The story focuses on Jim and Irene Westcott, an average couple in all but one respect, and that is in their fondness for music, which is to say, their fondness for harmony. When their radio breaks down beyond repair, Jim buys another as a gift for his wife. The machine’s complexity, ugly gumwood cabinet, and “malevolent green light” trouble Irene. More disturbing is the radio’s tendency to pick up interference. Wanting to hear music, Irene instead hears ringing telephones and the conversations and quarrels of her neighbors.
Soon, Irene begins to take pleasure in eavesdropping on her neighbors, but this perverse fascination soon gives way to an apprehensiveness and even defensiveness on the part of Irene, who too insistently maintains that she and Jim are innocent of the hypocrisy, fearfulness, and financial troubles that afflict their neighbors. Ironically, her knowledge of their lives and misfortunes eventually causes friction in her own marriage. Jim, it turns out, worries about growing old and wonders why he has not been as successful as he hoped to be. In a sudden outburst, he cracks Irene’s “Christly” shell, exposing the lies, thefts, and even the abortion she has sought to conceal, indeed seems to have forgotten.
Although the story begins as a work of conventional realism, Cheever’s plot and theme can be interpreted allegorically. “The Enormous Radio” can be seen as a retelling of the biblical story of man’s fall from innocence and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, in this case, the American garden of middle-class respectability. In exposing Irene Westcott, Cheever in effect exposes the underside of the American life that she and her husband represent. The comforts of their middle-class life, Cheever suggests, cannot protect the individual against either the evil in the world or the evil in oneself. Tempted by the satanic radio, Irene falls into knowledge, out of love, and perhaps beyond the possibility of redemption as well.