Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like other examples of John Cheever’s fiction, this story contains a mixture of sadness and joy. The Pommeroys are a family given over at times to the illusions of their uniqueness, and they do avoid the hard realities of life, as Lawrence suggests. As the narrator cautions at the story’s end, however, such illusions are necessary, because they are human, and they provide at least a temporary stay against the “full fathom five” where they all will eventually lie with their father. Helen dyes her hair to hide the years, Odette flirts to restore her youth, Chaddy wins at games, the mother drinks to forget, the narrator overworks and is, perhaps, a fool, but their failures endear them to the reader in ways that Lawrence’s harshness, for all of its truth, does not. Cheever does not let the reader off the hook, though, and he forces the narrator to confess his desire to kill his brother and presumably his brother’s ability to get at the hard truth. The narrator chooses to observe the harsh beauty of the surface of life and not to plunge to the icy depths below.

Besides the theme of illusion and reality, which he treats with unresolved ambiguity, Cheever also struggles through an examination of the family and its past, to reintegrate his fallen or expelled protagonists into the world as they find it. The narrator is trying to restore the family’s sense of identity through description of a nourishing past and using his love to distort truths, and yet to permit the occasional insight that goes beyond the powers of Lawrence, whose omission of love makes existence unendurable. Unable to accept his brother’s vision of doom when Lawrence announces that the house will fall into the sea and, by extension, prophesies the downfall of the family, the narrator ends the story with a life-sustaining image that depicts the sea not as a destructor but as life-giving. The names of the two women, Helen and Diana, rich with mythic associations, add a dimension of tradition to his vision and reinforce Cheever’s need to explore the past, even into antiquity.