Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” offers two themes that, although seemingly contradictory, in fact are complementary. On the one hand, the story satirizes the values and manners of a certain class of well-to-do suburbanites, suggesting the shallowness of their morality and the limits of their dreams. On the other hand, the story’s resolution affirms the worthiness of life’s simple pleasures and asserts man’s freedom to direct his own life. In some measure, the story’s strength comes from the tension between these themes. The overall tone is ironic, and yet there is ultimately an endorsement of certain facets of suburban existence—a nice house and garden, cooking on an outdoor grill, playing softball with the neighbors.

Throughout the story, John Cheever introduces characters whose affluence is emphasized, as is their unhappiness. The protagonist is established on the story’s first page as a product of an upper-class New York upbringing: He was reared on Sutton Place, an exclusive address, and attended St. Bartholomew’s, a fashionable Episcopal church. However, his parents, long divorced, are depicted as lost souls. His mother lives alone in a Cleveland hotel, refusing to forgive him for getting married. His father, whom he rarely saw, once took him to the theater and offered to buy him the services of any chorus girl whose looks he liked. Johnny fled after plucking fifty dollars from his father’s wallet. In his current crisis, he...

(The entire section is 524 words.)