“Goodbye My Brother” is one of John Cheever’s best known short stories. In fact, it was this story which contributed to Cheever’s receiving his Guggenheim Scholarship. Cheever returned time and again to the dynamic of an uneasy relationship between two brothers. The relationship is always a metaphor for something bigger.
I prefer the nihilist brother Lawrence, nick-named ‘Croaker’. He may have a tendency to point out the downside of any situation, but he is nonetheless right. When he notes that making improvements on a house near the coast is futile due to erosion from the sea, I’m reminded of that very modern division that can occur between family members at gatherings: Those who worry about climate change and rising sea levels versus those who insist that any climate change is a natural phenomenon and nothing at all to worry about. No matter the era, there will always be somewhat of a clash between pessimists and optimists; that’s what make this story timeless.
After reading “Goodbye, My Brother”, I suspected there was far more below the surface. Sure enough, after reading Peter Mathews’ essay A Farewell to Goodbyes: Reconciling the Past in Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” I realise that in order to really understand Cheever you would ideally have an understanding of mythology, the history of religion, and a keen eye for symbolism. I’m sure I could keep digging into this one until I reached China.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “GOODBYE, MY BROTHER”
The Pommeroy Clan gathers at the family’s summer house, built in the 1920s on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The four grown children and their families join their widowed mother for this summer ritual. This is a special gathering as they haven’t seen Lawrence in four years. Unfortunately, Lawrence has a reputation for putting a downer on proceedings, and sure enough, he starts to piss off the rest of the family by pointing out the negatives and refusing to be a ‘joiner’.
One night, the family all dress up for an ‘As You Were’ party, except for Lawrence and Ruth, who don’t want to go. All the wives turn up in their wedding dresses; the men are surprised to find more than one has turned up in his high school football uniform. Then Ruth turns up, wearing a red dress which feels to the narrator ‘all wrong’. Lawrence is outside and refuses to come in. The narrator assumes it’s because he thinks the whole idea of dressing up as someone from the past is pathetic. Note that we never really know what Lawrence thinks.
While the rest of the family is at a flower show, Lawrence and the narrator have their own little showdown on the beach after the narrator has a go at Lawrence for spoiling everyone’s holiday. Then he whacks him across the back of the head with a wet root, wishing him dead. He ends up going off to have a swim and not worrying too much about whether he is okay. Lawrence, nihilist that he is, doesn’t seem all that surprised by this, but is angry enough to pack up and leave after announcing the incident to the family. Only the mother got up to say goodbye before Lawrence’s family took the six o’clock boat to the mainland.
SETTING OF “GOODBYE, MY BROTHER”
Laud’s Head appears to be a fictional headland of the sort that you find dotted along the New England coast of America. Cheever wrote “Goodbye, My Brother,” after a gloomy summer in Martha’s Vineyard, so I suppose we might imagine that setting. That said, the name ‘Laud’ apparently has significance to readers who know their English history:
[T]he summer house, or Eden, of the Pommeroy family is called Laud’s Head, a name which, if one knows some English religious history, undoubtedly refers to one of the most famous Anglican Archbishops, William Laud, who was beheaded by the Puritans in 1645 for attempting to bring back into the Episcopal Church music, ritual, the Communion table, and the sacramental system the Puritans had banned. […] Chaddy Pommeroy […] and Chucky Ewing […] both have names that are cognates of […] Charles I, who also lost his head to the Puritans under the chief Roundhead, Oliver Cromwell.
The Weather As Emotion In “Goodbye My Brother”
The blustery Atlantic air plays an important part in the story. The cold ocean air has blown away the gloom that Lawrence has brought with him from Albany. At the end of the story, the narrator wakes up on the morning of Lawrence’s abrupt departure with a feeling that a black cloud has blown away and left a perfectly gorgeous day.
Jesus, what a morning! The wind was northerly. The air was clear. In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam.
In stories, when the weather reflects character emotions, this is called ‘pathetic fallacy’. See: Pathetic Fallacy — not actually an insult. (There are other examples of this poetic device, though weather/emotions is a commonly utilised one.) On the other hand, the veridical weather may not have changed; rather, the narrator’s perception of it changed along with his improved mental state.
CHARACTERS IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”
Cheever’s characters have been described as ‘Sisyphean’, meaning they can never quite achieve completeness. (Sisypheus was a Greek king who, punished for deceit, was forced to roll a huge boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down again, repeating the task for eternity.)
The Pommeroy Clan
A Puritan American family who have a holiday house with a tennis court.
With his mouth set, my brother looked to me then like a Puritan critic. Sometimes, when I try to understand his frame of mind, I think of the beginnings of our family in this country […] The branch of the Pommeroys to which we belong was founded by a minister who was eulogized by Cotton Mather for his untiring abjuration of the Devil. The Pommeroys were ministers until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the harshness of their thought — man is full of misery, and all earthly beauty is lustful and corrupt — has been preserved in books and sermons. The temper of our family changed somewhat and became more lighthearted, but […] it seemed to me to have been a trial of the spirit in which Lawrence had succumbed.
The French roots of the name Pommeroy signifies “king of the apples,” a reference to the story’s Edenic setting.
The Unnamed Narrator: 38 years old, a married schoolteacher. Apart from time spent with the family, he lives in a school dormitory. Since this is a story told in the first person, this narrator will be unreliable to some extent. And to some extent, our narrator acknowledges this:
I think I saw what was going on his mind.
On the other hand, we see the narrator calling the kettle black:
It is like Lawrence to try to read significance and finality into every gesture that we make…
Usually, the reader identifies with the first person narrator, or the main character. In this case, the reader may or may not side with Lawrence — we are prompted in no particular direction by Cheever, who presents the story without asking us to take a moral stand. This narrator isn’t a particularly nice person. He express no guilt over the fact that he had tried to kill his brother on the beach the day before by hitting him over the head with a waterlogged tree-root. It’s not even an isolated incident — he recalls a time in childhood, hitting Lawrence on the head with a rock.
This unrepentent narrator may have his youngest brother all wrong, for all the reader knows:
“The ‘I’ of the story seems at first a patient, long-suffering and trustworthy narrator, but as the tale progresses we realize that a great deal of Lawrence’s gloominess is not demonstrated but ascribed to him, proceeding less from his act than his thoughts, to which we have no access but the narrator’s speculation.
The narrator is married to a woman called Helen, who dyes her hair to hide the years. Helen and the narrator live on Long Island with four children.
The Narrator’s Widowed Mother: husband was killed in a sailing accident. She has formed strong opinions on how to lead a life well-lived, and is fond of dishing out life advice to her children, even though the children are old enough now to see contractions between what she says and how she behaves.
The Dead Father: Just as important to a story are the characters who are not there:
The absence of the Pommeroy father constitutes more than just a fictional device: Cheever places him at the fringes of the story in order to create a deliberate echo of the other legal discourses evoked by the narrator. Through this repeated association, the Pommeroy father becomes the symbol of the law. His legal correlates are mapped in Figure 1: God the Father, the Logos from the Gospel of John and the author of the Ten Commandments; Uranus, the grandfather of the Greek gods and the father of the Titans; and Cotton Mather, the patriarch and lawgiver of colonial, Puritan America.
We are told the children are ‘out of their twenties’. It turns out they are in their early forties/late thirties.
One Recently Divorced Sister: Diana. Diana has been living in France while her two children are at school in Switzerland. The names of the two women, Helen and Diana, have mythic associations. Mythic associations add a dimension of tradition to a story, and reinforce Cheever’s need to explore the past, ‘even into antiquity’.
Two Other Brothers:
1. Chaddy, lives in Manhattan. Chaddy and the narrator have a competitive relationship with each other, but not a soured one. Chaddy is their mother’s favourite and successful in his work, whatever that is. Chaddy is married to Odette, who flirts to restore her youth. Odette has black hair and black eyes and is careful to keep out of the sun. She flirts (not seriously) as modus operandi.
2. Lawrence is the youngest son and a lawyer. He got a job with a Cleveland firm after the war. The family didn’t see him during that time. He now works for a firm in Albany, so agreed to spend time with the family at Laud’s Head. Lawrence’s name, of course, contains the word “law,” but his nicknames also possess deeper meanings: “Little Jesus” during the latter part of his youth. But it is his childhood nickname that has a particular resonance throughout the story. He was called Tifty as a child because of the sound his slippers made on the floor as he walked. Also called Croaker (a person who grumbles or habitually predicts evil) and Little Jesus (fitting the Puritan motif). Lawrence is the only member of the family who has never enjoyed drinking.
With his mouth set, my brother looked to me then like a Puritan cleric. Sometimes, when I try to understand his frame of mind, I think of the beginnings of our family in this country, and his disapproval of Diana and her lover reminded me of this.
Lawrence is both repulsed by and attracted to the past.
I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.
Lawrence is a nihilist. He can ‘make a grievance out of anything’, according to the narrator.
But in Lawrence’s favour, he doesn’t seem all that bothered by a blow to his head by his older brother, because the nihilist in him must have been expecting it.
Note that Lawrence barely speaks more than a few lines in the entire narrative. Though the title is named for the narrator’s relationship with this particular brother, Lawrence is not all that important to the story, because the story is about the narrator’s inner-world alone. Interestingly, the character of Lawrence did not even exist in an early draft of this story.
The brother story, in its bare outline, was the story of one man. There was no brother; there was no Lawrence. (In the finished story he speaks only a few lines and the bulk of his opinions are given to him by the narrator.) I tried to bury this outline then under several others so that the story would unfold like an uncooked onion.
Lawrence is married to Ruth. The character of Ruth also highlights the importance of names to unlocking the themes of Cheever’s story; Ruth is a Biblical character who sacrifices a lot for others. In this story, Ruth is ‘a thin girl, tired from the journey.’
I…passed Ruth in the laundry. She was washing clothes. I don’t know why she should seem to have so much more work to do than anyone else, but she is always washing or mending clothes.
Their two children, too, are thin and wear ‘ornate cowboy costumes’. They cry/take offence easily. Even their own grandmother can’t stand to be around them as they look so dejected.
But does Lawrence really exist? Cheever apparently told a mentor: “There was no brother; there was no Lawrence.” I’m not sure of the context surrounding this — perhaps he meant in an early draft, but I like the idea that Lawrence is a figment of the narrator’s imagination — the squirrel in his attic, the pessimistic side of himself, putting a dampener on his very own holiday.
I have recently started asking of stories: What if X character doesn’t really exist in the world of the story? Simply by asking this question you can come up with some fascinating insights. There are of course stories built on the imaginary character as a big reveal: Sixth Sense, A Beautiful Mind, Tully. But what about Ollie from “Powers” by Alice Munro? He might not be real, though his lack of realness is not on the page. Take your favourite TV show. If any of the characters were figments of another character’s imagination, which would it be? What if Kramer of Seinfeld weren’t real? Or Newton? What if Phoebe’s twin off Friends wasn’t real?
Minor Characters In “Goodbye My Brother”
The man who Diana is sleeping with while here for the summer, mentioned only in passing.
The summer cook, Anna Ostrovick, a recognisable trope of a woman — jolly and fat and industrious. She ends up banning Lawrence from her kitchen because she can’t put up with his negativity.
THEME IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”
Revelling in nostalgia is futile.
Critics have said that Cheever’s ‘brother motif’ tends to come back to this.
“This house is about twenty-two years old,” he said. “These shingles are about two hundred years old. Dad must have bought shingles from all the farms around here when he built the place, to make it look venerable. […] Imagine spending thousands of dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck,” Lawrence said. “Imagine the frame of mind this implies. Imagine wanting to live so much in the past that you’ll pay men carpenters’ wages to disfigure your front door.” Then I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.
The story’s basic thematic structure: the clash between the father, the mythological founder of the law, and the legacy he leaves to his children.
“Goodbye My Brother,” is wrought with his recurrent themes of light and nostalgia.
Powell’s, Review A Day
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”
The Motif Of The Sea In “Goodbye My Brother”
“The sea salt that I think is in our blood”, says our unnamed narrator. Note also that the father died in the sea. The sea therefore is an important part of the narrator, bonding him with his family and to his history. Both he and his brother Chaddy miss the sea when they venture out West. The sea binds together various threads of the story.
Lawrence, on the other hand, doesn’t think well of the sea. He rejects the sea and hates everything about it, seeing the havoc it wreaks on the coastline and on the family holiday home. He and Ruth refuse to go swimming with the rest of the family, partly rejected by the matriarch, of course, who takes Chaddy’s arm and proclaims that she is determined to have fun.
The sea relieves the narrator from the nihilism that permeates Lawrence’s thought. There is a paradoxical tranquility in the sea’s restlessness that is typified by the family’s daily swimming ritual, a practice that takes on quasi-religious overtones in its “illusion of purification”. The antidote to society’s Puritan past is thus to be found in the sea. Reflecting on his encounter with Ruth in the laundry, the narrator thinks about the alternative spirituality he feels in the sea’s presence….Lawrence fears that the sea, destroyer of his father and the law, will also destroy the family structure itself, as symbolized by the house. Cheever’s allusion is to the Bible, to Matthew 7:26-7, in which Jesus says: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened to a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (AKJV). For Lawrence, the family has built its foundations on sinking sand, a view that Cheever thematically transfers from the house to the values that underpin the lives of his mother and siblings.
From the story:
Now I could hear the waves, whose heaviness sounded like a reverberation, like a tumult, and it pleased me as it had pleased me when I was young, and it seemed to have a purgative force, as if it had cleared my memory of, among other things, the penitential image of Ruth in the laundry.
“‘This house will be in the sea […] The sea wall is badly cracked,’ Lawrence said. “I looked at it this afternoon. You had it repaired four years ago, and it cost eight thousand dollars. You can’t do that every four years’”
The narrator ends the story with a life-sustaining image that depicts the sea not as a destructor but as life-giving.
Mythological Allusions In “Goodbye My Brother”
Using the sea’s mythical symbolism, Cheever reaches back to a time before the invention of Christianity, before the God of the Puritans to a different and more ancient creation myth. Through a series of allusions, he instead evokes the pagan myths and deities of the ancient Greeks: Odette looks up at the night sky, trying to find the constellation of Cassiopeia; the narrator imagines Lawrence saying “Thalassa, Thalassa” (the Greek word for “sea”) when he leaves Laud’s Head; their sister, Diana, is an allusion to the virgin goddess of the hunt; the narrator’s wife, Helen, is the namesake of the most famous beauty of the classical world. But these allusions are swallowed up in a greater story that is alluded to yet never explained, namely, the creation myth of the ancient Greeks.
Juxtaposition In “Goodbye My Brother”
Beginning versus Ending In “Goodbye My Brother”
There is a copious amount of juxtaposition in this story. It begins with the second sentence, in which
our mother has always stressed the fact that our familial relationships have a kind of permanence that we will never meet with again.
This is juxtaposed with the ending, in which it is perhaps true that familial relationships have a kind of permanence, but whether they should be revered or not? The reader is left knowing that the two brothers will never be friends.
Juxtaposition of Voice In “Goodbye My Brother”
The story is divided between the rather flat, dour pronouncements delivered by Lawrence and the rich, sensuous counterpassages of the narrator. As Lawrence, for example, calls Odette a promiscuous woman, the narrator describes her in sensual detail, noting the roundness of her shoulders and the whiteness of her skin. Similarly, at the conclusion of the costume party, the guests rescue the floating white balloons from the sea while Lawrence laments the partygoers’ foolishness. The lushness of the prose that Cheever employs when describing the smells, the sounds, and the contentment of the narrator’s life among his family strikingly contrasts not only with Lawrence’s gloom but also with his matter-of-fact language. The sense of possibility of the former overshadows the finality of the latter.
Juxtaposition Of Character In “Goodbye My Brother”
Again from Mathews:
Lawrence’s life is characterized by a string of goodbyes, but this pattern is not accompanied by a process of healing and moving on. On the contrary, his history is scarred by these failures, and these recurring moments of disillusionment are remembered with the force of resentment. For the narrator, by contrast, the sea allows him to forget, it allows him to be washed free of his pain and thus avoid the canker of resentment that eats away at Lawrence’s being.
The narrator experiences the visit as tender and warm, which contrasts with Lawrence’s perennial exasperation with his family. For example, at the age of sixteen, he labeled his mother as “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.” But, the narrator believes this projection to be the result of Lawrence’s basic refusal to embrace life, which leads to the realization that the lifelong rift between the brothers may always remain. The sadness that accompanies this conclusion is palpable.
The philosophical difference between the brothers is acknowledged early in the story:
“Then I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.”
Subtle Repetitions In “Goodbye My Brother”
“Goodbye, My Brother” has aspects of the cumulative plot shape. Mathews quotes Morace:
“Essentially, Cheever plays the same scene or situation over and over with slight but cumulatively significant changes, gradually transforming the real into the fantastic, time into dream. […] [His fiction] depends considerably less on linear plot, narrative focus, and character development than it does on various forms of narrative parallelism: echoing, juxtaposition, counterpoint, incremental repetition, thematic variations, and the coming together of disparate characters, situations, and narrative lines”
Narrator As Character In “Goodbye My Brother”
Written in first person point of view, the unnamed narrator is wry, compassionate and detached. At first we may think of him as a sympathetic observer. This kind of narrator is commonly utilised by Cheever in his short stories.
The effect, according to Mathews:
to initiate a move beyond the surface story, thus showing how these forces penetrate every level of discourse, from the level of everyday life (in the family’s clashes with Lawrence) to its deeper, more metaphysical levels (in the story’s religious, historical, and mythical references).
The function of the narrator is to evaluate his family’s ideas, and the story is the scale on which he weighs the different worldviews he encounters in that milieu. His effectiveness is guaranteed by the double consciousness with which Cheever imbues him. Indeed, the narrator shifts continually back and forth between lyrical celebrations of life and gloomy ruminations about Lawrence’s character.
STORY SPECS OF “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”
This story first appeared in The New Yorker, August 25, 1951 on P. 22, and is available online behind a paywall.
“Goodbye, My Brother” is the first short story in this vintage collection.
COMPARE “GOODBYE MY BROTHER” WITH
The mood and atmosphere — in other words, the setting of “Goodbye My Brother” — remind me very much of the first few episodes of Bloodline, in which brothers and a sister return to the family home for a gathering. In this series, too, there is one brother who is the black sheep (played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn). The setting is reminiscent of that portrayed in “Goodbye, My Brother” — the smell of brine, the coastal holiday vibe. The feeling that not all is well beneath the surface. That said, Bloodline is set and filmed many miles south, in Florida Keys.
List of films set in New England, separated by decade.
“In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson is also a short story which juxtaposes the nihilist against the optimist. The optimist is only an optimist on the surface, and put sin effort to maintain the charade. I believe if John Cheever were born later he’d be writing about climate change in this way.
WRITE YOUR OWN BASED ON “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”
Not all of us have a family holiday house. But if you did have a family holiday house, where might it be? Who would join you there? And what sorts of dynamics would prove uncomfortable?
Have you ever been on holiday with people who you know and don’t know, in just the wrong combination?
Is there anybody in your life who you suspect misreads you consistently? If they were to write a story about you, and all the things that supposedly go on inside your head, what would that story look like?
Header illustration: “Packing the Car” by Stevan Dohanos, (cover art for The Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1956