Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever

At first, Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor reads like a comical story, but since you know this is a Cheever story you will be expecting a sombre turn before the end.

WHAT IS CHRISTMAS IS A SAD SEASON FOR THE POOR ABOUT?

An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to. Each passenger regales him with a story of their own kind of loneliness. Over the course of Christmas Day, it turns out each of the residents has prepared a present and a dinner with dessert for Charlie, who can’t possibly eat all of it, and spreads it across the floor of his locker room.

After drinking too much of the liquor that has been gifted to him over the course of Christmas Day, he gives one lady a fright by joking with her:

“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!” Mrs. Gadshill shrieked.

This gets him fired. To make himself feel better about the day, he puts all of his presents into a burlap sack and takes them to his landlady, who has lots of children and not all that much money. This woman accepts them on behalf of the children, but when Charlie has left, the narrator tells the reader that in fact these children have had lots of presents all day and aren’t quite sure what to do with new ones. So she plans to regift the as-yet unopened ones to a family she feels is even less well-off than herself.

SETTING

Place

Charlie works on the Upper East Side but lives on the Lower East Side. This isn’t the first short story Cheever wrote about and near Sutton Place (also known as York Avenue).

Cheever does a masterful job of painting a picture of what it’s like to get up for work in darkness, believing that you’re the only one in the world who has to suffer this drudgery, because everyone else is enjoying their time and you are not.

Of all the millions of people in New York, I am practically the only one who has to get up in the cold black of 6 AM. on Christmas Day in the morning

Notice how well Cheever integrates Charlie’s psychological state with his surroundings:

He dressed, and when he went downstairs from the top floor of the rooming house in which he lived, the only sounds he heard were the coarse sounds of sleep; the only lights burning were lights that had been forgotten. Charlie ate some breakfast in an all-night Iunch-wagon and took an Elevated train uptown. From Third Avenue, he walked over to Sutton Place. The neighborhood was dark. House after house put into the shine of the street lights a wall of black windows. Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall of the city, the end of time.

The lights that are on have been forgotten; Charlie, too, feels that he has been forgotten. The sounds of sleep sound ‘coarse’ to him, because the sleepers aren’t the least concerned with how early he’s having to get up. The phrase ‘all-night lunch-wagon’ sounds slightly comical, since lunch happens in the middle of the day, not during the night. This serves to emphasise the feeling that he shouldn’t be up. The houses in Sutton Place form a ‘wall’ to Charlie, because although he is on the periphery of the lives of these rich people, he will never truly be admitted into their lives. This feeds into a theme of the story: For Christmas Day only he is indeed admitted, somewhat, into the lives of the rich, but there is still a wall, because it cannot continue. The abrupt end of the day is emphasised in the plot, since Charlie gets the sack — the ultimate punctuation on good cheer.

Time

Set in the late 1940s (most probably), around the time of publication.

Since drinks and food go through fashions, it’s interesting to read about what the characters enjoyed at this point in history: Martinis, Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds, champagne-andraspberry-shrub cocktails, eggnogs, Bronxes, and Side Cars

As presents in the late 1940s, rich children received ‘dolls and musical toys, blocks, sewing kits, an Indian suit, and a loom’.

Milieu

Then as today, New York is full of the very rich with the poor living side-by-side. That said, it would be interesting to know how many Charlie Learys are able to afford to live in the Lower East Side in New York these days, now that New York’s property is more expensive than ever. (New York’s first 100 million dollar apartment was sold this year.)

As I was reading this story I wondered if the poor were more visible back in the 1940s. People who live in expensive apartments no longer have to hear the sob-stories of their elevator man, precisely because there are no more elevator men (except perhaps in the odd place, as an anachronistic marketing feature). A lot of low-wage manufacturing jobs are now done offshore in Asian countries, namely China. So who do the upper middle classes come into contact with these days, who are so much poorer than themselves? Apparently there are two things that are ‘cheap in New York’: dry-cleaning and nail salons. But a closer look into nail salons show that modern-day slavery is still happening, right under the noses of New York residents. (Listen to the Selfish In Thailand edition of the Double X Podcast.)

CHARACTERS

Charlie Leary – The protagonist of the story, an elevator operator. Though this is not the first of Cheever’s stories in this collection to operate an elevator, I’m only just now moved to look up exactly what this entailed. At the time of this story, there was indeed some necessity for an elevator operator: Manual elevators were often controlled by a large lever which would cause the elevator to stop or run and sometimes also regulate speed, and typically required some skill or sense of timing to be able to consistently stop the elevator level with the doorway of a floor. So I expect it required a similar sort of skill to that of the refuse collector, who must know exactly where to brake in order to bring the machinery down upon our kerbside bins.

Some poor fictional characters are humble and glad for what they have; others are not all that poor at all, but complain about it constantly. The former can be found in Cheever’s O, City Of Broken Dreams, and the latter can  be found in The Pot Of Gold. Charlie Leary is a bit different again, because he genuinely doesn’t have much, but his complaining is probably just his way of making conversation.

John Truby, expert on storytelling, advises writers to figure out a character’s fundamental weakness, then to figure out his or her goal in the story. Without these two things, a strong story can’t be built. So what of Charlie Leary? Charlie’s fundamental problem that hurts him so badly that it’s ruining his life is that he is surrounded by people far richer than himself and is constantly weighing what might have been against what is. He, too, could go on a holiday to Bermuda if he used all the kilometres he’d travelled inside the elevator to get there, he calculates. It is precisely because he feels so trapped that he takes the miscalculated risk of giving one of the residents a big fright, ending in his getting fired.

He, Charlie, was a prisoner, confined eight hours a day to a six-by-eight elevator cage, which was confined, in turn, to a sixteen-story shaft. In one building or another, he had made his living as an elevator operator for ten years. He estimated the average trip at about an eighth of a mile, and when he thought of the thousands of miles he had traveled, when he thought he might have driven the car through the mists above the Caribbean and set it down on some coral beach in Bermuda, he held the narrowness of his travels against his passengers, as if were not the nature of the elevator but the pressure of their lives that confined him, as if they had clipped his wings.

Charlie Leary’s goal in the story is to make the best of his lonely Christmas Day. Though what happens to him is unplanned — he didn’t seek out all of the gifts and the Christmas dinners — he kind of ‘overshot his target’ by saying the same thing to every person who came into his elevator.

The rest of the characters in the story are minor, sufficiently varied in circumstance and personality to create a realistically populated New York apartment building.

I’m not sure if ‘Leary’ is an aptronym on ‘leery’, meaning someone or something you’re suspicious of. But knowing a bit about Cheever, it might be, or it might be a name designed to evoke a slight misapprehension and mistrust in our main character.

THEME

On charity:

One way of feeling a little bit better about your own circumstances is to focus on those worse off than yourself rather than on those who are better off.

The realization that he was in a position to give, that he could bring happiness easily to someone else, sobered him. He took a big burlap sack, which was used for collecting waste, and began to stuff it, first with his presents and then with the presents for his imaginary children. He worked with the haste of a man whose train is approaching the station, for he could hardly wait to see those long faces light up when he came in the door.

There is an uncomfortable power dynamic involved in charity.

A beatific light came into her face when she realized that she could give, that she could bring cheer, that she could put a healing finger on a case needier than hers, and-like Mrs. DePaul and Mrs. Weston, like Charlie himself and like Mrs. Deckker, when Mrs. Deckker was to think, subsequently, of the poor Shannons-first love, then charity, and then a sense of power drove her.

It is difficult to know what to do about the poor when you’re not poor yourself, but you want to do something.

The rich residents of the apartment block where Charlie works are not to know that he’s lying about having children in order to garner more sympathy. But to them he is ‘worthy’ of their gifts; he works hard, getting up early. And, they see him daily, so he is not the ‘invisible poor’ — the truly poor, who would never make it to this part of town.

Unfortunately, this is a timeless theme, even more relevant for today’s America than ever before.

On lying:

If you find yourself lying to people for no particular reason your conscience will eventually catch up with you, if not karma.

The excess of food and presents around him began to make him feel guilty and unworthy. He regretted bitterly the lie he had told about his children. He was a single man with simple needs. He had abused the goodness of the people upstairs. He was unworthy.

 

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Holidays and Rituals In Stories

How do you think John Cheever felt about Christmas?  I’d suggest that Cheever felt a little jaded by all the goodwill which is limited to just one main day per year. He saves this observation for the very end of the story, which always gives added weight to a sentiment:

“Now, you kids help me get all this stuff together. Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she said, for it was dark then, and she knew that we are bound, one to another, in licentious benevolence for only a single day, and that day was nearly over.

Note that the landlady has to rush, because the gift-giving can only happen on Christmas Day. After that, handing presents on to people you consider poor would just be… weird. (So why isn’t it weird even on Christmas Day, seems to be the subtext.)

Dark and Light Symbolism

As you read, take note of the ways in which Cheever makes use of light and dark. In previous stories in this collection, Cheever has no problems using the weather to convey character emotion; this is another kind of pathetic fallacy, in which something in the environment is supposed to be meaningful in the context of the story.

 

STORY SPECS

First published in the New Yorker, 1949. You can probably guess which month.

New Yorker Cover December 1949

4,100 words

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Contrast with the more saccharine Gift of the Magi, which is more commonly taught in secondary schools. Miracle on 34th Street and Dickens’ The Christmas Carol also fall into this category.

Mookse and The Gripes compares this story to one of David Foster Wallace’s stories, “The Devil Is a Busy Man,” because they both concern the nature of charity and whether true altruism is really possible.

Richard Yates published an entire short story collection about loneliness, into which this story might easily have fit: Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness. But is Charlie really all that lonely? For all we know, he could be bullshitting about that, too. Rather, the character sketches of the minor characters and their various types of loneliness — or what they call loneliness — are more interesting. After all, Charlie isn’t all that upset about being fired. This could be because he is sozzled, and is off to do a good deed, or it could be because he gets fired regularly, moving from one elevator job to the next.

Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness Richard Yates

I would compare the structure of this short story to a fable such as Chicken Licken. In Chicken Licken, we see a chicken going around saying the same thing over and over to a bunch of different birds.

“The sky is falling!”

“Christmas is a sad season when you’re poor. I don’t have any family. I live alone in a furnished room.”

The comical tone reminds me of this story of Cheever’s. But like Chicken Licken, Christmas ends with a sharp shock. Chicken Licken is these days used as a fable for children. So the refrain of Charlie Leary makes him seem childish.

Chicken Licken Well Loved Tales

 

Note that Cheever has made use of another classic fable in his earlier O City Of Broken Dreams, which is a kind of inverted Country Mouse fable.

WRITE YOUR OWN

Is there any day of the year that makes you feel out of sync with the rest of society, be it Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, ANZAC Day etc? Why do you feel differently about it than the dominant culture seems to?

Maybe this isn’t a cultural event but a family or religious one.

Using an old fable, are you able to take some of the classical structure and weave it into a modern tale such as this one?

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