What distinguishes “The Enormous Radio” from the Hemingway-like stories of Cheever’s first collection, The Way Some People Live, is the unsettling mixture of realism and fantasy that characterizes the best of his later work. “The Enormous Radio” concerns the Westcotts, who live in a Sutton Place (New York) apartment building and who resemble other young (mid-thirties), college-educated, upwardly mobile couples of the immediately postwar period in all respects but one—their special fondness for classical music.
When their old radio breaks down, Jim buys Irene a new, rather expensive one as a present. Larger and more powerful than its predecessor, the new radio becomes a disturbing presence in the Westcotts’ (especially in Irene’s) life. She does not like its ugly gumwood cabinet, confounding complexities, violent forces, “malevolent green light,” and “mistaken sensitivity to discord.”
This “aggressive intruder” invades and disrupts not only Irene’s world but also that of her neighbors. Irene is appalled, yet fascinated, by what she hears—evidence of her neighbors’ financial, social, and sexual anxieties—but also worried that her neighbors may be able to hear what she and Jim say in the privacy of their own apartment. Irene becomes apprehensive, and this, in turn, leads Jim to express his own long-suppressed financial worries and finally to broadcast his wife’s secret sins: taking her mother’s jewels before the will was probated, cheating her sister, making another woman’s life miserable, and going to an abortionist.
Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, Irene has entered the dark forest of moral ambiguity and emerged a different person—emerged, that is, as she truly is rather than as she would like to appear. The breakdown of the old radio prepared the way for the breakdown of the Westcotts’ moral facade and for their and the reader’s discovery that the “heart of darkness” lies not without, as Irene wished to believe, but within. The ultimate truth may very well lie somewhere between the Westcotts’ fondness for harmony and the radio’s “mistaken sensitivity to discord.”