Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
It would be possible to read “The Country Husband” as an ironic commentary on what has come to be known as a “mid-life crisis,” in which a man approaching middle age suddenly becomes infatuated with a much younger woman. Although John Cheever gently satirizes the particular form that Francis Weed’s crisis takes, however, he treats more seriously Francis’s realization that he and his friends have stopped paying attention to the meaning of life. This realization is most explicit in the moments following his recognition of the French maid: “The people in the Farquarsons’ living room seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world.”
One theme of the story, then, is suggested by the question: How can life be meaningful in the absence of the sharp awareness brought on by crises such as death and war? Cheever suggests several answers. First, a consciousness of the past—of possible “danger or trouble”—is important to maintain. Francis has never had a good memory; as Cheever says: “It was not his limitation at all to be unable to escape the past; it was perhaps his limitation that he had escaped it so successfully.” The thoughtful person, Cheever suggests, maintains a balance between the ordinary surface of daily life and an awareness that the extraordinary has happened in the past, and will happen again, for better or worse.
Second, the story suggests that in the absence of the extraordinary, individuals can heighten their perception of life by concentrating on the small pleasures of physical life (as Francis is encouraged to do first by his love for Anne and later by his psychiatrist). The beauty of architectural detail, the smell of ink rising from the morning paper, a random glimpse of a beautiful woman on a train—all these common moments can seem like revelations to the heightened awareness. What is more, occasional flights of fancy may be good for the soul. One of the last images in the story shows Francis’s youngest son, Toby, struggling out of his cowboy outfit and putting on his “space suit” with a “magic cape.” As he “flies the short distance to the floor,” Toby proves that people have the resources within them to escape the ordinary, if only for a moment at a time.