Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Here, as in his more mature work, Cheever shows a nearly obsessive concern with the instability of modern marriage, a condition sustained and prolonged by the seemingly infinite human tendency toward self-delusion. Beneath the Westcotts’ immediate predicament lurks the author-narrator’s own preoccupation with the proximity of death, reflected in the darker conversations that Irene overhears.

Intent on getting and spending, like the rest of the postwar population, the Westcotts have in fact sublimated their true humanity in their common fondness for music—an avocation that, in the case of other couples, might well be replaced by hiking, golf, tennis, or any other imaginable shared activity. The Westcott children, although perhaps a source of pride at times, remain all but invisible, obscured by their parents’ determination to find themselves conventionally happy. Jim Westcott, despite his omnipresence throughout the story, gradually diminishes in importance before the gathering force of Irene’s imagination; his emotional outburst at the end of the story merely underscores the power and eventual dominance of Irene’s self-delusion, fueled in turn by her increasingly active imagination.

Arguably, the entire action of the story takes place in Irene’s mind, at a moment when she begins to doubt both the force and the extent of a conjugal “bliss” based mainly on a shared interest in classical music. Assuming Jim’s accusations to be true, Irene seeks justification for her past behavior in her perceived superiority to those around her; her pleasure in the radio’s revelations, a pleasure initially yet only briefly shared with Jim and followed by intimations of mortality, soon gives way to a massive access of insecurity, which she knows to be quite justified. Like Neddy Merrill, the title character of Cheever’s later story “The Swimmer,” Irene has managed to survive only at the considerable cost of nearly total self-delusion.