The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE SUTTON PLACE”

As outlined by The New Yorker, which delivers its own plot spoiler for “The Sutton Place” by John Cheever:

A little girl gets lost through the carelessness of her nurse who leaves the child with a friend of the family’s while she goes to church. The parents are frantic and have sharp feelings of guilt until at last the police find the child wandering about the streets.

SETTING OF “THE SUTTON PLACE”

Place

This story takes place in the city but  from this part of new York you could ‘throw a stone onto Welfare Island’, it seems. Welfare Island is these days called Roosevelt Island. It was named Welfare Island between 1921 and 1971, because it was principally known for its hospitals. It is an island between Manhattan and Long Island City. It’s a part of Manhattan.

The Tennysons live in a tenth floor apartment.

Time

To a modern audience, in an America with amber alerts, it’s almost incomprehensible that a child under the age of three could wander out of an apartment, be escorted down an elevator, wander away and be given a piece of bread to eat without a single one of the adults taking her to a police station. This leaves me wondering if this may have happened in the 1940s, or if instead Cheever is using poetic licence to showcase the obliviousness and selfishness of adults.

Milieu

‘Deborah would be allowed to pass the smoked salmon’. This is yet another of Cheever’s stories depicting the lives of rich mid-century Americans.

This is a world in which women who have been married for a long time and then lose their husbands are sometimes forced out to work as nurse maids because they have no other skills, and women are thought to be good with children, even when they are clearly not. Because this gendering exists, Mrs Harley’s lie about liking children goes completely unquestioned.

CHARACTERS OF “THE SUTTON PLACE”

Robert Tennyson — We are given more information about Katherine than about Robert, presumably because selfishness in mothers seems more terrible than selfishness in fathers, and more so at the time this story was written. Here he serves as a typical salaried New Yorker who offers reassurance to his wife when their daughter goes missing.

Katherine Tennyson — unusually for the time and class, Katherine works outside the home. Like Robert, Katherine has not modified her partying/hangover filled lifestyle after the birth of a child. When queried about how much time she is spending with her daughter, she responds that Deborah has eight thousand dollars in her own name, as if that should be the extent of her parental responsibility. Katherine Tennyson is therefore an unsympathetic character and although Robert is no better, the judgement falls more harshly upon mothers, as it always does, even though both parents work and should therefore be equally responsible for their daughter’s care. Like all the other adult characters in this story, Katherine is self-absorbed, tending to think that she is the only one to experience horrible things. When describing how her own parents lost his brother at the age of two and a half, she assumes it ‘wasn’t anything as bad as this’. She reasons that modern parents must care more for their children than previous generations did. He says this when it is clear to readers that Robert and Katherine had very little to do with their own daughter.

Deborah Tennyson — almost three-year-old toddler, daughter of Robert and Katherine, very pretty and blonde, typical for her age in everything except that she keeps things to herself. In this way, her nanny seems to interact with her as an adult. But her adult behaviour is simply ‘adult-like’ — it is explained in the first few paragraphs that she simply imitates what she sees around her, understanding words like ‘hangover’ and ‘Old Fashioned’. This seems precocious at first glance, until you realise any child absorbs anything that surrounds them. On the other hand, the narrator is somewhat complicit in painting Deborah as a much older woman, or teenage girl:

Deborah was taciturn about the way in which she spent her days. She would tell no one where she had been or what she had done. Mrs Harley found that she could count on this trait.

Mrs Harley — the day nurse for Deborah. She is going on sixty. She has come down in the world, having lived in her own house for 40 years, now looking after someone else’s child. Her thumbnail character sketch:

Mrs Harley was a widow. She had lived a hearty and comfortable life until her husband’s death, but he had left her with no money and she had been reduced to working as a nursemaid. She said that she loved children and had always wanted children herself, but this was not true. Children bored and irritated her. She was a kind and ignorant woman, and this, more than bitterness, showed in her face when she took Deborah downstairs.

Renée Hall — a friend of the Tennysons. 35 years old, ‘dissipated and gentle’. She is starting to give up on ever having her own family and spectacular life, instead living on the edges of high society because she is pretty. Her prettiness is exactly why Deborah falls in love with her.

Renée Hall had met Mrs Harley and the child at the Tennysons’, where she had frequently been a guest for cocktails that winter. She had been brought there by a business friend of Katherine’s. She was pleasant and entertaining, and Katherine had been impressed with her clothes. She lived around the corner and didn’t object to late invitations and most men liked her. The Tennysons knew nothing about her other than that she was an attractive guest and did some radio acting.

Mrs Emerson — the nurse who cared for Deborah before — presumably four months ago. A bit of a crackpot mystic, Mrs Emerson fancies she can tell fortunes, and had sent a letter to Katherine Tennyson saying that she could predict Deborah’s going missing. This is what made people suspect that Mrs Emerson may have kidnapped Deborah. Mrs Emerson has taken her own prediction quite literally, but the reader might wonder about Deborah’s going missing metaphorically and psychologically as she grows up in a household where neither of her parents really parents her.

THEME

Religion is misused when it is relied upon for personal gain and false reassurance.

As explained by ‘Short Story Magic Tricks‘:

Mrs. Harley goes to church every Sunday morning, but in order to do so, she must commit the selfish and irresponsible act of passing her babysitting duties off on Renee.

Renee attends a funeral and begins to cry during the Lord’s Prayer, but only because she is worried about her own life: growing old and dying alone.

And finally, Mrs. Tennyson turns to the bible, but only when tragedy befalls her family. In a particularly Cheever-esque moment of dark comedy, she reads the story of Abraham and compares his sacrifice to the plight she and Mr. Tennyson face.

The hypocrisy of the religion employed by these characters is stark. For instance, Mrs Tennyson prays with a bible which has been stolen from a hotel. ‘They had used it once or twice as a reference.’

Even though grown up, some adults never really lose their childlike selfishness, even after having children of their own.

In other words, giving birth doesn’t cure anyone of egocentricity. As Cheever has done for other mothers earlier in this collection, Katherine resembles a child, with her dark hair parted on the side. It would seem Cheever holds mothers to very high standards, and tends to see grown women as not quite grown up.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “THE SUTTON PLACE”

Character Exposition

It’s important that the readers understand and judges the nature of two-year-old Deborah for ourselves before the rest of the story unfolds. We need to see how Deborah is a good mimic rather than a genuinely adult-like character with a  plan of her own. Note how much time is given over to this task — the entire first couple of pages. After that, we are given small reminders, for example when Renee witnesses Deborah playing with her little friends with no more purpose than ‘swallows’. The reader must understand Deborah’s genuine innocence in order to fully grasp the nature of neglect, from both her parents and her nanny, and also of the drunken elevator man who escorts a two-year-old down without batting an eyelid. The reader is invited to stand in judgement of these adult characters, each one of them neglectful by varying degrees.

Crime Writing Techniques

The Realini Blog points out that at times this story uses the techniques of crime writers:

For instance, a foul play is suspected at one point and the father and the police go to this woman’s place that is suspected of abducting the child: Where have you been this morning? /Here, why? /We thought you might know the whereabouts of Deborah/No, but the stars told me that something is going to happen/You wrote a letter to Mrs. Tennyson (Debra’s mother) about her disappearance/You see she was born under the sign of Pluto…

The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever

For regular readers of crime stories, this story (in which no crime actually occurs) is imbued with a sense of foreboding. We expect something terrible to happen. And I might add, this is doubly so if you’re reading the Collected Stories, in which case a terrible thing just happened to the little girl of the previous story.

Choice Of Detail

When looking closely for technique, Cheever made some interesting choices when writing this story. For instance, what’s with the woman with the round hat who is stealing pieces of privet? Why is she there? When the child goes missing, suddenly the entire environment looks like a safety hazard, from open windows in the bedroom to the nearby river to the streets filled with traffic. A woman trimming a privet hedge would ordinarily look like a reassuring figure; privet hedges are by their very nature a symbol of orderliness. But on closer inspection this woman is doing something slightly underhanded. Suddenly, on closer inspection, the city looks grimy and suspect and full of danger, and is populated by selfish adults.

STORY SPECS OF “THE SUTTON PLACE”

Published in The New Yorker, June 29, 1946

New Yorker Cover June 29 contains the sutton place

 

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH “THE SUTTON PLACE”

This isn’t the only story Cheever wrote about yuppie parents failing to adequately care for their own children. See the previous story in this collection, The Hartleys, for a particularly heart-wrenching story about a ski-trip with a seven-year-old daughter. Having a seven-year-old daughter myself, I decided not to go into that story in any depth, as it’s too unpleasant. This is a story with a sad and abrupt ending.

Richard Wirick sees comparisons between this story and The Enormous Radio when it comes to the main characters and their sensibilities:

In “The Sutton Place Story” and “The Enormous Radio,” Cheever’s narrators notice a neurotic, mercenary bitterness behind the façade of a certain “kind of people,” ones who

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 children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the 12th floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped some day to live in Westchester.

– from The Enormous Radio

Moving away from Cheever, the missing little girl and her (perhaps) imaginary friend Martha are reminiscent of the short story The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar. Like Cheever does here, Millar employs crime writing techniques to create suspense.

WRITE YOUR OWN SHORT STORY INSPIRED BY “THE SUTTON PLACE”

Take a time when you were worried about someone’s safety.

Using classic techniques of crime writers, paint a sense of foreboding for the reader.

The real challenge here, assuming nothing terrible does happen, is in creating a satisfying ending for the reader, who on the one hand will be glad nothing bad happened, but on the other hand, wondering what the point of the story is. A ‘let down’ story such as this must carry its story in the details leading to the non-event.

 

 

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