Side-shadowing In The Wrysons by John Cheever

“The Wrysons” is interesting as a study of writing technique because it is a story with the theme of ‘lack’ running throughout, and Cheever masterfully chose to employ some narrative techniques which are themselves about describing not what did happen but what didn’t, and what might have.

Lady Baltimore Cake which may have been eaten in The Wrysons
A Lady Baltimore cake — created for genteel tea parties. Novelist Owen Wister made this cake famous in his 1906 romance, Lady Baltimore.

Apart from The Bella Lingua, which is set in Italy, this and the preceding number of Cheever’s short stories were all set in his famous Shady Hill.  Did Cheever want to live in a place such as Shady Hill? I suspect he would have called the whole place ‘phony’, and in The Wrysons he once again dips into the idea that in the suburbs where everything seems perfect, there must be rot beneath the veneer. In fact, he has gone much further with this in other stories such as The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, in which a man burgles his own neighbours (I guess I didn’t really spoil anything for anyone there — it’s all in the title!), and in “The Enormous Radio”, which is not set in the suburbs but is all about the feeling that you’re living two steps away from terrible, terrible happenings.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WRYSONS”

A suburban couple with one daughter have zero interests except the wish for their comfortable suburb to stay exactly the same. The only difficult thing about the wife’s life seems to be her regular unsettling dreams in which someone explodes a hydrogen bomb and causes the end of the world. She also dreams that she poisons her own daughter. The husband thought he felt nothing when his mother died, but deals with her death by occasionally waking in the middle of the night and baking a cake in the kitchen to remind him of his childhood, in which his mother and he would bake together to create a cosy atmosphere. The husband is unaware of his wife’s dreams; the wife is unaware of her husband’s cake-baking habit, until one night he burns the cake, wakes her up, and they go back to bed more confused about the world than ever.


 

SETTING OF “THE WRYSONS”

Nicotiana grows in the Wrysons' garden.
Nicotiana grows in the Wrysons’ garden.

Place

If you’ve read other, better-known stories of Cheever you’ll be familiar with this place in middle to upper-class America — it’s not a real suburb in any real town, but Cheever returns to it as a setting time and again. Perhaps his most famous story set in Shady Hill is The Swimmer.  This family lives in the fictional Alewives Lane. They have a nice garden. ‘They were odd, of course’, writes Cheever — and with a masterly use of ‘of course’ we are to take it for granted that everyone who might seem ‘normal’ is actually harboring a hidden or overt eccentricity.

 

Time

It’s significant in this story that at the time this story was written, the baking of cakes in the home was strictly a feminine task, a point of pride, in fact, and for a married man to don an apron and make a cake — a Lady Baltimore cake, no less — would have been thought terrible emasculating. Indeed, when the wife is finally woken by the smell of burning, she admonishes the husband by telling him he should have woken her if he was feeling hungry, as if the kitchen was her own private space.

This is also a time — difficult for those of us who are younger to imagine — in which people genuinely feared a hydrogen bomb ending everything.

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Short Story Study: The Bus To St James’s by John Cheever

I bought The Collected Stories of John Cheever as a salve to heal my Mad Men withdrawals, and this is one of Cheever’s stories that absolutely reminds me of Mad Men. Stephen Bruce is a Don Draper character; his daughter is a Sally Draper type. Matt Weiner has cited Cheever as one source of inspiration for Mad Men, and in this story we have an early example of the sympathetic antihero.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

A married man (on his second marriage) has an affair with a woman in his social circle. They are seen out and about, the man’s wife hires a private investigator and eventually the woman’s husband leaves her, taking their children to the country.

mad men 660 amc

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The Sorrows Of Gin by John Cheever

It is impossible to read The Sorrows of Gin naively when you know that Cheever himself was plagued by the bottle. This is a  short story about how a man’s drinking affects his only daughter. I feel there are enough clues in this story to foreshadow a future of alcohol addiction for the daughter.

The Sorrows of Gin

 

This short story is an example of a character change that almost happens — there is every opportunity for it to happen — but the character is too inward looking to have any sort of epiphany, and we are left with the sombre feeling that, from here, things will only get worse. The final sentence is a rhetorical question, and the reader knows the answer to it: Stop drinking! But the main character (the father) doesn’t know it.


 

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY?

A new cook tells the lonely nine-year-old daughter of a well-to-do couple about her own alcoholic sister, and how just having alcohol in the house proves too much of a temptation. Disquieted by the drunkenness of her own parents, Amy tips a bottle of gin down the drain. (Though she has possibly been doing this for some time, resulting in all sorts of dismissals.) This contributes to the cook’s getting fired. Amy does the same again, getting the next housekeeper fired. Though Amy doesn’t see any causation to her actions, her long-standing non-drinker baby-sitter ends up in an altercation with her father, who accuses her of stealing his gin.

Amy is upset at the altercation between her father and her baby-sitter, hearing the word ‘Police’ shouted from downstairs, so the following day when her parents are out she packs a few things, steals $20 from her mother’s desk and goes to the station where she plans to run away from home.

Mr Flanagan the station master sells her a ticket, but promptly calls her father. The father arrives at the station and is briefly filled with emotion for his daughter, but this feeling quickly fades and we are left feeling that he has missed his chance for character growth, and that things will continue as they have been at home.


 

SETTING OF THE SORROWS OF GIN

Shady Hill

This is one of Cheever’s Shady Hill stories. Other notable stories set in this place are The Swimmer and of course The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.

[Cheever’s] Shady Hill is a fictional territory to consider alongside Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.

The Guardian

Cheever’s description of the Shady Hill train station creates in the reader an eerie locale, helped along by a reference to the well-known creepy French folktale of Bluebeard, in which a man takes a woman captive in his basement. Though Bluebeard is not a father-daughter story but a story of a husband and his wives, the theme of female captivity is nevertheless replicated in this suburban story.

The railroad station in Shady Hill resembled the railroad stations in old movies [Amy] had seen on television, where detectives and spies, bluebeards and their trusting victims, were met to be driven off to remote country estates.

Milieu

This was an era before the perils of drunk driving were widely known, and the babysitter simply had to put up with drunk men driving her home after her baby-sitting jobs. Moreover, women couldn’t necessarily drive themselves and cars were expensive:

Mrs. Henlein, anxious to get into her own bed and back to sleep, prayed that he wasn’t going to pour himself another drink, as they so often did. She was driven home night after night by drunken gentlemen.

Rosemary brings Amy a present of ‘Japanese Water Flowers’. I believe these were a child’s toy — a flower which opened up when placed in water, but I’m not sure if they were real flowers or made of paper.

As Cheever often does, he provides a soundtrack to this story, which is evocative of the times.

 

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The Chaste Clarissa by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE CHASTE CLARISSA

A twice-divorced philanderer holidays where he has always holidayed, on Martha’s Vineyard. On the ferry he meets for the first time a beautiful young woman who has recently married into a bird-watching, rock-collecting family of average Joes, but her husband won’t be joining Clarissa on the island, so our viewpoint character decides immediately that she shall be his next conquest. He sets up a plan to make this happen.

SETTING OF THE CHASTE CLARISSA

Place

Vineyard Haven is a community within the town of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard in Dukes County, Massachusetts, United States.

Tisbury

Time

Published in 1952, this is a story set in the same time. This was The Decade of the Housewife, an era which we still tend to idealise, forgetting perhaps, the problems described by Betty Friedan and others.

Milieu

As usual in Cheever’s stories thus far, ‘The Chaste Clarissa’ is a story about upper-class people with upper-class issues. We have holiday homes and housemaids and copious amounts of spare time. Whatever else was going on in the world is irrelevant to these characters, underscored by the fact that this is set on a literal island.

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The Pot Of Gold by John Cheever

John Cheever isn’t exactly well-known for his ability to get inside women’s heads and depict the other half of humanity as fully human. If he wrote a story with a rounded female protagonist, I’m yet to read it. In “The Pot Of Gold”, at least, the main male character has something to learn from his wife. This short story demonstrates that even if Cheever didn’t feel he understood women sufficiently to be able to write from a female perspective, he at least grasped the essence of white male privilege of 1930s New York.

John Cheever demonstrates a complex understanding of what money, or the pursuit of it, can do to the psyche. Though there are many stories and folktales about the evil of money, the messages here are a little more nuanced.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE POT OF GOLD”

In depression era New York, a young married couple feel that they live on the edge of poverty. In fact, they have enough money to afford an apartment and to go out to dinner on special occasions. But the husband is constantly after a get-rich fix, and spends a lot of money in this pursuit. When he goes off to war, the wife does quite well on her own with their daughter, having temporarily gone back to work. But when he returns, it’s back to high expenditures.

Eventually, the husband gets a lucky break. His uncle has saved a man’s life on Lake Eyrie, and through this connection, the husband is offered a very well paid job in California.

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O City Of Broken Dreams by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN “O CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS”

In “O City Of Broken Dreams,” 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.

SETTING OF “O CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS”

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. Continue reading “O City Of Broken Dreams by John Cheever”

The Enormous Radio by John Cheever

1940s radio

Hear The Enormous Radio read by Nathan Englander here.

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. This story was written in 1947, in an era where nobody 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.

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. Continue reading “The Enormous Radio by John Cheever”

The Common Day by John Cheever

“The Common Day” is a slice of life story set around the time of the 20th Century world wars. Though this story was first published after WW2 had ended, the story is set in a time of unrest, when even the most cosseted upper-crust of New Hampshire can’t feel entirely at ease about the future. When dividing the Cheever stories according to location, this is one of his ‘exurban’ or ‘vacation’ stories.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

Our viewpoint character, Jim Brown, is spending 10 days in the country at his wife’s family’s house, somewhere in New Hampshire. Jim himself is a city person. When he gets to his mother-in-law’s large country estate, he is rather flattered to find that the male gardener seeks him out. The gardener misses male company, and wants to tell him that all his vegetables are going to waste unless someone orders them to be eaten. Jim also sets some traps for a raccoon who has been making mischief in the crops.

Later that evening, there is an afternoon storm and everyone’s mood seems to alter. The conversation on the terrace takes a sombre tone. The gardener approaches his mistresses and tells her that he won’t be moving the lilies that she had asked him to move earlier that day. He has a bit of an outburst about how all his boss ever does is kill flowers, whereas he is the one who knows all about gardening.

The raccoon gets caught in a trap that has been set for it. Jim finishes it off by shooting it twice in the head. This wakes his niece and her maid, who come to see what the commotion is about. Somewhat reassured, the woman and girl retreat to bed. Jim Brown wishes he could help them somehow, by offering them his light. Continue reading “The Common Day by John Cheever”