Themes and Meanings

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Anticipating by at least a decade the developing current of feminist literature, “The Five-Forty-Eight” presents in credible and memorable terms the compelling evidence, and possible means of redress, against the “institution” of male chauvinism as exemplified in the prototypical relationship of “boss” and secretary. The author was himself male, and one potential weakness of the story is that Miss Dent might be dismissed by the reader as merely “crazy.” Cheever, nevertheless, has taken care to present her in accessibly human terms, even as his characterization might tend toward Freudian stereotype. Blake, in contrast, remains dehumanized, even in his own mind, by the self-perpetuating masculine stereotype that, according to Cheever and others, tends to prevail, at least in the commercial world. Until the present moment of confrontation, Blake has had little reason to question either the principles or the conduct of his life, even under the continued censure of such individuals as Mrs. Compton and Mr. Watkins. Presumably reared and advanced according to the entrepreneurial conventions of his generation, Blake, to his eventual peril, equates success with domination, even with exploitation.

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Faced with the immediate prospect of death, Blake recalls “in a rush” his battlefield experiences during World War II and the frequent sight of unburied corpses. In counterpoint to Miss Dent’s complaints as he believes that she is preparing to shoot him, Blake briefly recalls pleasant memories from his childhood. Cheever, whether deliberately or not, rehearses through Blake’s experience the “moment of truth” common to the work of the French existentialists and to that of Ernest Hemingway as well; it is doubtful, however, that Blake will ever learn the lessons implied in his experience: Just as he had forgotten “Miss Dent,” whose name is drawn solely from his admittedly defective memory and is never confirmed—and as “Miss Dent” appears to have forgotten him, Blake in all likelihood will forget what happened to him that evening on the local train.

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