiences is shown in minor incidents, too. After Francis insults Mrs. Wrightson, for example, the narrator tells the reader, ‘‘Even the smell of ink from his morning paper honed his appetite for life, and the world that was spread out around him was plainly a paradise.’’ Without this insight, the reader might...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: In schools, children are taught how to react in the event of a bomb threat from a foreign nation. Such precautions are considered a necessary part of living in the Atomic Age.
Today: Now that the Cold War is over, most Americans feel little threat of a full-blown nuclear war. In schools, children have fire drills and, in certain parts of the country, tornado drills.
1950s: The suburbs are considered an appropriate environment for rearing children and belonging to a tight-knit community. Because so many people in the suburbs seek a sense of community, various activities, organizations, and social networks emerge.
Today: People move to the suburbs for the same reasons that they moved there in the 1950s. While some of the organizations and gatherings are different, the motivations to participate are the same.
1950s: Most of the country’s population growth takes place in the suburbs. This dramatic growth is due to a rise in marriage and birth rates following the war. In addition, federal programs for veterans make housing more affordable. Instead of living in the city, families enjoy spacious homes with front and back yards.
Today: Life in the suburbs is no longer a novelty, but suburbs continue to grow; in fact, the desire to live in the suburbs and population growth continue to push suburbs outward from urban areas into traditionally rural or agricultural...
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Topics for Further Study
After finishing the story, think about the title. Why do you think Cheever chose it? Is it meant to lend insight into one of the characters or is it intended to support one of the story’s themes? Write an essay in which you offer an explanation for the title. Be sure your points are drawn from the text and quote the story where appropriate.
Read another of Cheever’s best-loved short stories, ‘‘The Swimmer,’’ and compare it to ‘‘The Country Husband.’’ If you had to draw conclusions about Cheever’s entire body of work (style, construction, characterization, themes, etc.) based only on these two stories, what conclusions would you draw? Make some notes about this. Then read an overview of Cheever’s career (Twayne’s Authors Series is a good one) to see if your conclusions are in line with published criticism on the work. What does this exercise tell you about how individual works fit into the broader scope of an author’s work?
Think about a time when you had a defining or life-changing experience, positive or negative. How did the experience affect you? In retrospect, do you believe that your experience ultimately had a greater or lesser impact than you imagined it would at the time?
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What Do I Read Next?
Cheever’s 1978 The Stories of John Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This collection contains the best of Cheever’s short fiction spanning his career, providing the new student of his work with a solid starting point.
The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), the 1958 National Book Award winner, is the story of Leander Wapshot, a ferryman who abandons his family and his two sons. The sequel, The Wapshot Scandal, was well received.
Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1857) is the story of a dissatisfied woman who seeks a more invigorating life for herself. She pursues younger men but remains unfulfilled. Although deemed scandalous at the time of its publication, the work is considered a classic by modern standards.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bodine, Paul, ‘‘Cheever, John,’’ in Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by Dave Mote, St. James Press, 1997, pp. 79–80.
Collins, Robert G., ‘‘Beyond Argument: Post-Marital Man in John Cheever’s Later Fiction,’’ in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring 1984, pp. 261–79.
Dressner, Lawrence Jay, ‘‘Gender and Structure in John Cheever’s ‘The Country Husband,’’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1994, pp. 57–68.
Hipkiss, Robert A., ‘‘‘The Country Husband’—A Model Cheever Achievement,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 577–85.
Morace, Robert A., ‘‘John Cheever,’’ in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The New Consciousness, 1941–1968, Gale Research, 1987.
O’Hara, James, ‘‘John Cheever,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 102, American Short-Story Writers, 1910–1945, Gale Research, 1991, pp. 26–42.
‘‘Overview of John Cheever,’’ in DISCovering Authors, The Gale Group, 1999.
Peden, William, ‘‘Metropolis, Village, and Suburbia: The Short Fiction of Manners,’’ in American Short Story: Continuity and Change, 1940–1975, Houghton Mifflin, 1975, pp. 30–68.
Bosha, Francis J.,...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Bosha, Francis J., ed. The Critical Response to John Cheever. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Collins, Robert G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983.
Meanor, Patrick. John Cheever Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1995.
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