John Cheever isn’t exactly well-known for his ability to get inside women’s heads and depict the other half of humanity as fully human. If he wrote a story with a rounded female protagonist, I’m yet to read it. In “The Pot Of Gold”, at least, the main male character has something to learn from his wife. This short story demonstrates that even if Cheever didn’t feel he understood women sufficiently to be able to write from a female perspective, he at least grasped the essence of white male privilege of 1930s New York.
John Cheever demonstrates a complex understanding of what money, or the pursuit of it, can do to the psyche. Though there are many stories and folktales about the evil of money, the messages here are a little more nuanced.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE POT OF GOLD”
In depression era New York, a young married couple feel that they live on the edge of poverty. In fact, they have enough money to afford an apartment and to go out to dinner on special occasions. But the husband is constantly after a get-rich fix, and spends a lot of money in this pursuit. When he goes off to war, the wife does quite well on her own with their daughter, having temporarily gone back to work. But when he returns, it’s back to high expenditures.
Eventually, the husband gets a lucky break. His uncle has saved a man’s life on Lake Eyrie, and through this connection, the husband is offered a very well paid job in California.
The ending of this story is bittersweet; the job falls through (as foreshadowed) but the husband has an epiphanic moment when he sees that his wife is more concerned about the old man’s stroke than about the lost opportunity to live comfortably on the West coast.
SETTING OF THE POT OF GOLD
Ralph and Laura met in the 1930s, which makes them born near the turn of the century.
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the 1930s. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; however, in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century.
After the war, it appears that they are surrounded by people richer than themselves. This only heightens their feelings of poverty.
Ralph’s life was, as it had always been, dominated by anticipation. In the years directly after the war, the city appeared to be immensely rich. There seemed to be money everywhere, and the Whittemores, who slept under their worn overcoats in the winter to keep themselves warm, seemed separated from their enjoyment of this prosperity by only a little patience, resourcefulness, and luck.
By the time this story was published, in 1950, America had entered a boom period, but there still would have been a reluctance in some people to fully embrace their good luck, because they would remember what America had been like just 20 years earlier, and what has been before may just as easily come again. This story seems to encapsulate that ill-ease of never quite feeling you have enough to be ‘comfortable’.
This is one of Cheever’s New York stories, specifically Madison Avenue.
Laura moved her belongings into a walk-up on Madison Avenue, above a pants presser’s and a florist’s, where Ralph was living.
The era and the place are intertwined because it’s no longer possible to live in this part of New York without a very high income. This was quite a different looking New York. Sitting in Central Park would have been a little as Cheever described:
They sat together with their children through the sooty twilights, when the city to the south burns like a Bessemer furnace, and the air smells of coal, and the wet boulders shine like slag, and the Park itself seems like a strip of woods on the edge of a coal town.
Ralph finds the city noisy — too noisy to get any sleep, and not at all glamorous:
…it seemed to him then that sleep was what everyone in the city sought and only half captured. All the harried faces on the streets at dusk, when even the pretty girls talk to themselves, were looking for sleep. Night-club singers and their amiable customers, the people waiting for taxis in front of the Waldorf on a wet night, policemen, cashiers, window washers—sleep eluded them all.
It goes without saying that at this time wives gave up their jobs as soon as they found they were pregnant. Single income homes were the norm, and that to which the middle class aspired. This is significant only because a dual income household, and perhaps the choice not to have children (available today but not then) would have alleviated many of their financial concerns, and propelled them into a place of comfort. Then again, maybe not. Maybe this couple would always feel poor no matter how much money they earned.
Cheever likes to include musical references in his short stories. At one point he mentions the ‘Emperor Concerto’. A commenter on YouTube points out that ‘The 5th Symphony was exposed to the masses in WWII…The masses will adopt anything from mass media.’
CHARACTERS IN “THE POT OF GOLD”
Ralph Whittemore — While Ralph is full of enthusiasms and exuberance, he is also plagued by a sense that he hasn’t received what he is owed in life. His sense of entitlement and plain old bad luck lead him from one failed business venture to another.
Ralph was a fair young man with a tireless commercial imagination and an evangelical credence in the romance and sorcery of business success, and although he held an obscure job with a clothing manufacturer, this never seemed to him anything more than a point of departure.
Laura Whittemore — While her husband is away at war she manages very nicely on her own income, which she can earn while their daughter is at school. But as soon as her husband comes home again, he plunges the family into poverty, and it is expected that she give up work. Otherwise, her personality is portrayed as mild in comparison to that of her husband:
The Whittemores were not importunate or overbearing people, and they had an uncompromising loyalty to the gentle manners of the middle class. Laura was a pleasant girl of no particular beauty who had come to New York from Wisconsin at about the same time that Ralph had reached the city from Illinois, but it had taken two years of comings and goings before they had been brought together, late one afternoon, in the lobby of a lower Fifth Avenue office building.
Rachel Wittemore — the daughter of Ralph and Laura. The baby/little girl exists as a reason why Laura cannot go out to work and help with the finances, plunging them further into debt.
Alice Holinshed — starts off as the embodiment of Laura, had Laura been pretty. Laura had met her at a party, and happened upon her again as she sat in Central Park with their babies.
Mrs. Holinshed was older than Laura, but she had a more youthful and precise beauty. Her hair and her eyes were black, her pale and perfectly oval face was delicately colored, and her voice was pure. She lighted her cigarettes with Stork Club matches and spoke of the inconvenience of living with a child in a hotel. If Laura had any regrets about her life, they were expressed in her friendship for this pretty woman, who moved so freely through expensive stores and restaurants.
Laura and Mrs Holinshed are never true friends, they’re more frenemies, boasting to each other about their husbands:
The women talked principally about their husbands, and this was a game that Laura could play with an empty purse. Vaguely, boastfully, the two women discussed the irons their men-had in the fire.
But after the war it appears Mrs Holinshed isn’t doing so well at all. She is living in a hotel and while she tells Laura that her husband is the vice president of a soft drink company (which we might expect with the benefit of hindsight to be very well recompensed) she borrows five dollars off Laura then disappears.
The Holinsheds were living in a hotel. Mr. Holinshed was vice-president of a new firm manufacturing a soft drink, but the dress that Mrs. Holinshed wore day after day was one that Laura recognized from before the war. Her son was thin and badtempered. He was dressed in serge, like an English schoolboy, but his serge, like his mother’s dress, looked worn and outgrown.
But Laura runs into her again at another party they attend just before taking off to California. She is wildly envious of Laura’s good fortune.
I know that for the rest of my life, for the rest of my life, I’m going to wear ragged slips and torn nightgowns and torn underclothes and shoes that hurt me. I know that for the rest of my life nobody is going to come up to me and tell me that I’ve got on a pretty dress, because I’m not going to be able to afford that kind of a dress. I know that for the rest of my life every taxi driver and doorman and headwaiter in this town is going to know in a minute that I haven’t got five bucks in that black imitation-suede purse that I’ve been brushing and brushing and brushing and carrying around for ten years. How do you get it? How do you rate it? What’s so wonderful about you that you get a break like this?” She ran her fingers down Laura’s bare arm. The dress she was wearing smelled of benzene. “Can I rub it off you? Will that make me lucky? I swear to Jesus I’d murder somebody if I thought it would bring us in any money. I’d wring somebody’s neck-yours, anybody’s-I swear to Jesus I would-“
Mr Fellows — Mr Fellows is the slightly exaggerated wretched counterpart of Ralph.
The search for Mr. Fellows began one evening when Ralph had finished work, and took him first to the attic of a Hudson Street rooming house, where the landlady showed Ralph a pair of socks that Mr. Fellows had left behind when he moved out. Ralph went south from there to another rooming house and then west to the neighborhood of ship chandlers and marine boarding houses. The nocturnal search went on for a week. He followed the thread of Mr. Fellows’ goings south to the Bowery and then to the upper West Side. He climbed stairs past the open doors of rooms where lessons in Spanish dancing were going on, past whores, past women practicing the “Emperor” Concerto, and one evening he found Mr. Fellows sitting on the edge of his bed in an attic room, rubbing the spots out of his necktie with a rag soaked in gasoline. Mr. Fellows was greedy. He wanted a hundred dollars in cash and fifty per cent of the royalties. Ralph got him to agree to twenty per cent of the royalties, but he could not get him to reduce the initial payment.
Uncle George — Ralph’s uncle is introduced to us not via the usual character thumbnail sketch but by his manner of speaking, which is slightly comical and quite distinctive:
He heard the voice of his Uncle George, a man of the generation that remains conscious of distance, who spoke into the telephone as if he were calling from shore to a passing boat. “This is Uncle George, Ralphie!” he shouted, and Ralph supposed that he and Aunt Helen were paying a surprise visit to the city, until he realized that his uncle was calling from Illinois. “Can you hear me?” Uncle George shouted. “Can you hear me, Ralphie? … I’m calling you about a job, Ralphie. Just in case you’re looking for a job. Paul Hadaam came through-can you hear me, Ralphie? Paul Hadaam came through here on his way East last week and he stopped off to pay me a visit. He’s got a lot of money, Ralphie-he’s rich-and he’s starting this business out in the West to manufacture synthetic wool. Can you hear me, Ralphie?… I told him about you, and he’s staying at the Waldorf, so you go and see him. I saved his life once. I pulled him out of Lake Erie. You go and see him tomorrow at the Waldorf, Ralphie. You know where that is? The Waldorf Hotel… Wait a minute, here’s Aunt Helen. She wants to talk with you.”
Mr Hadaam — We already know that Mr Hadaam is a millionaire, by reputation at least (though we have had enough clues to know that not everyone is as rich as they seem). Now he gets a thumbnail character sketch as Ralph meets him in person for the first time:
Mr. Hadaam had a parlor and a bedroom in the Waldorf Towers, and when Ralph went to see him, late the next afternoon, on his way home from work, Mr. Hadaam was alone. He seemed to Ralph a very old man, but an obdurate one, and in the way he shook hands, pulled at his earlobes, stretched himself, and padded around the parlor on his bandy legs Ralph recognized a spirit that was unimpaired, independent, and canine. He poured Ralph a strong drink and himself a weak one.
THEME IN “THE POT OF GOLD”
The appearance of riches does not equal the having of riches.
Mrs Holinshed exists to show that beauty (and by extension, appearances) cannot compensate for a genuine lack of funds.
Dissatisfaction and a sense of entitlement can lead to living on the edge of poverty when it need not.
This is shown by Ralph and Laura’s different attitude towards money, and the fact that Laura is able to support both herself and their daughter on a woman’s lower income during hard times (the war). Ralph feels entitled, constantly looking around for more. When Ralph wants to buy new clothes Laura says no, and this leads to marital disharmony. The reader is not told what kind of clothes Ralph wants to buy — perhaps clothes which are out of their budget, which seems likely because of Ralph’s experience selling clothes to people with more money than himself.
Having riches is partly a matter of dumb luck.
We are told that Ralph’s schemes have fallen through due to no fault of his own. A war intervened, or else an older man applied for the same jobs, or schemes simply fell through.
Mr Hadaam underscores the role of luck in getting rich. Though rich in money, Mr Hadaam is not rich in friends. One of his best friends was met after he ran into his vehicle. This friend works for him, also. This is an interesting choice of incident to include in the story because it demonstrates the role of luck in making it rich.
…When you get to be as old as me, that’s the only way you can meet people-automobile accidents, fires, things like that.”
Of course, the only reason Ralph has been offered this high salary is because his uncle happens to have saved Mr Hadaam’s life in a boating accident — itself pure luck. Ralph himself realises that all this is down to a ‘preposterous chain of inconsistencies’. He therefore feels precarious, even at the prospect of a very comfortable life:
Eight days lay between Ralph’s interview and the telephone call, and he realized that nothing would be definite until Tuesday, and that there was a possibility that old Mr. Hadaam, while crossing the country, might, under the subtle influence of travel, suffer a change of heart. He might be poisoned by a fish sandwich and be taken off the train in Chicago, to die in a nursing home there. Among the people meeting him in San Francisco might be his lawyer, with the news that he was ruined or that his wife had run away. But eventually Ralph was unable to invent any new disasters or to believe in the ones he had invented.
Sometimes in a short story the theme is explicated quite clearly in a few sentences. In “The Pot Of Gold” we have:
This inability to persevere in doubting his luck showed some weakening of character. There had hardly been a day when he had not been made to feel the power of money, but he found that the force of money was most irresistible when it took the guise of a promise, and that years of resolute self-denial, instead of rewarding him with reserves of fortitude, had left him more than ordinarily susceptible to temptation.
Riches come in many forms.
By the end of the story, Ralph has learned this from his wife.
Desire for her delighted and confused him. Here it was, here it all was, and the shine of the gold seemed to him then to be all around her arms.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “THE POT OF GOLD”
The bar of soap as a symbol for lost hope is particularly nice, since soap literally cracks when it ages.
In this story Cheever makes particularly nice use of minor characters to highlight the traits of the main characters. While Laura is accepting of her circumstances and makes the most of them, her counterpart Alice Holinshed is eaten up by envy. Laura herself offsets her husband’s sense of longing for more. Mr Fellows is an example of a man who had a great idea that never took off. He’s the failed, lonely version of Ralph. Ralph could easily turn into this guy if left to his own devices. The last supporting character we meet is Mr Hadaam. Mr Haddam is rich, but has few real friends and no family to speak of. This contrasts with what Ralph has but doesn’t yet know that he has.
STORY SPECS OF “THE POT OF GOLD”
This is quite a long short story, at 7,100 words.
First published in The New Yorker, October 14, 1950 P. 30
COMPARE “THE POT OF GOLD” WITH
Compare with O City Of Broken Dreams, an earlier story of Cheever’s. This is also about a couple in New York, but these two are genuinely living on the edge of poverty.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Do you know a couple who have vastly different attitudes towards money? Will this lead to their salvation or to their ruin?
Which of their characteristics can be compared and contrasted in the supporting cast of characters?
Does anyone have an epiphany?