John Cheever

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Frederick Bracher

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The stories in [The Way Some People Live (1943)] sound the knowing, wry, ironic note of The New Yorker in the late thirties, and in both tone and content they suggest John O'Hara. But the most successful stories—like "Survivor," "In the Eyes of God," or "Forever Hold Your Peace"—have moral implications beyond the range of the bitter anecdote. In The Enormous Radio (1953), the assured elegance of Cheever's style is matched by a heightened moral sensibility, and many of the stories, turning away from the frustrations and blind alleys of urban life, celebrate the continuing possibilities of human experience. The volume contains some of Cheever's best, and some of his best known, stories: "Goodbye, My Brother," "The Children," "Torch Song," "The Summer Farmer," and the title story. The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958) moves from the city to the Westchester suburbs, but Cheever continues to celebrate life even in this unpromising setting. The title story of Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (1961) hints at a major change of intention and material: Cheever here turns his back on much of his earlier writing. His new novel, he writes, will be quite different in "pace and color" from The Wapshot Chronicle, and evidences of a change in tone and method can be seen in the stories which have appeared in The New Yorker since 1960.

Cheever's stories have usually been praised for their literary excellence: they have a high polish and reflect an urbane and subtle mind. But they are necessarily discontinuous; the principal source of a short story, according to Cheever, is "the interrupted event." Contemporary life, seen through Cheever's stories, may look like "a chain of brilliant reflections on water, unrelated perhaps to the motion of the water itself, but completely absorbing in their color and shine." But there is much more to Cheever's writing than superficial glitter, and his stories, though highly entertaining, are not mere entertainment.

Since stories are necessarily unique, dramatic, and self-contained, it is difficult to sum up a writer like Cheever in a few generalizing phrases. Certain characteristic traits nevertheless stand out. One of them is a fascination with "the color and shine" of life, apparent even in his earliest stories. This is matched by, and related to, an acuteness of feeling which sets him apart from the general run of New Yorker writers. Cheever is essentially a man of sensibility, rather than an analyst, social critic, or explicator; and it is probably the acuteness of his feelings that has led to his pervasive view of life as a "perilous moral adventure." (pp. 66-7)

[The] moral weight of Cheever's writing has usually been on the side of affirmation; and in this respect he differs from many of his contemporaries. But his celebration of life is not achieved by a facile ignoring of man's limitations and dark destiny. On the contrary, it is his pervading sense of the fragility of life that makes his moments of illumination possible. Shady Hill hangs by a thread over moral and economic chaos, but it does hang there in the evening light. In Cheever's stories, only those who feel their insecurity can ever burst joy's grape; and in "The Death of Justina" the narrator explicitly questions how a society which denies or prettifies Death can ever hope to understand love. By his own account, Cheever writes stories "to make some link between the light in the sky and the taste of death."

In this respect, Cheever's stories approximate the original function of comedy. If tragedy deplores the death of Dionysus,...

(This entire section contains 1571 words.)

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comedy celebrates the renewal of life that follows the death, "the epiphany or manifestation of the risen hero." (p. 68)

Cheever's most characteristic writing derives from a vision of man's possibilities, rather than man's limitations. In his fiction he seems to be saying, yes, the heart of man is crooked and false, his opportunities are limited by social pressures and personal traumata, and his end is tragic. We know this, but we do not have to live by it. What we live by is "clear emotion" toward other people and an uninhibited experience of "the harsh surface beauty of life." The element of harshness is inescapable—the beach is full of sand-burrs and the reviving water is shockingly cold at first—but the man who accepts initiatory pain is rewarded by the capacity for beauty, a sense of freedom, and the power to love. These are all signs and privileges of maturity. (p. 69)

For all their verisimilitude of speech, dress, and decor, Cheever's stories are not realistic in the usual literary sense. Many of them have a legendary quality: they are full of strange happenings, and some, like "The Enormous Radio" or "The Death of Justina," shift imperceptibly into the casual fantasy of the märchen. The Wapshot Chronicle is loosely situated in time and space; St. Botolphs is a typical New England seaport, reminiscent of Newburyport and the South Shore, but it is as detached from actual topography as Trollope's Barsetshire. It is impossible to determine when the main action of the novel occurs. Incidental references to security checks and to rocket launching sites indicate a period after World War II, but there is no mention of the War, nor of the depression which preceded it. The events take place in a mellow twilight, once upon a time. Cheever has indicated in a letter to the author that this is deliberate:

I have carefully avoided dates in order to give my characters freedom to pursue their emotional lives without the interruptions of history…. A sense of time that revolves around the sinking of ships and declarations of war seems to me a sense of time debased. We live at deeper levels than these and fiction should make this clear.

The deeper levels are personal, and the important events of the novel lack an ideological as well as a temporal setting. Cheever's concentration on the surface of things reflects a conviction that life is to be lived, not intellectualized and fretted over. The meanings of his stories are implicit in character and action, not in "a conceptual scheme," and they add up to a code of living, not a theory of life. Except for a pervasive flavor of Freudian thought, Cheever ignores the major trends in the intellectual history of our times. (pp. 71-2)

Characters and plot are relatively undeveloped in Cheever's stories; even in the full-length novel, the characters remain flat—picturesque, rather than profound—and whatever psychological interest may be implied by their odd behavior is not elaborated. The stories often have no plot, in the traditional sense. They are sequences of feeling, not causally linked events, depending on the logic of the imagination to supply a felt unity. The best stories have a psychological rightness that is easily felt but can hardly be defined. (p. 72)

Cheever's sensibility is at its best in his recreation of the felt surface of experience. His earliest published story, written for The New Republic when he was sixteen, is a series of sketches by a boy who has just been dismissed from a private school; and they contrast the bleak, chalk-dust atmosphere of the academy with the lush richness of spring outdoors: "the heavy peach blossoms and the tea-colored brooks that shook down over the brown rocks…. Everything outside was elegant and savage and fleshy." The writing is astonishing for a schoolboy, and the three concluding adjectives are an admirable summary of the sensuous, pagan, but discriminating sensibility which is reflected in all of Cheever's writing.

Cheever knows that nothing recreates the past like a whiff of perfume or the smell of an old familiar house, and his use of this device to evoke a scene seems at times excessive. But in both a literal and a figurative sense, Cheever's principal subject matter is "the perfumes of life."… (p. 73)

Cheever's later stories characteristically end in reconciliations or new starts, as comedy should….

The comic mode does not pretend to exhaust the possibilities of human experience, and neither does Cheever's life of sensibility and the senses. Profane love may be, as Cheever says, "the most exalted experience of our physical lives," but to the mystic it is no more than a symbol of divine love. Deep religious feeling does not thrive in Cheever's sensuous pagan world, but a nonreflective acceptance of surfaces is a good climate for comedy, if not for philosophy.

By his own account, Cheever lives primarily in the present. "Some years ago I said that I felt like a runner, concerned with my wind, my strength, and the surrounding scenery, but concerned not at all with where I had been…. It is still what I feel." The surrounding scenery today is not an inspiring sight, but Cheever notes that the actual and spiritual junkyards of industrial society are not necessarily "the ruins of our civilization." They could be "the temporary encampments and outposts of the civilization that we—you and I—shall build." The optimism of this prophecy may prove to be ill-founded, and it may come from a deeper sense of despair than the genteel would like to admit. But the optimism is appropriate to the archetypal myths of comedy, with their origins in and bias toward the rituals celebrating the continuity of human life. (p. 77)

Frederick Bracher, "John Cheever and Comedy," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1963), Vol. VI, No. 1, 1963, pp. 66-77.

Burton Kendle

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John Cheever's "The Enormous Radio" derives much of its power from an ironic reinterpretation of the Eden story that helps to universalize what might otherwise appear to be merely a brilliant study of mid-century urban discontent. The chief characters, Jim and Irene Westcott, are appropriately typical representatives of their class and "seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the reports in college alumni bulletins." Their life is comfortably commonplace, except for their sensitivity to classical music that both precipitates and explains their response to the radio. Eve's hubris seems ironically paralleled by Irene's somewhat self-consciously developed sensitivity. Significantly, the purchase of the radio is attributed to Jim's uxoriousness; he wants not only to keep his promise, but also to produce "a surprise for her…."

Cheever develops the motif of innocence by details like Irene's "wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written," and Jim's youthfulness: "he dressed in the clothes his class had worn at Andover, and his manner was earnest, vehement, and intentionally naive." The radio, an appropriately ugly instrument that looks "like an aggressive intruder" to Irene, is the Satanic invader of the Westcotts' world of apparent innocence. Like her archetypal parallel, Irene is the first to become aware of the radio's "mistaken sensitivity to discord," though not of the significance of this discord. Eve's momentary illusion of godhead, and Irene's brief elation over the possibilities of supposed omniscience are similarly undercut by later occurrences in their lives.

Initially, Jim seems less disturbed by the knowledge revealed through the radio than by the effect of this knowledge on his wife, but gradually the combined forces of the radio and Irene's growing anxiety cause him to articulate an insight into the nature of evil more searching than any Irene can experience. Even before the radio starts broadcasting conversations from neighboring apartments, its mere presence in the household oppresses the atmosphere…. (pp. 262-63)

The final scene of the story, carefully foreshadowed by the growing tensions in the household, reveals the unstable basis of the Westcotts' edenic world. Jim's anxieties indicate that the initial portrait of him was ironically misleading: "I'm not getting any younger, you know. I'm thirty-seven. My hair will be grey next year. I haven't done as well as I'd hoped to do. And I don't suppose things will get any better." The phrase "intentionally naive," used in the introductory description of Jim, had unobtrusively exposed his air of innocence as a rather desperate pose. In a passage reinforcing mythic parallels, Jim stresses Irene's guilt as the major cause of his grief and ridicules her assumption of personal virtue…. (p. 263)

Irene's final futile attempt to tune in the Sweeneys' nurse, the positive image of humanity needed to reinforce a belief in her own goodness, illuminates the terrors of assumed omniscience and the inevitable defeat of human pride. The detached voice of the announcer, mingling disasters with weather reports, is a twentieth-century version of a divine edict that permanently exiles the Westcotts, but offers no parallel to the ultimate promise traditionally associated with the original pair. The ironic reinterpretation given the myth by Cheever suggests that the expulsion from Eden does not symbolize the fall from good to evil, or from innocence to experience, but the fall from assumed innocence to awareness, specifically self-awareness, and its attendant anguish. Cheever's irony implies that man's knowledge of his personal evil, no matter how painfully acquired, does not bring the power conventionally attributed to such insight, but only additional difficulties and frustrations. Both Adam and Jim are exiled to a life of constant anxiety and fruitless bickering. (pp. 263-64)

Burton Kendle, "Cheever's Use of Mythology in 'The Enormous Radio'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1966 by Newberry College), Vol. IV, No. 1, Fall, 1966, pp. 262-64.

J. D. O'Hara

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[John Cheever] like Borges is fond of giving his characters lots of room to meditate, generalize, philosophize, and turn their stories into illustrated essays…. [His] work has begun to resemble that of Borges in another way too. The post-World-War-II upperclass world of which he writes, the well-educated gin-drinking manners—conscious gentry on the decline … all this has become faded, unreal, and as literary as the settings and characters of Borges' stories.

The effect is valuable, in allowing us to see deeper into Cheever's subjects. For a single instance: he has often disturbed readers with his insistence on the mutual incompatibility of brothers—which is putting it mildly; they tend to try to kill each other. And sure enough, the very first story in [The Stories of John Cheever] ends with a Cain felling his brother with a piece of driftwood. But the collection and the distancing of reality into fiction show us something else: Cheever's brothers divide life into what it ought to be (defined as rules, as ideals, as art, as rigidity) and what it is (defined as mess, liveliness, sordidness, intensity). In story after story, siding sometimes with one, sometimes with the other, Cheever works out variations on these complements of life as necessary to us as up and down, good and bad, better and worse, life and death.

Not all the 61 stories collected here are good—this is reality, after all, and besides, they include that much-anthologized and lousy story "The Enormous Radio"; but this collection should go far toward overcoming the overpraise of Falconer. It displays Cheever as perhaps the most successful short story writer of the North American 20th century, which is pretty good for starters. (p. 233)

J. D. O'Hara, "Reflections on Recent Prose," in New England Review (copyright © 1978 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1978, pp. 221-35.∗

John N. Swift

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[The size of The Stories of John Cheever]—sixty-one stories, seven hundred pages—necessarily obscures the excellences of individual pieces, as their edges run together; Cheever's obsessively adulterous suburbanites and alcoholic expatriates eventually parody one another, and the complexities of their descriptions are levelled by repetition. On the other hand—and this is true of any writer's collected works—as our attention strays from the plots and characters, it fastens on the author himself, developing as an artist behind the subdued voices of his narrators…. A collection may have as clearly defined a plot as any of its constituent stories, and Cheever advises us [in his preface] that the plot of this collection is the "naked history" of his development as a writer. It is not, however, quite the dramatic formative struggle that he would have us find; the development is indeed a process of self-education, but for Cheever that process evidently involves accommodation, a slow adaptation of narrative voice to the world, to one's self, and to one's limitations. In the earliest stages of his career Cheever is already formed as a writer, and eats his peas off a fork with self-conscious precision; the developmental process of the stories is one of relaxation, of retreat from the first narrators' refusals to be publicly drunk and clumsy.

Those earliest voices are cynically tough, and they keep a safe distance from their stories; they hold the world at arm's length, practically between two fingers, and with good reason. The world of Cheever's early work is mean-spirited and corrupt, and the narrators suggest that detachment is conscience's only defense. As a result, they insist on their own emotional neutrality, and the burden of emotional response passes to the reader, to accept or reject as he sees fit…. The narrator [in "The Hartleys"] presents misplaced love and spilled blood with equal understatement; in fact, at the moment of disaster he manipulates our perspective to be sure that we recognize the glacial remoteness of his view of human tragedy…. The story ends with a general refusal of all emotional relief…. (pp. 91-2)

It is not a nice story, nor is it a nice narrator, but he is clearly in complete control of himself, his characters, and his readers. One can hardly imagine this self-possessed presence doing anything so personal or risky as describing himself as naive, obtuse, or clumsy; clearly, a long artistic journey separates his aloof self-righteousness from the confiding tones of Cheever's preface. The journey's end is a reconciliation of the speaker to his world, and its first step is a recognition of the emotional and aesthetic dishonesty of narrative detachment from that world. For of course the objectivity of the speaker of "The Hartleys" is a fraud: for all its apparent slice-of-life realism, the story is a controlled moral parable, a didactic exercise rather than a depiction of experience. Its purpose is to expose savagely the inadequacies of emotionally self-indulgent parents, and, like that of much didactic literature, its language is disappointingly sterile and abstract, referring the reader to types and categories rather than particular images…. We may be able to forgive a narrator's inhuman detachment when it is coupled with a capacity for accurate observation, but this one's vision is constantly blurred by his preoccupation with meaning and moral judgment.

Subjectivity, the evaluative ordering of the world, is simply a fact of Cheever's style, early and late; his strengths are almost never pictorial. The movement of his career is away from the awkward mask of objectivity, toward the full admission of the subjective voice, with its simple biases, categories, and stereotypes, as a fictional protagonist in its own right. That voice intrudes in the first paragraph of the best of the early stories, "The Enormous Radio," in an act of narrative self-parody which prefigures the tone of much later work:

Jim and Irene Wescott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theatre on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester.

Obviously here there is no question of detached "realism;" such a family of statistical probabilities can exist only as a subjective construction. And once the narrator has revealed himself openly as a biased caricaturist, he narrows the distance between himself and his characters; his vision is as skewed as theirs, he can claim no special privilege of judgment. (pp. 92-3)

The narrator of that first paragraph perceives with all the prejudices he later attributes to the Westcotts. Here the similarity may be accidental, since it disappears in the story; in later work, however, as Cheever increasingly adopts first person narrators, he resurrects this prejudiced voice, choosing obvious versions of the Westcotts to tell his stories…. These narrators are themselves potentially ridiculous caricatures of normality and respectability, the very characters whose moral and perceptual limitations were harshly judged by Cheever's early voices.

This relocation of narrative perspective to within the world of the fiction is the major formal development of the collected Stories, the turning point of their "plot," and it marks Cheever's acceptance of that imperfect world and its imperfect inhabitants. The shift has two important and related consequences for the reader. First, the fictions acquire verisimilitude, somewhat paradoxically, through the obvious inaccuracies and limitations of their narrators' perceptions…. Second, this admission of narrative limitations radically alters the relation of reader, narrator, and character. Distances collapse, and we discover a sympathetic bond of mutual fallibility: in effect, narrators, characters, and readers—who in early stories faced one another in uneasy opposition—now face a common enemy, the incomprehensibility of experience. (p. 94)

In his late stories Cheever finds in subjectivity not only a narrative technique, but also a coherent subject matter; he finds as well a source of value in the plight of the limited individual struggling to interpret his world. The task of interpretation is impossible, but in attempting it his mature voices learn flexibility and forgiveness. The narrator of "The Angel of the Bridge," whose nervous "terror of bridges was an expression of my clumsily concealed horror of what is becoming of the world," manages to cope with his obsession by offering a lift to a hitchhiking angel who sings him safely over the Tappan Zee Bridge. This sort of narrative absurdity forces a sympathetic understanding of the defensive eccentricities and therapeutic tics of others caught in a nonrational world; he finds a reflection of his own behavior in his mother's traumas: "Her capricious, or perhaps neurotic, fear of dying in a plane crash was the first insight I had into how, as she grew older, her way was strewn with invisible rocks and lions and how eccentric were the paths she took, as the world seemed to change its boundaries and become less and less comprehensible."

Such sympathy is perhaps the dominant characteristic of Cheever's style. His narrators shamelessly solicit our sympathy by exposing their inadequacies and pettinesses; at the same time, they forgive themselves and the characters of their stories. (p. 95)

It is indeed a long way from tough, unforgiving certitude to an honest confusion. The value of the collected Stories is that they allow us to see the process in its entirety, and to see the extremes of its beginning and end. Cheever's understanding and full use of the subjective style is a central technical development, a fortunate evolution in his artistic career. But the growing humaneness and humility of his narrative voices suggest that perhaps it is finally more appropriate to consider his life's work as something other than an aesthetic process; it is more convincingly like the purely human process of growing old, of coming to terms with one's brevity and inconsequentiality. (pp. 95-6)

John N. Swift, "Forgiving the World," in Shenandoah (copyright 1978 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Vol. XXX, No. 1, Fall, 1978, pp. 91-6.

Pearl K. Bell

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[The tales collected in The Stories of John Cheever are] awash in the rain of disenchantment and regret, rank with the smell of decay. Though Cheever tried, in his two Wapshot novels, to broaden his scope by endowing the poignancy of nostalgia with a local habitation and name—to portray a vanished New England blessed with social coherence, domestic stability, and moral grace—the quality of his yearning comes through with much greater power in his short stories. His temperament and talent are not at ease with the patient exploration of motives and extended personal histories, but they are flawlessly suited to the sentient moment, the rigorously foreshortened episode and isolated visual detail that suggest an unspoken fullness of feeling, a tacit sense of destiny, with highly concentrated intensity.

Peculiarly at home within the immediate present, Cheever is a master of the perfectly observed, evocative, unforgettably fixed moment….

In story after story, his abiding theme … is not so much the social and personal unraveling of his middle-class Wasp milieu as it is the private pain of disappointment, Cheever's disappointment, sometimes heartbreakingly lyrical and sometimes merely slick, with the way life has, alas, turned out. Bored and uncomfortable with analytic complexity, intimidated by the intellectual difficulties that tough scrutiny of experience and behavior might pose. Cheever prefers the soft, elegiac generalization that simulates thoughtful judgment but is really a lament, the fleeting intimation of lost hope and vanished happiness that stops short of being harsh and upsetting. Over and again he asks the same question—where did middle-class America go wrong?—but he cannot bring himself to face its disruptive implications, and he settles instead, as in "The Death of Justina," for a plangent eloquence that is brightly evasive….

Cheever is a genteel puritan with a profound distaste for the disconcerting realities that lie beneath the melancholy beguiling surfaces of Fifth Avenue and suburbia. Yet there are moments—in artfully facile stories like "Torch Song" … and "The Five-Forty-Eight" …—when he seems able to control his dismay at the proliferation of so much dishonor, infidelity, drunkenness, so much moral shabbiness, only through an artfully clever but unpersuasive sensationalism. Nor is he convincing when, to stave off the depression about to plunge him into the abyss, he resorts to incantatory affirmation, as though the sound of the words alone … is sufficient to make them genuine talismans of promise and redemption, despite the admonitory lessons of experience; this is inspirational whistling in the dark that unwittingly mocks his exaltation.

Because Cheever's enduring strength lies in his lucid grasp of social detail, his hyper-alert eye for the telling gestures and revelations of speech, place, dress, manner, we become exaggeratedly aware of the constricted narrowness of the world he observes so closely. It is strangely untouched by history, politics, war, by the need for private accommodation to public events….

Cheever's America is so completely self-enclosed and detached from any sense of history that it seems airless and timeless. (p. 70)

Pearl K. Bell, "Literary Waifs," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 67, No. 2, February, 1979, pp. 67-71.∗

Michael Mason

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There are occasional touches of self-importance in [The Stories of John Cheever], but the author has always been very much on his guard against their recurrence and so—being tremendously gifted—he has reaped the true, substantial rewards of lightness. Not disabled by high-mindedness about content or form, his stories have made a brilliant and serious contribution to the genre….

The particular brand of self-importance Cheever had to resist in the early stories was moralistic. Crudely speaking, he was liable to sudden outbursts of severity about booze in the metropolitan stories (see "The Sorrows of Gin") and about sex in the suburban ones (see "Just Tell Me Who it Was", or "Brimmer"—which moves on to the Italian setting)….

Cheever is also occasionally betrayed into a note of self-importance about technique. This is natural, since he has something highly original and thoughtful to offer here, especially in certain remarkable stories written since 1960. The secret of these is an unwinding or disintegrating structure, such that the narrative development—like a film run backwards—generates more and more components that require assembly, rather than undertaking the assembly itself. In the early instances of "Boy in Rome" and "A Vision of the World" this procedure is associated with a rather leaden and disingenuous commentary by the author. In the later, extraordinary story "Montraldo" a much greater degree of disintegration of structure is handled with complete nonchalance.

This art of loose ends is not a gimmick. Terms such as "chain" and "connection" appear frequently in Cheever's own remarks about his fiction, and he is referring to a new, difficult kind of connectedness—which is necessarily antagonistic to the tidiness so lethal to the short story form. Cheever knows—and brilliantly conveys as early as the end of "The Sorrows of Gin"—how disorderly the human mind is, how much closer we are than we usually acknowledge to dreaming even in waking life.

Michael Mason, "Gilt-Edged Investments," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4003, December 7, 1979, p. 103.


Cheever, John (Vol. 11)


Cheever, John (Vol. 25)