Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743
One of the most frequently reprinted of John Cheever’s stories, “The Enormous Radio” derives most of its initial impact, and subsequent memorability, from the author’s ironic blend of fantasy and realism, shadowed by suggestions of the supernatural.
Set during the years immediately following World War II, “The Enormous Radio” is the best known of Cheever’s urban tales, foreshadowing in subject matter, theme, and style the suburban stories that would follow. Here as elsewhere, Cheever foregrounds the subtleties and stresses of contemporary marriage against a background of ambition and social mobility.
In the story’s opening paragraph, the narrator spares no effort in presenting Jim and Irene Westcott as a typical, moderately successful Manhattan couple, married nine years, with one child of each sex; significantly, the Westcott children are seldom seen in the story and are never mentioned by name. Jim and Irene, observes the narrator, differ from other, similar couples only in their shared devotion to “serious” music, an interest carefully concealed from friends and acquaintances lest the Westcotts appear too “different.”
The Westcotts spend many hours together listening to broadcast music, and when their radio falls into disrepair Jim hastens to replace it with an expensive new model in a “large gumwood cabinet” that clashes with their other furniture. The new radio, although quite superior in tone to its predecessor, soon begins picking up sounds from the elevator and from appliances in neighboring apartments; before long it is receiving and amplifying the neighbors’ voices as well, providing the astonished Westcotts with a unique opportunity for eavesdropping: Each turn of the dial tunes in the sounds from a different apartment.
On the first evening, the Westcotts go to bed “weak with laughter” after an evening of switching “stations” with reckless abandon. Before dawn, however, Irene rises to take their young son a glass of water and on impulse tries the radio, only to overhear the conversation of an aging couple; the wife, it appears, is probably dying of some undisclosed disease. Thereafter, the conversations that Irene overhears are increasingly sad, violent, or scandalous in tone and content. In the elevator, Irene begins to scrutinize her neighbors, trying to match the faces that she sees with the voices that she hears. Returning from lunch with a friend, she tells the maid that she is not to be disturbed as she listens to the radio; with the approach of nightfall, the conversations that she hears, interspersed as before with the quaint recitations of a British nursemaid, become increasingly provocative and frightening.
Irene becomes obsessed with the odd revelations emanating from the radio; soon, she urges Jim’s intervention in righting the various wrongs of which she has lately been informed: Mr. Osborn, she tells Jim, is beating his wife, and the elevator man suffers from tuberculosis. Faced with Jim’s apparent indifference, she further tells him that Mrs. Melville has heart trouble, that Mr. Hendricks is about to lose his job, and that a female neighbor, as yet unidentified, is having an affair with “that hideous handyman.”
Heedless of her husband’s advice to turn off the radio, or at least to stop listening, Irene hysterically seeks Jim’s reassurance that they, the Westcotts, are different from the other couples in the building. “You love me, don’t you?” she asks. “And we’re not hypercritical or worried about money or dishonest, are we?” Despite Jim’s immediate efforts to calm her, it develops not long thereafter that the Westcotts are at least all those things, and possibly more. Once the radio has been “repaired,” at Jim’s insistence, he begins complaining about the radio’s initial cost, simultaneously chiding Irene for leaving clothing bills unpaid. Immediately if not sooner, he observes, they will have to begin cutting back on expenses, as business is not good.
In the story’s closing paragraphs, Irene cautions an increasingly irate Jim to lower his voice lest they be overheard through the newly repaired radio. Jim, gathering momentum in his anger, proceeds to denounce Irene for stealing from her mother’s estate, cheating her sister out of the sister’s rightful legacy, ruining another woman’s life, and undergoing an abortion, doubtless illegal, without misgivings or remorse. When Irene turns on the radio, hoping at least to hear the comforting voice of the Sweeneys’ British nursemaid, all she receives is the “suave,” “noncommittal” tones of an announcer informing his listeners of the current news and weather.