What distinguishes “The Enormous Radio” from the Hemingway-like stories of Cheever’s first collection, The Way Some People Live, is the unsettling mixture of realism and fantasy that characterizes the best of his later work. “The Enormous Radio” concerns the Westcotts, who live in a Sutton Place (New York) apartment building and who resemble other young (mid-thirties), college-educated, upwardly mobile couples of the immediately postwar period in all respects but one—their special fondness for classical music.
When their old radio breaks down, Jim buys Irene a new, rather expensive one as a present. Larger and more powerful than its predecessor, the new radio becomes a disturbing presence in the Westcotts’ (especially in Irene’s) life. She does not like its ugly gumwood cabinet, confounding complexities, violent forces, “malevolent green light,” and “mistaken sensitivity to discord.”
This “aggressive intruder” invades and disrupts not only Irene’s world but also that of her neighbors. Irene is appalled, yet fascinated, by what she hears—evidence of her neighbors’ financial, social, and sexual anxieties—but also worried that her neighbors may be able to hear what she and Jim say in the privacy of their own apartment. Irene becomes apprehensive, and this, in turn, leads Jim to express his own long-suppressed financial worries and finally to broadcast his wife’s secret sins: taking her mother’s jewels before the will was probated, cheating her sister, making another woman’s life miserable, and going to an abortionist.
Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, Irene has entered the dark forest of moral ambiguity and emerged a different person—emerged, that is, as she truly is rather than as she would like to appear. The breakdown of the old radio prepared the way for the breakdown of the Westcotts’ moral facade and for their and the reader’s discovery that the “heart of darkness” lies not without, as Irene wished to believe, but within. The ultimate truth may very well lie somewhere between the Westcotts’ fondness for harmony and the radio’s “mistaken sensitivity to discord.”
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...
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