Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634

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Cheever’s story is about social pretense and about how his middle-class characters maintain it. On the surface, Charlie Pastern, the protagonist, wants others to think of him as a strong man who is successful in life and honest about his feelings. This is why he belongs to the country club and harangues his golf cronies with his political conservatism, and why he makes no secret about his bomb shelter, which is not only an eyesore but also a blatant symbol of his patriotism and his commitment to free enterprise—as opposed, one assumes, to communism. However, underneath Charlie’s veneer of strength and patriotic hostility lies the truth, which turns his outward demeanor into a pretense. He has, in fact, squandered everything by which spiritual and worldly success is measured in the suburban milieu that he inhabits: fidelity and money. He is habitually unfaithful to his wife—and would be, the story suggests, to Mrs. Flannagan were their affair to last long enough. He has wasted the money that his mother left him and has critically overextended his credit. He is not, in short, a preserver of values but a destroyer of them, victimizing in the process his wife, his children, and himself. The intelligence to which he pretends as a successful member of his suburban community is no more than stupidity. He fails to make smart investments, relies on gambling to recoup his losses, and entrusts his well-being to a woman (Mrs. Flannagan) who is too selfish to further it.

Charlie’s wife is also interested in being well thought of by her neighbors. She tries to hide the harsh reality of the bomb shelter and of her empty life with Charlie, but she is less able than Charlie to conceal her real condition. Her wasted looks and contempt for her neighbors’ tastes suggest her unhappiness. Her attempt to decorate the bomb shelter is futile; the garden ornaments that she uses for this purpose are ugly and cheap. Like Charlie’s, her pretensions arise from desperation; unlike Charlie’s, though, her desperation is not self-imposed, so it is easier to sympathize with her. Indeed, she has a kind of courage that her husband lacks, for the truth about him does not drive her from their marriage, just as the truth about the bishop does not cause her to break from Christianity—or so it seems.

Mrs. Flannagan is as much a deceiver as Charlie or his wife. It becomes clear that she, like Charlie, has had many affairs, though she insists to him that he is her first extramarital lover. She seems to be naïve and childlike, but this is only a ploy that she uses to seduce men and to get them to buy gifts for her. In Charlie’s case, she pretends to break up with him so she can get him to give her the key to his bomb shelter, and when he storms into her house after finding out that she has not kept her possession of the key a secret, she pretends that she is not entertaining another lover.

The story’s social insight is that people who define their lives in the context of a community will go to great lengths to hide their failures, and the story’s moral is that these failures—moral in nature—can be neither hidden nor made up for by pretense. Dishonesty compounds such failures, as the story demonstrates when Charlie Pastern, his wife, and Mrs. Flannagan are forced to leave the community by their own actions (Mrs. Flannagan’s infidelity leads to divorce, Charlie’s imprudence to bankruptcy, and Mrs. Pastern’s pride to shame), thus compromising the very survival that Charlie with his bomb shelter and Mrs. Flannagan with the key to it are so anxious about.