Is “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” ultimately a story about fernweh? The main character wants to be somewhere else, for sure, and wants to be someone else. Ultimately he finds peace by ditching his temporary persona as a thief and returning to his honest, family-man status.
“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is remarkable for the way in which Cheever leads the reader towards certain doom, only to end happily. Cheever certainly didn’t want to become predictable in his endings.
John Cheever’s ecstatic and ultimately redemptive vision makes him singular among the suburbs’ sad bards; Cheever is rare among writers for his ability to consistently pull off believable happy endings….Ultimately the story has a comedic structure: The world gets more and more disordered, but in the end it’s put back together anew.
But is the ending really a happy one, or are we listening to an unreliable — possibly manic — narrator?
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill is one of Cheever’s most well-known and analysed short stories, along with The Swimmer, which is also set in Shady Hill. Do you use the word ‘housebreaker’ yourself? It’s not in my active vocabulary. But in England between about 1660 and 1800, ‘housebreaking’ was considered a different crime from ‘burglary’ even though they were essentially the same thing. ‘Burglary’ was worse because it was done at night, whereas housebreaking was carried out during the day. Crimes committed at night were thought to be worse, even when they were exactly the same crime, because they were scarier.
This distinction had obviously gone by the time John Cheever wrote his short story.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE HOUSEBREAKER OF SHADY HILL”
It’s a pretty simple story on the surface. A man with a family in the suburbs loses his job at company that manufactures parablendeum, which seems to be kind of color-tinted Saran wrap. (I’m pretty sure Cheever invented this word because neither Google nor I seem to have heard of it.) He gets fired, decides to go into business on his own, and does a pretty pathetic job of it. Quickly, things get bleak. He runs out of money and can’t bring himself to tell his wife. And once that charade starts, he feels that his only hope is to break into his neighbors’ houses and steal their cash in the middle of the night…One night after a late dinner party, he returns to house of his rich hosts and breaks into it. He tiptoes into their bedroom where they’re sleeping, sees a pair of pants hanging over a chair, and fishes out his friend’s wallet. There’s $900 cash inside. He flees with all of it into the night. This one act haunts the narrator for the rest of the story, and very nearly undoes him completely. He becomes totally convinced of his criminality. He starts seeing theft and sin everywhere he goes. He starts feeling as though everyone knows he’s done wrong. He starts to behave like person being eaten alive by guilt.
The word ‘housebreaker’ reminds me a little of the highly gendered term ‘homewrecker’. ‘Housebreaker’ refers not only to Hake’s break-and-entering criminality but also to the way his family is about to fall apart.
SETTING OF “THE HOUSEBREAKER OF SHADY HILL”
[Mr Hake] lives in a fictional neighborhood called Shady Hill, an opulent hamlet not unlike like the one in Ossining, New York, where Cheever really lived….This is one of the things that’s so apparent when you’re reading Cheever: his openness to redemptive beauty. His suburbs aren’t corrupt, awful places. They’re not places that have dark, ugly roots that he’s trying to expose—which is often the basic project in the subgenre of American suburban fiction (and film and TV). Cheever’s world is one that, no matter how buttoned-up it may be, is continuously ruptured by unexpected beauty…we’ve become almost conditioned to believe that manicured suburban aesthetics are only an illusion to conceal some fundamental rottenness.
Johnny Hake calls Shady Hill a banlieue. In France, a banlieue (French: [bɑ̃ljø]) is a suburb of a large city.
CHARACTERS IN “THE HOUSEBREAKER OF SHADY HILL”
The first person narrator introduces himself as an opening to the story, and Johnny Hake is the most average seeming guy you could hope to meet in this milieu:
My name is Johnny Hake. I’m thirty-six years old, stand five feet eleven in my socks, weigh one hundred and forty-two pounds stripped, and am, so to speak, naked at the moment and talking into the dark.
I notice that a hake is a type of fish, and that Cheever isn’t shy of using allegorical names, but I’m not sure that this phonetic coincidence means anything.
It’s been said that this story is Cheever’s best example of a Puritan mindset, and sure enough, Hake tells us that he grew up in the relevant churches:
I was conceived in the Hotel St. Regis, born in the Presbyterian Hospital, raised on Sutton Place, christened and confirmed in St. Bartholomew’s…
Though it’s a little odd that he tells us where he was conceived. How many regular people even know that? Coupled with the fact that he’s standing in the dark talking to himself, this guy is odd. How much of what he says should we believe?
Unfortunately for Johnny Hake, he is not a sociopath. After lying to his wife about finances and stealing from his neighbour, his conscience bothers him a lot. Everyone can see it. It’s affecting his state of mind. In many short stories, this character would undergo a character change, prompting him to return the money he stole, but if you look carefully, Johnny’s ‘scope of change’ isn’t all that big.
When he lies to the patrol about having a dog in that final scene, we see he’s still living with deceit:
This curious episode renders problematic Hakes’ new-found probity. Although we are supposed to believe Hake underwent some kind of conversion, since he does not rob the Pewters,’ his interaction with the patrolman tells us he still has an inclination to conceal the naked truth. Hake is still an impostor of sorts, thief or not. Hence, he utilizes his skills at dissembling to solve a problem that began with dissembling. He illicitly enters his neighbor’s house for a second time, albeit this time to repay, rather than steal. Hake’s crisis of conscience appears rather superficial. After all, it was rather easily dispelled soon after he got his job back. In truth, Hake was operating under delusions from the very start, and his crisis of conscience brings him no closer to really understanding why he was ever prompted to steal. It was a delusion for Hake to think that stealing money would somehow solve his financial problems, a fact highlighted by the farrago of feelings concerning death, his mother, and the pastoral that occurred previous to his theft. And it is similarly a delusion to think that returning the money will really make life any better; Hake is a false convert. He ends the story exactly as he began it, talking to himself in the dark.
Freudian psychoanalysis can be applied to the character of Johnny. First, a main character needs desire: conscious desire and desire under the surface.
- Johnny’s conscious desire: To provide financially for his family, at whatever cost.
- Johnny’s hidden desire: To create a kind of Arcadia, and make amends with his estranged mother who he misses dearly. He wants to go back to the garden of childhood.
Main characters also require two different kinds of shortcoming:
- Johnny’s psychological shortcoming: In order to have a better life, Johnny is going to have to get his priorities straight. Having money won’t help if he becomes such an unpleasant person that his family can’t stand to be around him.
- Johnny’s need: Johnny must stop lying and stealing because it’s working on his conscience even though he seems to be getting away with it.
[Johnny’s boss] was the kind of despot who needed a front, and this was Gil Bucknam’s job. He was the old man’s right hand, front, and peacemaker, and he could garnish any deal with the humanity the old man lacked, but he started staying out of the office-at first for a day or two, then for two weeks, and then for longer. When he returned, he would complain about stomach trouble or eyestrain, although anyone could see that he was looped. This was not so strange, since hard drinking was one of the things he had to do for the firm. The old man stood it for a year and then came into my office one morning and told me to get up to Bucknam’s apartment and give him the sack.
(I had not heard the word ‘looped’ to mean ‘drunk’ before. There were several other slang words I hadn’t heard before; another is ‘gumshoe’. Johnny ‘gumshoed over the grass’. Shoes in the late 1800s were made of gum rubber – the soft-soled precursors of the modern sneaker. The phrase “to gumshoe” meant to sneak around quietly as if wearing gumshoes, but later came to mean ‘detective’.)
Gil and the horrible boss fire Johnny from the stable company that enabled him to buy a nice house in the suburbs and provide for a wife and four kids. Cheever does an excellent job of making Gil and the big boss sound awful to work with. We have some sympathy for Johnny, the average guy stuck between two… sociopaths, perhaps, whose lack of conscience stand in contrast to Johnny’s heavy one.
Christina is somewhat culpable in the narrator’s mind. Even though she is portrayed as a caring mother, her disinterest in the finances leaves the burden of money entirely to the husband. Also, his marriage to Christina is not approved by his mother, which has caused an irreparable rift. She also rolls over away from his embrace the night he decides to go out and steal, suggesting that if only she’d been awake and responsive, he might not have stooped to the levels he did.
Her neck is graceful, her breasts gleamed as they rose in the cloth of her dress, and, seeing the decent and healthy delight she took in her own image, I could not tell her that we were broke.
The milieu is important to understanding this dynamic: men were taught to be the breadwinners, and a failure to bring home the bread equated to a failure of manhood. Women were taught to be mothers and homemakers, and that a strong interest in finances was unwomanly.
She had sweetened much of my life, and to watch her seemed to freshen the wellsprings of some clear energy in me that made the room and the pictures on the wall and the moon that I could see outside the window all vivid and cheerful. The truth would make her cry and ruin her make-up and the Warburtons’ dinner party for her, and she would sleep in the guest room. There seemed to be as much truth in her beauty and the power she exerted over my senses as there was in the fact that we were overdrawn at the bank.
Johnny Hake does not like the Warburtons, partly because he looks for reasons to dislike them before robbing them.
The Warburtons are rich, but they don’t mix; they may not even care. She is an aging mouse, and he is the kind of man that you wouldn’t have liked at school. He has a bad skin and rasping voice and a fixed idea-lechery. The Warburtons are always spending money, and that’s what you talk about with them.
As Dyer explains, the Warburtons serve as an ‘analog’ to John’s anxiety. No matter how much money the Warburtons have, there is always something to be worried about:
We know that Hake is worried about money, and that he hasn’t told his wife about their financial troubles. An analog to this anxiety about problems with money is Sheila Warburton’s fear of her husband being mugged in the city. The Warburtons have money, and their money is what separates them and the other suburban dwellers from the slum that exists in the city. This is the tacit backdrop to Hake’s financial troubles, the conflict between the dissolute, victimizing city and the theoretically secure suburbs.
Mrs Hake, Johnny’s Mother
Sometimes, characters who are off-stage in the story are as influential to the plot as any who are present. In this case, we have the narrator’s mother, a stingy but well-off old woman of the type Johnny has learned to despise:
She sent me through college, arranged for me to spend my vacations in pleasant landscapes, and fired my ambitions, such as they are, but she bitterly opposed my marriage, and our relations had been strained ever since…I wanted to do it all over again in some emotional Arcadia, and have us both behave differently, so that I could think of her at three in the morning without guilt, and so that she would be spared loneliness and neglect in her old age.
John Dyer explains that:
[Hake’s] mother was the person who enabled him to achieve his station in life. She educated him, fired his ambitions, and he wants to keep the house and family he has built with the tools she gave him. However, at the same time, Hake is not pleased with the changes his life has undergone as a consequence of his success. His marriage has caused a rift between him and his mother, for example, and now, while he is living in Shady Hill, he is cut off from her. To regain the love of his mother, he would have to change his lifestyle, something which he refuses to do, although retaining that lifestyle is also the source of much of his guilt. Hake thus feels regret for leaving behind the very things which have allowed him to push forward in his life. He cannot go back for them without altering everything he so wants to retain, although back in time are the only things that can fully perfect his present life.
No matter how cruel [Cheever’s] characters are to each other, no matter how much they disappoint each other or what sins they commit, there’s still a sense that there’s light in his world. It comes through in the way he describes trees so well, and smells and breezes and the ocean. The landscape balances out the torment of the tortured characters within it—and sometimes, that beauty is even enough to save them.
If our conscience starts to prick, humans have the ability to reason away our own badness, convincing ourselves (or trying to) that what we have done is completely justified. Some people are better able to do this than others.
Once we start to fixate on something, we see that thing everywhere — for the first time — even though it’s been there all along.
I looked at the paper. There has been a thirty-thousand-dollar payroll robbery in the Bronx. A White Plains matron had come home from a party to find her furs and jewelry gone. Sixty thousand dollars of medicine had been taken from a warehouse in Brooklyn. I felt better at discovering how common the thing I had done was. But only a little better, and only for a short while. Then I was faced once more with the realization that I was a common thief and an impostor, and that I had done something so reprehensible that it violated the tenets of every known religion…My conscience worked so on my spirits—like the hard beak of a carnivorous bird—that my left eye began to twitch, and again I seemed on the brink of a general nervous collapse.
It’s like when you buy a new car, or shirt, and suddenly you see that car/shirt everywhere, even though you’d not really noticed it before.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Cheever really didn’t mind making use of the elements to hammer home a point, and he does it again here. Before Hake enters the Pewters’ house to attempt another burglary, it starts raining. Caught in the rain, Hake has a revelation:
I was not trapped. I was here on earth because I chose to be. And it was no skin off my elbow how I had been given the gifts of life so long as I possessed them, and I possessed them then—the tie between the wet grass roots and the hair that grew out of my body, the thrill of my mortality that I had known on summer nights…I looked up at the dark house and then turned and walked away.
In this story, the epiphany that comes from getting wet is akin to a kind of baptism.
Cheever has already made use of the weather earlier. It’s about to storm as he goes to tell his superior that he’s been fired:
It was early in the fall-the World Series was being played-and a thunderstorm was entering the city. […] Gil was in bed, and Mrs. Bucknam let me into the bedroom. The storm was about
to break now, and everything stood in a gentle half darkness so much like dawn that it seemed as if we should be sleeping and dreaming, and not bringing one another bad news.
Now this is definitely dangerous territory for a writer. Precipitation has been tempting young writers as a dramatic climax for a long time: Write yourself into a corner and you always have the weather. To me, it’s the deus ex machina of everyday spiritual crises—guilt and sin cleansed by rain—and it just might be the most handy cop-out available. (When I get caught in the rain, I have yet to find God—I mostly get cold and wet and pissed.) But somehow, in the way the prose functions, Cheever, goddamn, he pulls it off. Despite all of my resistances, I believe the character really is relieved of his guilt….through the music of that language, and perhaps the repetition of certain images from earlier in the story, he’s able to conjure in me a convincing experience of something that is about as abstract and fuzzy as you can get: a man being set free of his conscience.
OUTER NAKEDNESS, INNER INNOCENCE
Cheever introduces nudity in the opening scenes of the narrative and then plays with this trope in order to make statements about his characters’ feelings of innocence and guilt. In one sense, nakedness is a sign of the unadorned nature that is part of the literary convention of pastoralism. Throughout the story the protagonist, Johnny Hake, desires to return to the days of his youth, and specifically to his vacations in the countryside, when he was carefree and innocent. When he expressees these desires, he day-dreams of an imaginary and timeless paradise. In this light, nakedness refers to the shamelessness of the idyllic, prelapsarian, pastoral landscape.
SYMBOLISM: Plastic, Bread, Magic, Gems…
Second, Hake’s job with the plastics business gave him the money that enabled him to reside in his suburban haven. The loss of his job, and his subsequent failure as an independent businessman, is the root of his anxiety. Hake equates plastic with health and wealth. He thus dreams of food in terms of precious gems. Furthermore, his dream of the plastic-wrapped bread takes the form of an advertisement. The bread is something that can be his if he has the money to buy it, which implies that it is something that he does not have in the context of the dream. And because he does not have the bread now, it is an enchanted article, seen as an advertisement, which makes things appear more attractive than they really are. The shiny bread is thus both a sign of the wealth he once had access to, and of his nostalgic desire to reclaim that wealth.
THoSH is one of Cheever’s longer short stories, at over 8,000 words.
This is the 22nd story in the Vintage Cheever collection.
The Housebreaker of Shady Hill first appeared in The New Yorker in 1956.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Read A Glutton For Punishment by Richard Yates. Set in a similar time and place, this is the story of a man who gets fired from a secure job in the city, but his reaction is somewhat different.
Another story which broaches the topic of fernweh is “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro, in which the main character’s wife enters a care facility due to her Alzheimers. Throughout this story, Iceland is set up as a place where the husband would love to go. But he’s never been there because he fears it wouldn’t live up to his expectations. And his expectations are very high indeed — he’s made a career out of lecturing about the area. This reluctance to visit the place he has studied mirrors the fact that he undergoes no real character change. He is never up front with his wife about his philandering. They will live the rest of their lives apart.