The Five-Forty-Eight

by John Cheever
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What is the significance of Miss Dent’s handwriting in "The Five-Forty-Eight"?

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In this 1954 short story for The New Yorker, John Cheever writes of a man who uses and throws away women—in this particular case, a Miss Dent, who he says lacks "self-esteem"—and therefore can't, he believes, fight back against him.

He hires the seemingly shy, soft, pretty, dark-haired Miss...

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In this 1954 short story for The New Yorker, John Cheever writes of a man who uses and throws away women—in this particular case, a Miss Dent, who he says lacks "self-esteem"—and therefore can't, he believes, fight back against him.

He hires the seemingly shy, soft, pretty, dark-haired Miss Dent as his secretary and, from the start, dislikes her handwriting, although she is competent in other ways:

He could not associate the crudeness of her handwriting with her appearance. He would have expected her to write a rounded backhand, and in her writing there were intermittent traces of this, mixed with clumsy printing. Her writing gave him the feeling that she had been the victim of some inner—some emotional—conflict that had in its violence broken the continuity of the lines she was able to make on paper.

Nevertheless, his goal is sexual conquest, so he ignores the handwriting. He sleeps with her after three weeks. She cries afterwards, which he disregards, as he feels too warm and satisfied to notice her upset, but then sees a note she had written to her housekeeper. He is again unsettled:

The only light came from the bathroom—the door was ajar—and in this half light the hideously scrawled letters again seemed entirely wrong for her, and as if they must be the handwriting of some other and very gross woman.

The significance of her handwriting is that it seems to be the only means by which Blake can find his way into any insights about Miss Dent's psyche. It is his only "wormhole," so to speak, into her soul. He misses other obvious signs of her emotional turbulence and creative mind, such as the piano in her tiny apartment and her shelf of Beethoven sonata music (these would be emotionally charged, Romantic pieces) or her stay in a hospital. He is oblivious to everything but her handwriting.

As he is stalked by her after he has her fired, he regrets not taking her handwriting seriously, thinking,

the handwriting . . . looked like the marks of a claw.

Blake should, at the very least, have attended to "the writing on the wall" instead of simply blithely assuming he could have use of Miss Dent and then fire her without any repercussions.

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Miss Dent's handwriting is significant because it serves as a clue that was greatly missed by Blake. Blake had given Miss Dent an opportunity to work for him as a secretary when she applied to work for him

"after so many months at the hospital".

Blake, an antisocial and somewhat narcissistic guy has very little knowledge of the world about him because he lives from the facade that he has created of himself as a sophisticated, larger than life man who thinks that he is better than everybody else.

After he has a one night stand with Miss Dent, he feels bored as usual and decides to fire her, using as an excuse that her handwriting is "undisciplined". After firing her Blake starts to wonder about Miss Dent, because she begins to follow him around, showing up just about everywhere he goes sporting a "contorted" face that he scoffed off judging her as a "shakeable" girl, or someone he could override in case she goes a bit crazy.

Yet, as he puts the dots together, he realizes that people who have such handwriting could very well be "erratic" or not very well in the head. Moreover, he wondered what Miss Dent meant when she thanked him for hiring her after "so many months at the hospital". He realized that he never asked her what sort of hospital it was or what injury she had sustained..then he realizes that Miss Dent might be a mentally ill woman.

This is indeed the case, and the handwriting was a very open clue that, had he been more observant of others and less into himself, he could have picked up on it and save himself from his current situation.

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