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SOURCE: “New Fiction from Atlantic to Pacific,” in The Critical Response to John Cheever, edited by Francis J. Bosha, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 5-6.
[In the following essay, originally published in the New York Herald in 1943, Feld asserts that, although most of the stories in The Way Some People Liveare mere moments or fragments of stories, Cheever succeeds in portraying his characters with sympathy and irony.]
To the extent that in the writing world any material—sketch, article, newspaper report, fiction—is called a story, John Cheever's book, “The Way Some People Live,” may be called a collection of stories. But in the conventional sense, only a few of the thirty pieces that make up the volume fulfill the ordinary requirements of the short-fiction form. The rest are moments or moods caught in the lives of his characters, pointed in quality but inconclusive in effect. They give the feeling, very often, of being notes made on a contemplated larger work which has remained unfinished. While they are interesting as fragments and show a subtle and sensitive talent at irony and satire, they leave the reader suspended in anticipation that has no artistic fulfillment.
That Mr. Cheever can bring a story to a satisfying conclusion, however unconventional his pattern, is evidenced by some of the pieces in the book. His story called “The Cat” succeeds notably in presenting a crisis in the lives of a young married couple. When Hannah Bannister thought her pet was lost she became a woman demented, deprived of everything that meant a home to her. To comfort her, her husband threw over all his objections against their having a child, promising her to save his money, to stay on the wagon to buy a house in Westchester. Mr. Cheever's penetration into the emotional conflict, past as well as present, gives the story its distinction.
He accomplishes the same thing in “The Edge of the World,” this time in describing the desperation and loneliness of a boy. The lad is an only child, aware of the fact that neither of his parents ever wanted him. They wound and lacerate him with their quarrels and mutual accusations of infidelity. What brings them to a feverish reconciliation is not the anguish of their child but an insignificant accident to the woman.
The search for a husband makes the theme of “Summer Remembered.” “I'm twenty-five years old,” declares Grace to her friend Betty who had boasted of having an admirer at Lake George the summer before, “and I'm not getting any younger and I have two weeks off to find a man and all I find is a lot of old women looking at the mountains.” The pay-off in this piece is Betty's confession that all she has said about her man was a parcel of lies.
“The Man Who Was Very Homesick for New York” is a penetrating story of a soldier, a former lawyer, who hated the life of the army, who had a chance to get a medical discharge and return to the city he loved and discovered that he didn't want to.
In “A Border Incident” Mr. Cheever most closely approaches the conventional story with a surprise ending but unlike his other pieces it lacks his integrity of characterization. The prude who gave herself, as the saying goes, to a man in order to discover his activities as a Nazi spy, makes neither sense nor satire.
But, mainly, however slight his material, Mr. Cheever brings sympathy and irony to characters in the bleak moments in which he catches them. He explores various kinds of relationships, that between husbands and wives, between brothers, between parents and children, between lovers, between friends. It would be interesting to see what he could do with a task that required a more sustained effort than the contributions in the present book.
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John Cheever 1912 -1982
American short story writer and novelist. See also, "The Swimmer" Criticism.
Cheever is regarded as one of the most important twentieth-century American writers of short fiction. He has been dubbed “the Ovid of Ossining,” “the Dante of suburbia,” and “the Chekhov of the exurbs” for his ability to chronicle with grandeur and pathos the lives of upper middle-class Americans. Many of Cheever's works revolve around the cocktail parties, swimming pools, barbecues, and commuter trains that are hallmarks of suburbia. Although critics note that many writers do not find the seemingly bland uniformity of the exurbs a fertile ground for interesting fiction, Cheever has the ability to expose the turmoil and complexity that lies below the surface of this seemingly tranquil terrain. Cheever gained popularity and notoriety as a social commentator for his early stories “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio,” and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” but only began to receive serious scholarly attention after the republication of sixty-one of his best stories in the 1978 collection, The Stories of John Cheever. Cheever is praised by critics for his ability to treat his characters with compassion and wit while maintaining the absurdity of their surroundings and the futility of their actions; his stories hold out the hope of their redemption in love.
Cheever was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on May 27, 1912. His writing is rich with his New England heritage—from the physical settings to the manners, mores, and morality that pervade his stories. Cheever attended Quincy High School and Thayer Academy, a preparatory school in South Braintree, Massachusetts, but his formal education ceased in 1929 when he was expelled at age seventeen for smoking. Cheever used his experience at Thayer as the subject matter for his first short story, “Expelled,” which launched his literary career when it was published in the New Republic in 1930. After his expulsion, Cheever moved to Boston and then to New York, where he supported himself by working in department stores and on newspapers. Throughout the 1930s Cheever published stories in various magazines including Atlantic, Colliers, Story, and the Yale Review. In 1935 Cheever published “Brooklyn Rooming House,” the first of his stories to appear in the New Yorker. Cheever's affiliation with the that publication would span the length of his literary career, and one hundred and twenty-one of his nearly two hundred short stories were originally published in issues of the New Yorker. Although Cheever's association with the magazine gave him much exposure, early critics tended to dismiss his work on the basis that it was slick, stereotypical, and formulaic work typical of the New Yorker. Cheever's first volume of stories, The Way Some People Live, was published in 1943 while he was serving in the U. S. Army. The collection was composed of thirty pieces, many of them little more than fragments, and received mostly tepid reviews. Cheever's second collection, The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, published in 1953, contained fourteen longer and more fully developed works than his first collection. Still tainted by his association with the New Yorker, the second collection was still met with mixed success.
Cheever was determined to complete a novel in the following years. In 1957 he succeeded with the publication of The Wapshot Chronicle. This was followed in 1958 by The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, a collection that included the stories “The Five-Forty-Eight,” which had won the Benjamin Franklin Magazine award, and “The Country Husband,” which had won the O. Henry Award. Cheever's fourth collection of stories, Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel, was published in 1961. Three years later Cheever published a second novel, The Wapshot Scandal, a sequel to The Wapshot Chronicle. Cheever's fifth collection of stories, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, also appeared in 1964, and contains his most celebrated short story, “The Swimmer.” Cheever published his third novel, Bullet Park, in 1969. The novel received mixed reviews due to its dark themes. In the years that followed Cheever suffered from alcoholism, and alcohol-related health problems, marital troubles, and depression. In spite of his personal turmoil, his next collection of stories, A World of Apples, brought positive critical reception and a nomination for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1975, at the urging of his wife and family, Cheever admitted himself to Smithers Alcohol Rehabilitation Center and successfully stopped drinking. In 1977 he published Falconer, a novel about the alienation and despair in the confinement of prison. In 1978 The Stories of John Cheever was published and met with great critical and popular success; the same year Cheever was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard. In 1979 Stories earned Cheever the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Edward McDowell Medal. Cheever's last work, the novella Oh What a Paradise it Seems, was intended as a much longer work, but after Cheever was diagnosed with cancer he was unable to fulfill his original plan for the book. Cheever was awarded the National Medal for Literature in April 1982, and died of cancer on June 18 of that year.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Cheever is most noted for his stories in which he portrays characters in conflict with both their external world and their internal self. His stories are often remarkably similar in their settings and often deal with a similar type of character. Cheever's heroes are typically suburban upper middle-class males and females who, despite their seemingly tranquil lives, are spiritually and emotionally troubled and who exhibit a tension between their remembered or longed-for innocence and the reality of the lives they lead. This tension results in discontent that is manifested in a variety of ways, including sexual perversion, marital strife, drinking, and financial overindulgence. Cheever's characters are portrayed as having lost their innocent youth and are plunged into the chaos of adult life with all of its false comforts. Despite their discontent and selfish, destructive ways, Cheever treats his characters with compassion and understanding; he makes us feel that although we may find his characters humorous or pathetic, we must have sympathy for their need to find order and comfort in the chaotic and changing world.
Cheever's short stories are often divided by critics into four main categories according to their locale. The Urban or New York stories, which include “Torch Song,” “Clancy in the Tower of Babel,” and “The Enormous Radio,” are characterized by their themes of displacement, imprisonment, and divorce. While the stories are set in New York, their main characters are often not native to the city. In the Exurban or Vacation stories, for example “The Seaside House,” “Goodbye, My Brother,” and “The Common Day,” Cheever depicts his characters trying to escape their imprisonment or begin anew, but they find they are unable to escape their own moral and spiritual problems. The Expatriate stories, including “The Bella Lingua,” “The Duchess,” and “The World of Apples,” are set mostly in Italy and center on the outsider's perspective. The Suburban stories are the largest category of Cheever's stories and include “The Swimmer,” “The Country Husband,” and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” These stories are said to explore the “separateness” of the characters' existences. As their lives are divided between their city work and suburban homes, so are they split between their normal outer appearances and their chaotic inner experiences. Critics often note that Cheever's talent lies in being able to blend the commonplace with the mythic. Cheever's most famous story, “The Swimmer,” has been compared with such works as Dante's Inferno, Rip Van Winkle, and the Holy Grail legends. It is Cheever's ability to make the ordinary lives of his suburbanites seem fantastical, spiritual, and universal that warrants these comparisons.
Although Cheever published his short fiction in magazines and in collections steadily from the 1940s, it was not until the late 1970s that he began to receive serious scholarly attention. His early works met with popular approval, but critics were wary of honoring any literature that was published in the New Yorker, as the magazine was perceived by the literary elite as only producing safe and predictable works. Most early reviewers praised Cheever's lyrical prose and his realistic characters, but were critical of the pessimism and irresolution that they considered were prevalent in his fiction. Some early critics, including Joan Didion, deemed Cheever's stories “a celebration of life,” and were able to see that Cheever's works were really optimistic in nature. However, despite some early recognition of his talent, Cheever's association with the New Yorker hindered his critical success for many years. After the publication of his novel, Falconer, in 1977, and the republication of his best short fiction in The Stories of John Cheever in 1978, serious academic criticism began to appear. Critics reexamined Cheever's work and found it to be optimistic and idealistic even though he often portrays characters suffering from pathos and despair; many reviewers pointed out the strong themes of hope and morality often symbolized by his use of light and water imagery. Rather than viewing Cheever's use of upper-class America as relating experiences that are too narrow in scope, most commentators now recognize the all-embracing human themes explored in the confined world he describes. Cheever's explains his use of suburbia as the setting for his stories in the following manner: “I am not out to be a social critic … nor a defender of suburbia. It goes without saying that the people in my stories and the things that happen to them could take place anywhere.” As the novelist Saul Bellow noted, it is Cheever's ability to “take the elements given and work them into something new and far deeper than they were at the outset” that gives Cheever's stories their universal resonance.
Cheever is now recognized as one of the most important short fiction writers of the twentieth century. Critics maintain that in The Stories of John Cheever readers can see the Cheever's mastery of the short story genre and his ability to show compassion and understanding for human emotion when confronted with moral dilemma in the chaos of modern life. Cheever wrote, “Literature is the only continuous and coherent account of our struggle to be illustrious, a monument of aspiration, a vast pilgrimage.” Through his short stories Cheever has provided such an account, and in doing so has secured his distinguished place in American letters.
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SOURCE: “Change is Always for the Worse,” in The Critical Response to John Cheever, edited by Francis J. Bosha, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 83-4.
[In the following essay, originally published in Commonweal in 1964, Segal traces the themes of the progression of magic and the transitory nature of material possessions in Cheever's collection of stories, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.]
When I was a boy I read a story that terrified me. It was about a child who declared that he needed the help of no living creature. That night the sheep came and took from him everything woolen, the tree came and took everything wooden, and so on until he was naked and cold under the sky. I remembered this fairy tale while reading The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, a collection of the short stories John Cheever has written over the last ten years. My children's story contains both Cheever's most successful technique and his obsessive theme. The technique is the use of magic progressing logically; the theme is the chanciness of possessions.
If Louis Auchincloss writes the best fiction about the rich these days, Cheever writes the best fiction about people living like the rich. Auchincloss' characters are at home with what they own, and are free to worry about moral questions; Cheever's live in constant terror that the paraphernalia of their lives will suddenly vanish. And they are right. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and the swimming pool goes down the drain.
Cheever's people tend to live in Connecticut. They are investment bankers, and the acquaintances they don't much like, but keep meeting at cocktail parties, manufacture tongue depressers. They are filled with unearned snobberies which are used as a bulwark against change, because in Cheever's world change is always for the worse. In “The Swimmer,” Donald Westerhazy, at a pool-side party, realizes that he could swim home, by way of all the pools between the party and his house. As he goes from pool to pool his greeting from friends becomes less friendly, until it is downright hostile, and when he reaches his home he finds that no one has lived in it for a long, long time.
There are two notable things about this story, besides the tale itself, that make it memorable. The reader hardly notices that the seasons change from mid-Summer to Winter; the hero's reception from pool to pool charts his decline from bad manners to bad morals. Because of Cheever's technical mastery the ending is both unbelievable and prepared for; the logic within the magic makes it inevitable.
The implication is that Donald Westerhazy loses the world because of some flaw in himself; Larry Acteon (see “Bulfinch”) is destroyed by a series of tiny erosions. His story is in another typical Cheever mode: the comfortable man living the comfortable life, whose comforts are suddenly removed after his sense of reality and sense of self are given a series of small but damaging blows. He is a partner in a conservative investment firm who enters the office of his senior partner without knocking. He finds the man nakedly entertaining a naked lady. Later that day, in a bar, he is barked at by a dog who never barks at strangers; still later he is mistaken for a deliveryman by an elevator operator. When he arrives home that night he is killed by his own dogs, who fail to recognize him.
Since Cheever's characters find their reality in their status and possessions, and since these are tightly held in a slippery grip, his people have a weak hold on their own reality. “I have this terrible feeling that I'm a character in a television situation comedy, I mean I'm nice looking, I'm well dressed, I have humorous and attractive children, but I have this terrible feeling … that I can be turned off by anybody” says a Cheever wife. And then the narrator says about her, “My wife is often sad because her sadness is not a sad sadness, sorry because her sorrow is not a crushing sorrow,” which applies to all of Cheever's characters, and is true and damning about Cheever's work.
I have described these stories by their structure, these characters by their types, because his characters run to types and brilliant structure is his mainstay. Cheever is working with an attitude toward life, acutely observed and full of variation. But his people not only think they can be turned off, they can be. They are not fleshed out, their sadness is not a sad sadness. His stories belong where they are usually found, in a thin column in the New Yorker; they comment on the advertisements on either side for solid gold taxi whistles and for the sports jacket that will really make you feel casual. One finishes a book of them delighted by Cheever's suave style, dazzled by the necromancy of his invention, and aware that he is touching on the horror beneath the surface. But it is horror recollected in detachment.
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The Way Some People Live 1943
The Enormous Radio, and Other Stories 1953
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, and Other Stories 1958
Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel 1961
The Brigadier and the Golf Widow 1964
The World of Apples 1973
The Stories of John Cheever 1978
Oh What a Paradise It Seems 1982
Thirteen Uncollected Stories of John Cheever 1994
The Wapshot Chronicle (novel) 1957
The Wapshot Scandal (novel) 1964
Bullet Park (novel) 1969
Falconer (novel) 1977
The Letters of John Cheever 1988
The Journals of John Cheever 1991
Good Tidings: A Friendship in Letters: The Correspondence of John Cheever and John D. Weaver 1993
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SOURCE: “Literate, Witty, Civilized,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982, pp. 28-32.
[In the following essay, originally published in the New Republic in 1982, Wain applauds Cheever's The World of Apples for being witty and intelligent while depicting characters that behave decently as people “generally do in real life.”]
I don't know what goes on in the minds of very young people, but to most of us grown-ups there comes a sense, very often, of having started our lives amid the outlines of a civilization and having watched them melt away, leaving a featureless desert; quite a suitable environment for prayer and meditation, and also for nameless crimes, but very unfavorable for the practice of ordinary virtues such as tolerance or unselfishness. Goodness knows, the crumbling away of values has been going on for 200 years, but anyone born, as I was, in the 1920s did at least grow up with the feeling that, though metaphysical guidelines had vanished, social ones remained; even though we didn't “believe in God,” we accepted a system of values derived from Christianity and our emotions attached to these, so that we recognized love, courage, self-sacrifice, generosity, as virtues and cruelty and meanness as vices. This gave a meaningful basis for action; World War II, for instance, was fought not just from nationalistic competitiveness but from a desire to rid the world of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the swastika and the goose-step; from the point of view of the new morality, the worship of “alienation” as a principle and the fierce-eyed preaching of meaninglessness and negativism, it is impossible to see how these things could be judged adversely, let alone resisted at the cost of one's life. Can we, in fact, go on inhabiting the planet unless we have something to believe in? As the English critic A. E. Dyson has remarked, “The notes of despair, negation, absurdity, suffering now echo through our literature; and it is probable that when loyalties to everything outside the self have been successfully banished, loyalty to the self will finally fail.” In which case, good-bye Charlie.
Mr. Cheever tackles this problem very directly; most directly of all in his title story, “The World of Apples.” This tells how an old and famous poet, loaded with honors and near the end of his life, was overwhelmed by an obsession with sexual and defecatory dirt and finally managed to shake it off. The story is told simply and unpretentiously, with nothing much in the way of invention and without the little fanciful melismata that so often enliven the other stories in the book. The old poet has always associated himself with sanity and strength. Of the five other poets of his generation with whom he has customarily been grouped, four committed suicide and the fifth died of drink. He himself has avoided making this kind of mess, not out of adherence to any positive system of belief such as a religion, but just from a personal conviction that it won't do.
Poetry was a lasting glory and he was determined that the final act of a poet's life should not—as had been the case with Z—be played out in a dirty room with twenty-three empty gin bottles. Since he could not deny the connection between brilliance and tragedy he seemed determined to bludgeon it.
The story is an account of how the poet almost lost that balance and ultimately recovered it. One day a visitor takes him for a trip into the forest. He steps aside from the path to relieve himself and stumbles on a couple making love. The sudden sight puts in motion a train of thoughts and images which he cannot stop. It is not just that he broods on copulation: it is that his broodings are uniformly obscene—what we would call, if the word still had any meaning in the world rigged up for us by the Andy Warhols and the Ken Tynans, “dirty-minded.” It is a real crisis; it calls into question the whole of his life's achievement, which at his age he cannot possibly go back over and rework. He has written a famous volume of poems, The World of Apples (the Frostian association is obviously quite intentional, even insistent) in which the qualities celebrated are those of sun and air and freshness and soil and patient ripening; the old poet is shown as living in a country villa in Italy, and indeed his imaginative world seems to be that of Virgil in the Georgics. His poems celebrate “the welcoming universe, the rain wind that sounded through the world of apples.” Now suddenly these things seem unreal. Has he been a dupe, his life wasted on things which appeared interesting only because of the angle at which they were posed?
What was it that he had lost? It seemed then to be a sense of pride, an aureole of lightness and valor, a kind of crown. He seemed to hold the crown up to scrutiny and what did he find? Was it merely some ancient fear of Daddy's razor strap and Mummy's scowl, some childish subservience to the bullying world? He well knew his instincts to be rowdy, abundant, and indiscreet and had he allowed the world and all its tongues to impose upon him some structure of transparent values for the convenience of a conservative economy, an established church, and a bellicose army and navy?
At this point, presumably, the most characteristic denizens of the world of today would answer with an emphatic Yes. As they would see it, the old man has at last seen the light of revelation and unchained his Id, liberating it from the domination of Ego and the even more villainous Super-Ego, who between them are responsible for this tribe of monsters—the economy, the church and the armed forces. It may be a little late in the day, but not fatally so, since he is not impotent (the story specifically says that, to try to restore his mental balance, he has intercourse with his housekeeper, who “was always happy to accommodate him”). Presumably there is more rejoicing in the priapic heaven over one sinner who repents than over half-a-dozen saints; this must be one of the sources of the crusading zeal behind contemporary porno-eroticism, where it is not simply concerned with making money.
Mr. Cheever's answer, on the contrary (and I think we are here definitely required to contravene D. H. Lawrence's maxim and identify the “artist” with the “tale”) is an equally emphatic No. To him, the poet's collapse into dirty-mindedness is that and nothing more. It is something to be climbed out of, like a depressive illness. The exact steps by which he climbs out of it are, in my opinion, less memorable than the fact that he is determined to climb out, and his inventor, the author, is determined that he shall. If I were in a niggling frame of mind I could even find fault with the way the story is resolved. The old poet hears from his housekeeper about a sacred statue in “the old church of Monte Giordano,” the statue of an angel which has the power to purify men's thoughts. He undertakes a pilgrimage to the statue, carrying with him the customary gift; the load begins to lift, and on the way home he comes across a cold, deep hillside stream and suddenly remembers how he saw his father, a Vermont farmer, bathing in such a stream as an old man like himself. He does the same, “bellowing like his father,” and seems “at last to be himself.” Liberated, he spends the remaining months of his life writing “a long poem on the inalienable dignity of light and air.” And the story unequivocally represents this as a happy ending.
I find this story extremely interesting. Not that it is, as an example of literary art, as good as some of the other stories in the volume. But the fact that Mr. Cheever has chosen the title of this story for the masthead of the whole book, and has placed it last in the volume (traditionally a point of emphasis), combined as it is with the air of conviction, of getting down to bedrock, which pervades it, brings the tale firmly into the foreground. Mr. Cheever is saying something, and he is evidently not afraid of being laughed at by people who accept the notions currently “in.” If you showed this story to the kind of person who keeps the box office happy at the Theater of Total Copulation and Public Masturbation, he or she would have a great deal of superior fun at the expense of such worn-out steps to regeneration as the shrine in a church and the immersion in cold water. Weren't “cold baths,” he or she would recall, one of the two bastions against self-abuse in the English public school, the other being “long walks”? And where did it all lead except to frustration, leading in turn to the economy, the church, the army and the navy? We are here in the presence of a genuine difference of opinion, a real fork in the road at which the individual has to declare a choice. Personally I am happy to cast my vote with Mr. Cheever's. His protagonist is not a prude or, in the limiting sense, a self-denier; the episode with the housekeeper is presumably brought in to establish this, and in case it is still in doubt Mr. Cheever has him turn over the pages of Petronius and Juvenal and approve of their “candid and innocent accounts of sexual merriment.” What he doesn't do is reach down his well-thumbed copy of the Marquis de Sade's Les 120 Journées de Sodom and read the hallowed pages once more, exclaiming reverently over the Divine Marquis' fearless devotion to truth and the scandal of his martyrdom at the hands of a hypocritical society. He doesn't, in other words, equate “sexual merriment” with the infliction of pain, the reduction of other human beings to objects which must be systematically maltreated and destroyed in the search for self-fulfillment. He tries to reconcile the sexual instinct with “the rainy wind that sounds though the world of apples” rather than with “alienation.” And in this he surely shows a tenacious hold on human wisdom.
My excuse for devoting so much space to this one story in Mr. Cheever's collection is that it sets the keynote. There is another story just as bedrock and affirmative—and, purely as a story, better written and more convincing—called “Artemis, the Honest Well Digger,” which is nothing more nor less than a study in innocence, an attempt to hold our attention with the portrayal of a man with no harm in him. It succeeds brilliantly, in part because of the deftness with which the hero is shown against the backdrop of just about every kind of evil the modern world abounds in—situation follows situation in a rapid and economical series, so skillfully projected that, though Mr. Cheever of course contrived them, they don't seem what one calls “contrived.”
Now, because Mr. Cheever has written a volume of stories which tend to show people as being motivated by old-style feelings like love and loyalty and kindness and consideration for others and protectiveness toward the weak (e.g., children), one doesn't want to represent him as preaching. It is merely that every work of art, like every creation of any kind, comes out of a system of values and preferences, and this is a book by a gifted and established writer which doesn't, for once, seem to come out of negativism, alienation, despair of the human condition and frantic self-gratification in whatever horrifying ways suggest themselves. One meets people in everyday life who have these old-fashioned values, and perhaps the shortest way to convey the rare quality of Mr. Cheever's book is to say that here, for a wonder, we have a modern work of literature in which people behave as decently as they generally do in real life, rather than behaving like sick fiends.
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SOURCE: “The Hero on the 5:42: John Cheever's Short Fiction,” in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 147-52.
[In the following essay, Moore argues that although Cheever's characters sometimes act in ways that seem futile and absurd, the fact that they create their own “legends” in a world that seems pointless makes them heroes.]
Just about ten years ago John Aldridge wrote in Time to Murder and Create that Cheever was “one of the most grievously underdiscussed important writers we have at the present time.” He had been cursed with a “kind of good housekeeping seal of middlebrow literary approval”; he was said to be “a paid moralist of the button-down-collar Establishment.” Of course, as Aldridge added, “Cheever has … all along been unfortunate in the company his work has kept.” By that he meant The New Yorker, a Time magazine cover story, the National Book Award; Cheever was recognized as a writer of middlebrow-popular sensibilities. He spoke to, and continues to speak to, an audience that is indeed instructed by New Yorker fiction.
But Cheever has used the seeming conventions of New Yorker fiction to create a form of short fiction that transcends the conventions without quite violating them. His best stories move from a base in a mimetic presentation of surface reality—the scenery of apparently successful American middle class life—to fables of heroism. Superficially, his people seem like the gray flannel suited men of another decade; on the surface, they are “antiheroes,” stock figures in American popular writing of the recent past. In fact, they are desperate men driven to defending themselves from and against the culture. The stories chronicle a final statement against the decay of youth and the futility of action (“O Youth and Beauty!”), anxiety about failure that is close to the heart of American adult experience (“The Swimmer”), madness (“The Ocean”), the need to exercise some control over one's life (“The Music Teacher”), and the inevitable confrontation in the problem of commitment (“The Scarlet Moving Van”). The stories become fables about heroism—even if the central characters are not quite in themselves heroes: directly and obliquely, they must face action, responsibility, anxiety, and failure. Even in the most recent of his published stories, “The World of Apples”—and the battleground is there far removed from the fronts of suburban America, where an old and honored poet fights against a final sickness in his soul, where he finally asserts and triumphs with the forces of health and wholeness over sickness and filth—Cheever is giving us a man who is joined in deadly battle.
Like Randall Patrick McMurphy of Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Eliot Rosewater of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Cheever's people are “mythic,” they are exaggerated, caricatures, characters who at first seem “real” and yet who move out of the conventions of middlebrow realistic fiction into another territory. That territory is one of the few ways of suggesting American experience at the present. It is one of Cheever's most telling achievements to have used the machinery of the conventional realistic story—for he is the teller of stories to the middle class—to imply and hint at a quality of experience that defies the limitations of his genre. The Cheever hero faces not the problem of the West, the frontier, the Indian, or the wilderness as it was stated and evoked in American writing of another time; the wilderness is now on the 5:42 for Bullet Park, the third martini, falling in love with the baby sitter, the swimming pools across Westchester County. Cheever's country is mostly dour and disappointing and yet this is not a fashionable restatement, restructuring of the landscape of the Wasteland, now the zombies at the cocktail party, the stupefying accumulation of wealth, the faceless commuters, their paper shuffling jobs, their lives denied nourishing tradition and religion. Against these apparent givens of the culture and of experience itself, aging, the loss of ideals and the impossibility of simplicity of emotion and action, his focal characters in his best short fiction persist in attempting some definition of self when confronted with adversity, inner and outer, that gives a measure to their lives.
“O Youth and Beauty!”—in some ways it is Cheever's “The Short Happy Life of Cash Bentley”—is a chapter in an American life. Bentley, he's forty, is fed up with the routine of his life: domestic fights, he and his wife make up, he feels cut off from life and the life of action, there are money worries at the edge of all he knows now and he finds satisfaction only in hurdling furniture at the country club or parties after he is so drunk that he feels free to express himself. A good part of this story is recognizable terrain; Cash Bentley looks like a version of that middle-aged American male who cannot quite give up his attachment to the robust, athletic life of his youth. Of course, he was a former track star. At the “tag end of nearly every long, Saturday night party,” Trace Bearden “would begin to chide” Bentley about his age and thinning hair until Bentley moved the furniture around the living room and once more ran the hurdle race. His wife Louise knows something of desperation, too: “housework, laundry, cooking and the demands of the children.” Her life is no more rich in meaning than is his. One night, racing around a room, he breaks his leg; as he recovers, he becomes aware of the smell of corruption around him, rank meat, rotting flowers, and he is nearly gagged by a spider web in the attic of his house. Discontent, he becomes rude and gloomy. Without the hurdles he is nothing. Then on a summer night, with the smells of life and a new season all around, with his perceptions of the young in one another's arms—“He has been a young man. He has been a hero. He has been adored and happy and full of animal spirits”—when he is fully recovered from the broken leg, he once more tries the hurdles and runs the race successfully. He is exhausted at the finish and his wife “knelt down beside him and took his head in her lap and stroked his thin hair.” The following night at home he sets up for the race again; it is a Sunday night—“Oh, those suburban Sunday nights, those Sunday-night blues!” the narrator reminds us—and Bentley gives his wife a pistol to shoot off for the starting gun. But it is a real pistol, “she had never fired it before, and the directions he gave her were not much help.” She is confused about the safety on the weapon. “It's that little lever,” he tells her. “Press that little lever.” Then in his impatience he starts the race anyhow, goes over the sofa. “The pistol went off,” Cheever writes, “and Louise got him in midair. She shot him dead.”
“The Swimmer,” perhaps Cheever's best known story, starts within the conventions of the New Yorker tale. Again a Sunday, this time the afternoon “when everyone sits around saying: ‘I drank too much last night. … We all drank too much. … It must have been the wine.’” The reader seems to be assured that he knows this country well. It looks like what it's supposed to be: a slice of upper crust American affluence. The fiction, however, moves away from its conventions as Neddy Merrill, a slender man but by no means a young man—“he might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one”—decides to swim cross county, via his friends' pools, to his own house. And he names this string of swimming pools, “that quasisubterranean stream that curved across the county,” after his wife Lucinda. Neddy is by no means a “practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.” Neddy's swim, his odyssey through the mind of a particular kind of modern America, is alive with perils that suggest that his summer afternoon journey is more a species of nightmare than a presentation of daytime reality. Cheever has developed in “The Swimmer” a ghastly presentation of what it means to swim in American values of success, recognition, and status; for as Neddy plunges from pool to pool, encountering rebuff and indifference—and even more, the real suggestion of failure and disaster as the owner of one pool, Mrs. Holloran says to him, “We've been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy. … Why, we heard that you sold the house and that your poor children. …” her sentence trails off. But Neddy swims on, enduring even the regimented, chlorine-smelling, “All swimmers must wear their identification disks” indignities of a public pool, finding himself no longer welcome where he was once welcome, out of place where he once felt himself comfortable, only to arrive at his house that “was locked. … he shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it in with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.”
The house is empty and it makes little difference whether this story is an angle on madness or a paradigm of deep but rarely uttered American fears about the quality of our life. What is central to this story and a good many more in Cheever's work is that the hero must try to establish who he is in relation to an essentially meaningless—even absurd—world around him. He must try to act in some way, be it hurdling over living room furniture perhaps in pursuit of his lost youth or in swimming across the pools of Westchester County, so as to affirm his own being. Drinks, poolwise in Westchester, parties, the rhythms of commuters' lives—part of the ideal of the American good life—are the basis from which the Cheever hero must revolt. It matters not a bit that Cash Bentley or Neddy Merrill fail—fail? there were no goals to begin with—that they are shot or come home to find the house empty. But it matters a great deal that they are disgusted with the limitations of the environment. They find satisfaction not in victory or consolation in defeat but pleasure in action, in making themselves, in expressing a sense of rebellion against a life they can neither control nor understand. Read this way, the Cash Bentley of “O Youth and Beauty!” is not a pathetic middle-aged jock acting out once more the glories of his lost youth; he is a man trying to redefine himself against the contours of smug and shallow values, values that are mainly rotted with drink and acquisitiveness. So too is Neddy Merrill's cross county swim, be it actuality or dream, a gesture of heroic revolt. And if not heroic, something close to that; for Neddy on that swim does seem a fool or madman, no matter whether the swim is in the dark pools of his mind or in the sunlight of that Sunday. It is of the essence that they do, not that they win. To perform is to live, is to make a statement about the value of living over the descent into nothingness and even as that nothingness seems rich in good friends, good drink and good food, the pleasures of the family and the recognition of community. Perhaps what is so touching and even old fashioned about these heroes is their belief that there is finally a truth to experiences and that it can be realized in the form of action, no matter how futile or even symbolic.
Foolish or mad as Cash and Neddy might be, their situations are in differing ways resolved, in death or in the nothingness of the empty and abandoned house. Their absurd quests are simple contrasted with the moral ambiguities of Charlie Folkestone in “The Scarlet Moving Van.” For Charlie there is a call to action, literally a phone call, a call for help, to which he does not respond and in that failure he loses his life as certainly as Cash shot dead in midair. Charlie and Martha Folkestone—they live in a pleasant town beyond the city, where “in nearly every house there were love, graciousness, and high hopes”; and “the schools were excellent, the roads were smooth, the drains and other services were ideal”—welcome their new next-door neighbors whose goods arrive in a scarlet moving van one spring at dusk. They invite the new neighbors, Peaches and Gee-Gee, over for a drink. Peaches is “blond and warm” and Gee-Gee (“They called him the Greek God at college. That's why he's called Gee-Gee”) “had been a handsome man, and perhaps still was, although his yellow curls were thin.” But Gee-Gee drinks too much, calls the Folkestones stuffy, insults them further, and takes off his clothes. His wife begs him to stop, “Not on our first night.” In eight years Peaches and Gee-Gee had lived in eight different houses; invariably Gee-Gee insults people, smashes furniture, and crockery, insisting always “I've got to teach them,” until life becomes so uncomfortable that they must move away. And he repeats the pattern in the Folkestones' town. Charlie tries to help, go on the wagon he urges Gee-Gee, but without results. Peaches and Gee-Gee move away to another town, but Charlie later learns that Gee-Gee had broken his hip and one Sunday afternoon in winter—Sunday is the day of horror in Cheever's world—he gets his number from Information and drives over for a drink. Gee-Gee is alone, his wife and children are off to Nassau, he is in a cast and gets around the house in a child's wagon. He lights cigarettes and fumbles with the matches and Charlie wonders that he might burn himself to death. Outside it's snowing heavily and Charlie has a difficult two hour drive home; he wonders about having abandoned “a friend—a neighbor at least—to the peril of death.” Safely at home and enjoying the comforts of family life on a snowy night, Charlie receives a phone call from Gee-Gee asking for help, get over here he cries, it took two hours to crawl to the phone. But Charlie will not respond; the roads must be impassable, he thinks; and his children “looked at him calmly, as if they were expecting him to make a decision that had nothing to do with the continuing of a pleasant evening in a snowbound house—but a decision that would have profound effect on their knowledge of him and on their final happiness.” But Charlie will not go and it is unimportant that the reader is told that Gee-Gee got help from the fire department in “eight minutes flat.” Charlie becomes a drunk, loses his job, becomes abusive of friends and neighbors, and in the end they, too, have their goods carted off in a scarlet moving van; the Folkestones are gone.
Drinks, friends, the suburban town, comfort, and even culture—Charlie and the older children are playing a “Vivaldi sonata” when Gee-Gee calls—this is the scenery of New Yorker fiction comforting the reader in his sense that he knows this country well. Yes, of course, the scenery; but the story according to the conventions of realistic fiction is patently absurd, even as it describes an absurd hero. Why does Charlie call in the first place? Why does he not try to drive back to Gee-Gee, for the desperate cry for help is more important than a difficult drive over snowy roads? And certainly no man turns into a drunk and loses his job because he failed to help “a friend,” anyhow an ex-neighbor and an obnoxious person? There is a madness to this suburban world of Cheever's, this demand for action, blind, foolish, senseless, even puerile, as it confronts the equally disastrous threats of paralysis that suggests the terrors of Beckett's The Unnamable: “I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me. … when I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.” The condition of Charlie Folkestone is literally unnamed and unnamable and it is the condition of many of Cheever's heroes.
The man who does not respond to the call is in the world of Cheever's absurd and yet moral fictions the man who has collapsed into the ultimate terror: paralysis. Many of his people experience that. And yet for the aged poet of “The World of Apples” and for Cash Bentley and Neddy Merrill there is still the lovely, legendary, and briefly heroic moments of hurdling living room furniture or swimming cross county, even when the race ends in death or the swim concludes with the man confronting his abandoned home. It is one version of the hero creating his own legend, even if that legend seems pointless, futile, finally absurd. And that may be the last resort of heroism.
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Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. 243 p.
Honest and frank biography by Cheever's daughter, containing family history, excerpts from her father's journals, and photographs.
Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988. 416 p.
The definitive biography of Cheever, focusing on the relationship between Cheever's work and his life.
Allen, William Rodney. “Allusions to The Great Gatsby in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26, No. 3 (Summer 1989): 289-93.
Discusses parallels between Neddy Merrill and Jay Gatsby as two characters who see the myth they have made of themselves destroyed by culture, mistakes, and the passage of time.
Collins, Robert G. “Fugitive Time: Dissolving Experience in the Later Fiction of John Cheever,” in Studies in American Fiction 12 (1984): 175-88.
Article assessing the pressure of time on defining experiences in Cheever's later work.
Collins, R. G., editor. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. 292 p.
Collection of criticism on Cheever including fifteen reprinted reviews, several interviews, and seventeen of what are widely considered the best critical essays available on his writing.
Bidney, Martin. “‘The Common Day’ and The Immortality Ode: Cheever's Wordsworthian Craft.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, No. 2 (Spring 1986): 139-51.
Argues that “The Common Day” is an attempt to re-make Wordsworth's ode in the image of Cheever's own perceived world.
Bodmer, George R. “Sounding the Fourth Alarm: Identity and The Masculine Tradition in the Fiction of Cheever and Updike” in Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism, edited by Judith Spector. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986, pp. 148-61.
Examines the plight of the male characters in the stories of Cheever and Updike who are confronted with what they find to be bewildering changes in the social order.
Crews, Frederick. “Domestic Manners.” New York Review of Books 3 (October 22, 1964): 7-8.
Critique of Cheever's characterization in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.
Didion, Joan. “A Celebration of Life.” National Review 10 (April 22, 1961): 254-55.
Praises Cheever's fascination with the past as a “celebration of life.”
Donaldson, Scott. “The Machines in Cheever's Garden.” In The Changing Face of the Suburbs, edited by Barry Schwartz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, pp. 309-22.
Examines Cheever's use of transportation technology as a menace of modern society that has swept away traditional values.
Donaldson, Scott. “Supermarket and Superhighway: John Cheever's America.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 62, No. 4 (Autumn 1986): 654-68.
Discusses the motif of despair in an overly technological world, a common theme in Cheever's fiction.
Gamble, Giles Y. “John Cheever's ‘Expelled’: The Genesis of a Beginning” in American Literary History 7, No. 4 (Winter 1995): 611-32.
Argues that the publication of Cheever's first story was not mere fortuitousness, but was partly due his ability to imitate the works he read in journals. Also points out that the story served as a means to exorcise Cheever's past and set him free as a writer.
Gerlach, John. “Closure in Modern Short Fiction: Cheever's ‘The Enormous Radio’ and ‘Artemis, the Honest Well Digger,’” in Modern Fiction Studies 28, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 145-52.
Compares the endings of the two short stories using the standard for established for the genre by Edgar Allan Poe.
Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1983. 326 p.
The longest and most comprehensive study of Cheever's work.
Kees, Weldon. “John Cheever's Stories.” The New Republic 108 (April 19, 1943): 516-17.
A short critique of the stories in The Way Some People Live.
Mano, Keith. “The World of Apples.” The Washington Post Book World 1 (July 1, 1973): 1, 10.
A review of The World of Applesthat praises Cheever's use of nostalgia.
Mathews, James. “Peter Rugg and Cheever's Swimmer: Archetypal Missing Men.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 95-101.
Compares Neddy Merrill with Peter Rugg as two men who are at odds with an unforgiving society.
Meisel, Perry. “The World of WASP.” Partisan Review 47 (1980): 467-71.
Praises Cheever's ability to balance the real with the unreal in The Stories of John Cheever.
Morace, Robert A. “From Parallels to Paradise: The Lyrical Structure of Cheever's Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 35, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 502-28.
An examination of the poetic basis of Cheever's lyrical prose in his short stories and novels.
O’Hara, Daniel T. “John Cheever's Contingent Imagination.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 91, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 675-94.
Discusses Cheever's tendency toward self-mythologizing and examines its relationship to imagination.
O’Hara, James E. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. 163 p.
Critical study of sixty of the short stories; part two contains letters, interviews, and five critical essays.
O’Hara, James. “John Cheever's Flowering Forth: The Breakthrough of 1947.” Modern Language Studies XVII, No. 4 (Fall 1987): 50-9.
Examines how changes in Cheever's personal life affected new directions in his fiction.
Pawlowski, Robert S. “Myth as Metaphor: Cheever's ‘Torch Song.’” Research Studies 47, No. 1 (March 1979): 118-21.
Applies one method of mythic analysis to Cheever's “Torch Song.”
Peden, William. “Esthetics of the Story.” Saturday Review 36 (April 11, 1953): 43-4.
Defends the New Yorker as a literary magazine and Cheever as one of the most undervalued American short story writers.
Piwinski, David. “Lisbon and Hackensack in Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 273-74.
Discusses the significance of Cheever's citation of the cities Lisbon and Hackensack in “The Swimmer.”
Stengel, Wayne. “John Cheever's Surreal Vision and the Bridge of Language.” Twentieth Century Literature 33, No. 2 (Summer 1987): 223-33.
Examines the relationship between images of bridges, dreams, and language in “A Vision of the World” and “The Angle of the Bridge.”
Stewart, Melissa. “Roads of ‘Exquisite Mysterious Muck’: The Magical Journey through the City in William Kennedy's Ironweed, John Cheever's ‘The Enormous Radio,’ and Donald Barthelme's ‘City of Life.’” In Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 477-95.
Examines the relationship between the magical and the rational in William Kennedy's Ironweed, Cheever's “The Enormous Radio,” and Donald Barthelme's “City of Life.”
Walkiewicz, E. P. “Toward Diversity of Form.” In The American Short Story: 1945-1980, edited by Gordon Weaver. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 35-76.
Includes an examination of Cheever's use of realism and romance.
Warnke, Frank J. “Cheever's Inferno.” The New Republic 144 (May 15, 1961): 18.
Characterizes Cheever as “a haunted chronicler of the impingements of an inexplicable malevolence on ordinary life,” and describes Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel as nightmarish.
Wood, Ralph C. “The Modest and Charitable Humanism of John Cheever.” The Christian Century 99, No. 36 (November 17, 1982): 1163-66.
Praises Cheever's subtle use of spiritualism as an admirable middle ground between harsh righteousness and shrill alarmism.
Additional coverage of Cheever's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 106; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 5, 27, 76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 7, 8, 11, 15, 25, 64; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 102; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vols. 80, 82; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 1; and World Literature Criticism.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2296
SOURCE: “Cheever's Stories: Style and Substance,” in Commonweal, Vol. CVI, No. 1, January 19, 1979, pp. 20-22.
[In the following essay, Hunt argues that Cheever's stories provide more than social commentary; they are lyrical and funny without being merely satiric.]
John Cheever has won many awards for his fiction, but the praise and prizes have been reserved for his four excellent novels, The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, and Falconer. Short stories, by contrast, rarely win important prizes, and collections of stories do not sell well. Cheever persists nonetheless in this neglected genre, which he terms “the literature of the nomad.” The Stories of John Cheever (Knopf, 695 pp., $15), a handsomely designed and printed edition of 61 stories, represents his greatest achievement.
For too long critics have been idly content with the clichés “Cheever country” and “Cheeveresque,” a reviewer's shorthand betraying a sensibility less wide and deep than the author's own. Cheever country has become synonymous with the suburbs that abut Route 95 from New York to Boston, a homogenized landscape of semi-elegant cook-outs, drained pools in the winter, parties that begin “Oh, do come” and end with forlorn or frantic goodbyes, a place peopled by an upper crust, now moldy or pulpy with desperation, fits of sexual tension, or mere silliness. The implication is that Cheever is something of a sociologist in disguise, a wry and macabre David Riesman who delights in counting the olives in drained martini glasses or the soggy shards of charcoal at aborted cook-outs.
But Cheever is not a sociologist; he is an artist. A social scientist's concern is to so concentrate on particular instances that, accumulatively, a general pattern for understanding the behavior of some segment of society might emerge. The artist, too, begins with the concrete particular, but he enters it; a particular experience is thus transformed by his imaginative and compassionate feeling in order that the humanly universal, not the statistically general, might emerge and engage our feeling and imaginative response. The findings of the social sciences are, almost by definition, statable. The results of art elude such definition since the art of fiction, at its best, engages mystery, the mystery of the human and its corollary, the mystery of language.
These twin mysteries are the key to the magic of John Cheever. As this collection demonstrates, the thematic what of his fiction is far broader than that of the vicissitudes of megalopolis's upper middle class. His central characters range from elevator man to well-digger; the locales include Italy and Russia; and the emotions are rhapsodic and celebratory as often as sad. The recurring place—names like St. Botolph, Shady Hill, Bullet Park are imaginative constructs not social symbols; they are more and less than places on a map. They are, as Cheever has said, “metaphors for human confinement,” whether the confinement be that of nostalgia or tradition, or erotic entanglements or of our universal perception of being both travelers and pilgrims and “stuck” somehow, trapped by conflicting aspirations above and below.
That thematic what, of course, Cheever shares with many contemporary writers; his distinction lies in the artistic how, in his remarkably graceful and lucid prose. We respond to the verbal rhythms of our other two most elegant and versatile stylists, John Updike and Saul Bellow, inside our heads. Both Updike and Bellow, though, are difficult to read aloud for a sustained period; Cheever's prose almost demands that it be read aloud. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn in his charming preface to this collection that a good deal of these stories were composed that way and tested with his family as critical audience. Cheever's prose edges closer to the cadences of modern poetry than that of any of his contemporaries.
Cheever's style is both lyrical and idiosyncratic. When lyrical, it is reminiscent of the later poetry of W. B. Yeats and, when idiosyncratic, of the later W. H. Auden. Cheever's stories, in fact, engage many Yeatsian themes: the passion for decorum and ceremonies of innocence in the face of the drowning of decay and disruption; the contrast of man's urge for the “higher” beauties of the artistic and natural order with his lower impulses like the sexually chaotic and the murderous; those emotions of manic desperation that accompany one's realization of aging and its consequence, death. Stylistically, Cheever continually uses the later Yeats technique of direct address to the reader. This technique brings to a story a unique dramatic force; the voice is unabashedly personal and we as readers are encountered, willynilly, by someone grabbing us by the lapels. A good number of his stories begin this way: the voice announces that he is a writer and the variations in his tone of voice prepare us (or so we think) for what will follow—but we had better listen or else. The range possible with this technique is remarkable and Cheever exploits it at the beginning of the following stories:
“The Ocean”—a conspiratorial voice: “I am keeping this journal because I believe myself to be in some danger and because I have no other way of recording my fears.”
“The Death of Justina”—a complaint: “So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect. …”
“Percy”—quaintly philosophical: “Reminiscence, along with the cheeseboards and ugly pottery sometimes given to brides, seems to have a manifest destiny with the sea.”
“The Brigadier and the Golf Widow”—apologetic and inquisitive: “I would not want to be one of those writers who begin each morning by exclaiming. ‘O Gogol, O Checkhov, O Thackeray and Dickens, what would you have made of a bomb shelter ornamented with four plaster-of-Paris ducks, a birdbath, and three composition gnomes with long beards and red mobcaps?’”
In addition, there are throughout these stories the Yeatsian long lyric line, iambic in rhythm, merging the abstract impulse with the concrete detail. This is Francis Weed's vision in Cheever's masterpiece, “The Country Husband.”
Up through the dimness of his mind rose the image of the mountain deep in snow. It was late in the day. Wherever his eyes looked, he saw broad and heartening things. Over his shoulder, there was a snow-filled valley, rising into wooded hills where the trees dimmed the whiteness like a sparse coat of hair.
But Yeats was never funny, at least deliberately, and it is here that Cheever parts from Yeats and joins Auden. Like Auden, Cheever is not a satirist, though it might seem so. Instead, he is what Kierkegaard called a “humorist,” one whose compassionate understanding of the human comedy with its absurd enthusiasms and low-life urgencies forestalls in his heart the easy, mocking perspective of facile satire. Neither Cheever nor Auden expect or desire a radical change in the human condition; they are content to embrace it, whole and not piecemeal, despite a knowing eye. Is not this Audenesque and Cheeveresque?
We admire decency and we despise death, but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale's cage.
Like Auden, Cheever's comic technique will entail: a continual and abrupt shifting of stylistic gears from fantasy to realism, a seeming solemnity of tone that suddenly issues in the mock-heroic catching us unawares, the old juxtapositions of different items in a list, with the last detail a comic climax, a blurring switch from the banal to the shocking and a return to the banal. Throughout, as in Auden, the narrator's voice is ever decorous, detached, urbane; but its tone is never “tsk-tsk,” rather it is “well, what do we know” and “wait, there's even more to tell.”
Fortunately, in Cheever there is always more to tell, and the fertility of his imagination is extraordinary. One critic has described Cheever's style with disfavor as “episodic notation” in that his narratives move swiftly and almost in linear fashion from one glimpse, one incident, one snippet of conversation to another. What is sacrificed here in terms of organic fictional unity—always the stuffy critic's touchstone when he has little else to say—is redeemed by exceptional inventiveness, flexibility and versatility. This apparently loose structure gives his stories the qualities of a yarn and, sans dialect and sentimentality, places him firmly in the American tradition of Mark Twain, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon. Furthermore, a Cheever dialogue is unique in that, while it remains true to our realistic ear, it is always heightened beyond realism to a peculiar brand of poetic speech—and it is this that sets him apart from the genial accuracy of a John O’Hara or Philip Roth.
Finally, the acid test of the comic: Cheever is consistently hilarious. Alone with Peter De Vries's best efforts, Cheever's fiction is not meant to be read among strangers, on planes or trains where suddenly laughing out loud might be thought unseemly or worse. Here, for example, is one narrator's summary account of his eccentric Aunt Percy's marriage:
Percy and Abbott Tracy met in some such place, and she fell in love. He had already begun a formidable and clinical sexual career, and seemed unacquainted in any way with sentiment, although I recall that he liked to watch children saying their prayers. Percy listened for his footsteps, she languished in his absence, his cigar cough sounded to her like music, and she filled a portfolio with pencil sketches of his face, his eyes, his hands, and, after their marriage, the rest of him.
More famous is the opening paragraph to “The Swimmer.” Here the subtle variations on the repetitiveness of human excuses capture not only a specific hangover but a more fundamental, universal experience of misgiving that is beyond all genteel excuse.
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying: “I drank too much last night.” You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wild-life preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. “I drank too much,” said Donald Westerhazy, “We all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill. “It must have been the wine,” said Helen Westerhazy. “I drank too much of that claret.”
Just as Cheever is not a strict satirist he is not a moralist either. And yet, his work, as his last novel Falconer made evident, is deeply Christian in sensibility. Few of his stories, apart from cleverly inserted Biblical allusions, are obviously religious in design. But Cheever's sympathy with his characters' fallen state together with their vague yearnings for personal rebirth, for a virtuous life possibly untrammeled by life's more sordid confusions, betray his sincere Episcopal beliefs. Every artist's endeavor demands an implicit faith-commitment to a world he hopes will reward it, but Cheever has been more religiously specific. He has said in an interview,
“The religious experience is very much my concern, as it seems to me it is the legitimate concern of any adult who has experienced love. … The whiteness of light. In the church, you know, that always represents the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that man's inclination toward light, toward brightness, is very nearly botanical—and I mean spiritual light. One not only needs it, one struggles for it. It seems to be that one's total experience is the drive toward light.”
Unfortunately, despite that inviting light, we are here and not there, yet. Cheever, like all great artists consciously committed to religious faith or otherwise, begins here. No other short story in my memory captures better what theologians have called the mystery of Original Sin than his excellent “Seaside House.” In the story, the narrator, a gentle and reasonable man, has rented a summer cottage for his family. Gradually, he realizes that the Greenwoods who had rented the cottage the previous summer have left ominous moral baggage behind. The narrator discovers a boy's scrawl, “My father is a rat,” hidden on a corner baseboard; caches of empty whiskey bottles are found; obscene gossip is later heard about the Greenwoods; soon the narrator begins to dream dreams that he realizes are Mr. Greenwood's dreams. Suddenly, Mr. Greenwood's presence begins to infect him, destroying his relationship with his wife and family. Greenwood has become his counterpart, he divorces, and the story ends with this reflection of his in another seaside house with another wife:
The shore is curved, and I can see the lights of other haunted cottages where people are building up an accrual of happiness or misery that will be left for the August tenants or the people who come next year. Are we truly this close to one another? Must we impose our burdens on strangers? And is our sense of the universality of suffering so inescapable?
Perhaps those last lines sound faintly cosmic or even pompous, but it is a generous risk that Cheever takes. The other risk is the risk to be hilarious, a risk that the truly pompous regard as lightweight. Like life itself, humor has no weight, only intensity. No one without a sense of humor can deeply enjoy any other of the myriad of human sensations, sadly, for those without, humor and its acolytes offer not mystery but endless mystification. But humor, certainly as often as tragedy, shocks us into truth. Cheever does this again and again; as he has said, “We can cherish nothing less than our random understanding of death and the earth-shaking love that draws us to one another.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5755
SOURCE: “The Passion of Nostalgia in the Short Stories of John Cheever,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982, pp. 219-30.
[In the following essay, Kendle maintains that Cheever's stories are unified by a “passionate attempt to retain and foster an image” of an Eden-like past manifested in places, patterns of behavior, or inner innocence.]
“it is a passion of nostalgia”
Henry James, letter to William Dean Howells, 1904
The passionate attempt to retain and foster an image of an innocent past unifies the rich and varied fictional world in the stories of John Cheever.1 His characters obsessively pursue this image of lost innocence, often their own, sometimes simultaneously registering the painful reality that motivates this nostalgia. Different characters may view the world through contrasting perspectives; the dual vision may exist within a single character; the tone of a story may imply an image of reality that clashes with that of the main character or narrator. Whatever the terms of this split, the dual vision defines the distance between aspiration and actuality for Cheever's protagonists.
“O Youth and Beauty!” contrasts the perspectives of travellers, who see the suburb of Shady Hill “in a bath of golden light” (p. 215), and of the protagonist, who has a more sober view: “Louise, tonight, is a discouraging figure. The lamp picks out the gray in her hair. Her apron is stained. Her face seems colorless and drawn.” A similar tension between antithetical visions dominates Cheever's stories and explains why many characters find unacceptable a world that apparently satisfies others, and why this dissatisfaction leads to a quest for a private eden.
Shifting perspectives may battle within a single consciousness, as when the husband in “The Ocean” mistakes his wife for her mother, “a harsh-voiced blonde of about seventy, with four scars on the side of her face, from cosmetic surgery,” and then attempts to comfort his wife,” “I'm terribly sorry, darling. … It was the dark” (pp. 569-71). However amusingly prophetic the episode, it underscores the husband's growing awareness of the subjective nature of reality. Such subjectivity, a crucial aspect of Cheever's fiction, can isolate people from the world and each other and, when the inevitable confrontation occurs, make them vulnerable to the realities they have ignored. But, conversely, this subjectivity in its most attractive form is the love, ultimately family love, that enables characters to endow wives, children, and ordinary life with those qualities that make the necessary facts of existence desirable. Cheever's husbands frequently invoke private systems of standards by which they hope to impose their subjective visions on a resisting reality.
Tension between two characters can mirror an unacknowledged uneasiness within the protagonist. The unnamed narrator of “Goodbye, My Brother” laments his brother Lawrence's inability to share “the illusion, when we are together, that the Pomeroys are unique” (p. 3), and that family loyalty is the key to order and happiness. The family summer place on a Massachusetts island typifies the many coastal refuges which allow characters to retain their image of an idyllic world because such settings not only suggest the sea's power to restore innocence2 but also encourage recollections of a happier past: “The sea is our universal symbol for memory.” (“Percy,” Stories, p. 634) “Goodbye, My Brother” begins with a reference to the father's drowning in a sailing accident (“The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well” drowns a young sailor in an equally lethal Pacific). But the narrator rejects this frightening picture of the sea, despite Lawrence's warnings that the family home will fall into the sea, warnings that shade into a general prophecy of family doom, delivered with the ominous flatness characteristic of Cheever's truthtellers: “Diana is a foolish and promiscuous woman. So is Odette. Mother is an alcoholic. If she doesn't discipline herself, she'll be in a hospital in a year or two. Chaddy is dishonest. He always has been” (p. 19). The narrator can respond only by violently attacking Lawrence with a root significantly “heavy with sea water” (ibid.), an action that ironically confirms Lawrence's view of the family's hidden corruption (and foreshadows the murder of brother by brother in Falconer).
That the narrator partly shares Lawrence's vision is clear when he imagines Lawrence's grim meditations on the depths of the sea. Yet the narrator negates this imagined scene with a description of his swimming wife and sister emerging from the sea “naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace” (p. 21), an image reinforcing the vivifying power of water. These conflicting sea images imply the unadmitted division within the narrator, desperately trying to sustain his positive view of the ocean and of his family's safety within a nourishing past. If the narrator is a special pleader, Lawrence is a special prosecutor, and truth must lie somewhere in between; but the story ultimately supports the narrator, whose love can justifiably soften or even distort the truth to make life attractive and occasionally permit an epiphany beyond the power of Lawrence. Lawrence's omission of love distorts to the point of caricature and makes existence unendurable. Only rarely can a character, like the elevator operator in “Clancy in the Tower of Babel,” acknowledge and successfully harmonize such warring visions: “Clancy was struck with the strength and intelligence of his son's face, but he guessed that a stranger might notice the boy's glasses and his bad complexion. … this half-blindness was all that he knew himself of mortal love” (p. 127). Appalled by the moral nihilism and pain of the residents of his building and, presumably, of all New Yorkers, Clancy can ultimately neither rebuke nor forgive the sinners, but finds his survival only in the illusory sanctuary of family goodness, the crucial refuge in Cheever's stories. Lacking the harmonizing power of such love, Cheever's characters, like the Westcotts in “The Enormous Radio,”3 often fail to sustain their nostalgic illusions and fall from a belief in the innocence of their own lives to a painful confrontation with “the deposits of silver polish on the candlesticks” (Stories, p. 35), and a previously unacknowledged awareness of their own sinfulness. This story, an archetypal version of the loss of the vision of an innocent world, reveals that both vision and loss can occur in a Manhattan apartment, though Cheever's short fiction shows them as more frequent in New York suburbs or on New England coasts, and possible even in Europe. The Westcotts' willed innocence appears in Irene's “wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written,” and in Jim's “intentionally naive” manner and determination to “feel younger” (p. 33) than he was. Like the mother-in-law's plastic surgery in “The Ocean,” the Westcotts' refusal to accept the cycle of human existence is unconnected to Cheever's touchstone of family love and seems a negative version of the desire for a timeless Eden. Their new radio that looks “like an aggressive intruder” (p. 34) is the serpent in this Eden. Through its ability to broadcast conversations from neighboring apartments, the radio alerts the couple to the suffering and moral weaknesses of others and, ultimately, of themselves. Jim's final speech reveals the unstable basis of the idyllic world they had inhabited at the beginning of the story and catalogues their half-buried sins, especially Irene's abortion that symbolizes a denial of family love. Such recollections produce no pleasurable frisson, but condemn the Westcotts to a future of bickering, ironically their chief link with Adam and Eve. Jim and Irene can neither accept the world to which they have been exiled, nor can they reenter their illusory paradise.
Like the disillusioned Westcotts, Cheever's New York residents or visitors generally feel mocked by reminders of Eden, symbols of the failure of previous questors or of themselves. The paranoid narrator of “The Ocean,” who painfully seeks the possibility of goodness in both Bullet Park and New York, experiences the perversion of the ideal in a decaying tenement ironically named the Eden, from which he hopes to rescue his daughter: “… I entered Eden like an avenging angel, but once under the Romanesque arch I found a corridor as narrow as the companionway in a submarine” (p. 579). Painfully aware of traditional patterns, but lacking real religious or moral authority, he allies himself with the fallen world by attempting to bribe his daughter's lover into freeing her from his parody of Eden. The compassionate building manager of “The Superintendent” also suffers from the moral failures of his residents and seeks guidance from his own traditional version of the ideal, a belief that the City of God is accessible even behind city clouds: “But the sky told him only that it was a long day at the end of winter, that it was late and time to go in” (p. 177). The context of a fallen world makes a mockery of the implied promise of coming spring, and the superintendent, unable to recall his youthful vision, will not translate his concern into action.
This bleak truth about New York does not discourage those outsiders who envision an urban Eden and are invariably disappointed, like the pathetic midwesterners (natives would know better) who seek Manhattan success in “O City of Broken Dreams,” or like Ohio-born Jack Lorey of “Torch Song,” whom the city slowly destroys. Those suburban wives who also invade the city to fulfill themselves by appearing nude in off-Broadway plays (“The Fourth Alarm”) or who seek adulterous affairs in the safety of an anonymous urban setting and buy children's toys to assuage their guilt (“The Geometry of Love”) are similarly victims of an erroneous belief in an urban Eden. But like the midwesterners who define the good life in terms of business success, these women have a shallow conception of paradise as an arena for self-gratification and no thought for the love which is the essential element in such visions.
In some stories Europeans or the children of expatriate Americans view all of America as edenic. An old Neapolitan woman in “Boy in Rome” shouts encouragement to an emigrating friend: “Blessed are you, blessed are you, you will see the New World” (p. 456), and the heroine of “Clementina” enjoys “a sort of paradise” (p. 446) in a Washington suburb. The children of American exiles, “the real expatriates,” who may have never seen the States, “have a sense of being far, far from home that is a much sweeter and headier distillation than their parents ever know” (p. 308). Conversely the expatriate mother of “The Bella Lingua” developed her version of Europe as a paradise when, as an unhappy midwestern child, she saw on a cracked theater curtain:
A vision of an Italian garden, with cypress trees, a terrace, a pool and fountain, and a marble balustrade with roses spilling from marble urns. She seemed literally to have risen up from her seat and to have entered the cracked scene, for it was almost exactly like the view from window into the courtyard of the Palazzo Tarominia where she lived. (p. 305)
Like many of its American parallels, this European paradise was imperfect from its flawed, gaudy inception.
Despite these interesting variants, however, Cheever's Eden generally involves returning to the original suburban or coastal setting of remembered happiness, or moving to a similar area which promises a renewal of the former good life. Cheever's fiction embodies this desire, essentially a middle-class desire, in Mr. Selfredge, who
had retired from the banking business—mercifully, for whenever he stepped out into the world today he was confronted with the deterioration of those qualities of responsibility and initiative that had made the world of his youth selective, vigorous, and healthy. (“The Trouble of Marcie Flint,” p. 296)
Often, as in “The Season of Divorce,” this middle-class “ability to recall better times” focuses primarily on economic loss:
Lost money is so much a part of our lives that I am sometimes reminded of expatriates, of a group who have adapted themselves energetically to some alien soil but who are reminded, now and then, of the escarpments of their native coast. (p. 137)
This nostalgia for a vanished past connects with the homesickness of those exiles who lead unsatisfactory lives in Europe or those in “The Scarlet Moving Van” who flee their failed visions in American suburbs.
Whatever its economic or psychological origins, this same nostalgia produces ironical versions of paradise. That the Selfredges and their neighbors keep a public library out of Shady Hill from fear of attracting outsiders and disseminating subversive ideas suggests a necessary, if unattractive, attempt to avoid those dangers that helped destroy the original Eden. But that two small children almost die of poison in a Shady Hill garden implies that the efforts of the Selfredges are futile. Similarly, in “The Ocean” the protagonist's boss, an aspiring suburban Adam, dies from a bee sting while gardening. Despite this negative coloration, however, Cheever's gardens exert a profound nostalgic force on escapees from the urban present. Paul Hollis of “The Summer Farmer” experiences a violent “sense of homecoming” (p. 80) when he returns to his family summer property with its pasture called “Elysian, because of its unearthly stillness” (p. 82). Along with this nostalgia, Paul acknowledges that the purchase of pet rabbits for his children pains the son of the farmer who sells them and that Kasiak, Paul's hired man, will eat the rabbits in the Fall (the seasonal implications of this Eden make clear that Paul's nostalgia must restrict itself to very narrow limits). Paul's concept of a transient Eden clashes with the Russian-born Kasiak's vision of “the birth of a just and peaceable world, delivered in bloodshed and arson” (p. 82). Their moral struggle over the mysterious poisoning of those same crucial rabbits results predictably in Paul's “loss of principle” (p. 88) with no compensating promise of the redemption possible for the original Adam. Paul's willingness to accept the consequences of a limited Eden, a sign of his awarness of the unchangeable power of the real world, undercuts the force of his commitment and dooms his venture.
A more complex attitude toward rural edens emerges in Jim, protagonist of “The Common Day,” who “is so accustomed to the noise and congestion of the city that after six days in New Hampshire he still found the beauty of the country morning violent and alien” (p. 22). This New England setting with “the magnificent vegetables that [the gardener] had watered with his sweat” (p. 25), a man killed by lightning, and “other perils of the country,” (p. 32) seems closer to the world of the exiled Adam than to Eden, though Jim and his wife Ellen feel the beauty of the country morning transport them to “the excitement of their first meetings” (p. 28). The belief in a recoverable Eden is stronger in Ellen, who searches old farms for a permanent haven. Characteristically Cheever contrasts the visions of husband and wife: “Where she saw charm and security, he saw advanced dilapidation and imprisonment.” While understanding her vision and impelled by love and residual nostalgia to attempt to share her desire, Jim's rural experience ultimately forces him to view elements from past country life negatively. The existence they symbolize seems vanished beyond recall, though characters in this and other stories go painfully through the motions of trying to recapture it.
Even when Cheever satirizes suburban or coastal settings, inhabitants with sufficient commitment to traditional or private ideals can achieve a kind of balance. The urgency to regain or establish the good life symbolized by suburban living is most extreme in “The Death of Justina” and “A Vision of the World.” The former describes suburban Proxmire Manor, part of a world “where even the cleaning women practice the Chopin preludes in their spare time” (p. 432), and where zoning ordinances apparently permit neither dying nor burying: “How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?” (p. 437). Yet, even in the context of this suburb and of a Manhattan advertising job that similarly denies death and other realities, the narrator can reaffirm his commitment to the good life by typing the 23rd Psalm. In “A Vision of the World,” set “in another seaside cottage on another coast” (p. 512), the narrator finds a buried note from a young man who vows “if I am not a member of the Gory Brook Country Club by the time I am twenty-five years old I will hang myself.” With slightly less vehemence the narrator declares that though he might survive without his wife and children, “I could not bring myself to leave my lawns and gardens” (p. 514). He spends an evening investigating the would-be suicide at Gory Brook, where the nostalgic music suggests another unsuccessful aspiration for permanence: “We seemed to be dancing on the grave of social coherence.” Though he partly acknowledges the failure of his Eden, the narrator still desires “to grant my dreams, in so incoherent a world, their legitimacy” (p. 515). His awakening that night from a dream of women in old-fashioned clothing to a literally cleansing rain (the familiar linking of the past with rain in Cheever) enables him to reassert his commitment to his personal ideals: “Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!” (p. 517). The strength of this commitment, though his stridency may imply some uncertainty, should allow him to retain that illusion of being “contented and at peace with the night” which Cheever characters continually seek in their suburban edens.
Such balance, however precarious, is comparatively rare in Cheever's suburban world. More representative is the satirical image of the “wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover” (p. 603) in “The Swimmer.” On a more serious level “The Hartleys” dramatizes the attempt of an unhappy couple to recapture the illusion of their past good life by returning to their New England honeymoon site. Mr. Hartley spends much of his time nostalgically describing his family, but his wife bitterly attacks this obsession with past happiness:
Why do we have to make these trips back to the places where we thought we were happy? What good is it going to do? What good has it ever done? We go through the telephone book looking for the names of people we knew ten years ago, and we ask them for dinner, and what good does it do? What good has it ever done? (p. 63)
The accidental death of their daughter at this resort reaffirms the difficulty of reentering past edens. The dead or threatened children who populate Cheever's stories make clear that the world their elders inhabited has decayed to the point where the innocence that children embody no longer protects them but makes them vulnerable to both the dangers of ordinary existence and to the nostalgic experiments of their parents.
The nostalgic ideal does not always depend on a specific physical setting. Characters sometimes rely on a reversion to behavior or attitudes reminiscent of an idyllic past. The vacationers of “Goodbye, My Brother” dress up in football uniforms and bridal gowns for their club dance, and most of the men, in a studied attempt to act with the thoughtlessness of youth, dive off the club dock for the requisite purifying swim. The ageing athlete of “O Youth and Beauty!” similarly tries to recreate the feats of his college career, his one period of fulfillment, with fatal results. However touching these stories, their characters envision a shallow conception of the good life. Characters with somewhat higher aspirations continually lament Wordsworthian “vanishings,” intuitions that they have “lost or forgotten something” (p. 138). The frustrated wife of “The Season of Divorce,” who mourns her neglected linguistic and intellectual skills suggests some of the specific components of this vision of the good life. Sometimes the loss is more general, more anguished: an unhappy friend in “The Jewels of the Cabots” periodically calls the narrator to demand rhetorically: “We were happy, weren't we?” (p. 686).
Appropriately, because of the middle-class backgrounds of most Cheever characters, their visions of a lost golden age seem synonymous with recollections of actual lost gold. The nostalgia of Mrs. Beer in “Just One More Time” is representative: “Her father … had lost millions and millions and millions of dollars. All her memories were thickly inlaid with patines of bright gold …” (p. 248). Though recollections of high bridge stakes and Daimlers threaten to link her nostalgia with the reveries of former athletes for the days of their football glory, Mrs. Beer's vision is powerful enough to help recreate her lost world, however shallow it appears, and however cynical the viewpoint of the narrator. The success of the Beers may stem partly from the strength of their devotion to their past and to each other. Sometimes, even when members of this class retain their money, the moral universe it once made possible has vanished, and the nostalgia plays with these lost codes: Mr. Bruce of “The Bus to St. James's” sees his class as bewildered and confused in principle, too selfish or too unlucky to abide by the forms that guarantee the permanence of a society, as their fathers and mothers had done” (p. 284). Through a few adroit background details and through an exploration of the minds of selected characters, Cheever manages to suggest the changing economic, social, and ethical history of the American middle class.
Not surprisingly, the passionate nostalgia of Cheever residents is selective and necessitates the suppression of elements from the past, public or private, that might threaten their idylls. Just as Shady Hill dwellers prevented the establishment of a free public library in “The Trouble of Marcie Flint” because it might disrupt their community, in “The Country Husband” they seem “united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world” (p. 331). The protagonist keeps silent about an important wartime incident because the issues the story embodies would disturb without educating his townsmen. This limited use of the past motivates the narrator's brother in “The Lowboy” to “desire one solid piece of furniture, one object I could point to, that would remind me of how happy we all were, of how we used to live …” (p. 405). He ignores the family's actual history and is unaware that “the fascination of the lowboy was the fascination of pain” (p. 410) and that he has “committed himself to the horrors of the past” (p. 411). Insight into his brother's obsession causes the narrator to smash various heirlooms of his own and, like the protagonist of “A Vision of the World,” to reaffirm his commitment to the standards that should underlie an idealized world: “Cleanliness and valor will be our watchwords” (p. 412). This story and others present a negative image of the family past and its effect on the present. While family love may be the chief means for Cheever's characters to survive a chaotic present and to recreate a new eden, the family history, especially that of father and son or brother and brother, frequently makes such an escape necessary and impossible.
On occasion, familiar Cheever abstractions are made flesh, as when the loved wife and sister who emerge Venuslike at the end of “Goodbye, My Brother” seem to embody the narrator's conception of family love. In a variant of this, the protagonist of “The Pot of Gold,” who spends years seeking the literal gold, with its promise of the good life, that obsesses the imagination of many middle-class characters, finally achieves a special vision of his wife as the embodiment of the treasure: “Desire for her delighted and confused him. Here it was, here it all was, and the shine of the gold seemed to him then to be all around her arms” (p. 117). In “The Cure,” a husband who desperately attempts to embody his ideals of love and community in a less than perfect family and town to compensate for the horrors of the ordinary world ultimately claims success: “We've been happy ever since. … Everyone here is well” (p. 164). Though his triumph, like that of other protagonists, may seem too sudden or fortuitous to be convincing, the story suggests that the capacity to love permits a seizing and exploiting of the slightest hint as the basis for a powerful illusion. Another figure with such capacity is the alcoholic father of “The Sorrows of Gin.” Unaware that his young daughter has learned of “the pitiful corruption of the adult world” (p. 208), and perhaps incapable of admitting such corruption himself, he still believes in the possibility of suburban paradise: “How could he teach her that home sweet home was the best place of all?” (p. 209). Mixed with Cheever's irony is the implication that the strength of paternal love, tested here for perhaps the first time, may authenticate the illusion for a while at least. Johnny Hake, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” similarly escapes his accumulated miseries by “no more than the rain on my head—the smell of it flying up to my nose—that showed me the extent of my freedom” (p. 268). This power to free himself from the dark side of his past is as mysterious to Johnny as it may be to the reader:
And it was no skin off my elbow how I had been given the gifts of life so long as I possessed them then—the tie between the wet grass roots and the hair that grew out of my body, the thrill of my mortality that I had known on summer nights, loving the children, and looking down the front of Christina's dress. (p. 268)
This ability to fuse the sensations of the rain with positive recollections of his family into an acceptance of the world that acknowledges but does not dwell on its “dark” side enables Johnny to end his adventures “whistling merrily in the dark” (p. 269). Thus, human love, with its memories of flawed, but still desirable relationships, domesticates visions of paradise and reconciles characters to a less than perfect present. This love either displaces nostalgia or, more often, coexists symbiotically with it.
Powerful nostalgia for a shared family past makes possible the mother's epiphany that ends “The Day the Pig Fell into the Well.” At their summer home, as members of the Nudd family recall the events of a day long past, in the context of the present, the mother wonders: “What had made the summer always an island, she thought; what had made it such a small island? What mistakes had they made? What had they done wrong?” (p. 235). Yet, the very act of remembering mitigates, temporarily at least, her sense of loss: “The story restored Mrs. Nudd and made her feel that all was well … The room with the people in it looked enduring and secure, although in the morning they would all be gone.” Such a vision of a safe world, coexisting with an awareness of its transience, is perhaps all that family memories and a commitment to love can offer such seekers of paradise.
In some stories the characters' belief that they have approximated paradise counterpoints the cynical attitude of the narrator, who seems blind to the workings of family love or other mysterious sources of happiness. “The Worm in the Apple” shows how the suspiciously contented Crutchmans' who live “happily, happily, happily, happily” (p. 288), continually confound the narrator's assumptions that their existence is seriously flawed. Cheever's recent story, “The Island,” one of the few that does not depend on family love to generate its paradise, sets up a similar tension as the narrator learns that once famous people who, according to statistical probability, should have suffered unattractive fates, are now inhabiting a modified paradise: “The climate of the place was pleasant, but not so desirable as to put it on any cruise route or to support any hotels. Gale winds blew … in April or May, but this was evidently the only serious inclemancy.”4 The story is one of a small group in which entry into Eden depends not on family love but on some equally mysterious good fortune or innate capacity for happiness that allows the islanders to “have an easy time of it, reading the classics and eating shellfish.” Tension between the worldly or even cynical narrator's viewpoint and the unquestioning happiness of fulfilled family members or of dwellers on miraculous islands emphasizes that such achievements are rare enough in Cheever's world to generate disbelief and mock conventional expectations.
Even rarer is the ability of the artist to restore a vision of innocence to both himself and a responsive audience. “A World of Apples” focuses on an aged American writer living in Italy. Asa Bascomb, whose “work seemed an act of recollection” (p. 615) and embodied the healing power of memory. Bascomb achieved fame with his book The World of Apples, “poetry in which his admirers found the pungency, diversity, color, and nostalgia of the apples of the northern New England he had not seen for forty years” (p. 613). Because of Bascomb's reliance on the past, prolonged absence from these New England roots explains his cycle of obscene dreams, his compulsion to write pornography, and his conviction that the world has forever lost its innocence, but this painful experience does not destroy his belief in absolutes: with the characteristic divided vision of Cheever's characters, he sees a soliciting male whore as “angelic, armed with a flaming sword that might conquer banality and smash the glass of custom” (p. 618). This idealism explains Bascomb's desire to regain his youthful vision by visiting the shrine of a more authentic local angel who “can cleanse the thoughts of a man's heart” (p. 620). In a conclusion that seems to recapitulate all the key themes of Cheever's stories, the Protestant Bascomb visits the Catholic shrine, sees a single ray of light emerge from the clouds and, like other protagonists, invokes his private pantheon: “God bless Walt Whitman, God bless Hart Crane … Dylan Thomas … William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and especially Ernest Hemingway” (p. 622). The next day, his prayers apparently answered, he sees a waterfall reminiscent of one in Vermont where, as a boy, he had watched an old man “undress himself with the haste of a lover” and enjoy a kind of ritual cleansing, an old man Bascomb finally recognized as his father. After repeating the same ritual immersion, the aged Bascomb is able to write “a long poem on the inalienable dignity of light and air that, while it would not get him the Nobel Prize, would grace the last months of his life” (p. 623). The past, especially viewed through the sensibility of an artist and focusing on family love and an erotically rich bath, can renew Bascomb and reconcile him to the present, though as is usual in Cheever, it is a present this side of the Nobel Prize. Bascomb's ingenuity in fusing elements from his New England past, his literary career, and the Catholic context in which he now lives into a private code of existence typifies the spiritual eclecticism of Cheever's protagonists.
Bascomb's “paradise within,” transient because it exists in the consciousness of a dying man, exhibits neither the dependence on physical locale nor the reversion to youthful frolicking of some seekers of Eden. The mind of the artist is itself the source of its freedom and can dispense with even the proximity of loved ones that Cheever's fathers and husbands require, however elevated their commitments.
The “passion of nostalgia,” of Cheever's questors, both lovers and artists, is, at its most profound, a desire not only for the ease and delights of Eden, but also for the moral purity of prelapsarian man. Like Bascomb, or Francis Weed of “The Country Husband,” some protagonists willingly undertake rigorous disciplines to renew their visions. Another perceptive observer of the human scene, the narrator of “Brimmer,” sums up this view of “life as a perilous moral adventure. It is difficult to be a man, I think; but the difficulties are not insuperable” (p. 391).
With the exception of two uncollected pieces, The Stories of John Cheever (New York, 1978) is the source of all citations from Cheever's fiction.
Water exerts a strong effect on Cheever's characters, sometimes tempting them with the illusion of a baptismal cleansing or womblike peace they can no longer attain, sometimes satisfying these desires. For “Artemis, the Honest Well Digger,” “water was his profession, his livelihood as well as his passion. … Water was love” (p. 650). And the story begins and ends with “the healing sound of rain” (pp. 650, 671). Beach scenes in “Montraldo” remind the narrator “more forcibly than classical landscapes of our legendary ties to paradise” (p. 564). The suburban husband in “The Swimmer,” who plans to swim his way home via the pools of his neighbors, defines his desired intimacy with water as a form of creative homage: “The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty” (p. 604). That the swimming is a doomed attempt to recreate the illusion of happiness with his family in a presumably idyllic setting becomes increasingly clear to both reader and character. His failure echoes that of another husband in “The Seaside Houses,” who feeling “painfully depraved, guilty, and unclean” (p. 488), hopes that swimming will restore him to past innocence. Recollected water scenes in “The Trouble of Marcie Flint” have a strong erotic component: “now mixed up with my memories of the sea island was the whiteness of Marcie's thighs” (p. 295). Similar erotic connotations enrich the episode in “Metamorphoses” involving Nerissa, the repressed spinster who grieves so much because of her forbidden love that she turns into the swimming pool, “this watery home sweet home” (p. 547), where she and her lover had innocently swum. Though the narrator of the uncollected story, “The National Pastime,” stresses the practical significance of the rain that signals his freedom from traumatic baseball games, his imagery suggests the rich connotations of water: “A single drop of rain would have sounded like music.” (John Cheever, “The National Pastime,” New Yorker, [26 September 1953] 33). The story's climactic scene links the recollection of even violent rain to the vision of an idyllic refuge from pain: “the grainy light of a thunderstorm, when the clearness of the green world—the emblazoned fields—reminds us briefly of a great freedom of body and mind.” (Ibid., p. 35) These few selections suggest the rich pattern of water references in Cheever's stories.
For a detailed attempt to read this story as an ironic version of the Eden myth, see: Burton Kendle, “Cheever's Use of Mythology in ‘The Enormous Radio,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (Spring 1967), 262-64. A differing view appears in Henrietta T. Harmsel, “‘Young Goodman Brown,’ and ‘The Enormous Radio,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 9 (Fall 1972), 407-408.
John Cheever, “The Island,” New Yorker, 27 April 1981, p. 41.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5523
SOURCE: “John Cheever: The ‘Swimming’ of America,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982, pp. 180-91.
[In the following essay, Slabey compares “The Swimmer” with “Rip Van Winkle,” exploring the contrast between the dreams we live by and the reality we live.]
… the story of Rip Van Winkle has never been finished, and still awaits a final imaginative recreation.
Indeed, the central fact about America in 1970 is the discrepancy between the realities of our society and our beliefs about them. The gap is even greater in terms of our failure to understand the possibilities and potential of American life.
—Charles A. Reich
More than a century after Washington Irving described the Catskills as “fairy mountains” with “magical hues” produced by seasonal and diurnal atmospheric changes, John Cheever has taken that enchanted vicinity as the setting for some of his best fiction. In this continuation of Hudson River mythology, Cheever's territory, like Irving's, is somewhere between fact and fantasy, the mundane and the marvelous, “modern” life and ancient legend. And while both writers mix comedy and sadness, Irving's vision gravitates towards the first pole, Cheever's towards the second. They are both in the company of American writers who suggest the existence of a level—mysterious and mythic—beyond the middle range of experience and find “reality” at the crossroads of actuality and myth. In addition, Cheever's magical transformations have cultural roots in Ovid and Cotton Mather as well as in American Romanticism. Like Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Faulkner, Cheever has taken a region and a time and, without diminishing their importance, has made them stand for the larger meanings of American experience; he can see the meaning of the country in the way ordinary people live their daily lives.
In a career spanning five decades Cheever has published over one hundred short stories (most of them in the New Yorker), six story-collections, and four novels. A conscious craftsman and a brilliant stylist, he has encountered substantial success but only spare attention by academic critics. “The Swimmer,” a fifteen-page tale which will be the focus of the present study, is, according to its author, the product of two months work and 150 pages of notes.1 He is, I think, the most underestimated—and sometimes misunderstood—of contemporary fictionists: Cheever's mastery of art and theme places his best work in touch with basic forms of existence as well as in the center of our culture. He charts the peregrinations of American life—from town to city to the suburbs to Europe to “America.” His special theatre, however, is suburbia where the metamorphosis is not of Irving's sleepy Dutch into busy Americans but of work-day city businessmen into weekend “country gentlemen.”
On one level, Cheever's fictions are comedies of manners recording the objects and occasions of suburban life: supermarkets, swimming pools, commuter trains, thruways, cocktail parties. Behavioral nuances function as in manners fiction; for example, a “loss of social esteem” can be discerned when a hired bartender gives rude service at a party.2 In spite of satiric possibilities too numerous to be resisted, Cheever's primary impulse is not to ridicule the silly surfaces. He suggests and sometimes depicts loneliness and despair as well as mysterious and sinister realities. Suburbia is built over the abyss from which disaster and darkness occasionally emerge. For example, in Bullet Park a commuter waiting on a station platform is sucked under the wheels of the Chicago express; Cheever's reality here and elsewhere is closer to Kafka than O’Hara. He exposes the nightmare behind Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post “America.” Though Cheever's alma mater is the Romance-tradition, his vision (though not his style) resembles William Dean Howells's depiction of the troubled day-to-day existence of the middle class: people living on the thin surface hiding terror and violence and pain attempting to plug along with honor in a chaotic world.3 Cheever depicts the “more smiling aspects of life,” which (according to Howells) were the more American—and sometimes the more terrifying.
Cheever's people are ordinary, weak, foolish, shallow; for the most part lonely, sad, disappointed, inarticulate, they muddle through after barely avoiding catastrophe. But since they have a capacity for love and goodness, to their creator their lives are finally worth saving. Cheever has sympathy for his people but contempt for their false values. Life, he writes, is “a perilous moral journey;” the freaks along the way are those who have fallen from grace.4 William Peden calls Cheever “a wry observer of manners and mores [who] is more saddened than amused by the foibles he depicts with understanding and grace.”5 Cheever attempts to define “the quality of American life” or “How We Live Now.” His stories, according to Alfred Kazin, are “a demonstration of the amazing sadness, futility, and evanescence of life among the settled, moneyed, seemingly altogether domesticated people in [Suburbia].”6 John Aldridge finds Cheever “extraordinary in his power to infuse the commonplace and often merely dyspeptic metaphysical crises of modern life with something of the generalizing significance of myth.”7 Cheever's people, latter day neighbors of Irving's and Edith Wharton's, in class and consciousness closer to Howells's and Sinclair Lewis's, are revealed in the mode of Hawthorne, with the insight of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
One of Cheever's most famous, striking, and original stories, “The Swimmer,” elucidates his characteristic artistry as well as his version of American existence. The basic situation is well known: Neddy Merrill's impulsive decision to swim eight miles home via a series of pools. But by the time he has finished, years have passed and his house is deserted. Neddy's arrival home is an example of Cheever's suburbanite, here falling through the surface into the abyss over which his life has been precariously structured, while in other stories there are magical transformations. This abyss is the gulf between the fantasies Americans live by and the actualities they live in. Neddy makes the once-in-a-lifetime discovery that he has won the race but lost his “life.” The apparently self-confident conformist whose life-style is identified with his environment, he is a thorough creature of his culture. Neddy is, moreover, athletic in a culture that admires the summer of youth and innocence and suppresses the winter of age and decline. He has “the especial slenderness of youth. … He might have been compared to a summer day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather” (54-55). The purpose of his swim is to enhance the beauty of the summer day, but his experience turns out to be closer to Housman's Athlete Dying Young than to Shakespeare's young man. His newly discovered route home will be named the Lucinda River (to honor his wife), but it is actually to be a celebration of his own fading youth and an expansion of diminished possibilities.
The narrative begins on “one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying: ‘I drank too much last night.’” Sunday, an exception to the weekly routines and rituals, is a day of special peril in Cheever's fiction. It is the day people fall through the cracks in their lives.8 Like Irving in “Rip Van Winkle” Cheever describes” magical hues”: “It was a fine day. In the West there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance—from the bow of an approaching ship—that it might have a name. Lisbon. Hackensack” (54). Cheever's protagonist, along with Rip, is an avatar of the amiable good fellow, the shallow American who drinks too much and “lives” too little. He is first seen with one hand in the water of a pool and the other around a glass of gin. Not the lazy dropout, Neddy is an escapist and a dreamer (and part-time “pool bum”). He has material abundance, but that, he finds, is not enough; he shares with many of Cheever's protagonists a vague discontent. His escape from cares and responsibilities and from time is similar to Rip's, the cocktail party Ned's equivalent for Rip's pub. Rip's dream of a perpetual men's club has its correspondence in Ned's dream of a permanent poolside party. Both go on to have extraordinary experiences in the “enchanted mountains,” in a dream world of the past, the unconscious, and the imagination. There both men meet regional “natives” whose “hospitable customs and traditions … have to be handled with diplomacy” (56). Rip's overnight sleep covers two decades; Ned's long day's journey compresses several years. The Big Sleep becomes the Big Hangover, each signifying the central hollowness of each man's middle years, that American emptiness between Pepsi-Cola and Geritol.
Rip's encounter and sleep and Neddy's suburban swim are mythic experiences that have indexes in both psychology and reality. On one level, Rip's afternoon in the mountains and Neddy's swim saga epitomize their lives, each experience significantly initiated with drinking. While Rip has an aversion to all profitable work, Ned represses all unpleasant facts from his consciousness. Both time-travellers desire escape because of similar psychological inabilities to face adult responsibilities and to commit themselves to dull actuality. They want to leave behind everyday existence, domestic troubles, loneliness, advancing age. Like generations of Americans they have taken to the woods—to hunt, to fish, to camp out, to contemplate the wilderness, and/or to find the “real America.” Neddy's swim is obviously just a more domesticated form of woodcraft. He leaves Technopolis for Arcadia, the suburban for the sylvan, history for pastoral; but now the machine itself has been set up in the garden (in the form of the pool filter).
Irving's storied Hudson is replaced by the fantasied Lucinda, a “river” of swimming pools. Both “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Swimmer” contain mythic thunder storms and cyclic seasonal imagery. For Ned the starting point is a fine midsummer day at the Westerhazy's. Cheever, like Irving, moves from the mimetic to the mythic, managing subtle and skillful shifts from actual time and place to the world of nature and the imagination, time measured by sun and season instead of clocks and commuter trains. But the key to meaning in Nature's rhythms and rituals is lost to Ned as it had been to Rip. At the first pool where the apple trees are in bloom, Ned has already gone back even further than spring—to Eden which had been a “world of apples.” From here he progresses to the Bunkers' party where he is welcomed, to the Levy's where the party is over and the maple leaves are red and yellow, to the Lindley's riding ring overgrown with grass. Then the Welchers' pool is dry, the bathhouse locked, and the house “for sale,” prefiguring the end of his journey. Ned's most difficult portage is the highway where the motorists harass and ridicule him, but by then he has reached the point of no return. His desire for a drink is mocked when he is assailed by an empty beer can. To mobile Americans (as H. L. Mencken prophesied) Nature has become a place to toss beer cans on Sunday afternoons. But all those cars on the Turnpike are—if we believe Paul Simon—looking “for America.”
At the crowded, regimented Recreation Center the pool reeks of chlorine (in contrast with the pure waters of private pools) and Ned is subjected to the lifeguard's rebukes. America's natural resources have become crowded, polluted, and “collectivized,” trout-streams cut up and sold by the yard (as at Richard Brautigan's Cleveland Wrecking Company). Next, at the Hallorans, the beech hedge is yellow; Ned is cold, tired, depressed, and his trunks feel loose. It is definitely autumn with falling leaves and woodsmoke. At the Sachses he barely finished his swim and, desperately needing a drink, he heads for the Binswangers. The Merrills had always refused their invitations, but now Ned finds that he is the one to be snubbed. In addition, the dark water of the pool has a “wintry gleam.” Then after his former mistress refuses his request for a drink, he is exhausted and for the first time he has to use the ladder in getting out of a pool. Moreover, the flowers and constellations are unmistakably those of autumn (66-67). He is unable to dive into the last pools. Miserable, cold, bewildered, he weeps. He has been “immersed too long.” The temporal drift is ever downward, with summer, the time of physicality and material prosperity, giving way to the season of decline and decay. During his odyssey Ned loses a sense of time just as “his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend [Eric Sachs] had been ill” (64). His affair with Shirley Adams had been terminated “last week, last month, last year. He couldn't remember” (66). As he progresses only the journey itself has immediate reality.
During Neddy's swim, he loses everything—wife, children, home, friends, mistress, job, investments, youth, hopes, self. At the end he “had done what he wanted, he has swum the country” (67), but his house is dark, locked, and empty, recalling Rip who discovered his house abandoned and in decay and found himself alone in the world, puzzled by “such enormous lapses of time.” The Lucinda River, like the Hudson, represents time and change; the waterway of “light” and new beginnings becomes the river of darkness and despair. Cheever has carried the identity-loss, which Irving ultimately averted, to its finale. The constituents of actuality have slipped away. All that he thought he had is lost; all relationships have come to naught. He is left with emptiness. “Everything” was never enough: now it is nothing. While Irving's tale ranks not only as a classic but as a national resource for cultural reference, “The Swimmer” is no less rich and includes areas beyond Irving's attention.
Neddy is the depthless dreamer and organization man, but he also acts out the frontier myth of exploration, independence, endurance, and self-reliance. He even sees himself “as a legendary figure” (55). “Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny” (56). Another Columbus, he has only imaginary charts to follow. A pioneer, he confronts the challenge of nature alone. And as a pilgrim, his journey recalls Bunyan's figure who has numerous American facsimiles. His journey takes him westward, that most American and symbolic of directions. Neddy, however, faces not the primitive forces of the wilderness but pools, gardens, and highways. His pool expedition is a Madison Avenue packaging of Emerson's call to “enjoy an original relation to the universe,” his naturism just as ersatz as the nudist Hallorans reading the Times. By the 1960s the Frontier is something not lived but read about, a vision enriched by memory. Ned desires to go back in time and space, to move outward and inward, while an onerous world moves forward and downward.
Cheever omits the final movement of the archetype (Rip's reconciliation with the new life of the town), but he plays out the full, darker implications. The everyday world, re-established at the conclusion of “Rip Van Winkle,” is irretrievably lost at the end of “The Swimmer.” Irving created a legendary past (based on European myths) to enrich the texture of a raw, new present. Cheever imagined a mythic alternate to explode an unreal present. Irving's dream-world is, finally, not believed in, while for Cheever myth, dream, and the unconscious have more “reality” than objective existence. After 140 years, Cheever has replaced history, Irving's primary allegiance, with mystery. According to Richard Poirier the most interesting American writings are an image of the creation of America itself: “They are bathed in the myths of American history; they carry the metaphoric burden of a great dream of freedom—of the expansion of national consciousness into the vast spaces of a continent and the absorption of those spaces into ourselves.”9 By taking his protagonist outside of society and by moving his fiction into myth, Cheever has earned a place in the major tradition of American literature. Through action, image, and allusion he creates a literary, mythic, and cultural context. The Hudson, Concord, Mississippi, Thames, Rhine, Nile, and Ganges mingle in the creative consciousness.
In his fiction Cheever presents the symptoms of contemporary anxiety and ennui but only implies the causes. His men suffer from that American inability to make sense out of life that derives from a failure to recognize the unreality of their lives. They are, however, evidently tired of an existence that does not fulfill, of living without imagination. All of their life-pursuits—success, status, sex—ignore reality and are in fact fantasies. Freedom, happiness, achievement, and popularity are illusions. Substance is frittered away through absorption in detail. The suburbanite, above all, dwells in cultural deprivation, in a synthetic environment, with “neither the beauty and serenity of the countryside, the stimulation of the city, nor the stability and sense of community of the small town.”10 Ned has the civilized man's psychic need to rebel against his plastic surroundings and the organized world of logic, reason, and technology. Wanting to escape the familiar routines that have shaped his life, he seeks adventure, freedom, and peace in nature. Filled with euphoria and wanderlust, a need to expend energy and experience a richer mode of response, he wants to re-establish contact with life. “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition” (55). His attempt at renewal is analogous to mythicized sex, “the supreme elixir, the painkiller, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart” (66). His swim, moreover, expresses an artistic impulse, the attempt to do something unusual, to create an alternate reality. It illustrates the subconscious knowledge Cheever described in “The Seaside Houses”: “… we are, as in our dreams we have always known ourselves to be, migrants and wanderers” (180). Neddy's swimming the “quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county” (55) seems like a movement through the womb-like unconscious, the element of metamorphosis and rebirth.
There is also nostalgia for an old innocence, for the “forest primeval” and the “green breast of the new world.” Ned wants to start again, to make a new beginning and would swim nude if he could. His epic swim, like his morning slide down the bannister, is an attempt to slow down the encroachment of age. Youth is, as Cash Bentley in “O Youth and Beauty!” believed, the best time—the brightest and most blessed. With a typically American inability to accept imperfection, Ned wants neither to grow old nor to grow up; he regrets lost youth and fading machismo. His athletic prowess is his last valuable possession. A return to nature (“In the woods is perpetual youth,” according to Emerson, and going to the woods was, to John Muir, “going home”) also betokens a return to the “childhood” of America and to a simpler, more “real” existence. Neddy feels the need to believe in the myth of a Golden Age, a legend accepted as fact, and has the optimist's faith that all problems have solutions. Similarly the Lucinda River, like the Northwest Passage, exists, and all he has to do is swim it to make it real. The American, alone with a continent, invents his own environment, a self-sufficient New World of the mind. Leaving the here and now for the bye and bye, the American looks forward to the past and backward to the future. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visions of coming possibilities are translated into twentieth-century dreams of past actualities, past visions are accepted as real, present facts are rejected as false. In fine, dream and reality are not reconciled but confused.
In “The Swimmer” the American Dream becomes the creation of one's own reality—the dream of living out one's imagination. In the present the only way to start anew is via the imagination. With the closing of the Frontier, the dreamer-explorer is left with nowhere to go except “passage to more than India,” no guide to follow except the Transcendentalist injunction: “Build therefore your own world.” Ned shuts exterior malice out of his personal wonderland—a neighborhood Disneyworld sufficient to satisfy a middle-class “capacity for wonder.” He creates a myth of private satisfaction to counter a public despair. Though Thomas Merton did not have Neddy's plight in mind, his comment is applicable: “An investigation of the wilderness mystique and of the contrary mystique of exploitation and power reveals the tragic depth of the conflict that now exists in the American mind. … Take away the space, the freshness, the rich spontaneity of a wildly flourishing nature, and what will become of the creative pioneer mystique? A pioneer in a suburb is a sick man tormenting himself with projects of virile conquest.”11
Cheever's story, probably the most important use of the swimming pool in American literature, is an imaginative vision of American reality in its interplay of person and object. (To Cheever's people, of course, the pool is an index of affluence and status.) In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby the swimming pool is also connected with the protagonist's character and quest.12 Gatsby and Neddy are the lustrous but naive American fools doomed by time, mortality, and history. Both wish to achieve the transcendent moment when dream and reality are one. But both attempts at transcendence are foiled by transience, water in the pools symbolizing flux and mutability. Neddy's swim, like Gatsby's final plunge, is an encounter with that new world, but one already fallen. The dreamer is betrayed by reality and by his own dream. “The Swimmer,” like Gatsby ends with a deserted house in a Paradise garden overgrown with weeds. Gatsby's mansion is not only the millionaire's palace with an obscenity scrawled on the steps but also an epitome of Western culture. Neddy's, on the other hand, is the family domicile; it is revelatory, however, to recall that his swim included parties, neighbors, friends, and a mistress, but only casual references to his family, with whom his concern had been as shallow as Rip's with his. Ned suffers a contemporary Angst; having spent too much for recognition and success, he cannot face failure. His intended romantic escape from limiting reality moves from exhilaration to exhaustion to a painful confrontation with an inner void: empty house/empty life.
Neddy's personal dilemma has both psychological and cultural roots. His crisis of consciousness is shared by his culture for “The Swimmer” probes a trauma deep in the national character. The story of the American is, like the many adaptations of “Rip Van Winkle,” an “unfinished” story still awaiting its “final imaginative re-creation.”13 “The Swimmer” is neither rewriting nor updating of “Rip,” any more than “The Enormous Radio” is a modernization of “Young Goodman Brown;” both stories are re-visions of archetypal Americans and situations which link the destiny of characters with the meaning of American history. Like Irving's classic, Cheever's tale endures in the reader's memory with its artistry, its psychological impications, its cultural resonance, and its penetration of the currents of existence. Cheever, moreover, gives the reader many of the rewards of traditional fiction along with the peculiar pleasures of contemporary meta-fiction. There is more in this story about “How We Live Now” than in any other work of comparable length. Swimming has become a new metaphor for the westering impulse, as walking, trekking, floating, running, riding, fishing, and driving had served other writers. The quest for the real America (if one exists) is again an exploration of inward shores. Neddy's westward swim is into the eternal country of the imagination.
Cheever's characteristic stance, a mixture of apocalypse and celebration, despair with much of the contemporary world along with joy in nature and the imagination, may be seen encapsulated in a passage from “The Country Husband”: “The village hangs, morally and economically, from a thread; but it hangs by its thread in the evening light.”14Falconer, Cheever's prison-novel, a seeming deviation from his usual locale, objectifies dramatically his central idea of confinement. As with Dostoevsky, the prison is an epitome of society, but for Cheever the suburban town itself is a metaphoric prison: “spiritually, financially, we were the prisoners of our environment although if we had enough money we could have flown to some other … part of the world.”15 But it is not money that offers escape. As an answer to confinement in suburban artificiality, conformity, and dullness Cheever has offered the imaginative quest for pastoral freedom. His debut-story, “Expelled,” projected a Thoreauvian search for a natural alternative for society. And the first story in his first collection, The Way Some People Live, proposed swimming as an escape from social pressures. Cheever consistently associates the values of nature and the imagination, simple physical pleasures and dreaming because of their connection with primal reality.
Cheever's aesthetic credo requires that he present not the facts but “the truth;” his role is not that of the historian but that of the storyteller recapitulating “the verities.” His novels and stories are, therefore, less a depiction than an expression of his time. The fictions in Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel explicitly concern the writer's problem in rendering modern life in fiction:
Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death but even the mountains seems to shift in the space of a night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely women with a bar of sunshine in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale's cage. Just let me give you an example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can't find a comparable experience. … 16
The absurd events which he narrates in “The Death of Justina,” Cheever claims, could “only have happened in America today.” “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow,” the first and titular story in the volume containing “The Swimmer,” begins: “I would not want to be one of those writers who begin each morning by exclaiming, O Gogol, O Chekhov, O Thackeray and Dickens, what would you have made of a bomb shelter ornamented with four plaster-of-Paris ducks, a birdbath, and three composition gnomes with long beards and red mobcaps?” (1).
“A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear” in his next novel includes, as examples, the pretty girl at the Princeton-Dartmouth Rugby game, all parts for Marlon Brando, all homosexuals, and all alcoholics: “Out they go, male and female, all the lushes; they throw so little true light on the way we live” (Some, 169). The narrator of “A Vision of the World,” who finds that the externals of life have “the quality of a dream” while his reveries have “the literalness of double-entry bookkeeping” (217), wants “to identify … not a chain of facts but an essence … to grant [his] dreams, in so incoherent a world, their legitimacy” (218). He finally accepts the world in which he lives as a dream and the dreams he has as real. In Cheever's view, fiction is that intersection of “reality” and the imagination.
With increasing persistence he has commented on the challenges that the American fictionist faces today, suggesting that the “trumped-up” stories of generations of storytellers can never “hope to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream” (Some, 175). In his later work the discernible progress is into more innovative techniques and a bleaker vision. He has moved deeper into the darkness of the American funhouse. Many of his best later stories are self-conscious, reflexive, metafictional. Prose narrative forms, which date from about the same time as explorations of the New World, have always been journeys of discovery: new worlds and new modes of perception and new forms. Fiction is, as Lionel Trilling has said, “a perpetual quest for reality.”17 And for the postmodernist writer who gives new twists to the perennial conflict between ideal and real and to the “modern” concern with illusion, Reality itself is the primary theme.
The success of Cheever's fiction is dependent on his skill in placing fantastic incidents within a plausible context (or, sometimes, conversely) and in juxtaposing Westchester and Wonderland. His work, if read attentively, can alter the way we think about ourselves. Every incident is set within the history of a culture, a country not yet a nation, not quite completed, like the unfinished pyramid on a dollar-bill. He charts the demise of a life-style in a long day's dying. But Cheever sees the present blighted cityscape not as “the ruins of our civilization” but as a construction site, “the temporary encampments and outposts of the civilization that we—you and I—shall build” (Some, 3). John Cheever follows in the line of fabulist and mythopoeic writers, participating in the chief business of American fiction: the creation of American Reality. America—and Reality—are composed of change, flux, chaos, contradiction; Reality sometimes seems like a comedy of the Absurd.18 The American experience has been an existential encounter with the dark territory of a continent, with history, and with the self.
American itself is an absurd creation. Our writers have asked: Is it a place? a people? a fact? a faith? a disease? a nightmare? an idea? a moral condition? To Fitzgerald, France was a land, England a people, America an idea. Brautigan, who like Cheever, always writes about “America” suggests that it is “often only a place in the mind,” echoing Emerson's America: “a poem in our eyes.” At the conclusion of “Boy in Rome,” Cheever has his young American, whose planned return home has been foiled, remembering an old lady in Naples “so long ago, shouting across the water [to a departing ship], ‘Blessed are you, blessed are you, you will see America, you will see the New World,’ and I knew that large cars and frozen food and hot water were not what she meant. ‘Blessed are you, blessed are you,’ she kept shouting across the water and I knew that she thought of a place where there are no police with swords and no greedy nobility and no dishonesty and no briberies and no delays and no fear of cold and hunger and war and if all that she imagined was not true, it was a noble idea and that was the main thing” (Some, 161-162). From the coast of Europe “across the water” to the unexplored inner shores of America, the cycle begins again: from vision to reality to dream to fiction.
Lewis Nichols, “A Visit with John Cheever,” New York Times, 5 January 1964, p. 28.
“The Swimmer,” The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1965), p. 65. Henceforth all parenthetical page references will be to this volume. After completing the present study I discovered that Frederick Bracher had already suggested the “Rip” parallel. See Cortland F. Auser's citation in “John Cheever's Myth of Man and Time: ‘The Swimmer,’” CEA Critic, 29 (March 1967), 18-19.
This view of Howells is that of George Carrington in The Immense Complex Drama: The World and Art of the Howells Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966).
Quoted in Time, 27 March 1964, p. 67.
William Peden, The American Short Story: Front Line in the National Defense of Literature (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964), p. 55.
Alfred Kazin, “O’Hara, Cheever & Updike,” The New York Review of Books, 20 (19 April 1973), 16.
John W. Aldridge, The Devil in the Fire: Retrospective Essays on American Literature and Culture 1951-1971 (New York: Harper's Magazine Press, 1972), p. 236.
Lynne Waldeland, John Cheever (Boston: Twayne, 1979), p. 95.
Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 3.
Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), p. 9.
Thomas Merton, “The Wild Places,” The Center Magazine, 1, No. 5 (July 1968), 43.
See Milton Stern, The Golden Moment: The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1970), pp. 166, 169. One of Cheever's “Metamorphoses” narrates the transformation of a “nymphlike” young woman into a swimming pool.
Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931; rpt. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1953), p. 181.
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (1958; rpt. New York: MacFadden-Bartell, 1961), p. 67.
Falconer (New York: Knopf, 1977), p. 80. See also John Hersey, “Talk with John Cheever,” New York Times Book Review, 6 March 1977, pp. 1, 24.
Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), p. 2. Hereafter cited as Some in parenthetical references.
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1950), p. 206.
See Richard B. Hauck, A Cheerful Nihilism: Confidence and “The Absurd” in American Humorous Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1971).
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5055
SOURCE: “A Key Pattern of Images in John Cheever's Short Fiction,” in Studies in Short Fiction,Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 463-72.
[In the following excerpt, Fogelman examines the motifs of immersion in water, the breaking of a storm, and the journey through darkness into light in “Summer Theatre,” “The Swimmer,” and “The World of Apples.”]
“My work or a great deal of my work … is quite apparently of subterranean water, with wells, with streams, with a search for water, and with a sound of rain,” Cheever remarked to an interviewer in 1978, following the publication of The Stories of John Cheever. “I like to think it's in such humble matters, humble and profound matters as that, that we're sympathetic.”1 Indeed, the transforming and liberating potential of water is a central force in Cheever's stories, particularly in some of his best-known later works such as “The Swimmer” and “The World of Apples.”2 In these and some other stories, an immersion in water is combined with a summer storm and a journey through darkness toward vision to form a structural pattern whose significance, as Cheever himself suggests, lies in the way it is used to project a sympathetic vision of humanity, of its propensity for self-confinement and of its potential for freedom.
This pattern and its import are already much in evidence in “Summer Theatre,” the first story in Cheever's unreprinted and virtually forgotten first collection, The Way Some People Live (1943). This brief, relatively simple vignette presents a selfish, petty competition for rehearsal time between two directors of an amateur production: Sonia Giradeux, the dance director, and “Miss Cabot, who was in charge of speech.”3 After twice failing to win equal time for “the pageantry and the poetry, so to speak” (5) from the domineering Sonia, Miss Cabot, insulted and indignant, abruptly leaves the stage and goes for a swim. Alarmed because they cannot find her in the nearby lake and she does not respond to their calls (an ironic reversal of their failure to respond to her arguments), the cast concludes, presumably out of guilt for the way they have treated her, that she has drowned herself. Their self-imposed damnation becomes clear when Miss Cabot, unaware of their alarm and refreshed by her swim, returns to the pier where they are huddled and ingenuously observes, “you all look like something out of Dante standing there in the wind with those costumes on” (8).
The significance of Miss Cabot's separation from her fellows and of her swim emerges in relation to a counterpoint established early in the story between the largeness and freedom of the world of nature and the petty, enclosed, corrupt world of the human drama. Near the beginning, the martial rigor of Sonia's harsh commands and criticism is set off by echoes from beyond the stage: “Between her sentences they could hear the waves breaking on the lake shore” (4). And the conflict between Sonia and Miss Cabot is mirrored and diminished by the power of a rising summer storm:
“I don't give a god-damn what Stanislavsky said,” Sonia cried. “Get out! Get out, you old has-been! If I have to listen to that voice of yours any more, I'll go crazy.” She walked off the stage and threw herself into one of the deck chairs.
For a long time no one spoke. They noticed the wind. The lightning was brighter and more frequent. It lighted the empty bleachers, the fields, the lake, the group of deck chairs. (7)
Hence Miss Cabot's triumph at the end of the story is not that she has disrupted the rehearsal; not that she has finally (though unwittingly) vanquished Sonia and forced her to a kind of moral awareness—“‘Oh, God forgive me!’ Sonia cried. She lay on the beach, sobbing” (8); and not merely that she sees far enough beyond her own self-importance to be able to walk away from the conflict. Her triumph is that through her immersion she has been cleansed and liberated by an alliance with forces of nature that transcend the myopic pettiness, the confinement, of the human drama: “‘I'd advise you all to go in. There's really nothing like a dip before a storm. I don't know what it is. I suppose it's the wind stirring up the water. I suppose that makes the water more refreshing”’(9). She has returned not with vindictiveness, bitterness, or rage, but with compassion, offering others release from their self-imposed inferno. “like something out of Dante.” Cheever has also carefully phrased her advice here to avoid any taint of arrogance and contempt and to reflect a vision of humanity that figures prominently in all of his work: “The human condition is not tragic, it's constricting. The conflict between grossness and aspiration.”4
Another element of this characteristic pattern in “Summer Theatre” is a contrast between light and darkness. The story opens with the two combatants, Sonia and Miss Cabot, “in the centre of the outdoor stage in the glare of colored light,” and in juxtaposition with this artificial “sphere of intense light” (3) is the darkness beyond it, intermittently brightened when “lightning played on the clouds” (4). We soon find the morally ambiguous Sonia—even her name, “Giradeux,” suggests her duality—“with her back to the staff, half in the dark, half in the light” (3). But it is the heroine, Miss Cabot, who has the courage to plunge into darkness and returns (like Dante) with a clarified vision. While she swims in the lake where “‘It's too dark to see anything,’” the cast is “huddled under the one unshaded electric-light bulb” (8), and on returning she light-heartedly remarks, “‘I wish I had a camera to take a picture of you all standing there in that light’” (9). Miss Cabot alone possesses the moral acuteness needed to see beyond the costumes of the human drama and to recognize its resemblance to “something out of Dante.” The significance of the immersion in water and the storm reflects a central, continuing concern in Cheever's work: “Light and dark, very loosely of course, mean good and evil. And one is always seeking to find out how much courage, or how much intelligence, or how much comprehension, one can bring to the choice between good and evil in one's life.”5
In the much better-known story, “The Swimmer” (collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow nearly thirty years after The Way Some People Live), we find a remarkably similar patterning of images. The stage here contains a cast and setting larger than in “Summer Theatre”: an upper middle-class community on “one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying: ‘I drank too much last night.’”6 When we first encounter the story's hero, Neddy Merrill, part of him is entrapped by social convention, but part is already immersed in the water that will provide him the freedom of self-recognition: “Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin” (61-62).
An important quality that distinguishes Neddy (like many of Cheever's heroes) from his fellows is the imagination he demonstrates by devising his project, to swim home through a succession of suburban pools. His motivation is a unique compound of caprice, heroism, and inspiration: “He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty” (62). “Actually,” Cheever said of this story, Neddy's motivation is “quite simple: ‘I like to swim.’”7 The narrator tells us, ironically, that “His life was not confining and the delight he took … could not be explained by its suggestion of escape” (62). Indeed, in the course of his journey Neddy escapes nothing but is brought, rather, face to face with the unsavory realities of his life and his community. The illusions that veil them constitute the confinement he is unaware of before he undertakes his journey.8
Just as Miss Cabot's dip in the lake provides her with an enlarged and clarified perspective on the human drama through an alliance with the larger forces of nature, so Neddy's plunge is a return to nature that enables him to see beyond his initial illusions of freedom and well being. However, even as he sets forth, he is restrained by the conventions whose constrictiveness he cannot yet fully recognize: “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project” (63). Neddy's “natural condition” is strikingly set off later in the story by constrast to the condition of his friend Eric Sachs, whose symbolic link to nature has been erased: “Gone was his navel, and what, Neddy thought, would the roving hand, bed-checking one's gifts at 3 A.M., make of a belly with no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession?” (72). Tellingly, Neddy is also the only individual who actually enters the water in any of the fourteen pools he crosses.9
But for Neddy, as for Miss Cabot, it is not the immersion in water alone that effects a crucial transformation of perspective; that, in both stories, is catalyzed by a summer storm. While the wind before a storm “makes the water more refreshing” for Miss Cabot, for Neddy the excitement is in the storm itself:
Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings? (66)
Neddy's premonition of “glad tidings” is ironic, of course, since just before the storm, “He felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything” (66), but immediately afterward, he begins his movement downward to darkness as his illusions about himself, his life, and his community begin to leave him. His expectation “that he would find friends all along the way” (63) is shattered, and his vision of “Prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire-colored waters” (64) dissolves as he encounters signs of the abandonment and decay of this suburban paradise, derision from passers-by, social rejection, and reminders of his own and his neighbors' economic failures and personal tragedies. It is not long after the storm that Neddy begins to wonder, “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?” (67-68).
Neddy begins, in other words, with a conception of his life and his community as static yet unconfined, as unchangingly blissful, and he is forced to recognize the “unpleasant facts” of human nature and of change and decay. His shift in perspective is virtually guaranteed by the very medium of his undertaking, water—where it is most obvious that, as Heraklitus put it, “all things flow.” In “Summer Theatre,” Cheever uses the storm to mirror and diminish the petty conflict between Sonia and Miss Cabot and to catalyze the heroine's shift in perspective; in “The Swimmer,” the storm reflects and draws to a climax the conflict within Neddy between his constricted, unrealistic view of the world and his recognition of its “unpleasant facts.”
Through the combined experiences of an immersion in water and the breaking of a storm, both Miss Cabot and Neddy Merrill undergo a clarification of vision. Both characters, cut off in some way from their fellows, enter an alliance with nature that momentarily releases them from the confinement of the human drama and allows them to recognize it for what it is: “like something out of Dante.” They do not escape; they are forced to see. At the end of “The Swimmer,” then, when Neddy returns to his own abandoned and decaying former home, although “he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague” (76), it is a triumph nonetheless, for his journey has restored “his sense of the truth.” Though utterly desolate, he is no longer confined by his illusions or by the pretensions needed to sustain them.
Like Miss Cabot's immersion in “Summer Theatre,” Neddy's plunge also entails a movement into darkness, toward a personal illumination very different from the somewhat artificial light that his fellows bask in. His journey begins in the sunshine of what appears to be a midsummer Sunday morning amid his community's complacent chorus, “I drank too much last night,” but ultimately leads him to a vision of the darker realities of his community's way of life and of his own past. This transition into darkness is marked by the storm and is projected through images of a seasonal shift toward winter and of an unseasonably early onset of night.
Immediately after the storm, Neddy notices the fallen red and yellow leaves10 of a maple and feels “a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn” (67). He is subsequently stripped of his social pretensions (as the tree is stripped of its leaves) when the harassments of passing motorists and the bullying he receives in a public pool confront him with his own insignificance. At the next pool, the Hallorans remind him of misfortunes he continues to deny, and his illusion of the unchanging brightness and vigor of a summer morning is further ruptured by his observations that “He was cold and he was tired and the naked Hallorans and their dark water depressed him” (71; emphasis added). The Sachses then force him further toward an admission of the “painful facts … that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend had been ill,” and he finds himself removed, “across the road, the lawns, the gardens, the woods, the fields,” from “the brilliant noise of voices over water” (72). His pursuit of the “brilliant noise” leads him further into darkness at the Biswangers' pool, where he is snubbed by a social set he considers far beneath his own, and he is correspondingly puzzled by the fact that “it seemed to be getting dark and these were the longest days of the year.” Here, “No one was swimming and the twilight, reflected on the water, had a wintry gleam” (73).
This progression advances a step further at the pool of his former mistress, Shirley Adams, whom he has callously used and rejected, when she too snubs him. The contrast between the bright surface of her and her new lover's world—she stands at “the edge of the lighted, cerulean water” (74), and he is “in the lighted bathhouse, a young man” (75)—and Neddy's own step “onto the dark lawn” (75) further sharpens the demarcation between the glittering illusions he is losing and the darker realities welling up around him. At last he arrives home to find that “The place was dark,” and—no longer able to populate it with reflections of his own importance, social prominence, and impregnable well being—he “saw that the place was empty” (76). Thus, like Miss Cabot's, Neddy Merrill's journey beyond the illusory glare he and his community have lived by, into the selva oscura of “unpleasant facts” and “painful facts,” ultimately illuminates the confinement to which their pretensions have condemned them; it fulfills the purpose of Cheever's fiction: “to give a vision of life, to clarify the mistakes we've made.”11
This patterned conflation of key images in “Summer Theatre” and “The Swimmer”—the immersion in water, the storm, and the journey through darkness toward vision—is exploited fully once again in the title story of Cheever's last collection of new works, The World of Apples. The protagonist here is an American poet, Asa Bascomb, expatriated to Italy and now nearing the end of his life. The story's title is the title of his “most popular work”: “poetry in which his admirers found the pungency, diversity, color, and nostalgia of the apples of the northern New England he had not seen for forty years.”12 Along with the sensuousness captured in his poems, Bascomb's achievement is that “he had created a universe that seemed to welcome man; he had divined the voice of moral beauty in the rain wind” (165). Although this suggests that Bascomb's poetry celebrates an alliance between sensuousness and social convention, elements of nature and “the voice of moral beauty,” it also establishes the story's central conflict, between Bascomb's sense of moral probity—“his celebrated search for truth” (165)—and the “venereal pall or torpor” that suddenly besets him: “Obscenity—gross obscenity—seemed to be the only fact in life that possessed color and cheer” (166). The conflict is implicit in the very title of Bascomb's collection of poems (and Cheever's collection of stories), for “the world of apples” is a fallen world, excluded from the purity, simplicity, and innocence of Eden; it is a world of corruption and, even worse, a world where the awareness of corruption is inescapable.
Bascomb's struggle in the story is largely an attempt to pinpoint the source of this blight. “Was the gross bestiality that obsessed him a sovereign truth?” he wonders (167).
He well knew his instincts to be rowdy, abundant and indiscreet and had he allowed the world and all its tongues to impose upon him some structure of transparent values for the convenience of a conservative economy, an established church, and a bellicose army and navy? (169).
He concludes, finally, that moral virtue is founded not on artificial social conventions but rather on “the realities of anxiety and love”: “One could disparage them as homely but they were the best he knew of life—anxiety and love—and worlds away from the [obscene] limerick on his desk …” (170).
Significantly, the realities of anxiety and love are associated for Bascomb with images of light and storms—with memories of his late wife “Amelia standing in the diagonal beam of light, the stormy night his son was born” (170)—and the process of purification which frees him from his self-confining obsession entails a separation from his community that leads him through darkness toward vision, a storm, and an immersion in water. Without notifying anyone of his departure, Bascomb undertakes a pilgrimage to the shrine of the sacred angel of Monte Giordano, who “can cleanse the thoughts of a man's heart” (170). On his way, he falls asleep and awakens to the thunder of a storm that bears for him the refreshment it brings Miss Cabot in “Summer Theatre” and the excitement it represents for Neddy Merrill in “The Swimmer”: “It was the smell of damp country churches, the spare rooms of old houses, earth closets, bathing suits put out to dry—so keen an odor of joy that he sniffed noisily” (171-72). The purifying odor of joy in the storm itself is reinforced by a frightened dog and an old man who, when he meets them in a lean-to where he takes shelter while the storm passes, exemplify for Bascomb the simplicity and innocence he is striving to recover.
On reaching the shrine, Bascomb makes his offering and prays for his literary progenitors, then journeys through the darkness of night to attain the radiant vision he wishes to recover. He rents a room with a bed that seems to him
a strange engine of brass with brass angels at the four corners, but they seemed to possess some brassy blessedness since he dreamed of peace and woke in the middle of the night finding in himself that radiance he had known when he was younger. Something seemed to shine in his mind and limbs and lights and vitals and he fell asleep again and slept until morning. (173-74)
The transformation this has wrought in him becomes evident when, on his return the following day, he hears “the trumpeting of a waterfall” (174), whereas before this he felt that “The noise of falling water was loud and unmusical—a clapping or clattering sound” (161). And his process of purification is completed when, reminded of a day in his boyhood when he saw his father bathe below a waterfall, he repeats his father's action and steps “naked into the torrent, bellowing like his father. He could stand the cold for only a minute but when he stepped away from the water he seemed at last to be himself” (174). Like Miss Cabot's return to the pier after her swim, and like Neddy Merrill's return to his dark home and the bleak realities of his existence, Bascomb's return to his villa is “triumphant” because he brings with him a clarified vision of life and a spirit freed of its confining obsession; “and in the morning he began a long poem on the inalienable dignity of light and air …” (174).
It is not coincidental that all three of these stories are centered in a summer setting, for this season, too, has a special significance in Cheever's fiction that reinforces the impact of this recurrent pattern of images: “Summer, of course, means paradise; it means youth. … Summer is our sense of serenity, light, warmth. Summer is when we fall in love. … Felicity and serenity are perhaps the most fascinating ideas ever to cross one's mind.”13 Summer, in other words, is a time of heightened potential for a deepened understanding of ourselves, our relationships, and the lives we shape with elements of the world around us. Its promise of increased “felicity and serenity” provides a context for the crises which the protagonists of these three stories undergo and motivates the journeys that result in sharpened insight for them.
These recurrent images often have a similar significance in Cheever's other stories (and, of course, novels), although they do not always provide a foundation for structure and meaning as fully as they do in these three. In “Goodbye, My Brother” (in The Enormous Radio), for instance, swimming in the sea has for most of the Pommeroy family “the cleansing force claimed for baptism,”14 but for the gloomy Lawrence Pommeroy, the narrator's brother, it is only a threatening force of decay. After a purifying swim one summer afternoon, the narrator exorcises the part of himself that Lawrence represents when he bids his brother goodbye by hitting him in the back of the head with a root “heavy with sea water” (25).15 In another story in the same volume, “The Summer Farmer,” Paul Hollis has a heart-to-heart talk with his Russian hired hand, Kasiak, during a summer storm, but his compassionate interest lasts only as long as the storm and is reversed when, in the self-confinement of his paranoia, he violently confronts Kasiak with accusations about the poisoning of his children's pet rabbits.
In the title story of The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, the narrator, Johnny Hake, is released from the confinements of despair and crime by a summer shower:
I wish I could say that a kindly lion had set me straight, an innocent child, or the strains of distant music from some church, but it was no more than the rain on my head—the smell of it flying up to my nose—that showed me the extent of my freedom from the bones in Fontainebleu and the works of a thief. There were ways out of my trouble if I cared to make use of them. I was not trapped. I was here on earth because I chose to be.16
And in the well-known story “The Five-Forty-Eight,” collected in the same volume, Blake steps out of a commuter train and into a downpour, directed at gunpoint by a secretary whose need for love he has mocked by using her and turning her out. On his way out of the train, “He tried to summon the calculated self-deceptions with which he sometimes cheered himself, but he was left without any energy for hope or self-deception” (130). This is his night of reckoning, and he is stripped of his self-deceptions by being humiliated, forced by the secretary to put his face in the dirt, just as he has brutally humiliated her and others. The rain draws him past his illusions and his helplessness to a momentary sense of shelter, an uncorrupted attunement to the elements that he cannot place in the context of his present way of life:
He could hear the splash of water and see the lights reflected in puddles and in the shining pavement, and the idle sound of splashing and dripping formed in his mind a conception of shelter, so light and strange that it seemed to belong to a time of his life that he could not remember. (131)
And finally, at the end of “A Vision of the World,” in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, the sound of rain enables the narrator to translate into the language of consciousness the promise of the dream world that has obsessed him:
And I know that the sound of the rain will wake some lovers, and that its sound will seem to be a part of the force that has thrust them into one another's arms. Then I sit up in bed and exclaim aloud to myself, “Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!” The words seem to have the colors of the earth, and as I recite them I feel my hopefulness mount until I am contented and at peace with the night. (247)
Cheever's fusion of these images—the immersion in water, the storm, and the journey through darkness toward vision—into a meaningful pattern, especially in “Summer Theatre,” “The Swimmer,” and “The World of Apples,” is a key element of a style that has often been called lyrical.17 This essentially poetic device contributes enormously to the emotional impact of the stories and helps to convey Cheever's compassionately ironic vision of humanity, deprived of freedom by self-confinement:
The strong reprises … have been … the confinements of an improvised society and the thrust of life in determining to vary them. Escape is not the word one means. There doesn't seem to be any word for eliminating confinement. It is the effort to express one's conviction of the boundlessness of humanity.18
In the stories discussed here, the themes of confinement and the elimination of it are developed largely through this recurring pattern, which serves to depict “the emotional and spiritual landscape of people”19—precisely the role we would expect such a pattern to fulfill in poetry (one thinks especially of Frost's). Narrative coherence and characterization are subordinated, and each story builds toward a moment of heightened emotional insight, an illumination of “the way some people live”: Miss Cabot's vision of the Dantesque world she returns to from her swim; Neddy Merrill's closing recognition of his suburban heart of darkness; and Asa Bascomb's revelation of “the inalienable dignity of light and air.” Fiction, in Cheever's terms, “is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. … Acuteness of feeling and velocity have always seemed to me terribly important.”20
Conversations with John Cheever, ed. Scott Donaldson (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 172.
As Eugene Chesnick puts it, “At times one is ready to swear that all [Cheever's] characters are saved simply by being caught out in the rain. During events of significant emotional intensity we are almost always made aware of the rain outside or of water nearby” (“The Domesticated Stroke of John Cheever,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, ed. R. G. Collins [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982], p. 126). See also Burton Kendle, “The Passion of Nostalgia in the Short Stories of John Cheever,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, p. 230, n. 2, for a brief overview of water imagery in Cheever's fiction.
“Summer Theatre,” in The Way Some People Live (New York: Random House, 1943), p. 3. Subsequent quotations are cited in the text.
Conversations with John Cheever, p. 36.
Conversations with John Cheever, p. 159.
“The Swimmer,” in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 61. Subsequent quotations from stories in this volume are cited in the text.
Conversations with John Cheever, p. 149.
Robert M. Slabey perceptively characterizes the confinement of the suburbanites in Cheever's stories: “They are … tired of an existence that does not fulfill, of living without imagination. All of their life-pursuits—success, sex—ignore reality and are in fact fantasies. Freedom, happiness, achievement, and popularity are illusions. Substance is frittered away through absorption in detail. The suburbanite, above all, dwells in cultural deprivation, in a synthetic environment …” (“John Cheever: The ‘Swimming’ of America,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, ed. R. G. Collins [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982], p. 185).
Neddy's journey takes him through fifteen pools, but one, the Welchers', is dry. At the Bunkers' pool, “The only person in the water was Rusty Towers, who floated there on a rubber raft” (p. 64)—upon but insulated from the water. And in the chlorinated water of the public pool Neddy crosses, “scowling with distaste,” he is “bumped into, splashed and jostled” (p. 69) by anonymous, impersonal arms and legs.
See Nora Calhoun Graves, “The Symptomatic Colors in John Cheever's The Swimmer,’” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, ed. R. G. Collins, pp. 191-92, for a discussion of the significance of color motifs in this story.
Conversations with John Cheever, p. 36.
“The World of Apples,” in The World of Apples (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), p. 161. Subsequent quotations are cited in the text.
Conversations with John Cheever, p. 180.
“Goodbye, My Brother,” in The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1953), p. 14. Subsequent quotations are cited in the text.
See Samuel Coale, John Cheever (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977), pp. 62-63, and Kendle, pp. 220-21, for detailed discussions of the varied significance of the ocean in this story.
“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), pp. 28-29. Subsequent quotations from stories in this volume are cited in the text.
Frederick Bracher, for instance, points out that “The stories often have no plot, in the traditional sense. They are sequences of feeling, rather than casually linked events; they depend on the logic of the imagination to supply a felt unity” (“John Cheever's Vision of the World,” in Critical Essays on John Cheever, ed. R. G. Collins, p. 172). See also Samuel Coale, John Cheever (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977), p. 51; and Lynne Waldeland, John Cheever (Boston: Twayne, 1979), p. 117.
Conversations with John Cheever, p. 115.
Conversations with John Cheever, p. 146.
Conversations with John Cheever, p. 109.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4044
SOURCE: “‘The Country Husband’—A Model Cheever Achievement,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 577-85.
[In the following essay, Hipkiss examines the number of ways in which “The Country Husband” exposes upper middle-class angst and argues that the story is Cheever's most intense and best work of art.]
“The Country Husband,” John Cheever's 1950s story of the well-to-do suburb of Shady Hill, is a minor masterpiece of contemporary fiction.1 Consider how much of the upper-middle-class suburban angst it includes: the tension between the individual's emotional needs for personal, individualized recognition and the responsibilities he must exercise toward others; the brittle order of man-made conventions, undermined by the instinctive, chaotic selfishness of animal biology; the would-be hero's visions of an Elysian future fractured by the triphammer echoes of history; and, through it all, the terrible failure of human communication, with the resultant condemnation to loneliness and imprisoned desire of the imaginative suburbanite in an unimaginative land.
Cheever's studies of life at the apex of American middle-class culture are stories that depend less on plot than on images,2 and it is the mixture of the types of images that creates the richness of emotional awareness for the reader as he comes to know Francis Weed's Shady Hill. These types are the images of war, myth, music, and nature. They create in “The Country Husband” a prose-poem of broad dimensions and subtle intensity.
The war imagery begins with Francis Weed's fellow airplane passenger's reference to the Battle of the Marne after the plane has crash-landed in a cornfield. His attempt to develop conversation and an outlet for feelings after the life-threatening event is stifled, however, by “the suspiciousness with which many Americans regard their fellow travelers” (J. Cheever 385). Upon reaching home, Francis Weed enters a house that represents conquest in its Dutch Colonial exterior and its living room that is “divided like Gaul into three parts” (386). Francis's competitive business success has earned him his colonial estate in Shady Hill, but, like Gaul, it will be hard to preserve. His encounter with the barbarians, his children, quickly shows his own lack of sovereignty. The call to dinner, “like the war cries of Scottish chieftains” (387), increases the ferocity of the children. When his wife asks him to bring his daughter downstairs to dinner, he welcomes the chance to get away from the battle. Upset with the children's behavior at the table, he asks if they could not have their dinner earlier, only to find that Julia's “guns are loaded.” He protests that he does not like coming home to a “battlefield” and finally retreats into the garden “for a cigarette and some air” (389).
At the dinner party his own experiences in World War II are brought back to him dramatically by discovering that the serving maid is the same woman who had her head shaved and her body stripped naked by French villagers because she slept with the occupying German commandant. Once again, though, a reference to the barbarism in human nature is prohibited by the unspoken demand for blind belief in the invincibility of social order and decorum. “The people in the Farquarson's living room seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war …” (392). These are members of the successful upper middle class of our society, and they have sought and want at all costs to believe that they have found in Shady Hill an untroubled paradise, the appropriate reward for their labor and intelligence according to the values of a properly regulated Protestant American universe.
Francis cannot help but feel that more is involved in his growing sense of isolation than the failure of communication and sexual connection between himself and his wife. It seems to him that the forces of disorder that he feels within him are also the very forces that threaten Shady Hill and civilization in general. When he insults Mrs. Wrightson by telling her to paint the inside of her curtains black, he is not only counterattacking her busybody conventionality but suggesting that Shady Hill defends itself from the bombardment of fresh emotions by a kind of wartime blackout, ironically not really foiling the enemy but using the only defense it really has, its refusal to see the light. Yet, like the brigadier in “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow,” one of Cheever's later stories, although Francis may have a secret urge to see all of Shady Hill and its instinct-denying, nature-suppressing conventions blown to bits, he also recognizes that to give way to those warring impulses would be to destroy what he and the others of his class have so painstakingly created as a bulwark against the havoc that those forces can wreak. Julia makes that point so well that, unable to gainsay it, “he struck her full in the face” (403).
At the close of another party in the endless rounds of talking and sipping that Julia has scheduled them into, the host squeezes his wife and says, “She makes me feel like Hannibal crossing the Alps” (399). She gives him the man's necessary sense of conquest, although they have been married sixteen years. Sadly, all Francis can do is dream of such feelings, for his marriage has become an empty one of household arrangement, financial support, and the need to keep up appearances in order for the Weeds not to lose their social attractiveness. At the end of the story, after Francis has begun his woodworking therapy, we are told that it is a dark night (and in Cheever darkness is often the source of mysterious creation, of images that either threaten or console), “a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains” (410). Francis is at least free to dream of heroic conquest and sexual success. The romantic vision is his sole outlet for his frustrated, warring lust in conventional Shady Hill.
The war imagery emphasizes the brittleness of convention in containing the urges of the libido, man's drive to power and procreation. The mythological images suggest the fatal inevitability of the situation. As the passengers of the plane scatter in all directions across the cornfield, they pray that the thread will hold. The Fates have not fully spun that thread. Atropos is not ready to cut it. Later at a party, thinking of driving the babysitter home, Francis thinks the Fates are on his side: “The thought that he would drive Anne Murchison home later that night ran like a golden thread through the events of the party” (398). After having his hopes dashed and realizing the futility of his idealized love of Anne Murchison, he visits a psychiatrist. A week or ten days later he is still a seemingly conventional householder in Shady Hill, but it is now described as a village that “hangs, morally and economically, … by its thread in the evening light” (409). The American Protestant order is precarious, but for a time it holds, and that must suffice for those who live there.
The emblem of lurking Satanic disorder in Shady Hill is the god of ungovernable appetite, heroic power, and intelligence, the black retriever, Jupiter. That this Jupiter is a dog, an animal associated more with Jupiter's son Mars than with the supreme deity of the Romans himself, merely emphasizes that the natural impulses of freedom and dissolution are stronger than man's insistence on order and construction.
Jupiter's first appearance comes as he is crashing through the tomato vines in the Weeds' garden with part of a felt hat in his mouth, acting as a scourge on order and decorum. We are told that “his retrieving instincts and high spirits were out of place in Shady Hill” (389). He has an “intelligent” but “rakehell” face and the head of a heraldic symbol. He may be out of place in Shady Hill, but his lineage and type go back much further than most of that town's human pedigrees. The servants of the new aristocrats would soon poison him, Francis thinks, and immediately succeeds that thought with the vision of Julia blowing out the dinner candles in a parallel act of romantic defeat.3
Those candles, incidentally, are six in number and were lit at the beginning of the Weeds' chaotic dinner at home after Francis's return from Minneapolis aboard the emergency-landed aircraft. He had returned to his home, “his creation,” and found his wife lighting the six candles in a “vale of tears” (387). Man was created on the sixth day, and the problems the Weeds face are peculiarly human problems, not to be solved by romantic dreaming.
Jupiter has his human counterpart in Gertrude, the little girl, characterized as a “stray.” The best attempts of her parents to make her dress neatly and respect others' privacy go for naught because she was “born with a taste for exploration …” (397). Like Jupiter she retrieves objects (babies from cribs), and she is always where a person least expects to find her. She is witness to Francis's kissing the babysitter, much to his dismay, but, so far as we know, she never does tell anyone about it. She is, like a family dog, “helpful, pervasive, honest, hungry, and loyal” (398).
It is Jupiter who has the last scene in the story, prancing through the tomato vines, endangering the order of the garden, with the remains of an evening slipper (memento of parties and romantic escape) in his generous (often hungry) mouth (410). Jupiter enforces the theme of inevitable and enduring romance, of man's appetite for adventure, conquest, and love, which will not be suppressed by the conventions of Shady Hill. So Francis still dreams in the end of Hannibal crossing the Alps.
In Shady Hill “things seemed arranged with more propriety than the Kingdom of Heaven.” Passing the statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue during a work day in the city, Francis thinks “of the strenuousness of containing his physicalness within the patterns he had chosen.” Like Laocoön, who appears on the letterhead of his firm's stationery, he feels caught in the serpent's coils (397). The Trojan judge Laocoön broke an oath of celibacy to Apollo and later warned the Trojans not to accept the Greek gift of the wooden horse. Francis has been tempted to break the marriage vows and has also seen, perhaps too clearly for his own good, that the perfect order of Shady Hill is a kind of Trojan horse, an artifice that contains within its awesome structure the destructive, repressed desires of those denied their Hellenic queen. Serpents are also, biblically, the age-old symbol of sexual desire, and Julia's substitution of manners and party-going for love that is private, “sweet and bawdy and dark” makes Francis ripe for adultery and the mental projection of an ideal love into the vulnerable look of Anne Murchison, the babysitter. His repression also causes him to mistake an older woman wearing glasses for Anne on the commuter train and gives him a vision of Venus passing through on a train past his platform.
After insulting Mrs. Wrightson, “he thought again of Venus combing and combing her hair as she drifted through the Bronx. The realization of how many years had passed since he had enjoyed being deliberately impolite sobered him” (396). Some time afterward, Julia's response to his enjoyment is that he cannot expect to live “like a bear in a cave” as a resident of civilized Shady Hill unless he wants to be “a social leper” (403). The goddess of love, rampant and free, is not permitted in Shady Hill. Moreover, Shady Hill expects its citizens to be accepting and kind toward one another without discrimination, and Francis is beginning to see that such a waste of self upon its many fools and bores makes his own life less meaningful and satisfying (396). As the use of myth suggests, Francis Weed's frustrations are both biological and social and part of the inevitable state of civilized mankind.4
Along with the battle imagery and mythological references, Cheever provides periodic musical accompaniment, suggestive of Francis's and Shady Hill's unmet emotional needs. Music in the Weed home is specified by a Schubert waltz album set upon a polished piano rack, a part of the contrived House Beautiful setting that Julia has made of her living room. Music is first heard when Francis is in his garden after his “battlefield” dinner. The music consists of Donald Goslin's almost nightly performance of Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata,” and as he plays it, it expresses “tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity …” in short, Francis's own, feelings of the moment (389).
Julia too tries to escape loneliness, a key reason why the Weeds are such partygoers: “… if she had gone out seven nights a week, it would not have cured her of a reflective look—the look of someone who hears distant music,”5 the music of another party somewhere else (390).
After the conventional dinner at the Farquarsons' and Francis's recognition of the servant as the woman humiliated at the crossroads during the war, the appearance of Anne Murchison in his own domicile gives him a pang of recognition of her beauty and need for love as sharp and pure as “when music breaks glass” (392). Music here signifies the fullness of his need, the breaking point of his restraint, and the projection of his imagined fulfillment. That night he will dream of her “filling chamber after chamber with her light, her perfume, and the music of her voice” (394). After insulting Mrs. Wrightson, the point after which he must either retreat once again into conventional behavior or develop the hardihood of the social renegade, he realizes that the girl's “music” might lead him to a trial for statutory rape and feels caught in Laocoön's serpent's coils (397). When the music becomes a subject for prosaic thought, it has certainly lost the overwhelming force of epiphany. The sharpness of his need is now blunted by psychiatric consultation and his busying himself with “simple arithmetic” and the “holy smell of new wood” as he builds his own crucifix—in his case, a coffee table. The music that he hears at the end is that of Donald Goslin worrying the “Moonlight Sonata” once again. Francis has retreated, and convention has won, though he will still see in the darkness the vision of Hannibal crossing the Alps.
Throughout the story, in conjunction with allusions to war, myth, and music, nature imagery and its associated images of civilized containment develop the tension that Francis speaks of in the thematic passage where, upon seeing the statue of Atlas holding up the world, he “thought of the strenuousness of containing his physicalness within the patterns he had chosen” (397).
We are told in the first paragraph, with the description of the plane flying into the cloud that was so dense it reflected the plane's exhaust fires, that Francis had been in heavy weather before but never shaken up so much (385). The entire story is one of “heavy weather” for this frustrated, middle-aged suburbanite. The clouds reflect his own exhausting fires of middle age as he sits looking at them. The opposition of those fires to his own domestic situation is set forth in this scene, where we are told the exhaust fires blazed outside (among the natural elements of which fire is normally a part) while inside the plane “the shaded lights, the stuffiness, and the window curtains gave the cabin an atmosphere of intense and misplaced domesticity” (385). Curtains here suggest the willful, self-blinding artifice civilized man uses to shut away the vision of nature that threatens him. Here that vision reflects man's exhausting energies in an indifferent gray world. Curtains also perform the same service, or disservice, in the psychiatrist's office where they screen from view the void of the air shaft and screen in to the patient's view a waiting room that is a hollow representation of domestic bliss (408). Moreover, as indicated earlier, when he tells Ms. Wrightson what to do with her curtains, he is telling her that what Shady Hill curtains out is even more threatening than it supposes.
After the plane makes its landing in the cornfield, the corn and, later, the slum gardens ready for harvest show a fecundity that completely opposes Francis's recent recognition of his own nearness to death. At home the late summer sunlight is “clear as water.” There are roses on the piano and the smells from the kitchen are appetizing. His senses have been made keen by the overall experience, but the roses are only part of the decorative scheme in the living room, and the dinner is not enjoyed.
The gardens of Shady Hill are, like Julia's roses, an attempt to contain nature for private enjoyment in a restrained way. But like the Garden of Eden these gardens have their invaders. Jupiter crashes through the tomato vines in the Weeds' garden and through the roses in Mr. Nixon's. The squirrels haunt Mr. Nixon's bird-feeding station as well, causing him to cry out at this long-lived depredation in the fashion of a character in a morality play, cursing one of the Seven Deadly Sins or perhaps the Devil himself: “Rapscallions! Varmints! Avaunt and quit my sight!” (410).
After insulting Mrs. Wrightson, Francis feels thankful to Anne Murchison “for this bracing sensation of independence” (396). Although it is only a sensation, and one that will be short-lived at that, the birds sing and “the sky shone like enamel.” Even the smell of ink on the morning paper invigorates him. He knows he is probably undergoing “an autumnal love of middle age,” but that categorization does not diminish his feeling of arousal, of being now, for the moment at least, at healthy animal, ready to gratify his lust, expressing his feelings, sensorily and sensually awake at last.
The very next paragraph, however, puts a damper on the high spirits he describes. His secretary, Miss Rainey (like Francis's own the name is suggestive), sees a psychiatrist three mornings a week, and he wonders what a psychiatrist would say to him. His thoughts lead then to thought of legal censure and his own Laocoön-like situation. The would-be satyr finds himself contained within the social codes, and the scene shifts from sporting in the woods to the interior of his office with its reproaching photograph of his own children and the Laocoön letterhead (396-397).
The “moral card house” almost comes tumbling down upon him when he finds Anne in his house when he gets home. Once again her appeal is equated with nature's wholesome beauty: “Her smile was open and loving. Her perfection stunned him like a fine day—a day after a thunderstorm” (387). Then he is seen kissing Anne, but it is Gertrude who sees, and Gertrude is a kindred spirit who probably does not require the quarter he gives her to keep her quiet. He scares the little “stray” with a look that expresses “a wilderness of animal feeling” (398).
That same evening, as the thought of driving Anne home after the party runs through his head like a golden thread, as he talks, he already smells the grass where he will park to make love to her, “deep enough into the brushwoods to be concealed” (399). Two paragraphs later his wife tells him that the babysitter has been driven home by someone else. Just as he is about to surge outside the bounds of convention, propelled by animal lust and lured by romantic fancies, he is again stopped by the actions of one of the ever-watchful others in his tight little regulated universe of the work-to-home, city-to-suburb existence.
A former Boy Scout and one who believes in self-discipline, Francis tries to regulate his own bodily needs with exercise, but he only feels more toned up and ready for adventure. His senses, honed by the exercise, make the air seem to smell sharply of change. The “change” he finds, though, is merely the annual event, scheduled by his regulating wife Julia, of having the family photographed for their Christmas card. He is reduced to writing and tearing up love letters to the babysitter, writing—at Julia's desk—while the family waits for him with the photographer downstairs. We are told that “the abyss between his fantasy and the practical world opened so wide that he felt it affected the muscles of his heart” (400). The natural, physical world is both the source of his frustrated animal drive and the scene into which he can project only a fancied fulfillment. Acting like a combination of George F. Babbitt and Miniver Cheevey, Francis Weed fails in his private, fearful attempt to break through the bounds of human artifice and the web of obligations and social rewards that comprise Shady Hill life.
Francis is too timid, too conventional himself, to make the break. He cannot even effectively criticize his environment. It is not Francis Weed who catalogs the frustrations of Shady Hill. It is the only fatherless son in the community who does so, doubting Clayton Thomas, who tells Francis that the people drink too much, have pretentious houses (“all the dovecotes are phony”), clutter up their lives, fear change and “undesirables,” and have a future composed of more commuting trains and parties (401). Of course, Clayton is callow philosophically and emotionally, but it is Clayton, nonetheless, who makes Francis see the people and objects in his surroundings in their true colors, “like a bitter turn of the weather” (402). It is Clayton who will carry off Anne Murchison and escape the bounds of Shady Hill, and it is Francis Weed who will stay, more dependent on others' opinions and values than ever now that he is under the care of a psychiatrist. Francis is a would-be Hannibal who has never seen the Alps and whose only contact with the woods of satyr and nymph is his own touch on the “holy” wood that he is shaping into another Shady Hill living room adornment, nature refined and confined and unsatisfied.6
“The Country Husband” leaves its protagonist in a fragile equipoise that is remarkable for the concatenation of desires, inhibitions, fancies and facts that have inevitably placed him there. It is the imagery of the story, the images of war, myth, music, and nature, that makes us realize just how rooted in our humanity and our American value system Francis Weed's fate really is. This story is Cheever's art at its most intense and elegant best.
The story won the O’Henry award in 1956.
In an interview with Annette Grant, Cheever said:
I don't work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader's interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn't want to be boring … one needs an element of suspense. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, rather like a kidney. (Grant 51)
A somewhat parallel scene in the literature of the time occurs at the end of Tennessee Williams's play, The Glass Menagerie, where Tom envisions his frail, dreamy sister Laura by candlelight and says, “For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura—and so goodbye. …”
George W. Hunt finds the plot of the story paralleling in many respects Virgil's Aeneid (Hunt 274-280).
In James Joyce's story, “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy spies his wife on a staircase in the attitude of listening to “distant music” after a tedious family party. In Gretta Conroy's case, the “distant music” is the memory of a song sung to her by a young man who may have died for his love for her. The parallel suggests that Julia too has unfulfilled romantic dreams, undeveloped in Cheever's story, at least in part, because the story is told from the point of view of an unreflective husband wallowing in his frustration.
Susan Cheever's memoir of her father, Home Before Dark, describes the author's own unremitting conflict between romantic desire and conventional restriction in such a way as to suggest that Francis Weed is only a somewhat more inhibited and more heterosexual John Cheever (S. Cheever passim).
Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Ballantine, 1978.
Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton, 1984.
Grant, Annette. “The Act of Fiction LXII.” Paris Review 17 (Fall 1976): 39-66.
Hunt, George W. John Cheever, The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1983.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2328
SOURCE: “Cheever's Dark Knight of the Soul: The Failed Quest of Neddy Merrill,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 347-52.
[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet explore Cheever's use of Grail mythology in the characters, events, and settings of “The Swimmer,” and contrast Neddy Merrill, the selfish hero, with the traditional selfless Grail hero.]
Although critics, including ourselves, have noted many minor patterns throughout “The Swimmer” such as the color imagery (Graves 4-5), the Shakespearian parallels (Bell 433-36), the names (Byrne 326-27), an historical allusion (Blythe and Sweet 557-59), and the autumnal images (Reilly 12), all have overlooked the major pattern that dominates and hence illuminates Cheever's story. In 1967 Cortland Auser suggested that Cheever “created an imaginative and vital myth of time and modern man” that “uses the age-old themes of quest, journey, initiation, and discovery” (18). Auser, however, failed to note the specific myth that undergirds the story as well as the ramifications of Cheever's choice of that myth. A close examination of the characters, events, and settings of “The Swimmer” reveals that Cheever has patterned Neddy Merrill's journey on the familiar archetype of the Grail quest. In fact, Cheever includes so much Grail paraphernalia that he forces his audience to consider the contrast between Neddy Merrill and the traditional Grail hero. Only by recognizing this pattern can readers fully understand the story's final scene, that is, the ultimate failure of Neddy's quest.
Cheever immediately establishes the world of “The Swimmer” as a modern version of what Jessie Weston, author of the definitive study of the Grail myth, From Ritual to Romance, calls the Waste Land (12). Cheever's world is certainly one devoid of spiritual meaning and filled with materialism. Everybody from the suburban socialites to the priest have had too much to drink. Sunday is supposed to be a day of worship, but in Cheever's story a sybaritic, hedonistic lifestyle is what is revered. Throughout the story, in fact, the vast majority of the citizens do only one thing, party, and the main social ritual observed is drinking. Since, according to Weston, the cup is one of the two primary Grail symbols, and in this case it is used only for selfish enjoyment, Cheever is obviously underscoring how far his suburbanites have strayed from the original spiritual values espoused in the Grail myth.
In paragraph two Cheever introduces his protagonist in language that marks him as a potential Grail hero. Neddy Merrill is a “legendary figure” (604) with the feeling he is “a man with a destiny” (604). Cheever emphasizes that Neddy stands out because of his “slenderness of youth” (603) and his general physical prowess; he dives headfirst into the pool, demonstrating his swimming ability and showing “an inexplicable contempt” (604) for those who do not plunge into the pool, or who lie about passively. With four lovely daughters and a wife as well as a mistress, Neddy certainly possesses the characteristic of the Grail hero that Weston calls “virility” (23).
Like other Grail heroes, Neddy decides to set off on a perilous quest: “he could reach his home by water” (603). Here, though, Cheever makes a significant shift in the myth. Whereas most Grail heroes quest to restore the sick Fisher King (and hence regenerate the Waste Land), Cheever makes Neddy himself also the Fisher King. According to Weston, the Fisher King is the leader of society “suffering from infirmity caused by wounds, sickness, or old age” (20). What Neddy does not realize, but what Cheever makes clear, is that Neddy is himself aging: “he was far from young” (603) and “he might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one” (603). Cheever implies, then, the essentially selfish nature of Neddy's quest; he acts not for community, but self. That his ultimate goal is purely egocentric—eros, not agape—is stressed when he visits his ex-mistress to find “Love—sexual roughhouse in fact … the supreme elixir, the pain killer, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart” (611).
Separating from his social group, Neddy begins the initiatory phase of his journey by passing through the boundary of the Westerhazy hedge and setting out “by an uncommon route” (604). He must pass over “a thorny ledge” and cross hazardous streets (604). Along this “road of trials,” he encounters a series of traditional Grail obstacles. The unpleasantries range from “The gravel cut his feet” (605) to bartenders who snub him and hostesses who insult him. Typically, the Grail hero must encounter a dark tower. Appropriately, Cheever has Neddy swim close to the side of a pool to avoid colliding with the rubber raft of Rusty Towers. Later, at a public pool Neddy is threatened and chased by a pair of foreboding lifeguards “in a pair of towers” (608). Hearing a whistle, Neddy, momentarily disoriented as to time, thinks about the train station and the proverbial figures who dwell there, “a dwarf with some flowers … and a woman who had been crying” (606). Weston notes that women usually weep over the bier of a dead knight (49-50), but in Cheever the tears are probably for something no more significant than a male departing on a commuter train. When the archetypal storm with its thunder and lightning attacks him with lashing rain, a powerful wind, and an explosion, Neddy must seek refuge in the suburban equivalent of the Chapel Perilous, the Levys' gazebo. Weston details how Gawain “on his way to the Grail castle … is overtaken by a terrible storm and coming to a chapel standing at a crossways in the middle of the forest enters for shelter” (175). Grail knights usually find lighted candles, but Neddy in a shelter surrounded by the familiar Grail trappings of oak trees and fountains discovers only souvenir Japanese lanterns that Mrs. Levy had bought in Kyoto (606). Even the Chapel Perilous is filled with twentieth-century materialism.
Cheever also employs the Grail myth parallel between the world of nature and the world of man, a correspondence that Weston believes goes back to the ancient fertility rituals (1-11, 52-64). As the Fisher King, Neddy grows older and more feeble; simultaneously the day begins to dwindle and the seasons to turn from summer to autumn. The beautiful sunny skies are darkened by the storm. The temperature drops and Neddy begins to shiver. The maple now has “red and yellow leaves” such that Neddy thinks the tree “blighted” (606). The Lindleys' is “overgrown with grass” (606) and the horses are missing; Weston describes how the questor, after leaving the Chapel Perilous, often encounters a stolen “foal” (177-78). The Welchers' pool is “dry” (606). The Hallorans' shrubbery is also yellow and “blighted” (608).
During his quest Neddy is also aided by the traditional helper whom both Weston (175) and Jung label “the old man.” This figure usually appears, according to Jung, when the hero is in “a hopeless and desperate situation” (217). In the midst of “his most difficult portage,” Neddy, “close to naked,” must cross a hazardous boundary, Route 424. Standing amidst “beer cans, rags, and blowout patches—exposed to all kinds of ridicule” (607), Neddy is attacked with jeers and beer cans. Finally, just as his quest seems doomed to stasis, he is aided when “an old man … let him get to the middle of the road” (607).
Having firmly implanted the notion of Neddy Merrill as modern Grail hero in his audience's mind, Cheever also stresses what Neddy does not do as the Grail hero. According to Weston, one task of the hero is to inquire into the nature of the Grail, the purpose of his quest (14-15). What Cheever emphasizes, however, is that Neddy continually fails to ask the proper questions and to find suitable answers. Throughout his journey, Neddy is, as we have suggested earlier, disoriented as to the passage of time. He does not know what season it is, and in the back of his head he realizes he has a predilection for not thinking: “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth?” (607). As he stands beside Route 424, he wonders, “Why … was he unable to turn back? Why was he so determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger?” (607). Unable to voice these concerns, to ask the proper people, or to answer these questions on his own, he merely reponders them, never pursuing them to final truths. At the end of his journey, he is able to wonder only, “Was he losing his memory, had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget … details of his life?” (609). His constant state, then, is one of being “disappointed and mystified” (606), not enlightened.
To underline Neddy's unworthiness, Cheever continues to provide his protagonist with helpers, mysterious figures who try to get the questor to see the true nature of his quest. The second manifestation of the wise old man in this story is the Hallorans, who appear at the moment Neddy has reached his nadir. Jung stresses that the sagacious and helpful old man provides “knowledge needed to compensate the [hero's] deficiency” (217). Typically, Neddy must brave the perils to reach them: “The woods were not cleared and the footing was treacherous and difficult” (608). The Hallorans are old friends, but mysterious. In this twentieth-century Waste Land, they are thought to be communists, they sit around naked, and they have “an uncompromising zeal for reforms” (608). Unlike the other suburbanites, they are “not surprised or displeased to see him” (608). As their nakedness suggests, they are natural woods creatures who not only dwell in the “forest” but have the only pool fed by a stream. They try to force Neddy to see the truth about his life by bringing up his “misfortunes” with his house and children (609), but, of course, Neddy cannot grasp what they are prodding him toward.
Immediately after the Hallorans, Cheever introduces the disfigured man, still another helper who tries to turn Neddy's quest inward. Importantly, the Sachses are the only suburbanites who do not offer Neddy a drink; Eric Sachs had to stop after an operation. Here Neddy should be alerted to what excessive drinking can lead to, what happens when one is too much in the social swim, but no illumination occurs. His eyes are drawn to Eric Sachs's abdomen, where “Gone was his navel, and what, Neddy thought, would the roving hand, bed-checking one's gifts at 3 A.M., make of a belly with no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession?” (610). Obviously Neddy has been led into asking a probative question by the disfigured man, but he never relates Eric Sachs's obvious distance from birth to his own quest for youth—i.e., he is unable to see that his quest is doomed to failure. In short, as is his pattern, Neddy does not learn sufficiently, a fact confirmed by his jumping in the Sachses' pool, where, unable to recognize his physical attrition, he nearly drowns.
Next Cheever brings in another familiar Grail figure, the temptress. The sensuous woman to whom the hero is physically attracted, she is ultimately unattainable, and, according to Weston, she often reprimands the hero for his failure (169). As this temptress is sometimes called the Dame du Lac (Lady of the Lake), Cheever appropriately places Shirley Adams, Neddy's ex-mistress, by the “cerulean water” (611). Neddy apprehends her only in the physical—her “figure,” her “hair the color of brass,” and the fact that they once engaged in “sexual roughhouse” (611). In her bathhouse Neddy even spots his replacement, “a young man” (611), but he still does not focus on his own advancing age. In a key moment, temptress Shirley chastises him, “Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?” (611), but Neddy still cannot grasp the immature, selfish nature of his quest. On the verge of revelation, of asking the proper questions, Neddy spots an autumnal constellation and wonders why it is there, but all he can do is cry because he is “bewildered” (612).
At the end of the quest, according to Weston, the Grail hero arrives at the Grail castle, and, if worthy (proven by brave deeds and proper questions), he is granted a vision of the Grail; subsequently, the “freeing of the waters” occurs by which the Fisher King is healed and the land restored (Weston 21-33). At the conclusion of “The Swimmer,” however, a “stooped” and “hobbled” (612) Neddy arrives at his goal, his house, but is mystified: “he had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague” (612). Fittingly “the place was dark … the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands” (612). Unable to get in, Neddy peers through the windows for his vision; all he finds is “the place was empty” (612). What Cheever indicates here is that Neddy, caught up in the modern myths of Mammonism and the cult of youth, is an unworthy questor.
Ultimately, then, Cheever uses the Grail myth to reveal the ironic gap between his hero's selfish search for his own youth as well as materialism and the traditional Grail hero's selfless, community-serving quest. Neddy, the modern man, has lost his spiritual bearings and the life-saving waters are used solely for pleasurable swims.
Auser, Cortland. “John Cheever's Myth of Man and Time: ‘The Swimmer.’” CEA Critic 29.6 (1967): 18-19.
Bell, Loren. “‘The Swimmer’: A Midsummer's Nightmare.” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (1987): 433-36.
Blythe, Hal and Charlie Sweet. “An Historical Allusion in Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (1989): 557-59.
Byrne, Michael. “The River of Names in ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 23 (1986): 326-27.
Cheever, John. “The Swimmer.” The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978. 603-12.
Graves, Nora. “The Dominant Color in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 5.2 (1974): 4-5.
Jung, C. G. The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.
Reilly, Edward. “Autumnal Images in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 10.1 (1980): 12.
Weston, Jessie. From Ritual to Romance. NY: Doubleday, 1957.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3552
SOURCE: “Damned in a Fair Life: Cheever's ‘The Swimmer,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1993, pp. 367-75.
[In the following essay, Kozikowski argues that “The Swimmer” is a spiritual allegory owing much to Dante's Inferno in its subject and structure.]
Cheever's ever-popular, many-faceted short story, “The Swimmer,” accommodates various readings, particular and universal. Within its range of appeal, for instance, it has been read as suggestive autobiography,1 contemporary American Odyssey (Hunt 280-83), dazzling literary structure (Kruse 221), as a “midsummer's nightmare” (Bell 433), sacramental parody (Blythe and Sweet 393), realism yielding to fantasy (Blythe and Sweet 415) and Neddy Merrill dead in Hades (Cervo 49-50). I propose that the story, along with its literal and figural resonances, has the suggestive depth of a spiritual allegory in the fashion of Dante, whom Cheever admired, and whose influence he acknowledged affectionately.2 As a terse and grim Commedia, “The Swimmer” evinces a pattern of meaning that enlarges the story's autobiographical and epic mythoi to include an account of how Neddy Merrill's sad swim in his superbly affluent neighborhood reveals itself as an uneasy pilgrimage in hell, owing much in subject and structure to Dante's Inferno, which Cheever early in his career began reading quite routinely.3
Cheever, very possibly, was mindful of how his story's central metaphor reiterates a dramatic image pivotally located at the outset of the Inferno. The lost poet, trying to escape from the dark woods of sin, struggles to free himself from the worldly realm of evil to which he must ultimately return, and at a deeper level, pass through:
And as a swimmer, panting, from the main Heaves safe to shore, then turns to face the drive Of perilous seas, and looks, and looks again, So, while my soul yet fled, did I contrive To turn and gaze on that dread pass once more Whence no man yet came ever out alive (Dante 72)
The spiritual exhaustion of Dante's spent swimmer, in the throes of earth bound affliction, represents the condition to which Neddy Merrill arrives at the close of “The Swimmer.” What brings Neddy to that state is what Dante the pilgrim witnesses in his mystical journey through hell: subjection to secular infirmity in its repulsive, final formulation as deadly sin but parading, in Cheever's gloss, as bourgeois banality. Neddy, unlike Dante the pilgrim, is not exempted from such banality and proves ignorant of what lies behind it—as is also the case with his neighbors—a point that Cheever makes skillfully throughout his entire story and most poignantly, in Neddy's case, at its ending.
At the outset of his spiritual allegory, Cheever represents a world entirely given over to surfeit: “everyone … the parishioners leaving church … the priest himself … the leader of the Audubon group …” (603) are all afflicted with excess, symbolized by drinking too much. Since Judeo-Christian man by definition is a sinner, his only resource is to shed his infirmities as he moves forth on the way to salvation, the ars moriendi revivified in homiletic literature since Everyman. But Neddy's soul trek will be far less sobering. Accordingly, and with the prospect of enjoying his day, Neddy, as he sets about planning his swim “home” by means of the “river” formed by a succession of neighborhood pools, high heartedly has “the feeling that he was a pilgrim” in addition to being an “explorer” (604).
The day chosen for the swim, “one of those mid Summer Sundays” (603), clearly evokes Dante's pilgrimage, opening “midway in life's journey” (I.1) the starting point of the Inferno. In fact, this, Cheever's opening sentence, echoes Dante's opening line. The ingenious image of interconnecting pools that constitute a “quasi subterranean stream” (603) certainly recalls the continuum of waterways and lakes that form the great “river” of life (II.107) that Vergil and Dante follow in hell. Possibly, we might add, Neddy's “Lucinda River” (604), named after his wife, harkens back to St. Lucia, Dante's patron saint, who prompts Beatrice in the Inferno to keep Dante safe on this “river” of life (II.103 08). Neddy's “river,” like virtually everything else around him, however, is not what it appears to be. The river is interrupted, painfuly for Neddy—by hot pavement, cutting gravel,”treacherous” “footing” (608), among other physical discomforts—reminding the reader of the afflicted earth of well-heeled but deeply hurting Suburbia turned Superbia. The Bunkers' pool, built “on a rise” (605), reflects such presumptuous affluence, as do, earlier, the complaining party people at the Westerhazy pool, and the affluent community at large, who by their tiresome vainglory, reduce their previous night's gluttonous boozings to languid complaints about Sunday hangovers. Given over to such callow pride of life, Neddy, pumped up by his imaginative plan to swim home, envisions himself “a legendary figure,” and thus proudly dives into the “river,” only to experience a feeling of unfocused arrogance, which Cheever, with perfect bathos, renders as “an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools” (604). So much for the irascible passions of pride in the dim-souled digs of Bullet Park.
Soon, at the Bunkers', although he hears ominous, distant “thunder” (606)—perhaps an echo of the “heavy peal of thunder” that heralds Dante's entrance to the pit of hell (IV.1-6)—Neddy, like Dante, as if in dream, becomes, curiously, even more detached from the scene that threatens to engulf him. While at the Bunkers' he surveys many “prosperous men and women gathered … while caterer's men in white coats passed them cold gin” (605). Cheever describes here an envy that Neddy disguises as wistfulness: “Ned felt a passing affection for the scene, a disengaging tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch” (605). But as Neddy becomes recognized by all, and the gathering, although we don't know exactly why as yet, overzealously threatens to “surround” him, he rushes back into his river, anxious to resume “his voyage” (605). Curiously, Cheever has made Neddy—along with his reader—distant observers of the very action that subsumes him, in the fashion of Dante's narrator, who, seemingly engulfed by hell, remains safely disengaged from it. The chief difference, however, lies in that Dante's narrator and reader are instructed, and ironically edified, by the tormented souls in hell. But Cheever's “pilgrim” and afflicted suburbanites must remain in the dark—Neddy to his suffering, they to their own afflictions.
We might, then, wonder where in this world stands Cheever's reader, who knows virtually nothing of the main character, who himself knows little among people who speak negligibly, if at all, of him and themselves. As for Neddy's neighbors, saturated in various solutions of pride and envy, Cheever's vapid bourgeoisie share little more than their over-ready self-indulgence, torpid will, and self-preening respectability. Neddy, in this dismal state, despite his physical vitality, can remain just as “pleased” (606) drinking and swimming in the pool at the vacated Levy premises as he had been before at pools busy with such people, whose fellowship he, like the others, doesn't truly need but whose drinks he customarily relishes. The storm that finally arrives and confines Neddy to the Levys' gazebo brings with it a hint of autumn and death, as “red and yellow leaves” become scattered on the lawn. In the Inferno, storming rains signify gluttony, which, as the nearly prevailing affliction of Bullet Park, represents not merely overindulging in alcohol—Neddy, indeed, does “love storms” (606)—but also embracing such perversions of the tongue as idle, indifferent, or malicious speech. Enid Bunker, for instance, surprised by Neddy's visit, inanely screams to her guests, “Oh look who's here! What a marvelous surprise! When Lucinda said that you couldn't come I thought I'd die!” Neddy, comparably, when he speaks, has little of substance to say to anyone. Neddy, well supplied with either drink or watery words, by others or himself, continues his chlorinated, alcoholic pilgrimage, arriving at the Levys’. From that point on, Neddy will no longer be tendered an offhanded word or drink, although he has yet a good way to go on his “trip.” The Lindleys' overgrown, dismantled riding ring recalls the jousting ring in Dante's fourth circle of avarice where hoarders and spendthrifts bump against each other (VII. 28-36).
Such circular movements about, or variations between, avarice and prodigality, what Dante calls “Fortune”—because the riding ring is of no use—now no longer exist for the indigent Neddy, a truly ominous secular note. Fortune's wheel, in effect, has no turns left for Neddy. His worldly decline, further symbolized by the Welchers' drained pool, recalls the movement downward to what eventually becomes the “vile broth” of the Styx marsh in Dante's circle of discontent (VII.118). Cheever represents Dante's “ghastly pool” (VII.127) as the putrid public swimming pool. At the Lancaster Recreation Center no re-creation or redemptive moment awaits Neddy, who finds himself in turbulent “murk” (608), which threatens to engulf him with its human chaos. He gets by, having “reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River” (608). Subsequently, just as Dante's pilgrim eyes “those who gulp the marish foul” and reaches “at length the foot of a tall tower” with twin beacons (VII. 129-30), Neddy realizes “that he might contaminate himself” but swims ahead anyway only to find himself, a trespasser, detected by a “pair of lifeguards in a pair of towers” (608).
Neddy, like Dante in being unwelcome, is now entering the outer environs of the city of Dis, the dark and increasingly cold realm of hell (because most removed from the warmth of divine grace found in Heaven). Dante's twin towers, like Cheever's two lifeguards, are sentinels who seek to detect and repel intruders. To say the least, Dis proves disappointing. The unfiltered waters of the Halloran estate, and its “enormous wealth,” are impure (608). A venerable sort of Adam and Eve, now sitting “naked” in their “blighted” paradise, they deeply sadden Neddy (608). The old lady talks of his “sold house” and “poor children” (609) until Neddy, interrupting her, withdraws despondently. The Hallorans, quite like the inhabitants of Dante's fifth circle, are the inwardly mournful—the sullen, who, as Dante describes them, also appear “naked, with looks of savage discontent” (VII. 111). Her “voice filled the air with an unseasonable melancholy …” and Neddy “was cold and he was tired and the naked Hallorans and their dark water had depressed him” (609). His impressions intensify at the Halloran daughter's house, where he finds Helen and Eric with no drinks and Eric post-operatively with no navel—seemingly, with “no link to birth, this breach in the succession …” (610), a parody, appropriately, of his wife's, and mankind's, now Dis-connected, saturnine progenitors. Swimming in their “cold water and, gasping, close to drowning,” Neddy perversely promises that Lucinda and he “terribly” (610) want to see them, echoing Mrs. Halloran's being “terribly” sorry for Neddy (609).4 Terror, longing, and sorrow here blend effectively in this grim realm, where Neddy is brought down more, re-experiencing the unfortunate fall with Adam, Eve, and their sad progeny in the modern paradise of Bullet Park.
Continuing further into the dour realm of Dis, Neddy crosses “some fields” (610)—Dante, a valley—where he approaches the Biswanger estate, where an “enormous do” (610) is taking place. The throng gathered there, like the congregation of Dis, is “noisy and large” (IX. 64-72). This place is the nether land of the violently wrathful, as symbolized by Grace Biswanger, who approaches him “bellicosely” (610). She refers to Neddy as a “gate crasher” (610), evoking the image of the “gates of Dis,” through which Dante and Vergil are temporarily prevented from entering (VIII. 115-17). Presiding at Dante's Gate of Dis is Medusa, whom the poet's eyes scrupulously avoid. On the other hand, when Cheever's ungracious hostess accosts Neddy, he “did not flinch”: “As a gate crasher,” he asked politely, and with pathetic self-irony, “do I rate a drink?” (610) Turning her back to Neddy, she tells him to suit himself but then defames him before her guests: the demythologized contemporary equivalent of being turned into stone, Cheever comically suggests.
At this point in the Inferno Dante has Cavalcante de Cavalcanti—the father of Dante's closest friend, the poet Guido de Cavalcanti, like Dante, also esteemed highly by Cheever5—explain that all souls in hell are oblivious to the present and that they can but barely make out things distant—that is, from either the past or the future:
“We see,” said he, “like men who are dim of sight, Things that are distant from us; just so far We still have gleams of the All-Guider's light. But when these things draw near, or when they are, Our intellect is void, and your world's state Unknown, save some one bring us news from there. Hence thou wilt see that all we can await Is the stark death of knowledge in us, then When time's last hour shall shut the future's gate.” (X. 100-08)
This passage throws light upon the condition of Neddy, whose amnesia is neither psychological nor provisional, but, in the context of Cheever's Dantesque tale, profoundly spiritual and enduring. Neddy's “pilgrimage,” although ostensibly directed towards “home,” is actually oriented vaguely toward the “west,” where, as he reports, “there was a massive stand of cumulus clouds so like a city seen from a distance” (603). This infirm city, introduced early on in the story, contrasts, of course, with the proverbial city of God that has a “fixed foundation” (Hebrews 11:10). This “city,” which Neddy eventually experiences as a drenching cold storm, is allegorically Dis—his spiritual oblivion—which accentuates all the more his inability to know his past, future, and present. Neddy's ignorance renders him oblivious to the depths of his soul's degradation as much as it helps to explain Cheever's unusual narrative technique, which obscures as much as it reveals. Neither Neddy nor his neighbors are even faintly aware of their constrictions. This habit of artfully enclosing layers of thematic significance well within his narrative scheme was at the core of Cheever's idea of good writing:
I once got a phone call from a student. He said, “I'm having an argument about your short story, “The Swimmer,” with my instructor. I've got him right here, and you can settle it.” I told the kid that it seemed to me that a writer has a story to tell and should be granted a certain amount of innocence. Any story that is told is stratified and has all kinds of profundities if it's any good at all. It's like saying “good morning.” You can imply anything: I love you. You look awful. Drop dead. I can't live without you. And so forth. It's all in a very simple salutation. And this seems to me to be the privilege of the novelist. (Conversations 40)
Cheever, fully privileged and insightfully so, very cleverly shows us how Neddy's neighbors, in seeming to know more about Neddy's condition than he, are, in fact, like him, unaware of the dire limits of their mortality—and morality. They share with Neddy their impoverished self knowledge and deprived awareness of what lies about them.
Having little perspective on Grace Biswanger's malevolence—typically underestimating, even slighting, sin, Neddy understands her bitter hatred as being “worse than eating your peas off a knife” (611). Consequently, Neddy seeks consolation, again misguidedly, in “sexual roughhouse” with his “old mistress, Shirley Adams” (611). Remaining unfocused, of course, Neddy cannot recall whether they “had an affair last week, last month, last year” (611). His sense of the future is likewise dim: he believes that their anticipated lovemaking will indeed bring back “the joy of life in his heart” (611). Without any clear idea of past and future, like de Cavalcanti and all sinners, he is oblivious to the present. Although their relationship had ended, at his initiative, he believes that his claim upon her has “an authority unknown to holy matrimony,” and he is surprised to find her “confused to see him” (611). Neddy, however, has none of de Cavalcanti's suffering insight.
Dante reserves nether hell—with its last three circles and two rivers, Phlegethon and Cocytus—for those sinners who have committed various forms of fraud, from simple to complex. Neddy's affinity, unknown to him, of course, lies with those whose breaches of trust are complex: cheats and thieves are included among this group. Relatedly, Neddy's deception has been against his wife and against his mistress, from whom, we learn, he has obtained money injuriously. Cheever provides dialogue that is half stychomythia:
“What do you want?” she said.
“I'm swimming across the country.”
“Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”
“What's the matter?”
“If you've come here for money,” she said, “I won't give you another cent.”
“You could give me a drink.”
“I could but I won't. I'm not alone.”
“Well, I'm on my way.” (611)
The curt give and take here, by its diminished form, suggests all in the way of human connectedness, feebly wrought and worded as it may be, that Neddy can summon with another soul. We now know how truly alone Neddy, so completely from himself, has become.
The final circle of Dante's Inferno holds the souls of the betrayers, great and small. It is a dark, cold, even icy realm, which holds the souls of men, who like all the damned of hell, have no hope of salvation. As such, it represents the perfection of sin—accidia or despair—the sin of spiritual sloth. The condemned souls, locked in the icy waters of the Cocytus—“their teeth chattering like storks”—are filled with convulsions of remorse yielding icy tears and “helpless fury” (XXII. 35-36, 51). Neddy, similarly, finds himself now in a state of confused grief: “It was probably the first time in his adult life that he had ever cried, certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered” (611-12). Exhausted from his long immersions, and tortured now by the “icy water” of the Gilmartins' and the Clydes' pools, Neddy can barely make it to his house's driveway. Just as Dante with Vergil enter the final realm of Dis, which Dante, horrified, makes out to be “a shadowy mass,” Vergil stands aside, revealing Satan as not a being, but as “the place where thou must steel thy soul with constancy” (XXIV. 7, 21). Dante's final impression is suggestive:
How cold I grew, how faint with fearfulness, Ask me not, Reader, I shall not waste breath Telling what words are powerless to express; This was not life, and yet, twas not death; If thou hast wit to think how I might fare Bereft of both, let fancy aid thy faith. (XXIV. 22-27)
Neddy, cold and faint, finds his wife and his daughters gone, “the place empty”—his world lost. Neither alive nor dead, Neddy leaves us in his suburban void. The region of damnable betrayal in Dante has been transformed into the realm of superbly ignorant self-betrayal, which Cheever portrays as subsuming everyman thrashing about in the oblivion of his nowadays.
Speaking of Cheever's completion of the story and his own powerful reaction to it, Scott Donaldson observes, “Then he started to narrow it down ‘and something began happening. It was growing cold and quiet. It was turning into winter. Involuntarily. It was a terrible experience writing that story.’ He was proud of having written it, but it left him … feeling dark and cold himself. It was the last story he wrote for a long time” (Donaldson 212).
In Conversations with John Cheever, Cheever reflected, “My critical grasp of literature is largely at a practical level. I use what I love, and this can be anything. Cavalcanti, Dante, Frost, anybody” (98).
In The Letters of John Cheever, the author recalls “At night I read the Divine Comedy and the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt” (122). One study draws attention to the Inferno reference in “Summer Theatre”—“you all look like something out of Dante”—suggesting at what imaginative depth Cheever wrote very early in his career (Fogelman 463).
Cheever's italicizing terribly is particularly interesting in view of his account of how he felt after he wrote “The Swimmer” in observing that writing the story “was a terrible experience …” (Conversations 136).
Cavalcanti's name quickly came to mind for Cheever (Conversations 98).
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Hell. Tr. Dorothy Leigh Sayers Baltimore: Penguin, 1949.
Bell, Loren C. “‘The Swimmer’: A Midsummer's Nightmare.” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (1987): 433-36.
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Man Made vs. Natural Cycles: What Really Happens in ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (1990): 415-18.
“Perverted Sacraments in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (1984): 393-94.
Cervo, Nathan. “Cheever's The Swimmer.” The Explicator 50 (1991): 49-50.
Cheever, John Conversations with John Cheever. Ed. Scott Donaldson Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987.
The Letters of John Cheever. Ed. Benjamin Cheever. New York: Simon, 1988.
“The Swimmer.” The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978. 603-12.
Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton, 1984.
Coale, Samuel. John Cheever. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977.
Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever. New York: Random, 1988.
Fogelman, Bruce. “A Key Pattern of Imagery in Cheever's Short Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (1989): 463-72.
Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1983.
Kruse, Horst. “Parsing a Complex Structure: Literary Allusion and Mythic Evocation in John Cheever's Short Story ‘The Swimmer.’” Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 20 (1987): 217-31.
O’Hara, James E. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Hall, 1989.
Slabey, Robert M. “John Cheever: The ‘Swimming’ of America.” Critical Essays on John Cheever. Ed. Robert G. Collins. Boston: Hall, 1982. 180-90.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5163
SOURCE: “Gender and Structure in John Cheever's ‘The Country Husband,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1994, pp. 57-68.
[In the following essay, Dressner presents a deconstructive reading of “The Country Husband” concentrating on the comic structure, the contrast between the domestic and the wild, and the female versus the male role.]
“He struck her full in the face. She staggered …” (Cheever, “The Country Husband” 340)
“A deconstructive reading is an attempt to show how the conspicuously foregrounded statements in a text are systematically related to discordant signifying elements that the text has thrown into its shadows or margins. …” (Johnson 17-18)
On more than one occasion, John Cheever described his short story “The Country Husband” (1954) with uncharacteristic satisfaction. In a 1973 interview, he spoke of the “seizure of lunacy when everything comes together. That is, of course, the most exciting thing about writing. I totally despair [and then] observations, emotions, and so forth all of a sudden calcify.” A moment later Cheever called to mind an instance of this apogee of his experience of his art:
There is a short story of mine called “The Country Husband,” which closes with something like seventeen images, including a dog with a hat in his mouth, I believe, and a railroad train, and a star, and a cat wearing a dress, and a man and his wife, and so forth. They are all sort of thrown together, and it's quite marvelous. It is one of the most exciting things that can happen to anybody, I think. … I must admit it's very exciting. I run out of the room saying “Look! Look!” (Donaldson, Conversations 52-53)1
This story may indeed be seen as a marvel of structured complexity; its multitudinous elements, so casually “thrown together,” come to be seen not as random but as essential elements of an intricately organized structure, an aesthetic object, a work of art. While the story's ending, in which a number of earlier characters and themes are briefly remembered and loose ends are deftly tied up one after another in rapid succession, is the most dramatic display of the story's presumed unity in variety, its themes are echoed and repeated in variation and parody throughout its 10,600 words. Indeed, “A miniature novel” is what Vladimir Nabokov found it, “beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic underlacings” (Nabokov). Although the story has been repeatedly anthologized and is often described with admiration (Waldeland, Morace, Hunt), neither the extent nor the coherence of its “thematic underlacings” have been critically examined in a deconstructive reading that questions its structural and ideological unity, the foundational assumptions of its binary oppositions, a reading that asks: What is this work hiding? What is in this well-wrought urn?2
“The Country Husband” is structured as an elegant comedy, a farce with slapstick's precise coincidental timing. Many of its characters survive ominous but in the event harmless perils. The reiterated motif of narrow escapes leads readers to disregard those elements of the story that do not match or complement the pattern, structure guiding the hermeneutic impulse. The story's central action, its most dramatic potential disaster, concerns Francis Weed, the eponymous protagonist, who resides with his wife and their children in the Cheeverian suburban of Shady Hill, and who falls desperately in love with Anne Murchison, their 18-year-old baby-sister. Francis himself sees his infatuation as a potential disaster as it threatens him with “a trial for statutory rape” (335) and puts in jeopardy his marriage and his family's standing in their hypocritically unforgivingly moralistic community. In farce's exaggerated despair, he lists his alternatives: taking some physical exercise, religious confession, a Danish massage parlor, or “he could rape the girl or trust that he would somehow be prevented from doing this or he could get drunk” (344). He chooses none of these, but no destructive consequences materialize—for him. Indeed, he finds “some true consolation” in the basement woodworking which a psychiatrist had recommended.
The comic dénouement of the story's central plot is echoed by a series of thematic counterparts. The story begins when “the airplane from Minneapolis in which Francis Weed was traveling East ran into heavy weather.” The passengers variously cry, drink, contemplate their own mortality, and, whistling in the dark, sing; the plane lands safely, if violently, in a cornfield, and all aboard walk away unharmed. The passengers “filed out of the doors and scattered over the cornfield in all directions, praying that the thread would hold. It did. Nothing happened” (325-26).
It is typical of Cheever's artistry that that thread is picked up, so to speak, some 20 pages later when we learn that Weed's “village hangs, morally and economicaly, from a thread; but it hangs by its thread in the evening light” (345). Such repetition of images, as of thematic patterns, gives comfort, or pleasure, perhaps because of the implication in the world of the literary work that we are under the care of a providential power, one that remembers and does not change, one that does not permit threads to break, chaos to come. Cheever's practice—any such practice—necessarily conflicts with language's inescapably problematic relationship to the world to which it points, although seeing past the comforting allusions implied by balanced structures to those threads that indeed break requires the unusually critical attention that we now call deconstruction. Offered a circus full of obediently bouncing balls, if we are to see things clearly, we need to watch carefully for the balls that do not bounce.
Near the story's end, there is a parodic version of Weed's harmless fall from the sky. Young Toby Weed, underweight and readily overtaken by tears, seeking in his child's way to change his life, recapitulates his father's crash landing:
… he goes to the closet and takes his space suit off a nail. … He loops the magic cape over his shoulders and, climbing onto the footboard of his bed, he spreads his arms and flies the short distance to the floor, landing with a thump that is audible to everyone in the house but himself. (345)
Audible, but without serious harm to body or soul. Nor was there real cause for fear when “Francis gave his name and address to [the psychiatrist's] secretary and then saw … a policeman moving toward him. ‘Hold it, hold it,’ the policeman said. ‘Don't move. Keep your hands where they are.’” The policeman “began to slap Francis' clothes, looking for what—pistols, knives, an icepick?” The supposed danger disappears and is explained with farce's straight-faced directness: “Finding nothing, [the policeman] went off and the secretary began a nervous apology: ‘When you called on the telephone, Mr. Weed, you seemed very excited, and one of the doctor's patients has been threatening his life, and we have to be careful’” (345).
In this instance, the pattern of the comic, of the harmless and risible escape, deflects attention from the psychiatrist's other patient and his harrowing rage. Similarly trivialized into laughter and the aesthetic pleasure of repetition had been young Toby's unredeemed desperation and Weed's option of “rap[ing] the girl.”3 There is no comic reduction of the plight of Francis Weed himself: “It was his life, his boat, and, like every other man, he was made to be the father of thousands, and what harm could there be in a tryst that would make them both feel more kindly toward the world?” (344). Neither Francis nor the narrator of his story dwell on the needs or pains of others. Anne Murchison, the woman in question, as Weed well knows, is engaged to be married, nor does he have any reason to expect that she would welcome such a “tryst,” but Anne's function is limited to serving Weed's “love” and Cheever's art.
The paradigm of “heavy weather,” of threat, from which no harm ensues is repeated in the lives of minor characters, human, animal, and even vegetable. Jupiter, a neighbor's retriever, is, like Francis, “an anomaly,” “out of place in Shady Hill.” Of irrepressible high spirits, he cannot resist mischief. He goes where he pleases, “ransacking wastebaskets, clotheslines, garbage pails, and shoe bags.” Consequently, “Jupiter's days were numbered” (329), but at the story's end Jupiter takes his place in the parade of similarly anomalous survivors of Shady Hill's infamous propriety: “He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper.” A delicious slipper, no doubt, and who would spoil the neatly-structured party by inquiring after its inconvenienced owner?
“Sunk in spiritual and physical discomfort,” a “miserable” unnamed cat wanders into the story's closing parade and reprise of characters and themes. An anonymous keeper of the decorum thought necessary within the bounds of Shady Hill has covered the cat's unseemly nakedness and figuratively contained its proverbial propensity to libidinous expression: “Tied to its head is a small straw hat—a doll's hat—and it is securely buttoned into a doll's dress, from the skirts of which protrudes its long, hairy tail.” Like Francis himself, like Nora in A Doll's House, the cat has been tamed and “buttoned” “securely,” its sexuality made domestic if not childish, but, visible below this doll's dress is the hairy, phallic, protrusion whose presence signals a failed emasculation, another triumphant survival of an ostensible disaster.
In an early passage that embodies the story's essential paradigm, and whose imagery is also linked, tonally and thematically, to its closing page, Weed, and/or his narrator, notice the threatened but surviving flowers at Anne's home. Hand in hand they “went up a narrow walk through a front garden where dahlias, marigolds, and roses—things that had withstood the light frosts—still bloomed, and made a bittersweet smell in the night air” (332). The weather threatened, but at least for the time being, the succinct fact here, as at the opening airplane crash, is that “Nothing happened” (325-26), “things” survived. The marriage of Francis and Julia Weed survives the husband's temptation and the wife's supposed failings. Indeed, Julia never learns of the bracelet Francis bought for Anne, and when Francis forces Anne into an embrace, her struggle is interrupted, luckily for him, by the presence of little Gertrude Flannery, whose silence Weed purchases cheaply. True to the farce tradition, no sooner does Gertrude exit than Julia's voice is heard calling Francis to come upstairs to dress for that evening's party. The marriage survives as well the argument that develops when Julia discovers that her husband has insulted Mrs. Wrightson, Shady Hill's social arbiter: “‘Damn you, Francis Weed!’ Julia cried, and the spit of her words struck him in the face.” Francis insists on his need to express his feeling; Julia argues for discretion and vigorously describes how their lives and their children's lives would be diminished without acceptance into the social life of their community. Francis “did something then that was, after all, not so unaccountable, since her words seemed to raise up between them a wall so deadening that he gagged. He struck her full in the face. She staggered and then, a moment later, seemed composed.”
Although Cheever's narrator does what he can to justify Francis's action, Julia announces she is leaving. As she packs a suitcase, tersely, Francis apologizes and assures her of his love. Julia accuses him of “subconscious” cruelty to her. She sobs. Both argue with increasing vehemence. Dissolution if not disaster seems at hand; but when she announces her departure, Francis bursts out with “Oh, my, darling, I can't let you go!” He takes her into his arms, and the threat immediately disappears. Blandly, as if suddenly awakened from a dream she has already forgotten, Julia says, “I guess I'd better stay and take care of you for a little while longer” (340-42). No motivation for Julia's shocking volte-face is supplied, but its suddenness, its coming at the crucial, the very last moment, the mildness of its irony, and its completeness in putting an end to the threat, allow it to be readily drawn into the farce pattern of narrowly escaped disasters. The scene displays Julia to be tied to provincial and conventional thinking, meanly vindictive, foolish, and astonishingly weak-willed, but this repetition of the story's thematic pattern suppresses any nascent sympathy for the ordeals to which she has been subjected.
In addition to its structural use of the farcically narrow escape, “The Country Husband” repeatedly expresses, through imagery, incident, and diction, a tension between the domestic and the wild. The wild is figured as free, heroic, powerful, large-souled, and masculine, the domestic as confined, cowardly, weak, petty, and feminine. While the wild is preferable, the domestic is seen as necessary, civilization's regrettable but inescapable emasculation. The military, in which masculine freedom and power is regimented, ordered, controlled, is made a middle term between these poles.
Ridicule of domesticity, with varying degrees of scorn, often expresses the narrator's comic disappointment with a world out of joint, infected, as it were, with the tell-tale appearance of the feminine. Devoted to housekeeping and to assuring the family's social acceptance, Julia herself is an epitome of the domestic. She taunts her husband with what, to her, remains a crucial shortcoming. At their wedding, years ago: “And how many of your friends came to the church? Two!” (342). Her husband's habit of dropping his clothes, “all over the floor where they drop” (341), had become intolerable to her. Domesticity is gently mocked when the narrator notices in the interior of the airplane that crashes “the shaded lights, the stuffiness, and the window curtains [which] gave the cabin an atmosphere of intense and misplaced domesticity” (325). Later the waiting room of Weed's psychiatrist's office is
a crude token gesture toward the sweets of domestic bliss: a place arranged with antiques, coffee tables, potted plants, and etchings of snow-covered bridges and geese in flight, although there were no children, no marriage bed, no stove, even, in this travesty of a house, where no one had ever spent the night and where the curtained windows looked straight onto a dark air shaft. (344)
Among the thematically related participants of our story's concluding parade is Gertrude Flannery, who is defined and exhausted by her Dickensian attribute, her refusal to “go home.” The child's clothing is “ragged and thin,” and she herself is “skinny … and unwashed.” “She never went home of her own choice.” Gertrude's repudiation of the domestic hearth is not, however, a response to any insufficiency of domestic comfort or kindness. Like Francis Weed and his avatars—although she is female—Gertrude too “had been born with a taste for exploration, and she did not have it in her to center her life with her affectionate parents” (335-36). That she is female adds spice to the story's satiric rejection of Shady Hill's conventional domesticity and the femininity associated with it. While Cheever's approved male figures reject domesticity as a matter of course, this female who does so is seen as a droll sport, a paradoxical freak.
It is Mrs. Wrightson's insistent interest in her difficulties in purchasing curtains for her living-room windows that evokes Weed's bluntest expression of his preference for masculine freedom over the domestic narrowness of the feminine. Shady Hill's leading society matron and Weed, its potential “leper,” in Julia's phrase (340), meet at the commuter railroad platform. The woman chatters away about her living room windows: “You can imagine what a problem they present. I don't know what to do with them.” Her companion can stand it no more:
“I know what to do with them,” Francis said. … “Paint them black on the inside, and shut up.” There was a gasp from Mrs. Wrightson, and Francis looked down at her to be sure that she knew he meant to be rude. She turned and walked away from him, so damaged in spirit that she limped. A wonderful feeling enveloped him. … (334)
Weed's counter to Mrs. Wrightson's conventionally feminine and trivial concern for interior decoration incorporate the same conventionally masculine interests echoed through the story, black-out curtains being both the least decorative, least domestic, of all possible curtains, and an appurtenance of warfare.4
No wonder Weed feels triumphant as Mrs. Wrightson limps away! He has confronted his community's icon of respectable domesticity with his habitual resource, the spirit of machismo and manly camaraderic in its most concentrated form, war. Not a page in “The Country Husband” is without at least one explicit mention of war or battle, or a metaphor or allusion in which the idea is made present. Some of these references occur in the narrator's voice, others in Weed's voice or in indirect dialogue; some occur in that ambiguous terrain where the minds of the narrator and the protagonist—and even the implied author or Cheever himself—cannot be distinguished. Just as Cheever as author creates the twists and turns of the story's plot that suit Weed's desires, privileging and marginalizing characters and traits as Weed would do himself, so does Cheever as narrator give expression to Weed's reliance on the language and imagery of war. In effect, Cheever, or the implied author, “Cheever,” is both the narrator and the protagonist of “The Country Husband,” which is in effect a first-person account, related in the third person.
The first reference to war and its camaraderic occurs as Weed's plane heads for its crash-landing. Its pilot “could be heard singing faintly, ‘I've got sixpence, jolly, jolly sixpence …” (325). That an airplane pilot's voice should indeed be heard, however faintly, in the cabin of a commercial airliner, is not easy to credit, but the moment's and the song's connection with military camaraderic is quite conventional. When the passengers are led from the downed plane to “a string of taxis,” an anonymous observer reinforces the military parallel when he says: “It's just like the Marne.”5 While Cheever's personal war was World War II, the story's references conflate a variety of military conflicts. The Weed household's domestic tranquility is such that when Julia Weed asks her children to wash their hands for dinner, “this simple announcement, like the war cries of the Scottish chieftains, only refreshes the ferocity of the combatants.”6 When asked to go upstairs to fetch his daughter, “Francis is happy to go; it is like getting back to headquarters company” (327), the military refuge of the shirker of duty and risk Julia's “guns are loaded” for the coming argument with her husband, who speaks of his home as a “battlefield.” She repeats the metaphor in denying it and then the narrator, speaking for Francis, repeats it twice (328). In a moment of nostalgic reflection, Francis recalls a family outing and asking a bagpiper to play “a battle song of the Black Watch” (343). Toby Weed, conflating the Lone Ranger's gunplay with Buck Rogers, changes into his space suit from a cowboy outfit, complete with “silver bullets and holsters” (345). Cheever's supposed desire to engage in combat with his infantry unit (Letters 78, 106-07), becomes Francis Weed's memory that he has served and is transformed into the story's repeated references to wars American and foreign, contemporary, legendary, and historical, indeed, to a fantastic amalgam of masculine military imagery.
Francis dreams of “crossing the Atlantic with [a transfigured version of Anne Murchison] on the old Mauretania” (333). The “old” Mauretania was commissioned in 1907 and scrapped in 1935. It and its fated sister ship the Lusitania, were “the first Atlantic liners in which it was the invariable rule to dress for dinner in first class.” Both ships were as fast as they were luxurious. Both had been designed to be convertible to military use. The first Mauretania was used to transport troops and the wounded. The second Mauretania was commissioned in 1939 and retired in 1965. She was used as a troop transport and after the war she carried prosperous and celebrated passengers, such as Lana Turner and her bridegroom (Coleman 230, 13, 98-99, 103; Maddocks 160, 176). Weed's sexual fantasy is bathed in the composite, supposed glamour of high life, Hollywood, and the World War of his father's generation.
Neither the subtext in which masculine warfare's freedom and camaraderic contrasts with feminine domesticity nor the plot pattern in which farcical escape from danger dissolves pain into laughter always survive what seems the psychological needs of both the narrator and the implied author, or of that imagined composite the text tempts us to call Cheever/Weed. In two dramatic episodes those needs overpower the mode of the comic and override the neat balance of the male/female, free/domestic patterning. The first of these episodes concerns the new maid passing the drinks at the Farquarsons' dinner party. Weed recognizes her: A soldier on a three-day pass in the fictional French town of Trenon, he “had walked out to a crossroads to see the public chastisement of a young woman who had lived with the German commandant during the Occupation.” He remembers the formal accusation of the collaborator, her “empty half smile behind which the whipped soul is suspended,” her skull shaved clean, her nakedness, her tears. The narrator lets Weed meditate on memory and war, themes “the atmosphere of Shady Hill made … unseemly and impolite” (330-31). The French woman has survived her disgrace only to have become that most domestic of the domesticated, a domestic servant, literally, “a domestic.” Five times in a page, the narrator refers to her as a “maid.”
The French woman is like Weed in that both reject the constraints of social loyalties and responsibilities, but unlike him, she is pitied, not admired, for her independence and her assertion of her emancipation. Weed's recognition of her is rather the occasion for Weed to see himself as the suffering superior of his insensitive neighbors who “seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world” (331). The French woman has survived the disaster of rejection and punishment by her community, but there is no laughter at her remarkable transformation and escape into safety, no delight in her remembered rejection of her society's norms of behavior. Her rejection of the social contract parallels Weed's assault on Mrs. Wrightson, but such freedom from the constraints of community and family are in Francis's eyes available only to males. The French woman has survived, but only to serve cocktails and dinner in suburbia. Like Gertrude Flannery, her rejection of domesticity is not an occasion for admiration. It is rather a time for a vivid depiction of the denigration of a woman and the drawing of gender-based lines: rebellion is admirable when men do it. Women may be pitiable, as freaks or failures, but their unconventionality is not a badge of honor. The French woman does not have a place in the story's final parade in which “everything comes together,” and Gertrude only appears there to be scolded for being away from home. The story's supposedly unifying and unified structure leaves these escapes, these selves, out of the celebration.
Seeing the French woman again at the Farquarsons' evokes Weed's fantasy, complexly intertwined with his memories of military service in Europe, of taking the Mauretania to Paris with the babysitter. This in turn prompts a vision of skiing, the activity he sought “that would injure no one” and that helps him “seek … with ardor some simplicity of feeling and circumstance.” Weed's skiing on a “snow-covered mountain” is explicitly linked here with the primal relationships of man and nature and with “the mountains” of the story's last sentence: “Then it is dark; it is night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” This imagery is in turn glossed by an explicit reference to Hannibal's Alpine exploits: the Weeds' host says of his wife: “… I still bite her shoulders. She makes me feel like Hannibal crossing the Alps” (336). “The Country Husband” ends then with an allusion to the warrior who “ranks among those half dozen great soldiers whose work broke down barriers and cleared the way for larger ideas of civilization” (Baker vii). Mounted on elephants, his army crossed the Alps, outsmarting the Romans he outmaneuvered and outfought for many years, the thread holding, until he was forced by circumstances to abandon his position and his goal of conquest. The fabulous if unspecified “kings in golden suits” pick up the golden hair of a women who appears to Weed as an apparition (334), the color of the thread on which survival depends (336), and the gold of Toby Weed's pistol belt (345). But the multitudinous resonances of the dark night's parade imply a completeness, an exhaustiveness, a moral and structural integrity, that the story's tacit ideological hierarchy lacks.
The other major discordant episode concerns Anne Murchison's fiancé Clayton Thomas. To make Weed's pain at his loss of Anne particularly grievous yet absurdly funny, her fiancé is a pompous and insolent puppy. Weed's encounter with Clayton does not lead to another narrow escape but to disaster for the younger man. Clayton, who comes by on an errand and stays to chat, is capable of saying: “I think people ought to be able to dream great dreams.” His religion he says is: “Unitarian, Theosophist, Transcendentalist, Humanist.” He “thought of making a retreat at one of the Episcopalian monasteries, but I don't like Trinitarianism.” This embarrassing boy turns out to be Weed's successful rival, saying of Anne: “Oh, she's wonderful, Mr. and Mrs. Weed, and we have so much in common. We like all the same things. We sent out the same Christmas card last year without planning it, and we both have an allergy to tomatoes, and our eyebrows grow together in the middle” (338-39). Clayton, however, is special in that he bears the scars of the unspeakable, of war. His “father had been killed in the war, and the young man's fatherlessness surrounded him like an element. This may have been conspicuous in Shady Hill because the Thomases were the only family that lacked a piece; all the other marriages were intact and productive” (338).
No sooner is Clayton out the door than the argument begins that ends with Francis striking Julia. Soon thereafter Weed is asked by a friend of Clayton's impecunious mother to help her son find a job. Not only does Weed refuse the request, his damming characterization of young Clayton is patently unfair. Weed has his revenge. This thread has broken. The circle of those privileged to partake, without ironic denigration, of the special freedom from domesticity and conventionality associated with warfare has narrowed still further. It contains at last only the truly masculine: Francis Weed/John Cheever and those approved of by him, the dog Jupiter, and the unreconstructed cat.
“The Country Husband” ends, to Cheever's reported delight, on “a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” Francis Weed leaves the story not only as a survivor of potential disasters, but as a king and a great military hero. The last bricks of the story's “thematic underlacings” are slid into their elegantly appointed places. The joys of farce modulate to an equally satisfactory aesthetic calm, in the splendor of which the story's ideology and the unsatisfied needs and aspirations of others are forgotten, or present only in the fading memory of their punishments and marginalization.
When Francis Weed returns home after his airplane crashes, he finds his children “absorbed in their own antagonisms.” “Francis makes the mistake of scolding Louisa for bad language before he punishes Henry,” for which his daughter “accuses him of favoritism.” “Damn you!” Louisa had cried, but, “just then,” Julia entered, as if on cue, oblivious of the children's discontent, which immediately swelled into slapstick's domestic anarchy. Henry's well-earned punishment is forgotten in the comic confusion, but Francis finds time to harangue his other daughter for reading True Romance. “Damn you, Francis Weed!” Julia later cries, upset at his endangering the family's social acceptance in Shady Hill and his leaving his laundry for her to pick up as an expression of his disdain for her (340). Again the reiterated curse is forgotten in the tumult of the farcical reconciliation. The “heavy weather” that threatens Francis Weed blows itself out in a gale of laughter. He reigns supreme, and alone, in a golden suit, riding an elephant.
Cheever also called the conclusion of “The Country Husband” a triumphant moment when “totally disparate facts come together” (Donaldson, Conversations 109). And in his brief preface to the Collected Stories Cheever recalls the jubilant moment when he shouted out the last sentence of his story.
Robert A. Hipkiss, who calls the story “a prose poem of broad dimensions and subtle intensity” (577), is very alert to its structural parallels, less concerned with issues of gender and power.
There is a similar depreciation of a domestic servant in her third-floor room, “some lovely housemaid, some lovely, fresh faced, homesick girl from Galway,” at whom a neighbor's musical “appeal for love” is “aimed.” She contents herself harmlessly by “writing a letter to Arthur Godfrey,” her misery transformed for our pleasure by the echoing and devaluing “some” and the glide from Galway to Godfrey (329, 345).
Blackout curtains had gone up in every [London] home” (Moseley 23; see 386). See also Prentiss 185-87. In a letter of 1942, Cheever referred to the use of blackout curtains in New Haven (Letters 66).
The reference is to the dramatic and important requisition of over a thousand Paris taxicabs to carry French troops into a World War I battle (Hart 86-87, 115-22).
While the Highland chief's “portrait has usually been painted by the indiscriminating brush of romance,” Mackenzie says that the “average chief was inclined to be extravagantly vainglorious and unscrupulously ambitious in sentiment, and implacably revengeful and craftily treacherous in act” (222).
Baker, G. P. Hannibal. 1930. New York: Barnes, 1967.
Cheever, Benjamin, ed. The Letters of John Cheever. New York: Simon, 1988.
Cheever, John. “The Country Husband.” Collected Stories. New York: Knopf, 1978. 325-46.
———. The Journals of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton, 1984.
———. Treetops: A Family Memoir. New York: Bantam, 1991.
Coleman, Terry. The Liners: A History of the North Atlantic Crossing. London: Penguin, 1976.
Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random, 1988.
———, ed. Conversations with John Cheever. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987.
Hart, Basil Liddel. A History of the World War, 1914-1918. London: Faber, 1934.
Hipkiss, Robert A. “‘The Country Husband’—A Model Cheever Achievement.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (1990): 577-85.
Hunt, George W., S. J. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, MI: William Erdmans, 1983.
Johnson, Barbara. A World of Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
Mackenzie, W. C. The Highlands and Isles of Scotland: A Historical Survey Edinburgh & London: Moray, 1937.
Maddocks, Melvin. The Great Liners. Alexandria, VA: Time Life, 1987.
Morace, Robert. “From Parallels to Paradise: The Lyrical Structure of Cheever's Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 35 (1989): 502-28.
Moseley, Leonard. Backs to the Wall: The Heroic Story of the People of London During World War II. New York: Random, 1971.
Nabokov, Vladimir. “Inspiration.” Saturday Review of the Arts 1 (1973): 32.
Prentiss, Augustin M. Civil Air Defense: A Treatise on the Protection of the Civil Population against Air Attack. New York: Whittlesey House-McGraw Hill, 1941.
Waldeland, Lynne. “Isolation and Integration: John Cheever's ‘The Country Husband.’” Ball State University Forum 27 (1986): 5-11.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7969
SOURCE: “Cheever's Shady Hill: A Suburban Sequence,’” in Modern American Short Story Sequences: Composite Fictions and Fictive Communities, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 133-50.
[In the following essay, Donaldson examines how Cheever exploits the contrast between the turmoil of his characters' inner lives and the seeming tranquility of their outer lives in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories.]
Over the course of the previous half century, Vladimir Nabokov observed in November 1971, “the greatest Short Stories have been produced not in England, not in Russia, and certainly not in France, but in [the United States].” As examples, Nabokov went on to cite half a dozen personal favorites, with John Cheever's “The Country Husband” (1954) leading the list.1 Two years later, John Leonard declared his belief that “Cheever is our best living writer of short stories,” adding that this view was not commonly shared.2 With the publication of The Stories of John Cheever in 1978, however, everyone sailed their hats in the air. What the critics neglected to discover earlier, reading Cheever's stories singly in the New Yorker or in his smaller collections, suddenly became clear in the wake of this whopping assemblage of sixty-one stories. In fact, Cheever now deserved recognition, according to Stephen Becker, as “one of the two or three most imaginative and acrobatic literary artists” in the world.3
One reason it took the critical establishment so long to respond to Cheever was his propensity toward short rather than long fiction. He himself addressed the question of story versus novel on several occasions during the 1950s, a decade that ended with the publication of his The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), a loosely organized episodic novel, and The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (1958), a coherently constructed story sequence. Simply for economic reasons, he understood that he must write novels. He also knew that a novel could do more than earn money: It could attract more serious attention than a book of stories. Circumstances proved the point. The Wapshot Chronicle won the National Book Award, and stayed in print for decades. The Housebreaker of Shady Hill generated some of the worst reviews of his life and soon disappeared from the bookstores.
Cheever was forty-five and had been writing stories for a quarter of a century before Chronicle, his first novel, was published. Many of his earliest stories were extremely brief, little more than sketches, and he omitted from his 1978 collection everything he wrote before the end of World War II. After the war he quickly found his stride as a writer of short stories, producing such excellent examples as “The Enormous Radio” (1947), “Torch Song” (1947), and “Goodbye, My Brother” (1951).4 In 1951, he moved from Manhattan to suburban Westchester County, first to settle in Scarborough (until 1961) and then in nearby Ossining. There he began soaking up the atmosphere and discovering the trials of the characters who would populate Shady Hill, while struggling to complete the novel that had long been promised to his publisher. In effect he wrote Shady Hill and Chronicle at the same time, between 1953 and 1957. At the beginning of that period, Cheever publicly stated his preference for the short story. The novel, he felt, depended upon a stable social ambience rarely encountered in modern life. As a result, it was an artificial form, “unless you're living in Army installations or in a community that's fairly anachronistic.” The short story, on the other hand, was “determined by moving around from place to place, by the interrupted event,”5 and so ideally suited the unsettled nature of contemporary existence. Stories also carried a kind of concentrated energy that the novel, with its sustained length, could hardly match.
By 1958, after the publication of both Chronicle and Shady Hill, Cheever apparently changed his mind. He was still “interested in the short story form,” he acknowledged, but generally it was better suited to “young writers, who are more intense, whose perceptions are more fragmentary.”6 Yet whether he was writing a novel or a story, Cheever felt acutely the confusion of modern life. Some reviewers of Chronicle took him to task for not supplying a linear plot, but such plotting, he believed, would be false to the chaos he witnessed everywhere around him. In his “The Death of Justina” (1960), for example, the narrator begins with a reflection on the purpose of fiction. “Fiction is art and art is the triumph of over chaos (no less)” yet it was terribly easy for the artist to go wrong in an environment where “even the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night.”7 Cheever's task, as Robert A. Morace has succinctly expressed it, was to “write about such a world in a way that will take account of the incoherence without succumbing to it.”8 Nowhere did he succeed more brilliantly than in Shady Hill, a book about people who inhabit an outwardly manicured but internally hangnailed community.
Considering that it included four of his best stories—the title story, “O Youth and Beauty!” (1953), “The Country Husband,” and “The Five-Forty-Eight” (1954)— Shady Hill was very badly reviewed. With few exceptions, reviewers criticized the stories for a presumed lack of moral depth, for appealing too directly to the comfortable upper-middle-class readership of the New Yorker (where seven of the eight stories originally appeared), and above all for their focus on a suburban milieu. Some damned him with snide praise. He was the “Dante of the cocktail hour” or “the poet of the exurbs” foolishly trying to invest the lives of “the country-club set” with significance. The general assumption was that those people, and the communities where they chose to reside, were dull, conformist, wealthy, and unworthy of fictional representation. Whatever miseries befell suburbanites might produce sadness, but never tragedy. As Richard Gilman expressed it, “Cheever's women are always loved for their blondeness or bosom line and his men because they are lithe. They have a nostalgic need for mountains (not high), sailboats at twilight and tennis with new balls.” As against the stereotype of the spoiled and immature suburbanite lodged in Gilman's head, it hardly mattered that Cheever never created a character with an interest in tennis, whether with new balls or old, and that several of the protagonists of Shady Hill face financial crises. Apparently working from the same preconceptions, the distinguished critic Irving Howe labeled Cheever a “toothless Thurber” who “connive[d] in the cowardice of contemporary life.” Herbert Mitgang in the daily New York Times offered a rare exception to this pattern of disparagement. Shady Hill, he wrote, presented “a diagnosis of a particular form of community life, at once striving and brave, melancholy and humorous.” But the critical consensus, as articulated by Robert Kirsch, was that Cheever should “say goodbye to Shady Hill for a good long time.” The place and its inhabitants were not worthy of his “unquestioned ability.”9
Considering the prevailing climate of scorn for the suburbs, it is not surprising that so few of our best writers have chosen to focus their attention in that direction. In effect, demographic lag operates in our fiction. Up until 1925 or so, most major American writing concentrated its gaze on rural or small-town settings, though the nation itself was rapidly urbanizing. Then, during the last half century, the fictional scene shifted to the cities, while one-third of a nation was deserting to the suburbs. One of the writers who followed that migration was John Cheever, and it was the most natural thing in the world that he should begin to write about the people and events he encountered there. With the publication of Shady Hill in September 1958, he became fixed in the public mind as a chronicler of suburban life. For the previous two decades he had been writing about city dwellers, and he later went on to write about American expatriates in Italy and the inmates of Falconer prison. Nonetheless, for better or worse, he was categorized as the John Cheever who wrote those “Connecticut” (actually Westchester, though Shady Hill or Proxmire Manor or Bullet Park might just as well have been stops on the New Haven line as on the Hudson) stories for the New Yorker.10 What was not generally recognized was the depth and sophistication of his understanding of what went on in those communities.
As well as anyone, Cheever knew that such places sometimes deserved derision for their materialism and conventionality. “God preserve me,” says Charles Flint in “The Trouble of Marcie Flint” (1957), “from women who dress like toreros to go to the supermarket, and from cowhide dispatch cases, and from flannels and gabardines. Preserve me from word games and adulterers, from basset hounds and swimming pools and frozen canapés and Bloody Marys and smugness and syringa bushes and P.T.A. meetings.” Yet the narrator of the story, who may speak for Cheever himself, objects at first that “there was absolutely nothing wrong with the suburb from which Charles Flint was fleeing,” then retreats to the position that if there was anything wrong, “it was the fact that the village had no public library.”11 In the title story of the collection, housebreaker Johnny Hake defends the community. It is true, he admits, that “Shady Hill is open to criticism by city planners, adventurers, and lyric poets, but if you work in the city and have children to raise, I can't think of a better place.”12 Yet as a man driven to thievery to keep his suburban home, Johnny's opinions are somewhat compromised.
Manifestly, Cheever felt a degree of ambivalence about the manners and mores of suburbia. Thus he sarcastically described the compulsive joining of Shady Hill as “a regular Santa Claus's workshop of madrigal singers, political discussion groups, recorder groups, dancing schools, confirmation classes, committee meetings, and lectures on literature, philosophy, city planning, and pest control.”13 (Note the wonderful descending ladder of lecture topics.) At the same time he regarded the suburbs as representing “an improvisational way of life” adopted by many as a refuge from the expense of living in cities and the difficulty of raising children there. In such new communities tradition meant less, and it seemed to him that there was “more vitality, more change” in the suburbs than in the cities.14 Above all he was not willing to dismiss the denizens of suburbia as unworthy of fictional representation. He does not demand that we identify with Shady Hill's Johnny Hake or Cash Bentley or Francis Weed, but he does expect us to care about what happens to them, for in their particular distress they take on a measure of universality.
Cheever was “often labelled a writer about suburbia,” as John Updike wrote in a memorial reminiscence, yet only he “was able to make an archetypal place out of it, a terrain we can recognize within ourselves, wherever we are or have been. Only he saw in its cocktail parties and swimming pools the shimmer of dissolving dreams; no one else satirized with such tenderness its manifold distinctions of class and style, or felt with such poignance the weary commuter's nightly tumble back into the arms of his family.”15 “Satirized with tenderness”: Just so, for the cement that binds Shady Hill's stories into a coherent group is not merely their common setting but the faintly ironic, far from judgmental, tone of the storyteller.
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories might have been subtitled Suburbia and Its Discontents. There are only eight stories, and in each of them—save one—one kind of demon or another lies in wait beyond the well-tended lawns and handsome facades of upper-middle-class homes in Westchester County. The male characters commute to work in New York and feel a sense of dislocation caused by incessant traveling. They are weighed down with debt, addicted to drink, themselves adulterous or suspicious of their wives' faithfulness, and—as in the poignant “O Youth and Beauty!”—overcome by nostalgia for the glories of the past. Yet no matter how painful their troubles or vexatious their daily existence, almost all of them conspire in the pretense that everything is perfectly all right.
As willing partners in this communal hypocrisy, the citizens of Shady Hill are skeptical about the Crutchmans, who not only seem to be, but actually are, entirely contented with their lot. The Crutchmans are the central figures of “The Worm in the Apple,” a brief and tellingly ironic story Cheever wrote at the last minute especially for Shady Hill and placed at the midpoint of his collection to bind together the seven other tales. “The Crutchmans were so very, very happy and so temperate in all their habits and so pleased with everything that came their way that one was bound to suspect a worm in their rosy apple,” the story begins.16 Larry's ship had been sunk in the war and surely he must suffer from nightmares, people speculate. Or, they think, Helen had too much money: Larry might quit his job, play golf, and take to drink. But no, “Larry seemed to have no nightmares and Helen spread her income among the charities and lived a comfortable but a modest life” (108). Perhaps they were sexually unsatisfied, then. Was Helen, with that “striking pallor,” a concealed nymphomaniac? And what about Larry? “Everyone in the community with wandering hands had given them both a try but they had all been put off.” What could explain such constancy? “Were they frightened? Were they prudish? Were they monogamous?” (109).
The Crutchmans have two children who are not spoiled by their money and turn out well. But why, people wonder, only two children and not three or four? And how to account for the apparent pleasure Larry took both in his work and in the activities of Shady Hill?
Larry went to his job each morning with such enthusiasm that you might think he was trying to escape from something. His participation in the life of the community was so vigorous that he must have been left with almost no time for self-examination. He was everywhere: He was at the communion rail, the fifty-yard line, he played the oboe with the Chamber Music Club, drove the fire truck, served on the school board and rode the 8:03 into New York every morning. What was the sorrow that drove him? (108)
Finally, the narrator proposes the alternative that there might be no worm in the Crutchmans' apple at all, that the worm might instead be “in the eye of the observer who, through timidity or moral cowardice, could not embrace the broad range of their natural enthusiasms and would not grant that, while Larry played neither Bach nor football very well, his pleasure in both was genuine.” In any case the Crutchmans continue to entertain their friends and read books and remain euphoric as they age. Larry gives up the fire truck but continues his other activities, and—so the story ends—“they got richer and richer and richer and lived happily, happily, happily, happily” (112).
This ending prefigures the closing lines of Cheever's novel of suburbia, Bullet Park (1969), where the youth Tony Nailles is rescued from a would-be assassin by his father and their everyday life resumes. “Tony went back to school on Monday and Nailles—drugged—went off to work and everything was as wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as it had been.”17 Similar though they may seem, the two endings depend on different kinds of irony. In Bullet Park, Nailles's drugged happiness is clearly suspect, and the quadruple repetition works to undercut what is stated. In “The Worm in the Apple,” however, the Crutchmans are happy, and the irony of the repetition is directed at the end, as throughout the story, against those Shady Hill observers who will not credit the Crutchmans' contentment or will only acknowledge it as the consequence of their wealth.
It is predictable that the residents of Shady Hill should think this way, for they are beset—many of them—by financial woes. It is not easy to afford the green lawns and good schools and weekend parties of their suburban environment. If only they had more money, they would be perfectly happy, or so they think. Specifically, financial troubles provide the donnee of the first two stories in the book, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” and “O Youth and Beauty!” Johnny Hake of “Housebreaker” comes from a privileged background. “I was conceived in the Hotel St. Regis, born in the Presbyterian Hospital, raised on Sutton Place” (3), he tells us in the opening paragraph of this first-person narrative. At thirty-six, he and his wife Christina and their children live in a handsome house in Shady Hill with a garden and a place to cook meat outdoors. Sitting there on summer nights with the kids, looking down the front of Christina's dress or up at the stars, he feels a thrill, and that, he supposes, “is what is meant by the pain and the sweetness of life” (3). Then through no fault of his own, Johnny is fired and for six months is out of work. In desperation—he had never yearned for anyone the way he yearned for money, he realizes—he breaks into Carl Warburton's house and steals his wallet, which contains just over nine hundred dollars.
Johnny's conscience is immediately awakened. On the way into town the next morning, he consigns himself to the sorry company of the bank robbers and embezzlers he reads about in the paper. He begins to see thievery everywhere. At a restaurant, a stranger lifts a thirty-five-cent tip left by a previous customer. At a brokerage house, his friend Burt Howe offers to let him in on a lead-pipe cinch of a deal. “It's a steal,” Burt tells him. “They're green, and they're dumb, and they're loaded, and it's just like stealing” (15). Earlier he had ignored such examples of greed, but now he longs for redemption. He experiences what Robert Coles calls “a visionary moment”18 as he rides home on a peaceable spring evening. “It seemed to me that fishermen and lone bathers and grade-crossing watchmen and sand-lot ballplayers and lovers unashamed of their sport and the owners of small sailing craft and old men playing pinochle in firehouses were the people who stitched up the big holes in the world that were made by men like me” (19). But he does not go in the company of those ordinary honest people who do not care about money. Instead he becomes depressed and embittered. He quarrels with his wife. The natural world that once gave him such joy now appears to be the locus of desolation. In his extremity, he schemes to break into the house of the Pewters, neighbors who drank so heavily that even a thunderstorm wouldn't rouse them once they'd gone to bed. As it happens, he encounters only a gentle rain as he walks toward their house at three in the morning: “There was a harsh stirring in all the trees and gardens … and I wondered what it was until I felt the rain on my hands and face, and then I began to laugh” (28). The rain miraculously sets him straight, and on the spot he abandons his career as a thief. The next day, in what may seem too convenient a coincidence, the same man who fired him asks him to come back to work, with a healthy advance. And that night, after “taking some precautions about fingerprints,” he sneaks back into the Warburtons' and places an envelope containing nine hundred dollars on their kitchen table (30).
The tale of Johnny Hake's financial distress ends happily enough. In fact, his venture into crime seems to have made him morally more discerning.19 For Cash Bentley in “O Youth and Beauty!” it is a very different story. He is not aptly named, for he has suffered business reversals and has never owned an elegant motor car. In fact, he and his wife Louise barely scrape along. The drawer of their hall table is stuffed with unpaid bills, and at night Louise talks in her sleep. “I can't afford veal cutlets,” she says, with a sigh.20 The Bentleys relieve the drabness of their lives at the parties of their friends—the Beardens, the Farquarsons—on Alewives Lane. At the end of these parties, in what has become almost a ritual, a well-muddled Cash rearranges the furniture and goes hurdling over it. He is forty years old, with dim prospects for the future, but in his youth he had been a track star and when he hurdles the furniture it is as if he were recapturing the triumphs of the past.
But Cash is no longer young, and one night he trips and falls and breaks his leg. As his recovery drags on, he grows discontented. His senses repeatedly remind him of mortality. The meat in the icebox has spoiled, and he cannot shake off the rank odor. Up in the attic, “looking for his old varsity sweater,” he walks into a spider web that nearly gags him. On a New York side street, he sees an old whore “so sluttish and ugly that she looked like a cartoon of Death.” The faded roses Louise brings in from the garden give off “a putrid, compelling smell” and he dumps them into a wastebasket (40). Without his race to run, the parties no longer amuse him. He is rude to his friends, and irritable around Louise.
The climax comes on a summer weekend when Shady Hill is bathed in “placid golden light,” and the scent of the new grass and trees is invigorating, not depressing (41). Apparently revived, Cash once again hurdles the furniture on Saturday night. On Sunday he returns from a party at the Farquarsons: “Oh, those suburban Sunday nights, those Sunday-night blues!” the narrator comments. Louise has stayed home, and is upstairs busily “cutting out of the current copy of Life those scenes of mayhem, disaster, and violent death that she felt might corrupt her children. She always did this.” After a while, she hears Cash moving the living-room furniture around, and he calls her down to fire the starting pistol. Eager to run his race, he neglects to tell her about the safety. “‘It's that little lever,’ he said. ‘Press that little lever.’ Then, in his impatience, he hurdled the sofa anyhow. The pistol went off and Louise got him in midair. She shot him dead” (46).
The Lawtons in “The Sorrows of Gin” (1953) belong to the same heavy-drinking party set as the Bentleys, and it is their drinking—particularly that of “Mr. Lawton,” who unlike his wife Marcia is not referred to by a Christian name—that the story explores. The tale is told from the point of view of their young daughter Amy, whose unsophisticated account adds a measure of pathos. It soon emerges that the Lawtons neglect their daughter in order to pursue their social rounds. Often, their evening martinis lead them out of the house for further imbibing, while Amy is left to have dinner alone. In a particularly suggestive section, Amy describes the effect of the cocktail hour on her father. He does not reel around like a circus clown, she observes. On the contrary, his walk is if anything steadier than usual, except that “sometimes, when he got to the dining room door, he would miss it by a foot or more.”21 And he keeps putting his drink down, forgetting where, and making himself another as a replacement. These confusions do not seem to bother Mr. Lawton at all, and no one says anything about them, but he is extremely judgmental about similar faults in others. Thus he commands Amy not to overdo by taking too many nuts from the tray she is passing to guests and berates her for misplacing her raincoat.
His most hypocritical burst of moral piety, however, is reserved for the cooks and gardeners and babysitters who, he is certain, have been drinking his liquor in vast quantities. Here Amy is partly at fault, for in an attempt to moderate her parents' drinking she has taken to pouring the contents of gin bottles down the drain. The Lawtons lose one wonderful cook because she actually does get drunk, though only on her day off. “I'm lonely, and I'm afraid, and it's all I've got” (92), she confesses. Mr. Lawton summarily fires her. Then they lose the next cook because of a gin bottle Amy has emptied. “Everybody is drinking my liquor,” Mr. Lawton roars, “and I am God-damned sick and tired of it!” (94). Finally, the Lawtons leave Amy with a gossipy old babysitter for a party, and when they return at two in the morning, her father discovers that another bottle of gin has been drained. “You must be stinking, Mrs. Henlein,” he tells the babysitter, who in her indignation threatens to call the police. “I'm over at the Lawton',” she shouts into the receiver. “He's drunk, and he's calling me insulting names, and I want you to come over here and arrest him!” (100-01). Awakened by the uproar, Amy “perceived vaguely the corruption of the adult world,” but she is frightened too, because she knows she is to blame for the argument, and decides to run away. This plan does not succeed, for the stationmaster recognizes her and calls her father when she tries to buy a ticket. Mr. Lawton drives over to collect his daughter. Why should she want to travel? he wonders in conclusion. “How could he teach her that home sweet home was the best place of all?” (104).
The final three stories in Shady Hill—“The Five-Forty-Eight,” “Just Tell Me Who It Was” (1955), and “The Trouble of Marcie Flint”—all deal with adultery, and in the first of these Cheever creates a moral monster of such darkness as to make Mr. Lawton pale. An executive in New York, Blake has enjoyed a series of sexual conquests, while carefully avoiding any consequences. In fact, “most of the many women he had known had been picked for their lack of self-esteem” (119-20). That seduction is, for him, a way of exerting his power over others is underlined by his behavior toward his wife and son. One evening he came home to Shady Hill tired and hungry, only to find that his wife Louise had not prepared supper. In cruel retaliation, he drew a circle around a date two weeks hence on the kitchen calendar. “I'm not going to speak to you for two weeks,” he told Louise, and though she wept and protested, it was to no avail, for she was no longer beautiful in his eyes and “it had been eight or ten years since she had been able to touch him with her entreaties.”22 Similarly, when his son Charlie befriended the Watkins boy, Blake took steps to break off the relationship. Mr. Watkins was, after all, only a commercial artist who had long dirty hair and sometimes wore sandals.
It is with a mixture of satisfaction and dread that we follow the course of the story, during which Blake is confronted by Miss Dent, a former secretary he had slept with one night, ordered personnel to fire the next day, and refused to see ever since. Bent on revenge, she follows him from his office to the train station, and though he thinks he has escaped her by ducking into the men's bar, she is on the five-forty-eight when he boards. During the ride up the Hudson, it develops that she is quite mad, that she means to do him harm, and that she has a pistol to do it with. The trip is one of terror for Blake. He keeps hoping that someone will notice his predicament, but no one does. Miss Dent's pistol keeps him quiet, while she debates whether or not to kill him. At Shady Hill, she marches him off into the soggy lowlands along the river and makes him kneel and put his face in the filth. “Now I feel better,” she says. “Now I can wash my hands of you” (134). And so he is spared, though justly humiliated.
Blake's tyranny is not to be forgiven, or atoned for, by the degradation Miss Dent visits upon him. He will continue to exploit other people, in all likelihood, yet Cheever invites us to identify with him at least in one respect. Blake is offended by Mr. Watkins's unconventional garb partly because he himself “dressed—like the rest of us—as if he admitted the existence of sumptuary laws. His raincoat was the pale buff color of a mushroom. His hat was dark brown, so was his suit. Except for the few bright threads in his necktie, there was a scrupulous lack of color in his clothing that seemed protective” (120-21). Despicable as he is, Blake is almost pitiable in his attempt to secure protection through dun-colored clothing. And in that attempt, he is “like the rest of us,” or at least like the rest who live in Shady Hill.
The end of “The Trouble of Marcie Flint,” the final story in the book, provides a case in point. Sexual jealousy, not dominance, is central to this story. Marcie Flint has been unfaithful to her husband Charlie—he is often away on business trips—with the civic-minded, but otherwise unappealing, Noel Mackham. To keep busy while her husband is traveling, Marcie gets elected to the village council. There, one night, Mackham makes a plea for a public library. His words carry little weight, however, for he lives in the Maple Dell development, “the kind of place where the houses stand cheek by jowl, all of them white frame, all of them built twenty years ago, and parked beside each was a car that seemed more substantial than the house itself, as if this were a fragment of some nomadic culture” (169). Marcie feels sorry for Noel, whose proposal is rejected out of hand, and invites him back to her house for a drink. “Perhaps,” she says, “we could get the library project moving again” (177). That they cannot do, for the rest of the council is adamantly opposed. Besides, as her old friend Mark Barrett tells her when he hears about Noel's visit, most of them think that “Mackham is a meatball” (182). This only makes Marcie pity Mackham more, however, and when he next comes by and clumsily pulls off his rubbers, she is helpless to resist him.
As honest as she has been unfaithful, Marcie tells her husband about her lapse. In response, he packs his suitcase and goes off to “Torino, where the girls love peanut butter and the world is a man's castle” (165). But as Charlie sails across the Atlantic, a foghorn begins to sound and his resolve weakens. He will catch a plane in Genoa, he will fly back to his dear sweet Marcie, he “will shelter her with the curve of [his] body from all the harms of the dark” (185).
Implicit in Charlie Flint's decision is the assumption that Shady Hill's residents—excluding those unfortunate enough to live in Maple Dell—can escape the dark. Cheever's stories make it abundantly clear that they cannot, that money and drink and sex will turn their rosy apple rotten. Shady Hill collectively demonstrates that you can't shut out trouble by willing it away or pretending it doesn't exist, by wearing drab clothes or excising accounts of unpleasantness from magazines. “The Country Husband,” the best story in the book, most powerfully communicates this point.
“It goes without saying,” Cheever remarked in a 1958 interview, “that the people in my stories and the things that happen to them could take place anywhere.”23 A significant difference, though, is that in the suburbs of Cheever's fiction, these people try very hard to ignore even the possibility of suffering. In Proxmire Manor, the setting for “The Death of Justina” and a community that strongly resembles Shady Hill, a local zoning ordinance decrees that it is illegal to die in Zone B. When Aunt Justina passes on, her relatives are advised to “put her in the car and drive her over to Chestnut Street, where Zone C begins.”24 The survivors lack moorings. They exist in a state of perpetual rootlessness deriving from their eternal commuting and frequent continent hopping. “The people of Bullet Park intend not so much to have arrived there as to have been planted and grown there,” Cheever writes in his 1969 novel, but there is nothing organic or indigenous about their way of life. Bullet Park like Shady Hill and Proxmire Manor is what the sociologists call a final suburb, one whose residents have, presumably, arrived. But in due course many of them will be forced to leave, accompanied by “disorder, moving vans, bank loans at high interest, tears, and desperation” (4-5).
At thirty-four pages by far the longest story in Shady Hill, “The Country Husband” is (as Nabokov commented) “really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings.”25 There are indeed a great many things going on: love, war, joy, sorrow, and the community's repudiation of bad manners, bad news, and both past and future. The story begins with Francis Weed on his way back from a business trip to Minneapolis. The plane that carries him makes a crash landing in a cornfield not far from Philadelphia, but no one is hurt. “It's just like the Marne,” a fellow passenger says, but there is no sense of comradeship among the survivors as among soldiers. Later that day, Francis catches his regular evening train from New York to Shady Hill, and tells fellow commuter Trace Bearden about the close call. Trace, unimpressed, continues to read his newspaper.
Surely, one thinks, his tale will find a receptive audience when he reaches his Dutch Colonial home in Shady Hill. “Late-summer sunlight, brilliant and as clear as water,” brightens the living room. “Nothing here was neglected; nothing had not been burnished” (51-2). Yet this “polished and tranquil” environment has been transformed into a war zone—one of the interlocking motifs Nabokov singled out—by his fractious children, and no one is interested in hearing about the accident. Henry, Louisa, and Toby exchange blows and accusations, while his wife Julia equably ignores the chaos and lights the candles for dinner. She asks Francis to go upstairs and summon their eldest child Helen to the table. He “is happy to go; it is like getting back to headquarters company.” Helen says she “doesn’t understand about the plane crash, because there wasn't a drop of rain in Shady Hill.” At dinner, frustrated, Francis announces that “[he] was nearly killed in a plane crash, and [he] doesn't like to come home every night to a battlefield.” It is not a battlefield, Julia objects, and dissolves in tears. “Poor Mummy,” Toby says (53-4).
Afterward, Francis smokes a cigarette in the back garden and takes in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. There he encounters Jupiter, the Mercers’ black retriever. Jupiter is a nuisance “whose retrieving instincts and … high spirits were out of place in Shady Hill.” He goes where he pleases, “ransacking wastebaskets, clotheslines, garbage pails, and shoe bags,” and lifting steaks off the barbeque. From the way he is described—he has “a long, alert, intelligent, rakehell face,” his eyes gleam with mischief, and he holds his head high—it is apparent that Jupiter is to be admired. Francis calls to him, but he bounds away, carrying the remains of a felt hat in his mouth (56).
The bulk of “The Country Husband” concerns Francis's infatuation with Anne Murchison, a teenage babysitter who stays with the children when the Weeds are out, which is often. One evening, during a dinner party at the Farquarsons, Francis recognizes the maid as a young Frenchwoman he had seen punished for consorting with the Germans during the war. In a public ceremony, her fellow townspeople in Normandy had shaved her skull clean, stripped her naked, and jeered at her. Francis decides not to tell anyone at the party, for “it would have been a social as well as a human error. The people in the Farquarsons' living room seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world.” In such an atmosphere, his memory would have been “unseemly and impolite” (58-9).
When they return from the party, Francis drives the sitter home. He is expecting the same Mrs. Henlein who had been so grievously insulted by Mr. Lawton for her supposed drinking; instead, the sitter is the remarkably beautiful Anne Murchison. Anne is crying, for her father is an alcoholic. Unlike practically everyone else in Shady Hill she is willing to talk about her troubles. She sobs on Francis's shoulder, gives him a quick kiss good night, and he is smitten. In the morning he “washed his body, shaved his jaws, drank his coffee, and missed the seven-thirty-one” (63-4). As he waits for the next train, he insults boring old Mrs. Wrightson. The experience exhilarates him. It had been years, he realized, since he “had enjoyed being deliberately impolite.” For too long, he had listened to fools and bores with as much attention as he gave the brilliant and gifted, for that was what was expected of him. Now he felt a “bracing sensation of independence,” and—he thinks—he has Anne to thank for it.
His passion for Anne, he knows, is both ridiculous—he is old enough to be her father—and dangerous. The
Moral card house would come down on them all—on Julia and the children as well—if he got caught taking advantage of a babysitter. Looking back over the recent history of Shady Hill for some precedent, he found there was none. There was no turpitude; there had not been a divorce since he lived there; there had not even been a breath of scandal. Things seemed arranged with more propriety even than in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Nonetheless, on his lunch hour he buys Anne a bracelet, and when he gets home in the evening, there she is. Stunned by her perfection, he “seized her and covered her lips with his, and she struggled but she did not have to struggle for long, because just then little Gertrude Flannery appeared from somewhere” (65-7).
Gertrude Flannery, like Jupiter, knows no boundaries and is hence an anomaly in Shady Hill: “garrulous, skinny, and unwashed, she drifted from house to house.” You might find her on your front stoop in the morning, or on the toilet when you opened your bathroom door. She never goes home of her own free will, though people are always telling her to. That is what Francis tells her when she interrupts him and Anne. “Go home, Gertrude, go home and don't tell anyone, Gertrude,” he says, giving her a quarter to seal the bargain. The Weeds are going out again, and during the course of the party Francis can think of nothing but where he should park the car when he takes Anne home. But Julia tells him to put the car in the garage, instead; she'd let “the Murchison girl” leave at eleven. Devastated, Francis realizes that he is to be spared “nothing … that a fool was not spared: ravening lewdness, jealousy, this hurt to his feelings that put tears in his eyes, even scorn” (67-9).
The jealousy is aroused the very next evening. First the Weeds, parents and children, are photographed for their Christmas card in absolute decorum. Then young Clayton Thomas stops by. He and his mother don't have much money, and Clayton has dropped out of college to get a job. They will probably move to New York, he says, in part because Clayton—who is tall and homely, with a deep voice and a judgmental streak—disapproves of Shady Hill's mores. At the club dance the previous Saturday night, he'd seen “Mr. Granner trying to put Mrs. Minot into the trophy case” and they were both drunk. Besides, he says, the community has no future. The only thing that people in Shady Hill care about is keeping out undesirables, and the only future will be “more commuting trains and more parties.” That's not healthy, according to Clayton, and despite his youth and pretensions he is surely right. As he is leaving, Clayton tells the Weeds that he is engaged to Anne Murchison. The news strikes Francis “like a bitter turn of the weather” (71-3).
A nasty husband-and-wife dispute follows. Julia berates Francis for having insulted Mrs. Wrightson. She has invited everyone in the village to her anniversary party except the Weeds, and furthermore, as Shady Hill's official social gatekeeper, Mrs. Wrightson can keep their daughter Helen from being invited to the assemblies. Francis tries to defend himself—“I have very good manners” and “I've got to express my likes and dislikes”—but this only makes Julia angrier, and eventually Francis strikes her. Immediately contrite, he tries to dissuade her from packing and leaving. In a plaintive complaint, he blames what has gone wrong between them on the incessant gregariousness of Shady Hill. “Julia, I do love you, and I would like to be as we were—sweet and bawdy and dark—but now there are so many people” (74-5). She decides to stay, for he needs taking care of.
At the office the following day, Francis has a phone call from Trace Bearden asking him to recommend Clayton Thomas for a job. He can't do that, Francis says, “the kid's worthless.” It is a gratuitously cruel act, and its very wickedness makes Francis aware that he is lost, in trouble, with only bleakness ahead. He calls a psychiatrist and demands an appointment that very day. When he arrives at the doctor's office, a policeman is on hand to frisk him down. Once inside, he starts to tell his old sad story: “I'm in love, Dr. Herzog.”
Dr. Herzog advises him to pursue a hobby, perhaps woodworking. A week or ten days later, in our last glimpse of Shady Hill, Francis Weed—his last name a clue that like Jupiter and Gertrude he is an outsider26—is happily building a coffee table in the cellar. Neighbor Donald Goslin is worrying Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata,” as he does every night, and the housemaid at the Goslins is writing a letter to Arthur Godfrey. The Weeds' son Tony dives from bed to floor in his space suit, “landing with a thump that is audible to everyone in the house but himself.” Someone tells Gertrude Flannery to go home. The Babcocks' door flies open, and Mr. Babcock, nude, pursues his naked wife behind their protective hedge. Mr. Nixon shouts at the squirrels in his bird feeder. “Rapscallions! Varmints! Avaunt and quit my sight!” A miserable cat, dressed up in a doll's dress and hat, wanders into the garden. Julia calls to the pussy, but she slinks off in her skirts. “The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains” (82-3).
“The Country Husband” ends then, with a two-page burst of joyfulness. All of those described manage to assert their independence—even their eccentricity—against the community's unwritten standard of conventionality. The descriptions fairly glow with pleasure. Cheever himself liked to quote aloud the final sentence about kings and elephants crossing the mountains. But how appropriate was this ending, like the lyrical conclusion of “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” to the sordid subject matter of these stories: a suburbanite falling in love with his teenage babysitter, another stealing his neighbor's wallet in the dead of night? In another writer's hands, the contrast would seem hopelessly sentimental, but Cheever's verbal magic carries the day. That Francis Weed takes up woodworking is not enough to convert Shady Hill into an earthly paradise, except that for the space of one golden evening Cheever makes it so.
The enduring impression that Shady Hill leaves is one of ambiguity. The author “seems to be suspended,” as R. G. Collins comments, “between a tragic pessimism and a raptured expectancy; … he seems to be listening for the angels, as the earth smoulders beneath him.”27 On the one hand, the stories perceptively present the sorry spectacle of a community trying to shut out any vestige of trouble. The task was both foolish and futile, for as Cheever was to observe a few years later, “the characters [of fiction] have become debased and life in the United States in 1960 is Hell.”28 On the other hand, he wished to affirm the light that relieved the dark. As Joan Didion wrote in 1961, Cheever's stories represent nothing less than “a celebration of life.”29 Denying the existence of evil would not make it go away, as the residents of Shady Hill are persistently reminded. Yet magic could also strike even in such a banlieue, even in such an homogeneous, upper-middle-class, conformist, WASP suburb as Shady Hill. Cheever insists—Shady Hill insists—on having it both ways.
Vladimir Nabokov, “Inspiration,” Saturday Review of the Arts 1 (January 1973): 32.
John Leonard, “Cheever to Roth to Malamud,” Atlantic Monthly 231 (June 1973): 112.
Stephen Becker, “Excellence Level … Astounding,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, 9 November 1978, sec. 5, 10.
For an enlightening analysis of Cheever's development in this period, see James O’Hara, “John Cheever's Flowering Forth: The Breakthroughs of 1947,” Modern Language Studies 17 (Fall 1987): 50-9.
Quoted in Harvey Breit, “In and Out of Books,” New York Times, 10 May 1953, 8.
Quoted in Rollene Waterman, “Literary Horizons,” Saturday Review 41 (13 September 1958): 33.
John Cheever, “The Death of Justina,” The Stories of John Cheever (New York: Knopf, 1978), 429.
Robert A. Morace, “From Parallels to Paradise: The Lyrical Structure of Cheever's Fiction,” Twentieth Century Literature 35 (Winter 1989): 509.
The reviews cited are Richard Gilman, “Dante of Suburbia,” Commonweal 69 (19 December 1978): 320; Paul C. Wermuth, Library Journal 83 (15 September 1978): 2, 438-39; Irving Howe, “Realities and Fictions,” Partisan Review 26 (Winter 1959): 130-31; Herbert Mitgang, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, 6 September 1978, 15; and Robert Kirsch, “Cheever Paints Pallid Exurbia,” Los Angeles Times, 21 September 1978, part V, 7.
Cheever's treatment of suburban themes is topic I have examined previously. See Scott Donaldson, “The Machines in Cheever's Garden,” The Changing Face of the Suburbs, ed. Barry Schwartz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 309, and John Cheever: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1988), 170.
John Cheever, “The Trouble of Marcie Flint,” The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 165, 167, 185.
Cheever, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” Shady Hill, 12.
Cheever, “Marcie Flint,” Shady Hill, 166-67.
John Callaway, interview with John Cheever, 15 Oct. 1981, Conversations with John Cheever, ed. Scott Donaldson (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), 245.
[John Updike], “Notes and Comment: The Talk of the Town,” New Yorker 58 (12 July 1982): 27-8.
Cheever, “The Worm in the Apple,” Shady Hill, 107-12.
John Cheever, Bullet Park (New York: Knopf, 1969), 245.
Robert Coles, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), 151.
Financially, the story worked out well for Cheever, too. MGM bought film rights for $40,000; the money enabled the Cheever family to spend a year in Italy.
Cheever, “O Youth and Beauty!” Shady Hill, 35-6.
Cheever, “The Sorrows of Gin,” Shady Hill, 96-8.
Cheever, “The Five-Forty-Eight,” Shady Hill, 121-22. This story won the University of Illinois Benjamin Franklin Magazine Award for the best short story of 1954.
Quoted in Waterman, 33.
Cheever, “The Death of Justina,” Stories, 433.
The inappropriateness of Weed's name to his place of residence is noted by Robert A. Morace, “John Cheever,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 2: “American Novelists Since World War II” (Detroit: Gale Research, 1978), 91.
R. G. Collins, “Fugitive Time: Dissolving Experience in the Later Fiction of Cheever,” Studies in American Fiction 12 (Autumn 1984): 175.
Quoted in Robert Gutwilling, “Dim Views Through Fog,” New York Times Book Review, 13 November 1960, 68.
Joan Didion, “A Celebration of Life,” National Review to (22 April 1961): 255.
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