Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Some readers might think of Harold Stikes as belatedly living out his high school fantasies about Cherry Oxendine or merely going through a mid-life crisis. Apparently his sensible former wife Joan thinks so because she continues her own life without letting their breakup bother her; she just stops stocking beer in the refrigerator. However, her reaction (or lack thereof) might be seen as another symptom of what was wrong in their marriage and what drives Harold to Cherry. Sensible Joan is lacking in passion and possibly even thinks of the average marriage as ideal, another design out of Southern Living or Good Housekeeping, two of her favorite magazines, which she displays neatly on the glass coffee table in the living room.

However, for Harold, the average marriage is not enough. The author, Lee Smith, seems to side with Harold; her story seems to be saying that every life should have some great passion, love, and excitement, even if only briefly and in the disorderly and disreputable form of such persons as Cherry Oxendine, whose favorite magazines—Parade, Coronet, The National Enquirer—litter the floor on her side of the bed. Cherry herself, who prophetically changed her name from Doris Christine when she was in the eighth grade, seems to have no problem packing fun into her hectic life. In short, “Intensive Care” is about how one should live one’s life: with verve, gusto, and pizzazz, even if it is a little messy.

The story also comments on life in the consumer culture and in a small town. All the references to consumer correctness, as exemplified in Joan’s magazines and such names as Beauty Nook and Camelot Hills, critique the manufactured American Dream, which costs money but still elevates the bland, sanitized average as ideal. This ideal average becomes worse in the petty busybody confines of a small town, where conformity and perpetual adolescence rule, as exemplified in the story’s opening scene. Head nurse Lois Hickey has no respect whatever for confidential medical information, and the spiteful, self-righteous women think nothing of viewing Cherry’s death as fit punishment for Harold. To them, she will always be Cherry Oxendine, that fancy tart they were jealous of in high school.