Style and Technique
Despite its serious topic—the quest for an honest existence in a fallen world—“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is often humorous in tone. By interjecting humor, Cheever escapes the risk that his story might seem sermonlike, a cautionary tale warning modern-day sinners not to fall into the trap of worshiping money. This humor emerges principally in the melodramatic imagination of the narrator. Although Johnny can see the humor in the concerns of others, his own problems assume the status of major trauma. Having a cigarette late one night, he feels a twinge in his lungs and becomes suddenly convinced that he is dying of bronchial cancer, fated to leave his wife and children penniless. After his act of theft, he imagines himself as a “child of darkness” and “a miserable creature whose footsteps had been mistaken for the noise of the wind.” Raking leaves while his neighbors play softball, Johnny complains, “Why should I be left alone with my dead leaves in the twilight—as I was—feeling so forsaken, lonely and forlorn that I was chilled?” Conscious of his slide into self-pity, Johnny nevertheless commits the ultimate in silly self-absorption when he sees a dogwood tree that has lost its leaves and reflects, “How sad everything is!”
Other poignant humor emerges from the degree to which Johnny’s theft has changed his perception of things. The stained glass at church “seemed to be made from the butts of vermouth and Burgundy bottles.” His fight with Christina is a lesson in domestic banality. When he discovers his suitcase is torn, he exclaims, “Even the cat has a nice traveling bag.” It is a particular indignity to him that he cannot find enough clean shirts to last a week. At the height of his self-dramatization, he hammers a “For Sale” sign onto a tree in the front yard. He marches off to the train station only to discover, anticlimactically, that he cannot get a train until four o’clock in the morning. So, he goes back to Christina, and all thought of divorce is forgotten.
By persistently introducing a humorous tone into the scenes of Johnny’s despair, Cheever indirectly reassures the reader that Johnny’s fall into sin will not be permanent. A story with this kind of tone will surely end happily, as this one does.