Narrated throughout in the “affectless” third person, “The Five-Forty-Eight” is notable for the reader’s implied identification with “Miss Dent,” no doubt certifiably insane, and not with the supposed viewpoint character, similarly identified only by his family name: Apart from Blake’s son Charlie, the immediate cause of his quarrel with Mr. Watkins, only Mrs. Compton is identified by her given name, Louise, and then only in passing. Mr. Blake, it seems, is most pleased when so addressed, and when keeping the rest of the world at a similar distance of conventional formality. Louise Compton, apparently, has been mentioned to Blake so often by his unhappy wife that he cannot help but recall her first name. From the unexpected slant of the narration, it soon becomes apparent that Blake, and not the unfortunate Miss Dent (who may, or may not, have made a “dent” on Blake’s consciousness), is truly the more estranged and alienated of the two.
The story begins when Blake, leaving work, steps out of an elevator and sees Miss Dent. In flashbacks, the reader learns that Blake had seduced the woman, a former mental patient, and subsequently abandoned her, taking the afternoon off while his company’s personnel department fired her. Her sudden appearance and uncharacteristic look of determination turn the tables on Blake, who must face the fact of his own vulnerability. Nevertheless, Blake remains confident that he can outwit the woman and escape into the safety of the suburban community of Shady Hill.
It soon becomes clear that Blake’s confidence in his own powers is as baseless as his self-importance, which appears to be founded on nothing more substantial than his willingness to act selfishly and to observe the “sumptuary laws” of the upper-middle-class society to which he belongs. It was Miss Dent’s need for love that originally led her to Blake, and it is her need to reclaim some measure of self-respect that leads her to follow Blake to Shady Hill and to force him at gunpoint to grovel in the dirt at her feet. Having accomplished her task and having taught Blake a lesson, she walks off, a more dignified and certainly more merciful figure than he.
Cheever’s ambiguous ending--“He got to his feet and picked up his hat from the ground where it had fallen and walked home”--leaves the reader unsure whether Blake has understood Miss Dent’s lesson. Against the clarity of her message, one must weigh the fact that Blake, who may very well be Cheever’s most unlikable character, is remarkable not only for his callous use of others but also for his capacity for self-deception and for confusing the sumptuary laws by which he lives with the moral obligations and human responsibilities to which Cheever subscribes.
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