The Pot Of Gold by John Cheever Analysis

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.


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.



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.

Madison Ave movie theatre 1930s THE POT OF GOLD
Madison Ave movie theatre 1930s


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.’


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.


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.


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.


This is quite a long short story, at 7,100 words.

First published in The New Yorker, October 14, 1950 P. 30


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.


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?

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The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever Analysis


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.



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.

A man smokes on a poster advertising Vignettes of Manhattan by Brander Matthews.
Vignettes of Manhattan 1894 written by Brander Mathews, art by Edward Penfield


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.


‘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.


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.


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.


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.


Published in The New Yorker, June 29, 1946

New Yorker Cover June 29 contains 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.


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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O City Of Broken Dreams by John Cheever Analysis

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.


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.


Evarts Molloy

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 Molloy

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.

Mildred-Rose Malloy

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.

Mama Finelli

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.

Charlie Leavitt

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.

Tracey Murchison

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.

Madge Beatty

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.

Sam Farley

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!

Susan Hewitt

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.


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.


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.

Open Ending

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’.


First published in The New Yorker, January 24, 1948

7,700 words


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.


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?

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The Enormous Radio by John Cheever Analysis

1940s radio

When I was growing up my father knew a man whose hobby was to listen in to other people’s conversations on a radio you could get, but which I believe was illegal. Using this radio, it was possible to listen in on police conversations. He’d know before anyone else about accidents and domestic incidents, deaths and other awfulness. In this short story, likewise, a family thinks they are buying an ordinary radio, but what they get instead is a faulty appliance which — almost supernaturally — plays for them whatever is going on in their neighbours’ houses.

John Cheever wrote “The Enormous Radio” in 1947, where few could predict the advent of the Internet in the new century. But because the themes revolve around knowing other people’s business and how this knowledge affects you, The Enormous Radio reads as surprisingly modern.

Dinanath Dalal (1916-1971) 1947
Dinanath Dalal (1916-1971) 1947

Hear The Enormous Radio read by Nathan Englander here.

This story has been described as an example of ‘Domestic Gothic’ literature:

Domestic Gothic fiction may be identified by its uneasy representation of the historical and socioeconomic developments known as the “domestic ideal.” The concept of “domesticity” goes beyond the mere occupation of the physical domestic space and encompasses more than household servicing as women’s work. Rather, it is a wholly ideological construct relating to the interpretation, as well as the use, of the domestic space. Domesticity emerged as a concept in the mid-eighteenth century, alongside the modernizing forces of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. As cottage industry gave way to larger-scale factory production, the nature of the home itself changed. For many, there was a separation of home from commercial premises and many women were removed from the world of remunerative employment altogether. As the domestic ideal became more influential, claustration within the domestic sphere and the possession of appropriate “domestic” qualities became requirements for female respectability. Meanwhile, traditional family relationships underwent radical change. Romantic ideas of companionate marriage and sentimentalized parent–child relationships, and also the development of the nuclear family, helped to create a concept of the home as a place presided over by a “domestic” woman, in which these newly defined relationships might be enjoyed.

Blackwell Reference Online

In ‘Domestic Gothic’ stories, the house becomes the place of trauma rather than the castle.

1935 Radio Telefunken advertisement
1935 Radio Telefunken advertisement


The reader is first given a character study of a statistically average couple living in Manhattan in the late 1940s. The only thing that sets them apart from all of their friends is their interest in ‘serious music’. When their radio gives up the ghost, the husband buys a new one. He has paid a lot for this radio, but it’s not working properly. Instead of playing music as it should, the Westcotts find that they are tuned in to the conversations and arguments of their neighbours. Mrs Westcott finds she can’t stop listening to it. One day she realises that there is domestic violence going on in the apartment of a neighbour. She asks her husband to go help. The husband insists that it’s none of their business. Eventually he blows up at his wife and the reader learns that even a statistically average couple has their own deep, dark secrets. Just as the Westcotts are privy to the darknesses of their neighbours, the reader is now privy to the darkness of this fictional couple. As soon as the worst has been said between the couple, the radio fixes itself; they are now listening to the news and the weather.



Jim and Irene Westcott live on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place. Cheever’s New York stories often star characters who are not native to New York, but we don’t know how long the Westcotts have lived in New York. In any case, they hope someday to live in Westchester. (The reader is expected to know that this is in New York — I expect Cheever wrote this story for readers of The New Yorker.) These days, Sutton Place is known as York Avenue, and is on the East Side of Manhattan.

Westchester where The Enormous Radio is set


Published in 1947, the setting is around this time.

Unemployment was at a low 3.9% after the second World War, and America is just about to enter a golden period, but Jim does not feel this. He is frustrated that he’s not doing better. Any worries about death and world peace have been supplanted by a generalised anxiety now that the war is over. Jim worries about his financial position even though he is employed and has life insurance, yet realistically, there’s nothing more he can do to give himself peace:

‘We’ve got to start cutting down,’ Jim said. ‘We’ve got to think of the children. To be perfectly frank with you, I worry about money a great deal. I’m not at all sure of the future. No one is. If anything should happen to me, there’s the insurance, but that wouldn’t go very far today. I’ve worked awfully hard to give you and the children a comfortable life,’ he said bitterly. ‘I don’t like to see all of my energies, all of my youth, wasted in fur coats and radios and slipcovers and—’


This was a time when people more regularly had their appliances fixed before buying expensive replacements. Though this is not particularly important to the story, it’s worth noting because Jim is without the knowledge to fix their old one, and is therefore a bit cranky about having spent so much on a new, faulty radio.

The other notable thing about money is that it is all earned by the husband, who gives his wife an allowance. This is Jim’s money; he ‘buys things’ for his wife and she must use it at his approval. This wouldn’t have been the case in all 1940s households — sometimes the wife gave the husband an allowance — but this is the state of affairs that can arise when mothers aren’t accepted into the workforce.

‘Four hundred dollars is a good deal more than I can afford,’ he went on. ‘I wanted to get something that you’d enjoy. It’s the last extravagance we’ll be able to indulge in this year. I see that you haven’t paid your clothing bills yet. I saw them on your dressing table.’ He looked directly at her. ‘Why did you tell me you’d paid them? Why did you lie to me?’ […] ‘You’ve got to learn to handle the money I give you a little more intelligently, Irene,’ he said.

He then goes on to accuse his wife of ‘apprehensiveness’ when she worries the neighbours might hear them arguing.

Family planning has now entered the public consciousness, and although the topic of abortion is still somewhat taboo, it is nothing like what it was back then, when the main role of women in a predominantly Judeo-Christian country were expected to go forth and procreate, at all costs. To actively choose the size of one’s own family was radical for a woman.

“The Enormous Radio” Soundtrack


The story opens with a character study, with emphasis on how ordinary this couple is for their milieu.

Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the stastistical reports in college alumni bulletins.

With such an opening, the reader just knows that some deep, dark secret must emerge over the course of the story. After all, unless these characters are narrators or viewpoint characters, fictional people must never be boring. Otherwise they wouldn’t be fit for the subject of a story. But the narrator in this story is independent and unseen.

Jim Westcott — Educated at Andover (25 miles north of Boston). Andover, often linked with Exeter, is often understood symbolically as an “elite New England prep school,” connoting privilege. Jim is just starting to acknowledge his own middle-age (he’s 37), and the fact that he hoped he’d be even further ahead than he is now. Cheever says plenty about his class by pointing out that neither of the Westcotts know anything about the mechanics of a radio. Instead, their monied privilege allows them to go out and buy a new one.

Irene Westcott — This couple has aspirations of being slightly more upper-class than they are. These aspirations are conveyed by the detail that Irene wears coats made of ‘fitch skins’ (polecat), hoping they’ll pass as mink. Irene is the true star of this story because it is Irene who undergoes the major character transformation. At the beginning of the story she is kidding herself that she is a nice, respectable middle-class lady without sordid secrets. By the end of the story she has come face-to-face with who she really is, because her husband has listed each of her most shameful acts.

While there are many  other characters in this story, they are no more than names with a few accompanying, often sordid, details. Jim and Irene are very much the main characters in this two-person play.


Along with Torch Song and Clancy in the Tower of Babel, The Enormous Radio has themes of displacement, imprisonment, and divorce. Critics often categorise these kinds of stories by Cheever as ‘urban’ or ‘New York’ stories.

Even the most average and ordinary-seeming people harbour darkness and secrets. No one’s life is fully on show for others.

Irene’s life was nearly as simple and sheltered as it appeared to be, and the forthright and sometimes brutal language that came from the loudspeaker that morning astonished and troubled her.


‘Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried. ‘Life is too terrible, too sordid and awful. But we’ve never been like that, have we, darling? Have we? I mean, we’ve always been good and decent and loving to one another, haven’t we? And we have two children, two beautiful children. Our lives aren’t sordid, are they, darling? Are they?’

This is close-third-person point of view, describing how Irene sums herself up after listening in on her neighbours’ lives. But at the end of the story, the reader learns that her life is not really all that simple and sheltered.

Knowledge does not equal happiness. Personal happiness may involve a degree of wilful blindness. Irene, in particular, was happier before the radio entered the house because she was ignorant of what was going on in nearby apartments. She realises there’s nothing she can do about the abusive marriage of nearby residents, and that she’s not quite as happy as the Sweeneys’ nurse, who sings constantly.

‘You know you don’t have to listen to this sort of thing,’ [Jim] said. He strode into the living room and turned the switch. ‘It’s indecent,’ he said. ‘It’s like looking in windows. You know you don’t have to listen to this sort of thing. You can turn it off.’

“For Christ’s sake, Kathy,’ he said, ‘do you always have to play the piano when I get home?’ The music stopped abruptly. ‘It’s the only chance I have,’ a woman said. ‘I’m at the office all day.’ He added something obscene about an upright piano, and slammed a door.



What does the radio symbolise? Despite the title, there are actually two radios in this story: the old and the new. The old radio breaks down. The replacement radio offers sordid insight into other people’s lives. Similarly, the ‘old Irene’ has her genteel façade broken down, and her sense of self is replaced by a sordid self-knowledge.

[Irene] was struck at once with the physical ugliness of the large gumwood cabinet. Irene was proud of her living room, she had chosen its furnishings sand colors as carefully as she chose her clothes, and now it seemed to her that the new radio stood among her intimate possessions like an aggressive intruder. She was confounded by the number of dials and switches on the instrument panel, and she studied them thoroughly before she put the plug into a wall socket and turned the radio n. The dials flooded with a malevolent green light, and in the distance she heard the music of a piano quintet.

Irene is unsettled by the new radio to the extent that she leaves the house, goes out for a walk and comes home only after the maid has dealt with the children. She is running away from the truth (about herself).

Magic Realism in “The Enormous Radio”

While not quite ‘fantasy’, the way the radio suddenly rights itself right after a terrible argument suggests it is an almost sentient being with malevolent intent. There is nothing else at all magical in the story, with its recognisable setting and fairly ordinary characters. It’s impressive how gently and realistically Cheever introduces this magic; at first the radio broadcasts static, which gradually becomes recognisable as vacuum cleaners and elevators, and eventually turns into voices, which are at first mistaken for a radio play. The characters are as confused as the reader about this. The reader must be gently introduced to the idea of a bit of magic in an otherwise realistic setting, just as the characters must.


First published in the New Yorker in May 1947

This story forms the title of Cheever’s second short story collection The Enormous Radio, published 1953

4,400 words in length, the climax (the argument) occurs just one paragraph before the end of the story. (In other words, the denouement is one single paragraph.)

Illustration by Pio Pullini, 1941 from the book Letture per la iIII classe dei centri rurali L'aratro e la spada
Illustration by Pio Pullini, 1941 from the book Letture per la iIII classe dei centri rurali L’aratro e la spada


Domestic Gothic literature began with Walpole. Matthew Gregory Lewis, William Godwin and Anne Radcliffe turned it into a tradition. Domestic Gothic Fiction is a distinctly American (and sometimes German) sort of writing. For more of this you might read some of Poe’s tales (for example The Black Cat), the novels of William Faulkner (1897-1962), or some of Henry James’s (1843-1916) fiction.

See also: American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction

Englander (who reads The Enormous Radio for The New Yorker) finds this story quite unlike any other of Cheever’s, and compares it to your typical episode of The Twilight Zone, or to one of Kafka’s short stories. Whereas I use the term ‘magical realism’, Englander calls it almost sci-fi.

eNotes compares the character of Irene to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. Both characters have ‘entered the dark forest of moral ambiguity and emerged a different person’.

A Manhattan couple buy a radio, and enjoy it until it begins picking up the conversations of neighbors throughout their building.  The wife becomes obsessive, the husband guilt-ridden.  It threatens to destroy their marriage and is returned.  As with “The Swimmer” — because the other elements in the story are so prosaic, so local and identifiable — it is very hard to read the story as intending the reader to believe in a magical radio.  But also like “The Swimmer,” the events of the story are too sharply defined and internally consistent to be written off as mistake or delusion.



  • Have you ever overheard someone else’s conversation and felt it was too private, that you shouldn’t really be listening? Or perhaps someone told you something that felt too personal. How did this knowledge affect you?
  • Has anyone ever found out something personal about you that you didn’t want them to know?
  • These days we learn a lot about other people’s lives not via wayward radios but via social media and Facebook stalking etc. Have you ever been involved in that?
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The Common Day by John Cheever Analysis

“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.


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.)



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…

Other Symbolism

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.


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.


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.

1954 illustration “Gulf Coast Shrimp Supper” from series ” Home life in America”.
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Harry The Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham Analysis

Harry The Dirty Dog (1956) is a good example of what Bakhtin termed ‘the material bodily principle‘ — the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation), sexuality (usually displaced into questions of undress) and excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty).

This book is also an example of an ‘interrogative text’ in which authority is questioned. The main, childlike character (which happens to be a somewhat anthropomorphised dog) runs away and has fun even though he is supposed to be having a bath.

Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks illustrated by Hoffman Heinrich. In this cautionary tale, children are warned that being dirty is not a good thing. Harry The Dirty Dog likewise teaches children that they will end up in the bath, because that’s just how things have to be.


Harry is a dog who hates having a bath. One day, he hears the bath water running, assumes he is up for a bath, and decides to skip out on it. The story starts on the front endpapers.

HarrytheDirtyDog Front Papers

He takes the scrubbing brush, buries it in the backyard, then runs off into town. On his adventures he gets dirtier and dirtier, until  he is unrecognisable. Eventually he gets hungry and must return home. But his family don’t recognise him and refuse to believe it’s him. He tries all sorts of familiar tricks, to no avail.

Harry Does Tricks

In order to prove that he is indeed a white dog with black spots (rather than the inverse) he gives himself a bath.

Harry Gives Himself A Bath

After that he is welcomed back into the family fold. He will never skip out on bathtime again, though we know he’s still not entirely happy about it. This time he’s hidden the scrubbing brush under his bed.


To a young audience, Harry is a very funny character. Many child readers don’t much like bathing and showering (‘won’t get in, won’t get out’), and will relate to Harry’s distaste for the bathroom.

The language avoids clunkiness while at the same time speaking across to children: ‘He played where they were fixing the street and got very dirty.’ An adult text would be more specific about what, exactly, the workmen are up to. But this is all we need to know. We see barrels of tar and street equipment. This page functions a bit like a look-and-learn page of a Richard Scarry book — there is so much going on in the double-page spread.


There are is a larger colour palette in this picturebook than on the subsequent book in this series, No Roses For Harry. The dominating colours are green, yellows and blues. But the distinctive ‘colour’ in these pictures is the use of sketchy black. The smudgy black outlines of the objects, complemented by the rough colouring-in of skies, floors and walls, lends a ‘dirty’ look to the illustrations, which naturally reflect the ‘dirtiness’ of the story itself.

When illustrating animals in picturebooks, in which they are most often personified/anthropomorphised to a certain degree, it’s often wise to forget some of what you know of animal anatomy, in favour of postures and gestures that look full of movement. On the first page we see Harry running down stairs with the scrubbing brush in his mouth, and behind him we see one of his hind legs kicked up in a position that you wouldn’t see in real life. Yet it is exactly this sort of artistic licence that gives Harry his personality.

On page two, Harry digs a hole and has his head inside it. We can’t see much of him. But the reader’s eye is lead straight to Harry because of the placement of three birds as audience — one in the tree, one in the foreground and one on the fence. Each bird is looking straight at Harry, and seem to be saying something to him. These birds are stand-in readers, direction our line of vision.

On page three, kittens and human passersby are given the same role, as Harry struts down the main street.

By the railroad page it’s clear that Harry is enjoying himself immensely. This is clear from the smiles on the people around him. Although to an adult mind each of these passersby each have their own independent emotions, unrelated to whatever a dog is getting up to, the fact that they are all smiling benevolently shows the child reader that Harry is having a lot of fun as he gets filthy dirty. There are no disapproving glares to be seen here.

Overleaf on the construction site, you may recognise a bit of visual humour that dates back to Peter Rabbit, as we see the front of one dog and the hind legs of another, different dog entering a piece of concrete pipe. This almost looks as if one very long dog is running through the pipe. Also on this page, notice the way the sun has been drawn, in true childlike fashion, with sun rays emanating out from a yellow circle, in the same way children tend to depict the sun.

The expressions of the passersby have started to become more alarmed on the following page, after Harry turns into a very dirty dog. The young reader should sense impending doom… (The children, however, are delighted.)

Since separation from the family is a child’s biggest fear, young readers will naturally empathise with Harry when he starts to wonder if his family thinks he’s gone for good. The sight of people inside the restaurant eating only serve to remind Harry and the readers that if he doesn’t hurry on home he’ll go without his basic needs met. The intratext of ‘No Dogs’ on the sign reminds readers that although Harry is humanlike, the human world is nonetheless closed to a dog. He has no choice but to hurry on home.

Harry is in classic ‘shamed dog’ position after crawling in the back door. A large letter H on the roof of the kennel tells us unambiguously that this is Harry’s kennel. He’s almost back to safety. One bird chirps at him from the tree. Like the reader, this bird is somewhat ‘in the know’.

Then we have the dramatic irony that children love — they love to know something that characters in a story have not worked out yet. We know where Harry is, but the family simply cannot find him. Next we have the rule of threes, with three pages of Harry doing various tricks to prove who he is. Then, the family walk away. Oh no!

Almost defeated, he thinks of giving up. This is the classic hero’s journey. Suddenly he thinks of a solution — he remembers where he has buried his scrubbing brush!

The entire family watches in delight as Harry gives himself a bath and turns back into Harry. The era of this book comes to the fore when we see the mother wearing an apron. It’s the mother who holds the mop, and who is obviously going to clean up this bubbly bathroom mess afterwards. That said, not all that much has changed when it comes to gender roles in modern picture books.

The final page offers an easter egg, and young readers will  feel smart when they notice the scrubbing brush sticking out from under his cushion. This is also called a ‘wink‘.

The nice thing about this brush is that Harry has had a character arc — he is no longer 100% against baths, but nor has he had an unrealistic complete turnabout in character — he’ll put up with baths but only if necessary.


463 words

Between 28 and 32pp

First published 1956.

Harry The Dirty Dog is favoured for use in the preschool classroom to about year 3. Teachers can use the story to teach comparative adjectives, for example (dirty, dirtier, dirtiest). The story encourages a multi-sensory approach.

There are three more Harry books, and there may have been more had the writer and illustrator not divorced.

The Harry books have remained in print. There is now a companion DVD and various merchandise available.

Plush Toy


Harry The Dirty Dog is an example of a ‘carnivalesque‘ picture book. When a work of literature is ‘carnivalesque’, this refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humour and chaos. A naughty childlike character misbehaves, goes out into the world and returns home to safety and order.

Another classic which follows this storyline — this time with a human protagonist and an imaginary adventure — is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

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I Am Waiting by Christopher Isherwood Analysis

What might the ‘inverse of a superhero story’ look like? What if superpowers are given to ordinary men who do nothing with them? You may know Christopher Isherwood’s name from the film A Single Man or Christopher and His Kind. I Am Waiting is one of two short stories Isherwood had published in The New Yorker. This one is very much of its era, and must have been written near the time it was published, in 1939 when Isherwood was in his mid-thirties. There are at least two ways of reading this short story: By imagining we are right there with Americans in 1939, or with the benefit of hindsight as readers of the 21st century.


It is October 17, 1939. A man in his late middle age reflects on his very ordinary life. But he does have one strange ability: He can jump forward in time. After doing this several times he jumps forward to 1944, where he finds a newspaper. Eagerly wanting to know how the war has panned out, he searches the newspaper for relevant information, but finds only information about chicken breeding.


Is Connecticut the default American city where we are to imagine the suburbs — a coathanger of normalcy where strange and disturbing things happen behind closed doors? I have never been to America, but that is my outsider’s view of Connecticut as a fictional setting. This is an upper-middle class household, with a drawing room, tennis court, garden and a maid. These are the sorts of families who holiday at the Cape.

See also: Books set in Connecticut, a Goodreads list. My idea of Connecticut probably derives from the Stepford Wives story.

In this particular story, the setting is even more vital to the plot than the setting, which could have taken place in any American suburb. If you go to a site such as History Orb, you can see exactly what was happening in history in any given month. When this story was published Poland had just been invaded by Germany. Americans — like anyone — would have been anxious to know how the war was going to pan out.

My mind shouted questions: “Had the United States jumped into the war? Had there been a revolution? What is happening in Europe? In China? In the Near East?”


The incidents which I am about to describe are true, but I can offer you no proof—at leat not for the next five years.

When a story opens with a first person narrator describing him or herself, the reader’s radar is up: Is this narrator reliable? How well does this narrator know himself? Even if he knows himself, why is he spinning this version of himself for the reader? In this case, though, we are not dealing with an unreliable narrator — this man has reached an age where he has a realistic handle on his own station in life. This story is one of regret rather than boast — perhaps a kind of ‘setting the record straight’ as he heads towards the grave.

We’re more sure of the veracity of his character description because Isherwood drops supporting details into the text. For example, we are told that the narrator keeps himself almost invisible, and this is backed up by the following detail (which is not to say that unreliable narrators can’t be reliably unreliable, but still):

The others had all driven into town to go to a movie, so I could enjoy the luxury of drawing my armchair into the very middle of the hearthrug, facing and monopolizing the fire.


Wilfred — 67 years old, bachelor, lives in a house owned by his more successful lawyer brother. A self-described semi-educated bore (though he reads Browning) who keeps to himself and pays his way in life with a small inherited income. This is significant because the narrator has even failed to make his mark in life by contributing something to the world in the form of work. His sister-in-law suggests he even wears one of her aprons to search for old photographs in the attic; Wilfred is obviously not considered an alpha male character.

Wilfred’s younger brother — serves as a contrast to the narrator as a ‘successful and energetic lawyer’. His three male sons only add to his aura of social success. But this is not a Cain and Abel archetype; most sibling relationships in real life are less dramatic than that:

From boyhood I have admired, though somewhat grudgingly, the extreme lucidity of my brother’s intelligence. Now, as I stood there baffled, I asked myself what would he, who was never at a loss, have done in my place.

Mabel — the younger brother’s wife, very kind to her brother-in-law ‘on the whole, as long as I am careful to be tidy and not unnecessarily visible’.

Three nephews — sons of the lawyer and Mabel. All grown with wives of their own; all have moved out of the natal home. These nephews are mentioned as a way of populating the story with a believable family network.


In late middle age we sometimes realise our extraordinary talents may come to nothing much after all.

Maria Nikolajeva writes of children’s literature specifically when she describes the general function of time travel in fiction, but if we can make any generalisations about the time travel in general fiction, the ability to travel through time is generally for some higher purpose:

Today we read that the whole purpose of time travel is to change history, either the private history of the character, as in Playing Beatie Bow (1980) by the Australian author Ruth Park, or The Root Cellar (1981) by Canadian Janet Lunn, or the history of the world, like A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) by Madeleine L’Engle. In this book the character changes the past so that the third world war does not break out in his own time. Time Travelers are no longer passive observers, but must take upon themselves responsibility for their actions in the past.

Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva

However, in Isherwood’s short story, the ability to time travel is remarkable, but because the man who has this ability is so very unremarkable, nothing comes of it. What if he had learned something about historical events? What could a retired bachelor living in his brother’s house in Connecticut really do about any of it? The war was so much bigger than one man, let alone this particular man.

Anyone who has seen/read A Single Man (starring Colin Firth) or Christopher And His Kind (the biography of Christopher Isherwood) may find it hard to put aside the knowledge that Isherwood was a gay icon. Though Isherwood embraced his sexuality, he lived at a time when many gay people could not. Is the bachelor of this story gay? If so, he has spent his entire life failing to live up to his potential. The following is from the initial paragraph of the story and otherwise feels apropos of nothing:

I have never married and I cannot truthfully say that I have ever been loved, though half a dozen people are, perhaps, mildly fond of me.

Reading from a modern perspective, if only men such as this narrator could have time traveled forward another few generations, their lives would have been much different. The benefit of modern hindsight aside, this is a story about a failed superhero. What if the powers of Superman had been gifted to a repressed character and come to nothing at all? How many Supermen are out there, hiding almost invisibly in suburban rooms?

See also: Time Travel In Fiction

The unknown future is scary, but there is absolutely nothing to do but wait and see.

Though this character is facing the challenges of old age, even the young are now faced with thoughts about their own mortality. In wartime, every age shares this in common.

And now here I am, waiting for whatever may come next. Sometimes I feel frightened, but in general I managed to regard the whole business quite philosophically. I am well aware that the next adventure—if there ever is another—may  be my last…let the moment call for me when it will—at whatever time, in whatever place. I shall be ready.


Realistic Character Memory Of Dates

When a first person narrator remembers a date, it helps to make that date somewhat significant. People don’t tend to naturally remember dates of events unless they happen on a holiday or anniversary:

On the evening of Friday, January 6th, of this year — I can be exact, for this was the day after the anniversary of my brother’s marriage—I was sitting in the drawing room of our house…

Two brothers: One successful, one a failure

This character ensemble is utilised to highlight the sad life of the narrator. One brother is heterosexual and therefore privileged, with a great job and three sons (the epitome of familial success), contrasted against the bachelor younger brother who is without valued achievements.


The drawing room clock is supported by a pair of china figurines. When Annie breaks the china boy’s  left hand off at the wrist, this imagery would be familiar to those who saw men come back from the first world war with amputated limbs and disturbing disfigurements. The narrator refers to the broken figurine as ‘the mutilated boy’. In 1939, American readers would have been worried that this scenario would happen again, and no one could predict the extent of human damage.

When Wilfred stumbles upon a newspaper, it is significant that he has stumbled upon The Cage Bird Fancier. Wilfred himself is, at the time, locked in an attic in a house in the suburbs, in a country which may or may not go to war. Much like a caged bird, in fact.

The Rule Of Three

The first time travel incident is astonishing; the second sets up a pattern; the third forms the meat of the story. This is such a commonly used narrative technique that it takes a brave writer to fiddle with it. Each incident is accompanied by an increasing amount of detail.

Detail To Accompany The Magical Realism

Fantasy lovers can avoid this term, preferring simple ‘fantasy’ to describe this kind of story — a realistic story with a little bit of impossible stuff going on. To make the concept of time travel believable within the world of the story, Isherwood has included a significant amount of detail: The characters, how they are related to each other, the snippets of dialogue from the tennis court, the weather. The book he is reading, where he is sitting in his chair. The direction he moves in (‘toward the bookcase’). A lot of this detail exists to provide verisimilitude. The author also relies upon the fact that at times of great stress or inner turmoil, people tend to remember details we may not otherwise:

I read on and on, learning all manner of highly relevant and unfruitful fact…These tiresome details are imprinted upon my memory forever.

Comic Irony

Chickens are great for this purpose, and are used here to good effect. Though the whole world is entering a war, the newspaper reports on chicken breeding. Irony is a meaningful gap between expectation and outcome. Once understanding that this ordinary man has an extraordinary gift, we expect something to come of it, but nothing does. This is a form of ‘presentation irony’, and also may be considered ‘genre subversion’, since superheroes tend to save the world from disaster.


First published October 21, 1939 in The New Yorker

Available today in The New Yorker’s archive viewer (with a pay wall)

I Am Waiting Screenshot

Collected in Short Stories From The New Yorker, published 1940



A commenter at The Mookse and the Gripes blog suggests a thematic comparison to I Am Waiting:

Dying Inside
Silverberg 1972 - Dying Inside
published 1972



The perfect contrast is against Superman, which was new and popular at this exact time in American history. Everyone was wishing some superhero could swoop down from on high and save the world:

Superman is a fictional superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. Superman is widely considered an American cultural icon. The Superman character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school students living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933; the character was sold to Detective Comics, Inc. (later DC Comics) in 1938.


If you discovered you had a secret superpower, what might that be?

And given your life circumstances, what would you — in reality — be able to accomplish with it?

What would a duller, less successful version of yourself look like? And what if that character had the superpower instead of you?

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Fun With A Stranger by Richard Yates Analysis

Norman Rockwell school teacher

Some short stories exist mainly as character studies. Fun With A Stranger (1962) by American author Richard Yates is one example.  The story paints a portrait of a particular kind of old-fashioned school teacher. The reader feels empathy for everyone involved, from the young pupils to the teacher herself.


A man retells what it was like being a third grader in Miss Snell’s class. Two particularly memorable events happened that year: The field trip to the locomotives and the Christmas party.


The setting is unambiguously mid-twentieth-century America, and though this town is set somewhere near a place called Harmon, it’s not clear which Harmon this refers to — there are a handful — one is a ghost town. It doesn’t really matter either. There is mention of Halloween and Thanksgiving, which of course are specifically American. We can also tell from the word usage: vacation, raincoats and rubbers.

The children are off on a field trip to see ‘locomotives’, which places this firmly in a certain era, just as my own real-life primary school field trips to the tobacco and hops farms place my childhood in a certain era.

It’s significant that female teachers were paid no more than a living stipend at this time, because the reader knows that Miss Snell’s purchase of a class set of erasers was no small thing for her, even though the gift was brushed off by the narrator as a disappointment.


The story is told by an unseen narrator, but we know that the narrator writes as an adult from memories of being a pupil of Miss Snell’s third grade class. Only he could have this information. (We assume the narrator is a boy because he writes of girls as if slightly removed from them. Also, I suppose, because the author has a male name, and we tend to conflate authors with narrators.)

The familiar childhood rivalry that often exists between two classes of the same grade is used to great effect in this story. The young, pretty, exuberant and socially adept Miss Cleary is set up as the clear antithesis to the old, starchy, awkward, black hat and black coat wearing Miss Snell, whose very name sounds brusque. Since class rivalries naturally occur, this is what gives rise to the protectiveness Miss Snell’s own pupils feel towards her. The rivalry is underscored first by the Taylor twins, who boast that they are going on a field trip, and next by Grace, the girl who interrupts Miss Snell’s class on the final day before Christmas by asking for a paper plate.


Children can be more emotionally adept than the adults who care for them.

The title Fun With A Stranger won’t be lost even on modern audiences, due to the 1977 and 2005 movies called Fun With Dick and Jane, the title of which is taken from an American grade one basal reader, used in American schools from the 1930s through to the 1970s. The Dick and Jane readers were coming under heavy criticism during Richard Yates’ adulthood, mostly for their lack of diverse characters, but also because they are so very easy to parody. The stories are ridiculously simplistic, even for the youngest of readers. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Dick and Jane became a bit more sophisticated.

So the title of this short story has been chosen to evoke Dick and Jane, or rather all the things the Dick and Jane series evokes: innocence, awkwardness, something that’s easy to poke fun at because of its very earnestness. Likewise, this is how we are to think of Miss Snell:

Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own.

Dick and Jane became increasingly out-of-touch with the children reading it. In the same way, Miss Snell started teaching when teachers typically removed their personalities from their classroom personae. The children know nothing about Miss Snell other than what she shows them in class of her teaching style. As adult readers, however, we can fill in the gaps: Miss Snell is a lonely old woman who has interpersonal issues in her private life. If she fails to relate to third graders, we assume she has no family of her own.

Fun With Dick And Jane Title Page

Affection is expressed in many ways, and not always appreciated or reciprocated.

Just like a Dick and Jane reader, there are no ‘baddies’ in this short story. In other stories the rivalries set up between groups of pupils, or between pupils and teacher, encourage the reader to side with one group over another. But because this story is retold from an adult’s point of view — and an adult who clearly has empathy and wonder for Miss Snell — the reader can see that the pupils are far more important to her than Miss Snell is to the pupils, who rush out of her class at the end of the year and never look back.


The Impression Of Imperfect Recollection

The challenge in writing as a narrator looking back in time is that of detail: How might the reader believe that all of the story necessary for an engaging story has been recalled accurately? What does Yates do to give the impression that these specific details really happened? After all, this is a narrator rather than an omniscient narrator, and a narrator’s memory is fallible.

1. Describe Habit

John Gerhardt and Howard White usually walked home from school together, and often as not….

“Hey, wait up!” Freddy would call.

If you listened to the podcast Serial you’ll have noticed this come up a lot — narrators remember past events partly because they always happened, not just because they happened on a single day.

2. Let The Reader Know That These Events Are A Summary

John Gerhardt had already made it plain to the twins once, in so many words, that he didn’t like walking home with a girl…

…he very nearly said something to the effect that

3. Pick Events That Would Be Remembered

Sure enough, the things you remember from your third grade class, if anything, were the field trips and the parties.


Richard Yates published two short story collections in his lifetime — Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love. This is from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which was released just a year after his most popular novel, Revolutionary Road.

3700 words

First person character as narrator. For more on this technique see: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.


There is a short story by Noel Coward about a boy with a drunkard father who idolises his teacher. Ultimately, the teacher disappoints. I read it back in high school but can’t remember its title. Anyhow, that was a great story. (And it seems I was the only kid in the world who didn’t know the short story writer Noel Coward also wrote plays and songs! Who knew?!)


The teacher in this story reminds me very much of a teacher I had for year 9 science. I’m pretty sure anyone who’s been through an educational system will have come head-to-head with some pretty eccentric characters. I wrote a story about this teacher and asked my writing group for critique. I was interested to learn that although what I wrote was non-fiction, some of the facts that happened in class came across to the reader as ‘unbelievable’. An important lesson when writing fiction based on real-life.

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Header: Norman Rockwell HAPPY BIRTHDAY MISS JONES March-16-1956

Just Me And My Puppy by Mercer Mayer Analysis

Just Me And My Puppy Cover

Just Me And My Puppy by American author-illustrator Mercer Mayer is worth a close look because, like many others in this long-running series, it is a wonderful example of ‘counterpoint irony’ in picture books.

Though the title may annoy purists, the grammar of the title foreshadows a story told from the point of view of a toddler-aged creature. As a child I always wondered what ‘critters’ were. I thought a critter must be some sort of American animal in particular.

Apart from ‘counterpoint irony’, another useful concept when considering any disconnect between words and pictures is ‘symmetry’. Nikolajeva and Scott have attempted to create a sophisticated taxonomy of picturebook interactions (between words and pictures) and came up with a sliding scale. Symmetry is at one end, in which the pictures pretty much repeat what the words have already explained. At the other end is ‘contradiction’, in which the pictures say something completely different from the words, often creating irony or humour. The problem with having ‘symmetry’ at the extreme end is that pictures cannot help but say more than the words, since ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ (or thereabouts). So there will never exist a perfectly symmetrical picturebook.


In Just Me And My Puppy, the words tell us a sweet but bland story about a child who is care for and train a new dog. The pictures tell a difference story altogether: the story of a boy who is struggling to control an exuberant and disobedient puppy. Readers familiar with the innocent, willing-to-please Little Critter will see that the puppy is simply a more exaggerated version of the Critter.

Just Me And My Puppy Basement Scene


Broadly speaking, irony is a difference between what was expected and what actually happens. In literature, irony is a rhetorical figure based on a deviation from the dictionary meaning of words. Picturebooks make use of their own specific kinds of irony. Irony cannot be expressed by illustrations alone, but can be achieved when the words in a picturebook don’t match up with the pictures, creating what academics have called an ‘ironic counterpoint’.

How does this counterpoint work, exactly? Mayer begins the ironic counterpoint on page two. Page one sets the story up, with the protagonist swapping his baseball mitt for a puppy. The picture does not contradict the words, as we indeed see a box full of puppies and a raccoon pleased with his new baseball mitt. Naturally, there is more to the illustration than there is to the words — we see they are in a basement, that the box of puppies used to hold tomatoes, that a surprised spider is watching on. But this pictorial elaboration is not a counterpoint so much as an expansion.

Come page two, we are told, ‘My baby sister liked him right away.’ But we see a puppy jumping all over a baby, who doesn’t look pleased at all.

Page three is less ironic: ‘And, boy, were Mom and Dad surprised! They said I could keep him if I took care of him myself.’ The interesting thing is, we now mistrust the little boy’s version of events, and adult co-readers (especially) will be wondering how that conversation really went down. Mayer is very good at depicting facial expressions, and the parents in the Little Critter books manage to so often look resigned, disappointed and skeptical, but loving at the end.

The ironic counterpoint heightens as the Little Critter trains his puppy. ‘He eats every bite,’ we read, noting that there is dog food spread in a trail right across the kitchen floor. ‘I am teaching my puppy how to heel’ shows Little Critter tangled in dog lead with the puppy pulling uncontrollably, and so on.

After a few pages of unsuccessful episodes, we see a full-page spread set in a park. Now we see a ‘snapshot’ scene, of four Little Critters and four puppies, and we take from this that all of these scenes happened, but not at the same time.

Just Me And My Puppy Park Scene

Notice how Little Critter is dotted across the page — the reader is given a clear sequence of events. Sometimes a sequence of events depicted like this is not important — events can happen in any order. Personally, I like my eye to be guided around/across a page. I like to know what’s meant to come first. Notice also the white space across the park scene. The path is the white space.


Not only do Little Critter books tell two different stories via the words and the pictures; the pictures contain a subplot story about a spider and a grasshopper who readers will be keen to locate once they realise these unnamed characters are a regular instalment on each page. These characters never speak, but they have facial expressions which offer the reader further emotional cues.   Mercer Mayer has a knack for depicting ‘cute’. Especially cute is the scene where Little Critter gives puppy a towel-dry and blow-dry, in which puppy transforms from a bedraggled creature into a fluffy pom-pom. The look on Little Critter’s face is one of great love.   The setting of the Little Critter series is an American home housing a middle-class nuclear family somewhere between 1950 and 1970, when groceries came home in paper bags, when mothers stood at the sink washing dishes by hand in one-piece dresses with big bows at the back, when pets were sold from cardboard boxes. This is a cosy setting which only existed in America for a very short time, but it’s surprising how many picturebook creators are still making use of it. The cosiness of it is particularly well-suited to the picturebook audience, who receive much of their reading time right before bed.

Kitchen Scene Just Me And My Puppy

  In conversation with Katie Davis on the Brain Burps About Books Podcast, Mayer expressed his opinion on technology by saying that he bought a top of the line computer a long time ago (about 1990?) and hasn’t needed to upgrade since. I mention this because those of us illustrating picture books digitally are faced with a tough decision: Make do with cheaper software, or spend a disproportionate amount of money (relative to likely income) on Adobe CC. For those making do with older software on older hardware, Mayer’s opinion that you don’t actually gain much (if anything) by having the latest and greatest is worth hearing once in a while.


First published in 1985 in the USA as a Golden Look-Look Book.

The Complete Mercer Mayer Collection (of Little Critter books — there are others) is a set of 24, available on Amazon

Just Me And My Puppy App Icon

Oceanhouse Media made book apps out of the Little Critter series for the emergent reader market. The apps offer the functionality of word-highlighting, read-to-me and autoplay. Hotspots in the illustrations allow emergent readers to touch a part of the picture and hear the name of the object. But since these books were not created to be apps, they have not been coded from the ground up; rather, the pictures have been scanned in. There is little in the way of touch interactivity outside the pop-out words.

Just Me And My Puppy App Title Page


All three of my daughters loved Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer, 1984. Picture book with strong young female in a cultural environment my girls found magical. We would take turns being the characters and they could participate even before they could read. It was the first book they wanted for there own children.

commenter from On Point

On the Brain Burps podcast, author/illustrator Katie Davis interviewed Mercer Mayer, whose Little Critter books were all around our house as I was growing up. My mother particularly enjoyed them. Sure enough, I enjoy reading them to my own kid.

what a cute little mercer mayer books!

The podcast can be found here (20 11 2013).

A Mercer Mayer board on Pinterest

Mercer Mayer has an astonishing work output even though he’s been in this biz since the late 60s, with over 400 productions by now. Mayer also interests me because many of the Little Critter books have been turned into apps by Ocean House Media. Here are some things I learnt about apps and children’s books from this interview:

Although many authors are reluctant to enter the digital age, he feels this is like saying of the Gutenberg Press, no I’m just going to stick to handwriting thanks. He sees no reason not to make works available via new technology, whatever that technology happens to be. Mayer’s attitude is not a new one — he also embraced CD-ROM when that was a thing.

Mercer Mayer has an assistant, Bonnie, who works with him on marketing appointments and on the more mundane Photoshop tasks which are nonetheless lengthy and time-consuming.  While I thought this sounds awesome in a way, I wasn’t too impressed that Mercer Mayer didn’t realise Katie Davis is an author/illustrator in her own right. I don’t aspire to that kind of success — the kind where you don’t bother looking up your interviewers’ credentials, or keeping up with who’s who in publishing world.

Katie Davis at the time of this interview was considering biting the bullet and subscribing to the monthly plan that Adobe has now instituted for its Creative Suite. Mayer’s advice is to not bother. He still uses Adobe CS on Macs which haven’t been updated since Apple switched to Intel processors. He does update his printer, so it seems, because he was talking about how good printers are nowadays — he can get excellent proofs out of his. I think he has a point about the Adobe thing. While it’s nice to have the latest version, in fact it’s possible to do very good work with much older versions of this very nice piece of software, even if it takes you a few more keystrokes or whatever. Mayer no longer works on paper — it’s all digital — he uses a Wacom Cintiq (the top of the line model, by the way, in which it’s just like drawing on paper.)

Although Mercer Mayer has produced many books, each time he finishes he thinks that was his last work. But then he starts doodling and another idea presents itself. I’ve heard that the writer of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers said exactly the same thing: Ideas are floating around in the ether waiting for a writer to pull them out of the air and turn them into something, and if you don’t do it, someone else will.

Mayer also says there’s no more than about 10 ideas out there anyhow. (Some people say seven.) It’s all about how you execute the idea.

The hardest parts of writing a picturebook are beginnings and endings. The middle is easier. The main problem with many middles is that the writer is focusing on the same scene for too long. You turn the page and it’s still the same scene, when the child reader wants to move on.

The other problem in many picturebooks is that the writer doesn’t seem to trust the illustrator, writing far too many words, perhaps as guides for the illustrations. Picturebooks are all about the illustrations. Illustrators who write their own stories don’t have this particular problem, and Mayer is thankful that he writes his own.

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Home » America » Page 22

Them Old Cowboy Songs by Annie Proulx Short Story Analysis

“Them Old Cowboy Songs” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just The Way It Is. Stories in the collection:

Family Man
I’ve Always Loved This Place
Them Old Cowboy Songs
The Sagebrush Kid
The Great Divide
Deep-Blood-Greasy Bowl
Swamp Mischief
Testimony of the Donkey
Tits-Up In A Ditch

In the short story “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, a young white couple marry and settle in a log cabin near or in Southern Wyoming. Needing to buy their own livestock, the young man sets off to do some well-paid cowboy work, leaving his pregnant wife alone.

The young wife goes into labour far earlier than expected, gives birth to a stillborn child after four days and dies alone in the cabin. Likewise, Archie dies on the job herding cows.

In contrast to this tragic plot we have a subplot which is tragic in its own way but contains humour to offset the overall tragedy: In the home town of the young wife lives a more beautiful young woman named Queeda, daughter of the station master. Harp Daft uses the telescope to spy on her step-mother, eventually writing a love letter that suggests to everyone that not only is he in love with the step-mother, but has offered enough information (gleaned from the telescope) to suggest that all sorts of adulterous acts have been going on. Though Daft has killed himself after writing the love letter, Mrs Dorgan’s life is feared to be effectively over too, as it turns out she was ‘rescued’ from a whore house by Mr Dorgan. Queeda may suffer the same fate, the two being close. So Mrs Dorgan points out that her beauty and Queeda’s beauty is an asset to his prestige and political aspirations, and for now she is allowed to stay.


‘Those old cowboys songs’ are like ‘those old first world war poems’ in that the life of the pioneer and cowboy is romanticised.

Examples of such songs are offered in the text:

and so on.

This sort of music, the great-grandmother of modern country, features lyrics about disturbing situations but the people in these narratives always manage to rise above their circumstance.

We like to remember Wild West pioneers as mythic heroes, who endured hardships but who nonetheless survived. As Proulx says in her preface, this simply wasn’t the case; many (if not most) died before they had time to produce off-spring. In other cases, entire families died at once, leaving no descendents. Those are not the direct ancestors of those of us living today, so we tend to forget all about them.

Music is important to Archie, who has a fine ear and can learn songs after hearing them only once, or make up new songs as easily as conversing. Indeed, Archie McLaverty is taught to play piano on a piece of wood painted with black and white keys. This is a powerful image partly because learning to play piano this way would be all but impossible — ‘the illusion of music where none actually exists’. This describes the mythology itself. The ‘black and whiteness’ of the plank of wood could also stand in for the ‘black and white’ way in which we tend to think of goodies and baddies of the Wild West, or divide into ‘heroes’ and ‘victims’ the settler subgroup.

This must have been a thing, because the same image is used in The Homesman, starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones.


Set in 1885 in the American Wild West.

There are three mountain ranges in the United States that go by the name ‘Sierra Madre’, but going by Annie Proulx’s earlier collection ‘Wyoming Stories’, I’m guessing this story takes place near the Sierra Madre Range of south-central Wyoming and north-central Colorado. (Turns out this book is subtitled ‘Wyoming Stories 3’.)

Annie Proulx is particularly adept at conveying mood and atmosphere of the setting/season with a few strokes of colour:

Some mornings the wind stirred the snow into a scrim that bleached the mountains and made opaline dawn skies. Once the sun below the horizon threw savage red onto the bottom of the cloud that hung over Barrel Mountain and Archie glanced up, saw Rose in the doorway burning an unearthly color in the lurid glow.

July was hot, the air vibrating, the dry land like a scraped sheep hoof. The sun drew the color from everything and the Little Weed trickled through dull stones.


What stands out to a modern Western reader is how young the protagonists of this story are, given the skill set needed by pioneers in the late 1800s.

Archie McLaverty (17) — born to Irish parents who died when he was young. Raised by a woman whose own son didn’t like Archie or accept him as a brother. Inherited 100 dollars from his foster mother and bought land for a house because he was too young to get it given to him as a settler. His youthfulness is described by the way his mouth looks ‘etched onto’ his face; his skin has not yet had time to weather into cowboy leather. Red cheeks, auburn hair. It’s significant that Archie had Irish parents because it accounts for how he would know the lyrics to so many songs.

Rose McLaverty (nee Mealor) (14 or 15) — ‘Rose was not pretty, but warmhearted and quick to laugh. She had grown up at the Jackrabbit stage station, the daughter of kettle-bellied Sundown Mealor, who dreamed of plunging steeds but because of his bottle habit drove a freight wagon…Rose’s mother was grey with some wasting disease that kept her to her bed, sinking slowly out of life.’ Note the situation of Rose’s parents: Just like today, people died slowly of disease, or slowly from lifetime addictions, failing to fulfil their own modest dreams.

Tom Adler — More liked by Rose than by Archie. He used to travel the seas, and has one ear pierced. The ring tells people that he has been east round Cape Horn. Has a rich collection of stories about storms, whales, icebergs etc. Is now an old prospector, wanting safe harbour in his old age.

Tom’s Cat Gold Dust — Tom’s cat must be first billed as a character in this story. Is interested in catching the weasel that moved in as soon as Archie and Rose cut wood and stacked it for winter. Along with the weasel, Tom recognises at the end of the story that animals do quite well in the wild — the cat has survived by gradually turning more and more feral. When he finally sees Gold Dust, her fur is sleek, and she refuses the bacon he offers her.

Mrs Peck — took Archie in when he was orphaned at 14

Bunk Peck — Mrs Peck’s son, jealous of Archie, ungenerous when the will is settled. (Note the wonderfully brusque name, which matches his personality.)

Robert F. Dorgan — ‘The stationmaster was the politically minded Robert F. Dorgon, affable and jowly, yearning to be appointed to a position of importance and seeing the station as a brief stop not only for freight wagons but for himself.’

Flora Dorgan — ‘[Robert’s] second wife, Flora, stepmother to his daughter, Queeda, went to Denver every winter with Queeda, and they became authorities on fashion and style.’ Flora looks down on Rose and Rose’s family.

Queeda Dorgan — Because she gets along so well with Flora and is always dressed in finery, Rose both ‘admires and despises’ Queeda Dorgan. Queeda is set up as a contrast character for Rose; Rose is plain, Queeda is elegantly dressed. ‘But it was hard, keeping clean. Queeda Dorgan, for example, had little to do at the station but primp an wash and flounce, but Rose, in her cabin, lifted heavy-kettles, split kindling, baked bread, scrubbed pots and hacked the stone-filled ground for a garden, hauled water when Archie was not there.’ Unlike Rose, Queeda lives. But her life is as precarious as anyone else’s we learn, right at the end, when the step-mother is almost turfed out.

Harp Daft — an old bachelor, the telegraph key operator who works with Robert Dorgan at the station. Very unpleasant to look at. From the window of the station he spies on Mrs Dorgan with a telescope. He says he uses it to seek out constellations.

Sink Gartrell — Sink is a cowpoke Archie works with who gives Archie advice about steering clear of the guy in charge and how to fall off a horse without injuring yourself too much. Notice the number of Germanic, hard-sounding names, names which match the land. Sink and Archie die together in the big blizzard.


First, a word on the message. There is a strong message in this story, evident from the get-go: The Wild West was not the heroic but comfortingly cosy setting of the stories that survive. But of course, in the hands of this master writer, there is a lot more to the message; the themes expand upon the message.

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

Samuel Goldwyn

Our Fear And Sense Of Risk Is So Often Misplaced

Take note of the way the first three characters die, setting up a tragicomic pattern:

Archie’s mother — cholera (an unsurprising death to begin with)

Archie’s father — overdosing on medicine thought to prevent cholera (a comically ironic death)

Mrs Peck — caught in a grass conflagration started by herself while singeing chickens (ironic because you wouldn’t expect to die in a grass fire, let alone one started by yourself, let alone while carrying out such a mundane task)

We also hear of an early settler who died of hunger (but who had the river named after him), a man named Mr Town who got killed with his well caved in and him in it. Rose’s parents move to Omaha hoping to help Mrs Mealor’s health, thereby failing to even be buried in the station graveyard. They are forgotten forever. Archie and his friend of pneumonia during a blizzard. The pervert with the telescope kills himself by drinking lye. None of these deaths involve the folkloric rivalry between whites and Indians.

Historical Setting

By 1885, Native Americans were starting to pose less of a threat to white settlers, because their numbers had been greatly reduced in massacres carried out mid-century. Life itself presented dangers of its own though, as made use of in this story, the threat of Indian violence was still in the air. Mrs Buck Roy, the new freighter’s wife, was terrified of Indians. The simple act of lone child birthing was more likely to kill a white woman than a Ute, but it was these unseen warriors who were at the root of most fears. When Archie asks his closest neighbour to check in on Rose every so often in his absence, is he really worried about the possibility that his young wife might haemorrhage during childbirth and die alone, or is he worried that an Indian may take her if there is no obvious man of the house?

Contemporary Analogue

What is the modern equivalent of misplaced fear? We are still scared of what we cannot see. Vaccines are thought by many to carry higher risks than the diseases they prevent. Many are more afraid of plane travel than of driving a motorcar down a highway, despite the fact that highway driving is far more risky. Women are told to avoid parks alone even though, for women in general, the most dangerous place is in her own home, with a man who has at some stage told her he loves her.

By painting parks/cities/the world as a Wild West that only a fool would traverse unguarded, we’re being fed a distracting lie that impinges on our rights to use public space equally.

That’s a quotation from the Australian article hyperlinked above, and it’s no coincidence that the Wild West is used as a simile here; the myth of the pioneer in the American Wild West (and Australia has its own version) is still powerful today. Modern society — especially for women — still has its own Wild West; parks, elevators, carpark basements, deserted woodland, night-times in general.

Survival So Often Comes Down To Luck

Archie tries to send a letter to his wife, though he doesn’t yet know she has died, only to find he can’t afford the postage. The pieces of his letter are compared to playing cards:

Archie, who had only one cent, tore up his letter and threw the pieces in the street. The wind dealt them to the prairie, its chill promising a tight-clenched winter.

Some lived and some died and that’s how it was.



Every object mentioned/described at the beginning of the story turns out to have some gory significance before the end:

  • The door step stone which ends up being used for a grave stone
  • The note on the table that ends up being mistaken for a possible confession.

Some stories — and many modern movies, especially — open with a flash-forward to an action scene in order to capture the audience’s attention. Annie Proulx does not use that exact technique here; instead we have (what looks like) a quotation, but is probably the author’s own sage observation:

There is a belief that pioneers come into the country, home-steaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.

This opening lets the reader know from the outset that this story is about one of the forgotten families. Bad things are going to happen here, and the effect is the same as if we’d been thrown straight into a dangerous scene. Pre-WW2, Western stories were all about the glory and the expansion of America. This changed after WW2, and now we really only see anti-Westerns. (Annie Proulx is one of the stand-out examples.)

The foreshadowing continues, of course, not only in the first paragraph with more mention of death, but later on, for example with the moths:

At the evening meal, their faces lit by the yellow shine of the cool oil lamp whose light threw wild shadows on the ceiling, their world seemed in order until moths flew at the lamp and finally thrashed themselves to sticky death on the plates.

[Rose] seemed unaware that she lived in a time when love killed women.

Another day she had gathered two quarts of wild strawberries, her fingers stained deep red that would not wash away.

By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor.

Happiness Juxtaposed With Tragedy

Annie Proulx is by now well-known for foreshadowing horrible scenes with pleasant ones. Like fans of horror films can never relax when a family sings happily in the car while off on holiday, fans of Proulx know that happy scenes won’t end well:

From The Guardian Review:

‘There is no happiness,’ Proulx writes, ‘like that of a young couple in a little house they have built themselves in a place of beauty and solitude.’ Few American writers are as good as evoking that idea as she is, and hardly any can watch it all unspool with quite her sense of timing. Proulx is like Hawthorne in that respect: innocence never persists more than a paragraph, hope never makes it through a story. Not long after Rose discovers she is expecting their baby, Archie takes a job as a cowboy upstate, for a year. But the job goes bad, and so does the baby, and so does Rose, and soon enough the little home is broken up by a couple of winters and returned to scrub.

From the NYT:

In Annie Proulx’s new story collection, a young rancher about to build a cabin on his claim in the late-19th-century Wyoming wilderness walks the perimeter of his 80 acres singing old cowboy songs. This ritual marking of his place takes him all day, and in the dusk he returns, his voice a raspy whisper. The careful observation of such a ceremony would seem to suggest that time might shed its blessings on the rancher and his wife, that they might enjoy peace and ease here and the grace of days.

Who are we kidding? This is Annie Proulx.

In perhaps the greatest juxtaposition, the silver spoon heirloom given to Rose as a wedding present is the tool she uses to dig the shallow grave of the dead infant that has killed her into the bargain.

What about those of us who write without the burden of reputation? This is somewhat of a freedom, but bear in mind that reader expectation has nevertheless been set up by the great writers who came before us. The modern reader expects juxtaposition. Unless the cover looks something like this, we know that happiness in the Wild West will be short-lived:

Wild West Romance Novel Cover not similar to them old cowboy songs

For more on juxtaposition see Making Use of Juxtaposition In Writing.

The Subplot Character As Contrast To The Hero

If Archie is the male star of the story, his subplot counterparts are Tom the retired pirate and Sink Gartrell, the cowpoke with whom he dies. Tom is different from Archie in that he has led a full, action-filled life. Like Tom, he knows many songs, but he is now enjoying the autumn years Archie will never see. Sink Gartrell has chosen a different path for himself, vowing never to get stuck with a woman (though in cruder terms). Despite his wish to remain free, he too dies in a hut. Perhaps if he had gotten married he would have lived longer after all.

If Rose is the female star of the story, her subplot counterparts are Mrs and Queeda Dorgan. In fiction, when female characters are set up in opposition to one another it’s not uncommon for them to differ in beauty or finery. (It goes way back — think of the likes of Cinderella.) Rose can see that despite the difference in hardship and finery, these women are not so different from herself. The reader is given extra information at the end of the story about Mrs Dorgan’s background and about Queeda’s precarious reliance upon her father, underscoring the similarities between the women, who are all in danger of being abandoned by the men in their lives.


Anyone who has delved into The Shipping News knows that Annie Proulx has a certain, unusual sentence structure she deploys for rendering dialogue. At first glance I thought that what she is rendering here is an approximation of American social dialect of the late 1880s. Then I remembered The Shipping News, set not in America but in Canada; not in the 1800s but in the late 20th Century, and I realised that what she does isn’t exactly a regional dialect, or a social one, but something different again.

What does she do, exactly, when rendering dialogue?

There’s a certain amount of phonetic spelling, as well as regional dialect: ‘Twict’ is Southern for ‘twice’. Non-standard syntax, comma-spliced sentence:

“If I can git loose I will. But this is a real good job, good money, fifty-five a month, almost twict what Bunk Peck pays and I’m goin a save ever nickel.”

People repeat themselves. Proulx is not afraid of having characters repeat themselves likewise:

“And that’s not countin what I maybe can pick up in wolf bounties. Possible another hunderd. Enough to git us started. I’m thinkin horses, raise horses. Folks always need horses. I’ll quit this feller’s ranch after a year an git back here.”

Proulx tends to leave out ‘if’:

“I’m ridin to talk with Bunk in a few days, see can I get hired on again.”

Also frequently omitted is the beginning of a sentence, here ‘I’ll’. I wonder if this is to avoid the idea of individualism, and to convey that these stories are universal, not specific to certain characters, but characters standing in for communities.


This is the third story of Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just The Way It Is.


The story is divided into 3 sections of uneven length:

Archie and Rose, 1885 – about Archie and Rose getting married, a bit of backstory on them both, and Archie’s decision to go cowboying in order to earn some good money for when the baby comes.

Archie and Sink – A few paragraphs about Archie’s job as a cowhand.

Rose and the Coyotes – Rose gives birth to the baby. She manages to bury the baby beside the river. Coyotes come and eat the carcass outside. Archie catches pneumonia and dies with one of the other cowpunchers in a shack during a 12 day snow blizzard. He never finds out that his wife and baby are already dead.

The narrator is unseen and has his own interesting vocabulary.


Proulx’s most famous cowboy story is of course “Brokeback Mountain“. “Brokeback Mountain” covers a longer period of time in the life of two men, demonstrating the writer’s ability to cover vast lengths of time and complex emotional landscapes within the confines of a short story.


Annie Proulx really knows the landscape of Wyoming and is able to convey a realistic sense of the era. What is the landscape you know best? Is there a certain regional dialect associated with this area? What aspects of this landscape make it different from others similar? Are you able to write about eras that others can’t, either because you’ve been around longer than most or because of a long-time personal interest? If there are human stories around this region that haven’t been told, what form would they likely take?