Style and Technique (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Paradox is the chief stylistic device that Cheever uses in this story. The characters demonstrate it to a marked degree. The narrator’s mother is old yet pursues a sport that is dangerous for someone her age. Moreover, she radiates youth and a kind of sexiness by putting herself on display in a skating costume that reminds the narrator of “a hat-check girl.” The paradox continues in his mother’s case in that she is not afraid of the real danger of falling in the ice-skating rink but is afraid of the remote danger of falling in an airplane. The narrator’s brother is also paradoxical. Although he is “higher,” so to speak, than the narrator in their mother’s esteem, and higher than the narrator on the scale of worldly success, he is also so terrified of high buildings and of elevators falling that he interrupts his career and success by quitting his job when the firm for which he works moves to the upper level of a skyscraper.

The paradox in the narrator is twofold. His own success in life is fairly humdrum and earthbound, yet it involves much flying, which at first gives him, despite the mild discomfort he feels toward the end of flights, a sense of well-being. After his phobia develops, the second part of the paradox shows itself. Not only does the fear he shares with his mother and older brother fail to draw them all closer together, but also he is returned to his normal way of life by an abnormal event—the appearance of an “angel” (the young folksinger with her harp). She is paradoxical in the narrator’s mind in that her beauty and power do not fit into his original vision of the world’s order. Finally, the paradox embedded in the narrator is meant to suggest that modern civilized humanity itself is paradoxical, pursuing a restricted and orderly life but projecting a romantic vision on the world and, on the other hand, experiencing chaos and profound anxiety.

Bibliography (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Cheever. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Bosha, Francis J., ed. The Critical Response to John Cheever. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Byrne, Michael D. Dragons and Martinis: The Skewed Realism of John Cheever. Edited by Dale Salwak and Paul David Seldis. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1993.

Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Coale, Samuel. John Cheever. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977.

Collins, Robert G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988.

Donaldson, Scott, ed. Conversations with John Cheever. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.

Meanor, Patrick. John Cheever Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1995.

O’Hara, James E. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Waldeland, Lynne. John Cheever. Boston: Twayne, 1979.