“The Common Day” is a slice of life story set around the time of the 20th Century world wars. Though this story was first published after WW2 had ended, the story is set in a time of unrest, when even the most cosseted upper-crust of New Hampshire can’t feel entirely at ease about the future. When dividing the Cheever stories according to location, this is one of his ‘exurban’ or ‘vacation’ stories.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY
Our viewpoint character, Jim Brown, is spending 10 days in the country at his wife’s family’s house, somewhere in New Hampshire. Jim himself is a city person. When he gets to his mother-in-law’s large country estate, he is rather flattered to find that the male gardener seeks him out. The gardener misses male company, and wants to tell him that all his vegetables are going to waste unless someone orders them to be eaten. Jim also sets some traps for a raccoon who has been making mischief in the crops.
Later that evening, there is an afternoon storm and everyone’s mood seems to alter. The conversation on the terrace takes a sombre tone. The gardener approaches his mistresses and tells her that he won’t be moving the lilies that she had asked him to move earlier that day. He has a bit of an outburst about how all his boss ever does is kill flowers, whereas he is the one who knows all about gardening.
The raccoon gets caught in a trap that has been set for it. Jim finishes it off by shooting it twice in the head. This wakes his niece and her maid, who come to see what the commotion is about. Somewhat reassured, the woman and girl retreat to bed. Jim Brown wishes he could help them somehow, by offering them his light.
New England, in the country. The viewpoint character (Jim) feels more at home in the city, but here he is in the country. The conflict between city and country mirrors conflict between the aristocratic and servant classes, which are perhaps less obvious in the city (where most people lead middle class lives), and only apparent when travelling to the older, larger households in the countryside, where large manors still require staff.
From the fields came an indescribable perfume, pungent and soporific.
Compared to the stimulation of the city, our viewpoint character feels the country is ‘soporific’.
Published in 1947, the story is set around this time also, though it may have been set before the second world war, as there is conjecture about war breaking out, and what if.
The human hierarchy is gendered as it is monied; the gardener respects Jim’s opinion on things partly because he’s a man, and he misses having a man to talk to about the garden. His feeling that men are superior to women (at least in the realm of gardening) doesn’t help him out when he has to work under a monied woman, and this attitude probably contributes to his angry outburst.
Children are seen and not heard, eating in the servant quarters.
Jim Brown — the viewpoint character, works in the city (in an unspecified job), having married the daughter of a wealthy family. He is in the country for only 10 days. This character functions as a window into this world and is without strong personality himself. Note the generic name ‘Jim Brown’, of which there are no doubt many. As viewpoint character, Jim is not fully part of the story. For example, unlike Nils, who is truly a part of the milieu of the story, Jim’s humour remains unaffected after the storm.
Ellen Brown (nee Garrison)— Jim’s wife. Spends all summer at the natal home in the countryside, only returning to her husband in the city for winter. Young, slender, pretty. Eats breakfast in the sun on the terrace from a tray. Ellen would rather live permanently with her family in the country. One of her favourite things to do is to visit abandoned farms with a view to setting up house there.
Ellen was a woman with many inexpressible fears — of traffic, of poverty, and, particularly, of war — and these remote, improbably houses represented safety and security to her. […] ‘I feel more and more that we’ve got to get some bse away from New York,’ she said. ‘If there was a war, we’d be caught like rats.’
Timmy Brown — Jim and Ellen’s five-year-old son
Emma Boulanger — the French housemaid.
Agnes Shay — an Irish servant. She considers the pantry her domain, and doesn’t let Jim into the preserves. She has also been promoted to Carlotta’s nurse. John Cheever writes a thumbnail character study of Agnes:
Agnes Shay had the true spirit of a maid. Moistened with dishwater and mild eau de cologne, reared in narraow and sunless bedrooms, in back passages, back stairs, laundries, linen closets, and in those servants’ halls that remind one of a prison, her soul had grown docile and bleak. The ranks of service appeared to her as just and inflexible as the rings of hell. She would no more have yielded Mrs Garrison a place at the servants’ table in the kitchen than Mrs Garrison would have yielded her one in the gloomy dining room. Agnes loved the ceremonies of the big house. She drew the curtains in the living room at dark, lighted the candles on the table, and struck the dinner chimes like an eager alter boy. On fine evenings, when she sat on the back porch between the garbage pails and the woodbins, she liked to recall the faces of all the cooks she had known. It made her life seem rich.
Agnes had never been as happy as she was that summer. She loved the mountains, the lake, and the sky, and she had fallen in love ewith Carlotta as a youth falls in love. She worried about her own appearance. She worried about her fingernails, her handwriting, her education. Am I worthy? she wondered. The irascible and unhappy child was her only link with the morning, with the sun, with everything beautiful and exciting. To touch Carlotta, to lay her cheek against the child’s warm hair, overpowered her with a sense of recaptured youth. Carlotta’s mother would return from Reno in September and Agnes had prepared the speech she would make to her: ‘Let me take care of Carlotta, Mrs Bronson! While you were away, I read all those articles in the Daily News about taking care of chidren. I love Carlotta. She’s used to me. I know what she wants…’ […] Agnes had no rivals, but she was in continual torment lest something happen to Carlotta. She would not let her wear a scarf around her neck for fear it would catch on a nail or in some door and strangle the child. Every steep staircase, every deep body of water, the distant barking of every watchdog frightened Agnes. She dreamed at night that the house caught fire and, unable to save Carlotta, she threw herself into the flames. Now, added to her other anxieties, were the steel traps and the rifle. She could see Jim from the nursery window. The traps were not set, but that didn’t make them any less dangerous, lying there on the ground where anybody could step on them. He had the rifle apart and was cleaning it with a rag, but Agnes felt as if the rifle were loaded and aimed at Carlotta’s heart.
Nils Lund — the gardener, a widower who doesn’t have much time for women, especially when they order him around.
He left the driveway for the lawn and came across the grass toward the terrace, his short, faded hair, his spare figure, and the line of this shoulders reminded Jim of a boy. It was as if Nils’s growth, his spirit, had been stopped in some summer of his youth, but he moved wearily and without spirit, like a broken-hearted old man. He came tot he foot of the terrace and spoke to Mrs Garrison without looking at her.
Mrs Garrison — Ellen’s mother and owner of the house. Mrs Garrison has a number of sons who are only briefly mentioned. Constantly singing and talking to herself. A matronly archetype. Her voice is compared to a ‘trumpet’. Nils can’t stand his mistress, partly because she issues orders about what she can and can’t use in the kitchen, and he doesn’t like following them. He also doesn’t like her because she reminds him of his dead wife. He feels bound to Mrs Garrison until death do them part.
Mrs Garrison was indifferent to children […] When Carlotta was dressed, Agnes took her down to the living room. Mrs Garrison was waiting there. it was one of the rituals of that summer that she should spend an hour with Carlotta each afternoon. Left alone with her grandmother, the child sat stiffly in a chair. Mrs Garrison and the little girl bored one another.
Mrs Garrison had led an unusually comfortable life, so well sustained by friends and by all sorts of pleasures that she retained a striking buoyancy. She was impulsive, generous and very kind. She was also restless. ‘What shall we do, Carlotta?’ she asked.
The Raccoon — the raccoon comes at night to eat Nils Lund’s corn. Jim sets traps, which kills it that evening.
Greta — the Swedish cook.
Ingrid — Greta’s daughter, a pale skinny girl of eleven.
Carlotta Bronson — another of Mrs Garrison’s grandchildren. Sickly. Four years old. Mother’s name is Florrie. Like Jim’s family, normally resides in New York.
Shay — it’s not clear who Shay is. He may be Carlotta’s father or he may be a man mentioned in passing, getting married before heading off to war. Or he may simply be ill. Whichever is the case, both Ellen and Mrs Garrison agree that he hasn’t long to live.
Human hierarchies are ridiculously accidental and notoriously unjust. Not everyone is content to ‘know their place’.
And just because the servant class get on with their work and do it well, doesn’t mean they are loyal to their mistresses:
‘Where is she?’ Greta asked.
‘She’s in there with Carlotta,’ Agnes said.
‘She was talking to herself in the garden this morning.’
Those of the lower classes are expected to put ego aside for the greater good. This applies to the running of an aristocratic or upper-class household in the same way it applies to a world war. The lower class are expected to sacrifice their lives, if not literally then in spirit.
The idea of ‘human waste’ is symbolised by the vegetables for Nils, who cultivates his produce carefully only to see it go uneaten. When certain productive humans are put to lifelong work on menial duties, this is ‘a waste’.
Why are you better than me? You don’t know how to do anything but kill flowers. I grow the flowers. You kill them. If a fuse burns out, you don’t know how to do it. If something leaks, you don’t know how to do it. You kill flowers. That’s all you know how to do.
Even those in a position of privilege and seeming security can be plagued with always wanting to be somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ is very often an imagined place of the future, or else a place from a long-ago memory.
War affects everyone, though, and no amount of money can fully protect you. While Jim is without strong opinions on this, Ellen has obviously given it some thought. Though she lives a very sheltered life by any standard, she is drawn to all of those dilapidated farm houses and wants her husband to start up a business in the country in an area he knows nothing about, because she isn’t feeling sufficiently secure.
Mrs Garrison’s anxieties are more generalised. With less time to live regardless of war, she has her good memories as solace, though even those can turn on her if she isn’t careful.
[Mrs Garrison] remembered her first pearls. She had worn them to a party in Baltimore. It had been a wonderful party and the memory excited her for a moment. Then she felt old.
The following signifies a universal difference between the young and the old. The old wish for the peace of earlier times whereas the young often seem to be wishing their lives away. Both young and old have difficulty living for the moment:
‘I want to be a big lady. I want to be a big lady like Aunt Ellen and Mummy.’
‘And when you’re as big as your mother, you’ll wish you were a child again!’ Mrs Garrison said angrily.
This difficulty of ‘living in the moment’ is captured in the title. ‘The Common Day’ may refer to ‘the present moment’, the hour that is now. Or the title may refer to a day shared by a collection of people from several different walks of life, and the fact that when it comes to wartime, everyone’s in it together. Or it might refer to a particular day for one particular commoner (Nils Lund) when he finally snapped and talked back to his mistress.
Rituals can calm anxious minds.
The habits of each character are described in this story, from the husband and wife who repeatedly spend summers apart, to breakfasts on the terrace to Mrs Garrison’s designated hour to play in lacklustre fashion with her granddaughter. The servants naturally have their own daily patterns:
In the kitchen, Greta and Agnes were drinking coffee. The lunch dishes had been washed and the turmoil that attended dinner had not begun. The kitchen was cool and clean and the grounds were still. They met there every afternoon and it was the pleasantest hour of the day.
Similarly, focusing on minutiae can turn the mind away from death and other catastrophes.
Mrs Garrison hears thunder and thinks of a woman she once knew who was struck dead by lightning. When asked about it, she ends up recalling that there wasn’t even anything to drink at the funeral. By focusing on trivialities such as funeral catering, she manages to avoid really thinking about the woman’s death, and therefore about her own impending demise. This is exactly what her late husband did after she was thrown out of the car; instead of worrying about his wife he checked on his bottles of scotch. (She doesn’t seem to realise she has done just as her callous husband had.)
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
It was a splendid summer morning and it seemed as if nothing could go wrong.
Whenever we see a sentence such as this near the beginning of a short story we just know something is going to go wrong.
The name of the farm Ellen Brown wants to visit is on ‘Black Hill’.
Several of the characters in this story suffer from anxiety: First there’s Agnes Shay, then Ellen’s anxieties are described, regarding old houses and security and the war.
Weather as Pathetic Fallacy
Cheever isn’t shy of using weather to signal human emotion.
[The storm] raged for half an hour and then blew off to the west, leaving the air chill, bitter, and clean; but the afternoon was over.
The characters’ general anxieties are symbolised by the evening winds:
The odd winds that blow just before dark in the mountains brought, from father down the lake, the words of a song, sung by some children at a camp there…
The trap for the raccoon is a fairly obvious symbol for people trapped within their class. The coon thumps his tail against the ground in pain, which comes directly after the scene in which Nils does the same verbally, sick and tired of being told what to do in his garden. The coon does not fare well, shot in the head by Jim. Though the story ends soon after, the reader has a sense of what may become of Nils.
Nils wears boots that are too big for him. This is noted just before he chats back to his employer.
When Jim likes the city but his wife prefers the country this stands in for larger differences in character.
The dilapidated country houses that take Ellen’s fancy serve as an unwelcome foreboding about what life might be like should the country go to war. Everything seems safer in the more bustling city of New York than out in deserted country areas, where farmers and aristocrats have recently lost their livelihoods.
Cheever was quite fond of aptronyms, and we can learn something of his intent for the character of Mrs Garrison by looking at the meaning of her surname:
Garrison (various spellings) (from the French garnison, itself from the verb garnir, “to equip”) is the collective term for a body of troops stationed in a particular location, originally to guard it, but now often simply using it as a home base. The garrison is usually in a city, town, fort, castle or similar. “Garrison town” is a common expression for any town that has a military base nearby.
This supports the idea that when Nils Lund sees Mrs Garrison he sees the upper-class in general. He is angry that this impending war is something designed and started by men in their ivory towers, sending young men from the lower classes to the fields en masse to be killed. When Nils is stricken by self-consciousness, he seems to limp. When this story was published, the war had just ended and the sight of a limping man would have been unusually common.
The light that Jim wants to offer Agnes and Carlotta in the final paragraph is a symbol of ‘hope’, since the ‘diminutives, timidity, and vagueness’ are obviously faux reassurances to each other.
The Common Day was published in the New Yorker Aug. 2, 1947 (pp. 19-24).
This is the second short story in the vintage collection of short stories by John Cheever.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
The TV series Downton Abbey is also (partly) about class, and how lives were so different depending on what class you had been born into. Downton Abbey, though, can deal with class with moralistic overtone; the servants who the audience is encouraged to empathise with are the servants who ‘know their place’ and toe the line. The ‘evil’ characters are often the ones who try to bust out of their restrictions. They suffer dire consequences.
In The Common Day, the gardener is like one of the ‘evil servants’ on Downton Abbey in that he doesn’t fully accept his station in life. He can see straight through the injustice of class, and this leads to his discontent, and possibly to his downfall. But this is a much more subdued story. There are no immediate and dire consequences for Nils.
The anti-war song Where Have All The Flowers Gone? wasn’t written (by Pete Seeger) until 1955, but like Nils Lund may be doing, Seeger uses the word ‘flower’ as a symbol for all the young men who are sent off to war and killed, or for all the beautiful things that disappear during wartime.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Have you ever seen someone in an inferior position explode with frustration at a boss or someone in authority?
What would you like to have said to someone in authority one time when you were frustrated? What do you think the consequences might have been?
Rich Americans had a much more comfortable time in the 1950s, as depicted in the illustration of a picnic at a country house below.