Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

John Cheever frequently makes direct and indirect allusions to the figures of classical mythology in his fiction: to Jupiter and Venus in “The Country Husband,” Hecate in “The Music Teacher,” and Odysseus in “The Swimmer.” In “Metamorphoses,” Larry Actaeon is named for the hunter who, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), accidentally sees Artemis bathing, is changed by her into a stag, and is pursued and killed by his own hounds. Orville Betman is based on Orpheus, who was endowed with superhuman musical skill. After the death of his wife, Eurydice, Orpheus goes to the land of the dead to attempt to regain her. Hades, dazzled by Orpheus’s music, allows him to have her if neither looks back when they leave the underworld. Orpheus, seeing the sun again, turns back to share his delight with Eurydice, who disappears. Nerissa, described as “nymphlike,” is inspired by the myth of Nereus, who could change his shape, and his water-nymph daughters, the Nereids. Cheever invokes mythology to underscore the universality of his characters’ joys and agonies, and to convey the permanence of the human condition.

In addition to recalling Ovid, Cheever’s title brings to mind Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), a disturbing vision of modern paranoia. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Cheever’s characters deceive themselves about...

(The entire section is 520 words.)