“The Country Husband” exemplifies John Cheever’s interpretation of life, values, and futile rebellion among neighbors and families. In Shady Hill, a suburb within commuting distance of New York, wives are concerned with dinners, social gatherings, and social status; daughters are absorbed in romance magazines; children bicker on household battlefields; and husbands delude themselves with fantasies of romance as they struggle merely to be acknowledged.
Clayton Thomas, who is engaged to Anne Murchison, a baby-sitter, offers a summary of Shady Hill: “What seems to me really wrong with Shady Hill is that it doesn’t have any future. So much energy is spent in perpetuating the place—in keeping out undesirables, and so forth—that the only idea of the future anyone has is just more and more commuting trains and more parties.”
Francis Weed, the story’s central character, seems to agree, for he thinks that there is “no turpitude.” Life seems “arranged with more propriety even than in the Kingdom of Heaven.” The story begins as Francis survives a plane’s emergency landing, but upon his return to Shady Hill, he can find no one to listen to his harrowing experience. The superficiality of life in Shady Hill becomes especially clear when Francis sees a maid at a party and realizes that he saw her in France during World War II: She was publicly humiliated for being a collaborator with the Germans. Shady Hill residents consider drama, memory, and war to be not nice; Francis does not recount the story.
Wanting to go beyond social limitations, Francis seeks romance with Anne Murchison. He fantasizes but is grounded in the world of his wife, who plans a session for family photographs. Rejecting Shady Hill, Francis turns a chance meeting with Mrs. Wrightson, the neighborhood ruler of social affairs, into an occasion for a rude outburst. When Julia, Francis’ wife, confronts Francis about his behavior, Francis hits her across the face, yet her threat to abandon him dissolves into a pledge to stay “a little while longer.” Obsessing about Anne, Francis becomes crudely jealous of Clayton and, when asked to provide a helpful reference, besmears his name.
In the end, Francis seeks psychological help from Dr. Herzog, who instructs Francis to find solace in doing woodworking projects in his basement. Ironically, Francis, who at the outset bemoans the sterility of Shady Hill, ultimately betrays Clayton, the one resident aware of the community’s weaknesses, and retreats to the community’s superficiality. In the end, Jupiter, a romping dog who rambles through gardens, has more freedom and happiness than Francis, yet the dog’s destiny, Francis knows, is to be poisoned by an irritated householder.
“The Country Husband” recounts Francis Weed’s brief rebellion against the mundane norms of his prosperous, dull community. Francis and Julia Weed have long been at the center of social life in Shady Hill, experiencing the conventional joys of suburban marriage and child rearing. Events conspire to jog Francis out of complacency and make him question his satisfaction with life.
The first of these events is a plane crash. Returning from a trip to Minneapolis, Francis and his fellow travelers experience an emergency landing in a field outside Philadelphia. They are shepherded to a nearby barn, and Francis takes a train to New York that arrives in time for him to catch his normal commuter train to Shady Hill. Naturally shaken by this occurrence, Francis is dismayed to discover that no one at home seems able to understand his brush with death. He arrived home on time, he looked fine—all his family went on with their normal routine. In fact, his children are more quarrelsome than usual, and Francis irritably compares his home to a battlefield, sending his wife upstairs in tears.
The next day, Francis is again disconcerted when he recognizes the new French maid at a neighbor’s dinner party. After some pondering, he realizes where he...
(The entire section is 2,064 words.)