In “O City Of Broken Dreams” by John Cheever a stupidly optimistic Evarts Molloy writes the first act of a play then uproots his family and takes them to New York on thirty-five dollars, which to him seems like a huge sum. Everything in New York seems to glitter. The reader — more worldly than Evarts and Alice — can see before the hapless protagonists do that these two are being taken for a ride, filled with false promises and dreams by unscrupulous New York agents.
SETTING OF “O CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS”
Location and Time
Wentworth Indiana seems to be a fictionalised town of the sort found scattered around rural Indiana in the 1940s: poor, with hard-working country folk and the odd local eccentric. This is the unseen setting of the story, though contrasted constantly with its urban inverse, New York.
Neither of them had seen New York before, and they watched its approaches greedily, for Wentworth was a dismal town and even the slums of Manhattan looked wonderful to them that afternoon.
It strikes me that the conductor on the train stops to talk to this family. I get the feeling a conductor these days wouldn’t take (or have) the time. Same deal with the bell boy. This was a time when the population of America was much fewer than it is today. (About 135 million compared to 319 million today.)
The conductor who came through the car taking tickets after Albany noticed the Malloys, and something about their appearance worried him. As he came back through the car, he stopped at their seat and talked with them, first about Mildred-Rose and then about their destination. “You people going to New York for the first time?” he asked. “Yes,” Evarts said. “Going down to see the sights?” “Oh, no,” Alice said. “We’re going on business.” “Looking for a job?” the conductor asked.
The other thing that might surprise a modern parent is how these parents left their five-year-old daughter in a dodgy hotel in the care of a bell boy they hardly knew in order to keep an evening appointment. While this partly speaks to the naivety of the Malloys, doing such a thing would be unthinkable today, and possibly even criminally negligent.
CHARACTERS OF “O CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS”
From Wentworth, Indiana. Joined the army, came home from the war and became a night bus driver. Bus driving didn’t suit him because of stomach aches and eye pain. Started writing a play in the afternoons, based on a local personality called Mama Finelli, using her colourful dialogue.
His light shoes had perhaps not been out of the back of the closet since his father’s funeral or his brother’s wedding. She was wearing her new gloves for the first time-the gloves she had been given for Christmas ten years ago. His tarnished collar pin and his initialed tie clip, with its gilt chain, his fancy socks, the rayon handkerchief in his breast pocket, and the carnation made of feathers in his lapel had all been husbanded in the top drawer of his bureau for years in the firm conviction that life would someday call him from Wentworth.
Whereas Alice notices all the gold and glitter of New York, Evarts notices all the good-looking young women:
Evarts had never seen so many beautiful women, so many pleasant, young faces, promising an easy conquest.
The front room of Murchison’s office was dingy-intentionally dingy, Evarts hoped-but it was not inglorious, for there were many beautiful men and women there, waiting to see Mr. Murchison.
Alice is used to a simple country life, is good at budgeting and making do with little.
In Wentworth, Alice had been known as the practical member of the family. There was a good deal of jocularity on this score. She drew up the budget and managed the egg money, and it was often said that Evarts would have misplaced his head if it hadn’t been for Alice.
Compliant by nature, she always does as her mother told her to do long ago, without having reflected upon the rights and wrongs of anything by thinking for herself. Belonged to the Women’s Club back in Wentworth and was sufficiently motivated and bolshy to foist her husband’s beginning of a play upon a visiting producer.
Alice Malloy had dark, stringy hair, and even her husband, who loved her more than he knew, was sometimes reminded by her lean face of a tenement doorway on a rainy day, for her countenance was long, vacant, and weakly lighted, a passage for the gentle transports and miseries of the poor.
Their five-year-old daughter.
Their child slept with her thumb in her mouth. Her hair was dark and her dirty face was lean, like her mother’s. […] She had been unable to store up as much finery as her parents, since she was only five years old, but she wore a white fur coat. The matching hat and muff had been lost generations before; the skins of the coat were sere and worn, but as she slept, she stroked them, as if they had remarkable properties that assured her that all was well, all was well.
Owns a gas station and a snake farm back in Wentworth. A ‘salty’ and ‘haunting’ old character who makes excellent material for a work of fiction. Her ‘saltiness’ comes back to haunt Evarts.
“What are you doing in New York, Mama Finelli? How did you happen to come here?” “Well,” she said, “man named Tracey Murchison calls me on the telephone long-distance and says for me to come up to New York and sue you for libel. Says you wrote a play about me and I can sue you for libel and git a lot of money and split it with him, fairly, he says, and then I don’t have to run the gas station no more. So he wires me money for the flying-machine ticket and I come up here and I talk with him and I’m going to sue you for libel and split it with him, sixty-forty. That’s what I’m going to do,” she said.
Bitsey the Bellboy
Can see immediately that the Molloys are new to New York. Like them, he no doubt has aspirations that involve the theatre, as he knows all about agents and things. When he realises the Molloys are going to treat him as an equal rather than just a servant, he is very quick to make himself at home in their suite, helping himself to a cigarette, failing to leave even though Mrs Molloy is partially undressed and is undressing their daughter.
An agent at the Hauser Agency, the best in the biz according to the bellboy.
Sit down, sit down.” Mr. Leavitt seemed either to be eating something or to be having trouble with his teeth, for at the end of every sentence he worked his lips noisily and thoughtfully, like a gourmet. He might have been eating something, since there were crumbs around his mouth. Or he might have been having trouble with his teeth, because the labial noises continued all through the interview.
The producer who paid Evarts $35 for the first act of his play. Once they’re in NY, he fobs them off onto Madge Beatty, promising big things for the play. He invites them to a party on a whim, perhaps to make up for not being able to spend much time with them, but at this party the Molloys are horribly out of their own depth.
Frail, animated, and golden, with a hoarse and accomplished voice. An elderly actress who hopes for one more role before she dies, and will play the part of Mama Finelli, assuming the play were ever planned on being produced. It’s likely that Madge Beatty is as much a pawn in this enterprise as the Malloys.
A producer introduced to Evarts by Charlie Leavitt. This character is never seen, but is described — Pride and Prejudice style — by the butler:
walked with him to Sam Farley’s house. It was an impressive building, faced with rough stone, like a Spanish prison. He kissed Mildred-Rose and Alice goodbye and rang the bell. A butler opened the door. Evarts could tell he was a butler because he wore striped pants. The butler led him upstairs to a drawing room. “I’m here to see Mr. Farley,” Evarts said. “I know,” the butler said. “You’re Evarts Malloy. You’ve got an appointment. But he won’t keep it. He’s stuck in a floating crap game in the Acme Garage, at a Hundred and Sixty-fourth Street, and he won’t be back until tomorrow. Susan Hewitt’s coming, though. You’re supposed to see her. Oh, if you only knew what goes on in this place!” He lowered his voice to a whisper and brought his face close to Evarts’. “If these walls could only talk!
Another actress, this time introduced by Charlie Leavitt. Evarts falls a little in love with her at first sight.
She was young, and she came into the room as if it were her home and she had just come back from school. She was light, her features were delicate and very small, and her fair hair was brushed simply and had begun to darken, of its own course, and was streaked softly with brown, like the grain in pine wood. “I’m so happy to meet you, Evarts,” she said. “I want to tell you that I love your play.” How she could have read his play, Evarts did not know, but he was too confused by her beauty to worry or to speak.
Quite bizarrely, Evarts asks if he can lift her just to see how light she is. She agrees, and that’s that.
THEME OF “O CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS”
All that glitters is not gold. From the title onwards, the reader knows that New York is not going to deliver for this family. This theme is conveyed with literal ‘glittering’. The whole city seems to glimmer and shine:
As the Malloys stepped from the train, Alice noticed that the paving, deep in the station, had a frosty glitter, and she wondered if diamonds had been ground into the concrete.
Their destination, the Hotel Mentone, was on a side street west of Sixth Avenue. It was a dark place, with malodorous chambers, miserable food, and a lobby ceiling decorated with as much gilt and gesso as the Vatican chapels.
The stage show, beneath its grandeur, seemed to conceal a simple and familiar intelligence, as if the drafts that stirred the miles of golden curtain had blown straight from Indiana.
Mr. Leavitt wore a lot of gold. He had several rings, a gold identification bracelet, and a gold bracelet watch, and he carried a heavy gold cigarette case, set with jewels. The case was empty, and Evarts furnished him with cigarettes as they talked. […] He pressed some papers and a gold fountain pen on Evarts. “Just sign these papers,” he said sadly
No stranger to pathetic fallacy, Cheever relies upon it here, too, when he has it rains after the main character has received a sad bit of news. Despite the wet, the city no longer glitters:
It was a rainy night, and the dark, wet paving, deep in the station, did not glitter, but it was still Alice’s belief that diamonds had been ground into it, and that was the way she would tell the story.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “O CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS”
Showing, Not Telling the Telling Details
They had left their home in Wentworth, Indiana, the day before, and in spite of the excitements of travel and their brilliant destination, they both wondered, now and then, if they had remembered to turn off the gas and extinguish the rubbish fire behind the barn.
From the above sentence we learn that the two are from a farm in a rural area without being told directly.
The Reader Feels Anxious For The Main Characters
In order for this to happen, the reader must first have reason to empathise with the characters. The first thing we learn about the Malloys is that they treat things very carefully. They are wearing their very best. We see later that they ‘brush their teeth with soap’ and get up at 6:30am because they come from a line of hard-working, industrious people. Mrs Malloy has owned her gloves for ten years but is wearing them for the first time today. This tells us that she looks after things very well. If she treats items with care, she is a careful person, and not wasteful. So it seems a little out of character but not entirely unrealistic when they take a gambol on an opportunity in New York:
So we take all our money out of the savings bank and we burn our bridges and here we are.
We’ve already seen that the producer doesn’t really want the play, despite the $35. Alice has almost forced the visiting producer into civility by asking him to read the play in front of the local audience. The main problem is that the play isn’t finished and there’s no guarantee that a bus driver is even going to be able to finish it. Any reader who has ever produced anything creative knows what a risk this is; it’s impossible to tell whether anything is any good until after the first draft, at least. Sure enough, once in New York, Evarts is unable to finish the play, finding himself uninspired now that he is away from Mama Finelli and the environment that gave rise to her.
When they reach New York, the landscape overwhelms them:
[Alice] roused Mildred Rose and tied the little girl’s bonnet with trembling fingers.
The reader can see that Alice’s misgivings about New York are admirable but entirely misplaced:
She forbade Evarts to ask directions. “If they find out we’re green, they’ll fleece us,” she whispered.
These country people are overly inclined to trust people one-on-one, but distrust New York people in general. As a consequence, they get lost in the streets on several occasions.
We can see that the Mentones are naive when it comes to the discrepancy between advertisements and reality:
[The Hotel Mentone] was a popular hotel among the old, it was attractive to the disreputable, and the Malloys had found the way there because the Mentone advertised on railroadstation boardings all through the West. Many innocents had been there before them, and their sweetness and humility had triumphed over the apparent atmosphere of ruined splendor and petty vice and had left in all the public rooms a humble odor that reminded one of a country feed store on a winter afternoon.
There is something wonderfully endearing about characters who are so easily impressed and satisfied. We tend to feel protective of such characters, with their childlike enthusiasms:
The Malloys found their way, that afternoon, to the Broadway Automat. [An automat is a fast food restaurant where simple foods and drink are served by coin-operated and bill-operated vending machines.] They shouted with pleasure at the magical coffee spigots and the glass doors that sprang open. “Tomorrow, I’m going to have the baked beans,” Alice cried, “and the chicken pie the day after that and the fish cakes after that.”
It’s equally endearing that the Molloys’ plans for making it rich include generosity to those back home, most especially to the woman who inspired the play. This leaves a particularly sour taste when we discover the ending:
“When I get that four hundred thou’,” he said, “I’m going to send some money to Mama Finelli.” Then Alice remembered a lot of other people in Wentworth who needed money.
Even the language Cheever uses to describe the sights of New York City are childlike in their avoidance of the ‘correct’ terminology. Instead of ‘billboards’ we read ‘brightly lighted pictures’. The sensory overload is conveyed with the phrase ‘jumble of light’:
High in the air were large, brightly lighted pictures of bloody heroes, criminal lovers, monsters, and armed desperadoes. The names of movies and soft drinks, restaurants and cigarettes were written in a jumble of light…
Even the body language of the Molloys paints this couple as children:
Evarts was sitting on the edge of the bed swinging his legs.
Alice and Mildred-Rose shouted with joy.
Mildred-Rose put her thumb into her mouth, and soon both she and her mother had lost consciousness
Even the frail old actress seems large by comparison to Evarts:
“I’ll do anything you want, Miss Beatty,” Evarts said. She sat down and folded her beautiful hands. Her feet were very big, Evarts noticed. Her shins were thin, and this made her feet seem very big.
The bellboy knows that these people are not from New York because they are overly (inappropriately) polite to a paid servant:
“I just wanted to see if you people were all right,” he said. “I just wanted to see if maybe you wanted a little ginger ale or some ice water.” “Oh, no, thank you kindly,” Alice said. “It was very nice of you to ask, though.” “You people just come to New York for the first time?” the bellboy asked.
Since everyone has experienced rejection, we feel for the Molloys when they suffer the same:
Mr. Murchison introduced the Malloys to a couple who stood near the door, and abandoned them. The couple turned their backs on the Malloys.
And we cringe along with Evarts when Alice so embarrassingly misreads the social situation and falls to the ground in a heap.
Evarts suffers his own minor humiliations, and we empathise with him then, too:
The Hauser Agency was located in one of the buildings in Radio City. Now Evarts’ business took him through the building’s formidable doors as legitimately, he told himself, as anyone else. The Hauser offices were on the twenty-sixth floor. He didn’t call his floor until the elevator had begun its ascent. “It’s too late now,” the operator said. “You got to tell me the number of the floor when you get in.” This branded him as green to all the other people in the car, Evarts knew, and he blushed.
We start to feel really worried for Evarts when we are given details that the Hauser offices are in disrepair, and obviously broke. This is a wonderful example of a thumbnail description of a setting, full of justapositions between opulence and poverty:
At the end of a long corridor, there was a pair of bronze doors, fastened by a bifurcated eagle. Evarts turned the wings of the imperial bird and stepped into a lofty manor hall. The paneling on its walls was worm-pitted and white with rot. In the distance, behind a small glass window, he saw a woman wearing earphones. He walked over to her, told her his business, and was asked to sit down. He sat on a leather sofa and lighted a cigarette. The richness of the hall impressed him profoundly. Then he noticed that the sofa was covered with dust. So were the table, the magazines on it, the lamp, the bronze cast of Rodin’s “Le Baiser”-everything in the vast room was covered with dust. He noticed at the same time the peculiar stillness of the hall. All the usual noises of an office were lacking. Into this stillness, from the distant earth, rose the recorded music from the skating rink, where a carillon played “Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come!” The magazines on the table beside the sofa were all five years old. After a while, the receptionist pointed to a double door at the end of the hall, and Evarts walked there, timidly. The office on the other side of the door was smaller than the room he had just left but dimmer, richer, and more imposing, and in the distance he could still hear the music of the skating rink. A man was sitting at an antique desk.
The juxtaposition continues, with the Mr Leavitt waxing lyrical about how much money is going to be made (though he hasn’t read the play). We also see foreshadowing. Mr Leavitt is a litigious sort of character, more interested in law suits than in theatre:
Now, I understand that you’ve signed a contract with Murchison. I’m going to declare that contract null and void, and my lawyer is going to declare that contract null and void, and if Murchison contests it, we’ll drag him into court and have the judge declare that contract null and void.
On the way out, the reader sees that Mr Leavitt isn’t even paying his own secretary a living wage. When she asks, ‘Fresh eggs?’ is she trying to sell them eggs, or is she asking if they’re new to New York, from the country?
As Evarts walked back through the hall, he noticed that the receptionist was eating a sandwich. She beckoned to him. “You want to take a chance on a new Buick convertible?” she whispered. “Ten cents a chance.” “Oh, no, thank you,” Evarts said. “Fresh eggs?” she asked.
This sort of ending is likely to put some readers off. It’s almost as if Cheever couldn’t be bothered deciding on an ending himself. After all, this story is told by an omniscient narrators, and the thing about omniscient narrators is that they know the whole story; if they refuse to tell it to us, it’s a contrivance. On the other hand, by leaving the Molloys’ future open to numerous possibilities, this country-bumpkin couple become a stand-in for many such couples who each came to New York seeking their fortune, leaving with their numerous outcomes, but united by disappointment. As an example of another such couple, we are briefly introduced to the people on their way to Los Angeles:
They had picked up the lessons of travel rapidly, and they arranged themselves adroitly over several seats. After the train started, Alice made friends with a plain-spoken couple across the aisle, who were traveling with a baby to Los Angeles. The woman had a brother there, who had written to her enthusiastically about the climate and the opportunities.
When Cheever says ‘they may have changed’ (‘at Chicago, for a train to the West), the word ‘changed’ is significant. This experience of having blind optimism crushed is going to change the couple, and indeed it already has; they are no longer ill at ease on the commuter train, but have ‘picked up the lessons of travel rapidly’.
STORY SPECS OF “O CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS”
First published in The New Yorker, January 24, 1948
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH “O CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS”
Benjamin Obler sees “O City Of Broken Dreams” as a modern day Little Red Riding Hood:
The Malloys are innocent and doomed. They are like a cluster of Red Riding Hoods setting into the forest. Cut off any section from the Cheever body of work, and you’ll see marbling of these themes.The Guardian
There are a few documentary-makers who have offered viewers some insight into the world of Hollywood hopefuls. Though Cheever’s short story centers on the New York Broadway scene, we might imagine that the Malloys ended up as the 1940s equivalent of the people who star in Louis Theroux’s Off-Off Broadway or The Hollywood Complex.
I’m also reminded of the 1992 ‘heartwarming murder documentary’ Brother’s Keeper, in which three semi-educated lifelong farmers near Syracuse, NY, live quiet, unassuming lives until the eldest brother dies. Another of the brothers is accused of smothering him to death with a pillow. In this story, too, we have the classic ‘country bumpkin’, ‘New York slicker’ divide. The viewer feels empathy for the bumpkin, while at the same time wanting to grab these men by the shoulders and warn them not to sign anything or talk to anyone without a lawyer.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Are you a country person or a city person? Or maybe a suburbs person? Do you know characters who epitomise what it means to be a country person or a city person? What is it about them that makes them so? How do they defy the stereotypes or a ‘bumpkin’ or a ‘slicker’? How would they do if they suddenly found themselves outside their natural environment?