Homes and Symbolism In Film and Literature

sunny home literature film

Homes are an outworking of the characters who live inside. Sometimes, in fiction, the house even seems to come alive in its own right.

There exist sunny houses in which, at all seasons, it is summer, houses that are all windows.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

For my notes after reading Gaston Bachelard, see Symbolism of the Dream House.

THE GLASS HOUSE AND THE INFLUENCE OF FARNSWORTH

The famous Farnsworth House is a square construction made mostly of windows and constructed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1945 and 1951. It’s in Plano, Illinois.

In real life, people who build these houses tend to be well-off and have environmental aspirations. When a house has this much glass you’re living ‘at one with nature’. You’re also respecting the environment by refusing to build something garish. From a distance, the house hardly interferes with the natural landscape, with the trees reflecting off the windows, and the lack of a pretentious, gabled roof. (I’m not sure about their energy efficiency rating, though.)

In fiction, however, the glass house generally spells doom for you and your family. If you are a fictional person reading this, I advise against purchasing a house made mainly of glass.

Farnsworth_House_by_Mies_Van_Der_Rohe_-_exterior-8 1

LAKE HOUSE

The glass house in the movie Lake House (with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock) is based on the Farnsworth architecture. The character who lives in this house is an architect, and in movies, architects can’t live in ordinary houses. Here, the house is ‘at one with the water’.

Lake House house

THE ICE STORM

One of the families in The Ice Storm — The Carver family — live in a very nice house with a lot of glass. They could be enjoying their Thanksgiving dinner, at their beautiful table with lots of food, under the cover of glass but still enjoying the late autumn scenery. But the 14-year-old daughter is far too astute to be fooled by appearances — on the other side of that ‘glass’ people are starving. The meaning of Thanksgiving is built on abuse, she points out.

In the following clip, we hear how Connecticut was the first place to really embrace the glass house, but a lot of the time they weren’t ‘beautiful’ — they simply functioned like fish bowls. In the glass house, the irony is that the family can’t see each other. This glass house juxtaposes with another main house, which is a 1950s colonial house. This was also an archetypal architectural time, but would be a little less cold. The colonial house is the key party house, which makes the key party seem even dirtier.

INTO THE FOREST

Into The Forest (2015) is set somewhere in Canada, but more ‘correctly’ somewhere in fairytale world. Viewers who expected mimesis were utterly disappointed that these young women were able to sustain themselves by finding berries in the woods over a long winter. This is the stuff of fairytales, and I code it as such.

The difficulty is, these girls live in the present, or actually in the near future, probably. The father has purchased a partially finished house with large, glass walls and transplanted his daughters to their forest haven. Then the outside world breaks down — a Doomsday Prepper’s dream.

The girls are suddenly alone and vulnerable. The house which seemed like a haven is now a target for predators. They end up boarding over those massive glass walls, first putting makeshift curtains up, then realising this will never be enough.

This house is an interesting mixture of ‘cold glass house’ and ‘warm, cosy house’. The house itself is a character in the movie, and therefore has its own ‘character arc’. For the house, the film is a tragedy along Gilbert Grape lines.

Into the Forest glass house

For a similar film about a family who must survive in a kind of fairytale utopia after calamity hits Earth — or America — see A Quiet Place. One garnered excellent reviews; the other did not. I have my own feminist theories about why.

WIENER DOG

Wiener-dog (2016) is an indie film which connects four short stories via the travels of a dog who never finds a permanent home. The first household we meet is desperately unhappy. Sure enough, they live in a house with walls made mainly of glass.

BATMAN VS SUPERMAN

Bruce Wayne’s residence is also a big glass thing. You can explore it using Google Street View. In the film there is an underground lair where criminal activities occur.

wayne-residence-1400

TWILIGHT

The vampires live in a glass house in the middle of the forest. You’d think they’d want a bit more privacy, wouldn’t you? But the forest itself provides the walls and curtains. In contrast to the more homely vibe emitted from Jacob, the Cullens are a cold, stand-offish clan, and so the house made of glass is fitting.

If you’re wondering where the house from the films is located, it’s a slightly complicated story:

The Cullen House is supposedly located in Forks Washington.  But as we have learned, most of the filming for the original Twilight movie was done here in Portland and the surrounding area.  For New Moon and Eclipse they used another home in Vancouver BC area. For Breaking Dawn 1 and 2 they broke down the house in Vancouver and loaded it on semi-trucks and transported it to the Louisiana sound stage where those films were made. It’s amazing that it is still so easily accessible for Twilight fans.

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF

Because a house made of glass is such an ostentatious statement — while ironically seeming to fit into the surrounding landscape unobtrusively — this building, which exists only to house cars, is comedic in itself.

Garage-ferris-buellers-day-off-house3

Annie Proulx’s short story “Negatives” is another example of the ostentatiously glass house used to symbolic effect.

HOUSE OF CARDS

Despite their terrible sleep hygiene, you won’t find light-filled rooms in House Of Cards.

MAD MEN

Mad Men is equally dark as House of Cards in many ways, but well-lit rooms are quite usual in this series. Mad Men is an snail under the leaf setting. Don Draper has everything he could possibly want… from the outside looking in.

California is the flip side of New York — New York is wintry and studious while California is light-hearted and beachy.

mad-men-california-house

But even on the East Coast, the light-filled kitchen scene here only highlights how down-and-out Betty Draper seems. Her mood contrasts equally with the upbeat innocence of their children.

MAD MEN KITCHEN

DON’T TRUST THE B IN APARTMENT B

Krystin Ritter is actually the perfect fit for dark stories and her look has been utilised thusly in Breaking Bad and Jessica Jones. You won’t find many light-filled homes in those series. But here she is in a light-hearted comedy, bathed in a white, welcoming glow.

dont-trust-the-b-in-apt-23-making-rent_featured_photo_gallery

TROPHY WIFE

Here’s another Pinterest-worthy white kitchen in a light-hearted series.

Trophy Wife kitchen

SUBURGATORY

Though the title of this series suggests a kind of hell, the home is filled with natural light. This is a safe house in some well-off suburbs.

Suburgatory living room

GILMORE GIRLS

The opening of Gilmore girls shows the main characters drinking coffee inside Luke’s, but at night, with all those fairy lights. In that case, the dark forms a cloak of reassurance and cosiness. During the day, Luke’s is always a place of refuge, even when he goes out of his way to be gruff.

GILMORE GIRLS CAFE

Emily and Richard’s house has no natural light at all — a cold house from another age. What age is that, exactly?

The Centennial encouraged the founding of many so-called patriotic societies, such as the Sons (now defunct) and the Daughters (still active) of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Society of Mayflower Descendants. This new interest in genealogy was due partly to the Centennial itself, and partly to efforts by the established middle class to distance itself from the increasing number of new, predominantly non-British immigrants. This process of cultural authentification was fortified by furnishing homes in the so-called Colonial style, thus underlining the link to the past. Like most invented traditions, the Colonial revival was also a reflection of its own time–the nineteenth century. Its visual taste was influenced by the then current English architectural fashion–Queen Anne–which had nothing to do with the Pilgrim Fathers, but whose cozy hominess appealed to a public sated by the extravagances of the Gilded Age.

Home: A short history of an idea, by Witold Rybczynski

Emily Gilmore belongs to Daughters of the American Revolution. She herself is clearly racist and her big, cold, Colonial home is an outworking of Emily herself.

In contrast we have Lorelai’s house, which we often see from the outside bathed in sunlight. The contrast between Emily’s house and Lorelai’s house is the archetypal cold colonial vs warm and sunny dichotomy. We are meant to feel at home in one and not in the other. The expectation that warm, cosy houses are full of food is overturned by the writer in (what I believe) to be an attempt at subverting the patriarchal expectation that women must be good at cooking.

Gilmore_girl_house

In Emily’s house there is plenty of light, but it comes from those Gothic chandeliers and expensive mood lighting, not through the windows. This house is an island unto itself. Nothing’s coming in that Emily hasn’t put there her very self.

Emily and Richard dining room table

What is also striking about these handsome interiors is the absence of so many of the things that characterize modern life. We look in vain for clock-radios, electric hair dryers, or video games. There are pipe racks and humidors in the bedrooms, but no cordless telephones, no televisions. There may be snowshoes banging on the cabin wall, but there are no snowmobile boots by the door.

Home: A short history of an idea, by Witold Rybczynski

CASE STUDY: THE HOUSES OF NASHVILLE

The difference between the ‘cosy, colonial’ house and the cold, inhospitable house made mostly of glass is exemplified beautifully in Nashville, TV series, written by Callie Khouri.

(I’ve only seen the first two seasons, so my commentary is only on that…)

JULIETTE BARNES

Here’s Juliette’s house from the outside: square, modern, white. Perfectly manicured. Juliette is nouveau riche but she grew up in a trailer with an exploitative mother. This ghost continues to haunt her into the present.

Juliette's house

Though these windows are covered in net curtains (probably to diffuse the light for the sake of filming), it’s significant that Juliette lives in a glass house. The whole world is watching her every move. There is no real boundary between Juliette and the public.

Juliette herself is small in stature, but her house is enormous. This juxtaposition emphasises her loneliness.

Juliette is young and so her tastes are modern.

Juliette's living room

This house is basically a modern castle. Where else do we find castles? In gothic fiction. These traditional castles have dungeons and hidden passages and are surrounded by gloomy forests and this isn’t that kind of castle, but it is still almost part of the female gothic tradition, in which the character inhabiting the space graduates from adolescence to maturity.

The Female Gothic permitted the introduction of feminine societal and sexual desires into Gothic texts. It has been said that medieval society, on which some Gothic texts are based, granted women writers the opportunity to attribute “features of the mode [of Gothicism] as the result of the suppression of female sexuality, or else as a challenge to the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture”.

Does that sound like Juliette? Another feature of the female gothic is the threatening control of a male antagonist.

Jeff Fordham_600x378

The heroine possesses the romantic temperament that perceives strangeness where others see none. Her sensibility, therefore, prevents her from knowing that her true plight is her condition, the disability of being female.

Juliette is definitely vilified due to her gender — the way she is set upon by the public when she is implicated in the Wentworth break-up is one example.

RAYNA JAMES

Rayna's house

Rayna has plenty of money, though it’s clear from the pilot that she is ‘cash poor’. She has married a ‘trust fund boy’ and lives in a house typical of the one percent. Exactly the sort of house we’d expect a middle-aged country singer from Nashville to live in. But this is a warm house compared to the white cube owned by Juliette.

Rayna's kitchen_600x446
Rayna's bedroom_600x394

Inside Rayna’s house we see Maddie’s bedroom. Teenage bedrooms are easy for set designers to get wrong — there’s too often an unlikely mixture of fan posters on the wall. But the set designers have avoided that altogether with Maddie by hanging up some artwork — perhaps her own as a child, which has been framed?

Maddie's Room
Maddy's room 2

The Bluebird Cafe is another example of the ‘Warm House’, and the cafe, too, can be warm or terrifying.

DEACON’S SUBURBAN COTTAGE

Deacon is your archetypal difficult man, the silent type with addiction issues but brimming with talent. Deacon, we are led to believe, would rather be living in the woods, just him and his guitar. This personality type — reflected in his niece — explains the backstory of why he never sought fame when he was younger, riding on the coat tails of Rayna.

Deacon's house
Deacon's living room_600x449

SCARLETT’S HOUSE

Okay so the feminist in me wants to say that two young men lived here too, but I only ever see Scarlett cleaning the kitchen, so I’m calling the sunny, warm and retro-vibe kitchen an outworking of her.

Scarlett's kitchen_600x386

RELATED

How much would fictional houses cost in real life? from CNN Style

Houses which inspired writers from Poets and Writers

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

SETTING

The story opens with very specific geographical location:

The bus to St. James’s—a Protestant Episcopal school for boys and girls-started its round at eight o’clock in the morning, from a corner of Park Avenue in the Sixties.

Saint James Episcopal Church
I would need a New Yorker to tell me if the school is a real school, or if Cheever created a likely sounding school attached to a real church, or whatever. But it might be here?

Next we’re given the exact time, and a description of the atmosphere at that time of day:

The earliness of the hour meant that some of the parents who took their children there were sleepy and still without coffee, but with a clear sky the light struck the city at an extreme angle, the air was fresh, and it was an exceptionally cheerful time of day. It was the hour when cooks and doormen walk dogs, and when porters scrub the lobby floor mats with soap and water.

Finally, to round off the introductory paragraph, we’re given a taste of the social class we’re dealing with:

Traces of the night-the parents and children once watched a man whose tuxedo was covered with sawdust wander home-were scarce.

The second paragraph opens with a sentence that lets us know the fall semester is about to begin. Cheever never leaves setting to the imagination — apart from the fact that Shady Hill is a made-up suburb, he is usually very specific about what sort of people we’re reading about and where they live, and what the weather is doing.

Milieu

This is a time in which black and white education is separate in America. Though some forward-looking individuals are starting to question the status quo, the majority of whites in this story are happy with segregation.


CHARACTERS

There are five children who board the bus at this story’s bus stop. The way they are introduced — some have given names while others go by non-specific monikers — show us the relationship to the narrator:

  • Louise and Emily Sheridan
  • The Pruitt boy
  • Katherine Bruce
  • The little Armstrong girl

Mr Pruitt etc.

Mr. Pruitt brought his son to the corner each morning. They had the same tailor and they both tipped their hats to the ladies.

We now know that the narrator is male (though anyone who’s read Cheever will know that a first person narrator of is is more than likely to be male.)

We are then bombarded with the details of people we don’t know and can’t yet visualise. This is to provide verisimilitude — to help us to believe that this world really exists, because any real world situation would be peopled with characters such as these.

Mrs Sheridan

Mrs Sheridan’s is the first name to really stick, because the narrator gives us a bit more to hang onto with her. The detail of her repeated and emphatic ‘yes’es places her firmly in the reader’s mind:

“Oh yes,” Mrs. Sheridan said, “yes.” She never gave a simple affirmative; she always said, “Oh yes, yes,” or “Oh yes, yes, yes.”

Again, I get the strong feeling that this narrator is writing with a male gaze. But as the paragraph continues, we see that the narrator is closely aligned with Mr Bruce, whose ‘male gaze’ we are privy to:

Mrs. Sheridan dressed plainly and her hair was marked with gray. She was not pretty or provocative, and compared to Mrs. Armstrong, whose hair was golden, she seemed plain; but her features were fine and her body was graceful and slender. She was a well-mannered woman of perhaps thirty-five, Mr. Bruce decided, with a well-ordered house and a perfect emotional digestion of those women who, through their goodness, can absorb anything. A great deal of authority seemed to underlie her mild manner. She would have been raised by solid people, Mr. Bruce thought, and would respect all the boarding-school virtues: courage, good sportsmanship, chastity, and honor. When he heard her say in the morning, “Oh yes, yes!” it seemed to him like a happy combination of manners and spirit.

Mrs Sheridan is probably the most sympathetic character to modern audiences — she has ‘aged’ the best. She is the forward-looking character, wanting to open up the conservative little white school to black students. How would the 1957 audience of The New Yorker have considered this issue? Racial segregation in schools was definitely a talking point, and had been since at least 1951, when Oliver Brown attempted to enrol his African American daughter into an all-white public school in Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites at the state level. But it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that private schools such as St James in this story were required to end segregation.

Mr Bruce

We are encouraged to become suspicious of Mr Bruce’s intentions from the get-go:

Mr. Bruce, eavesdropping on their conversation, behind his newspaper … he was pleased, one morning, to get to the corner and find that Mrs. Sheridan was there with her two daughters and the dog, and that Pruitt wasn’t.

We soon find out Mr Bruce’s motivations: He is interested in getting to know Mrs Sheridan because he finds her sexually alluring. But he is not really interested in her as a person. He’s interested in her as a ‘catch’. He has already determined that she is recently bereaved due to the drowning of her young son, and that she has an unsatisfactory relationship with her own husband (after having seen them argue in public), and now he’s moving in for the kill:

She was excited at finding someone who seemed interested in her opinions, and she put herself at a disadvantage, as he intended she should, by talking too much. The deep joy we take in the company of people with whom we have just recently fallen in love is undisguisable, even to a purblind waiter, and they both looked wonderful.

Lois Bruce

We learn that Mr Bruce is the sort of man who is attracted to women in times of shortcoming, which may explain what has attracted him to Mrs Sheridan. The same thing had attracted him to his own wife, and we know that Lois is his second wife because Mrs Sheridan has told him that she had known of his first wife (Martha Chase) at university. We deduce that he is the sort of man who plays with saviour fantasies in his romantic relationships, but once he’s ‘fixed’ a woman, he moves on to the next one:

Lois had been frail when Mr. Bruce first met her. It had been one of her great charms. … “I forgot to tell you that Aunt Helen called on Wednesday. She’s moving from Gray’s Hill to a house nearer the shore.” He tried to find something to say to this item of news and couldn’t. After five years of marriage he seemed to have been left with nothing to say.

We are given an entire, lengthy paragraph about Lois’s shopping on Fifth Avenue, which I think must be designed to bore the reader, in order to encourage the reader to understand why Mr Bruce might find his current wife equally boring. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of representation of women that gave Cheever a reputation for his dismissal attitude towards women in general. His narrator makes sure to say that her extreme interest in shopping applies to a great number of women, underscoring a stereotype about how women just love shopping:

Lois Bruce, like a great many women in New York, spent a formidable amount of time shopping along Fifth Avenue.

To further align the reader with Mr Bruce, Lois Bruce goes on and on about her ailments; first her back, then about how she hasn’t been able to taste anything all week. We feel less than sorry for her because after all she has been able to immerse herself in nothing more frivolous than shopping, buying up all manner of luxury items. When Lois compliments the cook on the soup only after seeing that her husband likes it, this small exchange tells us that she lives via her husband — not only via his bank balance, but via his very experiences. This is a woman who has subsumed herself within marriage.

The strife between them is the classic Mars and Venus stuff (women need attention; men don’t give enough attention), and she deals with this in a passive aggressive manner:

The ghosts of her injured sex thronged to her side when she slammed open the silver drawer and again when she poured his beer. She set the tray elaborately, in order to deepen her displeasure in doing it at all. She heaped cold meat and salad on her husband’s plate as if they were poisoned. Then she fixed her lipstick and carried the heavy tray into the dining room herself, in spite of her lame back.

But then we are let inside Lois Bruce’s head, which makes her into a slightly more sympathetic character. As it turns out she, too, has a bit of a saviour complex. Birds of a feather get together:

DURING the next two months, Lois Bruce heard from a number of sources that her husband had been seen with a Mrs. Sheridan. She confided to her mother that she was losing him and, at her mother’s insistence, employed a private detective. Lois was not vindictive; she didn’t want to trap or intimidate her husband; she had, actually, a feeling that this maneuver would somehow be his salvation.


THEME

So, do readers align ourselves with the unfaithful couple, or with Mr Sheridan and Lois? It’s a rule of thumb that readers will empathise with the viewpoint characters. Another rule of thumb is that readers will enjoy reading about characters who are a little mischievous, even devious, as Mr Bruce is when he’s trying to ‘catch’ Mrs Sheridan. (The Trickster Trope is an oldie but a goodie.) And the way Cheever writes Mr Sheridan, of whom we’ve only seen the back of an angry, red neck, and Lois, who is a self-absorbed, privileged whiner of a wife, further encourages audience identification with Mr Bruce and Mrs Sheridan. Perhaps Cheever is testing our alliances here. If we find ourselves empathising with a pair of faithless individuals, what does that say about us, as fallible human beings?

Racial segregation exists in the backdrop to this story. Is Cheever asking readers to pick sides by endowing the romantic leads such different opinions on this matter? Which side are you on, boys? Is the title significant to this part of the story? Unlike when driving a car, when you’re on a bus you have to go where you’re taken, either by the driver or by the culture. The cloistered, white, upper-middle class world of the Sheridans and the Bruces cannot and will not continue as it has these last few decades. Perhaps the end of two marriages symbolise change in the wider world.

The Bus To St James ceremonies and rites
Encounters with American Culture: Volume 2 (1973-1985) By Peter S. Prescott

THE APPLE NEVER FALLS FAR FROM THE TREE

sallydrapersmokes

I can see the influence on Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men, in the following scene from this story:

“Oh, and I forgot to tell youthere’s been some trouble,” she said crossly. “Katherine spent the afternoon with Helen Woodruff and some other children. There were some boys. When the maid went into the playroom to call them for supper, she found them all undressed. Mrs. Woodruff was very upset and I told her you’d call.”

When Sally Draper is caught masturbating by Betty, it follows a scene in which Betty has been doing the same thing, only seemingly without realising it, against the washing machine. When Sally catches her father in flagrante delicto with his neighbour this precedes Sally’s foray into boarding school trouble, and eventually, on a station platform, Don Draper tells his daughter that she is exactly like her parents and will never be able to get away from that fact.

The comparison continues with the symbolism of the rats in a cage, which Mr Bruce smells when he enters his daughter’s room.

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination By Robert Coles
The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination By Robert Coles

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

SHIFTING POV

More than in his previous stories, Cheever switches point of view in this story, using a mixture of close-third person (first aligned to Mr Bruce and then to Mrs Sheridan), then moving the camera in and out of their heads, sometimes to view the couple from the edge of a cafe, as a casual observer:

One of her daughters had a mild case of measles, she said, and [INSIDE BRUCE’S HEAD] Mr. Bruce was interested in the symptoms. But he looked [OUTSIDE BRUCE’S HEAD], for a man who claimed to be interested in childhood diseases, bilious and vulpine. His color was bad. He scowled and rubbed his forehead as if he suffered from a headache. He repeatedly wet his lips and crossed and recrossed his legs. Presently, his uneasiness seemed to cross the table. During the rest of the time they sat there, the conversation was about commonplace subjects, but an emotion for which they seemed to have no words colored the talk and darkened and enlarged its shapes. She did not finish her dessert. She let her coffee get cold. For a while, neither of them spoke. [OBSERVING THE COUPLE FROM ACROSS THE CAFE] A stranger, noticing them in the restaurant, might have thought that they were a pair of old friends who had met to discuss a misfortune.

In writing groups, this is often referred to as ‘head-hopping’, and is seen as a bad thing, but it’s not. The reader is perfectly capable of dealing with this shift in point-of-view, providing it’s done seamlessly like this. If there is a dramatic shift in point of view (say from Mrs Sheridan to Mr Bruce) there will be a double carriage return, accompanied by a transitionary phrase such as:

MR. BRUCE returned to a much pleasanter home.

(thereby presenting us with a comparison).

WITHHOLDING SNIPPETS OF INFORMATION TO MAKE THE READER WONDER, BRIEFLY, WHAT’S HAPPENING

When Lois hires the private investigator to track down her husband, we see her leave the house and go around to someone’s apartment. Though we’re fairly sure she’s going to confront her husband, we’re not sure. I wondered briefly if she, herself, had a man on the side when she knocks on the door screaming, ‘Stephen!’ This is because we haven’t been told the given name of Mr Bruce. We soon find out that indeed this is her own husband she’s referring to, but because she yells, ‘Stephen Bruce!’ I’m in no doubt that Cheever knew exactly what he was doing. (He inserted the full name because he knew we’d be wondering who Stephen is.)


STORY SPECS

First published in The New Yorker, January 1956.

7,100 words


COMPARE AND CONTRAST

[Cheever’s] stories can be read as chronicles of how the struggle between good and evil impulses unfolds in the lives of people of varied temperaments and shortcomings — usually, though not always, amid the complex social rituals of upper middle-class American protestant society. Johnny Hake [sic — it was Francis Weed] in “The Country Husband,” Asa Bascomb in “The World Of Apples,” Mr. Bruce in “The Bus to St. James’s” — all these Cheever creations are involved in prurient escapades or exploitative behaviour, and it is Cheever’s gift to chart with great precision of language their experiences as they try to reconcile their actions and impulses with their consciences. In each of these stories, Cheever explores the tension between what he once referred to as our erotic nature and our social nature.

The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story edited by Blanche H. Gelfant, Lawrence Graver

WRITE YOUR OWN

Walter White Heisenberg Hat

Vince Gilligan did a similar thing to audiences — new on TV — when he created a morally upright citizen then turned Walt right around to expose him as a thoroughly nasty individual. This tested the audience, possibly even more than Gilligan himself could predict — and I now consider Breaking Bad to be somewhat of a barometer of a viewer’s misogyny. (A large proportion of viewers never lost empathy for Walter White at all, instead wishing the annoying but far more innocent wives dead instead — I met one such viewer in a doctor’s waiting room.)

Cheever has done a similar thing here (consciously or not?), though on a much smaller scale: He uses the usual writer tricks to foster empathy in Stephen Bruce then has him do bad things. He passes no moral judgement. We’ve seeing a lot of stories like this recently — we are now in the era of the antihero, especially in American TV.

When the book is finished I immediately lose interest in the characters. And I never make moral judgments. All I would say is that a person was droll, or gay, or, above all, a bore. Making judgments for or against my characters bores me enormously; it doesn’t interest me at all. The only morality for a novelist is the morality of his esthétique. I write the books, they come to an end, and that’s all that concerns me.

FRANÇOISE SAGAN

How can the antihero be put to good purpose? How can we create empathy in a morally corrupt character to lead the audience to some sort of empathy about human nature in general? Or about themselves?

See also: I have a character issue, by the actor who plays Skyler White, in the NYT

What Is Meant By ‘Mythic Structure’?

William Henry Mander - A Welsh River Valley

In everyday English, a myth is a story which is not true. In a myth, the surface level story is not true, but the symbols running through the story say something deeper about humankind. This is what makes it true.

If you look at all the Ancient myths they have things in common. Characters go on a journey, change, then either return home a changed person or find a new home. This is all related to the symbolism of the labyrinth. The journey itself takes the hero into the deepest darkest parts of the soul, where the hero encounters a Minotaur. The journey out of the labyrinth is a rebirth.

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.

Unknown

British novel: let’s go to a party and find a wife.
German novel: let’s go to the wilderness and find ourselves.
Russian novel: let’s go to the depths of despair and then find out there is an even deeper level of despair we didn’t know about and go there.

@ExistentialComics

Since all cultures are built on myth, the mythic story works across cultures. Mythic stories work via symbolism, the universal kind of symbolism connected to what has lately been called ‘transformative memory’. This term describes memories which are not authentic, but created by the brain to make sense of life, turning disorder and fragmentation into some kind of meaning. Transformative memory is Janice Haaken’s term. (See her book Pillar of Salt: Gender, memory and the perils of looking back.)

I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually […] I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see […] and one should know as much of it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.

Paul Bowles, American expatriate composer, author, and translator

Myth is not a part of every story. Even Joseph Campbell himself said that there was no mythic structure to be found in 25% of stories.

Raison D’être

Myths are born of the sticky dark. That’s why the truest have survived thousands of years. They present fictional answers to primal questions: Why do tragic things happen? Which is stronger, love or death? What if death is just the beginning?

Marcus Sakey, Publishers Weekly

Myths are highly symbolic. Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:

Although The Pilgrim’s Progress is allegorical, it is impossible even for an adult to read about Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in any other way than as a story. The passages through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation, the fight with the monster Apollyon, the loss of Christian’s comrade Faithful in Vanity Fair, the crossing of the River of Death: these are actual and vivid events, as real in their own way as the mass of detail with which Defoe built up Robinson Crusoe. It may be noted that the themes of all these three books the dangerous journey, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the desert island, as in Robinson Crusoe: and the miniature or other imaginary world, as in Gulliver have served for innumerable later books, both children’s and adult, and are by no means worn out.

Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend

EXAMPLES OF STRONGLY MYTHIC  MODERN FILMS

  • The Lion King
  • Thelma and Louise – a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure.
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Piano myth blended with romance
  • True Grit  basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
  • Harry Potter Typically for main characters of myth stories, Harry is a foundling, abandoned by his parents and brought up by horrible people.
  • Le Week-end a film written by Hanif Kureishi in which the journey takes the form of a romantic weekend away with the purpose of rekindling a failing marriage
  • Locke a road trip with one on-screen character played by Tom Hardy. Extraordinarily well scripted, we really only see Tom Hardy sitting in his car. The opponents he meets on his journey come only in form of voices through his car phone. By the end of the journey he is in a different place both physically and spiritually.
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore – an indie-film which provides an excellent example of modern use of mythic symbolism such as the labyrinth and the river. The backdrop is American suburbia. The main hero is a woman, though she is joined by a man. Interesting for its gender inversions.
  • Wildlike a 14 year old girl is sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska one summer as her mother is receiving treatment for an illness. She is soon faced with the task of running away from the uncle and making her way back to Seattle. She meets various helpers and opponents along the way, and contributes to a grieving man’s character arc as he grieves for his own wife’s recent death.
  • Jolene a 2008 film based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. A young orphan marries but in a Cinderella-like tragedy things don’t go well and she ends up on the road, meeting all sorts of people along the way, mostly horrible.
  • Hunt For The Wilderpeople a New Zealand comedy drama about the relationship between a cranky man and a boy, who go bush, pursued by the police for suspected child abuse.

Then there are computer games, such as Halo and Red Dead Redemption.

MYTH IN RELATION TO FOLKTALES AND FAIRY TALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Nikolajeva refers to Umberto Eco’s analysis of structure of James Bond movies as an example of such analysis.

Grammar of James Bond

Award-winning children’s authors such as Kate DiCamillo typically write with a mythic structure, though the list could go on:

[A] tendency to reflection is why DiCamillo’s style often echoes with the dark-light verities of Victorian or Edwardian children’s literature which, too, dwell on the private lives of playthings and speaking animals on heroic quests.

Canberra Times
moses

SOME PROBLEMS WITH MYTHIC STRUCTURE

In a female-led mythic story the heroine requires an extra step: She needs to break free of the constraints of home. (See Thelma & Louise.)

The mythic structure is certainly popular, but has been done many times before. It’s possible that the most original stories to emerge will veer away from mythic structure altogether. However, since film audiences are already conditioned for myth, such novel stories are likely to be considered ‘fringe’ and will have less money allocated to their production and marketing. Indie studios are more likely to take such risks. However, you’re more likely to see non-mythic novels than non-mythic Hollywood films for exactly this reason. Genre in novels/short stories/indie film is evolving at a faster pace and is more open to innovation.

Since myth tends to rely on simple distinctions between ‘good vs evil’, nuance can be sacrificed. The message that ‘good doesn’t always win out’ isn’t easily conveyed by the mythic structure.

THE ANTI-MYTH

What makes a story an ‘anti-myth’? Basically, it’s a subversion.

  • Whereas the heroes of myths have almost superhuman powers, heroes in anti-myths have real human shortcomings. See Northrop Frye.
  • In an anti-myth the delineations between good and bad are blurred. The heroes are morally flawed, if not downright anti-heroes. Anti-heroes do not serve as models for the addressees.
  • Myths tend to take place on roads and rivers, but the anti-myth might have the characters take a journey to nowhere significant, or nowhere particularly different from before, a la Lonesome Dove. (The typical setting of typical dime Western novels was a lush river setting.)
  • Whereas heroes of myths have a self- and public- anagnorisis, heroes of anti-myths don’t really change a la Don Draper of Mad Men. In myths the character arc is huge; in the anti-myth, there may be no real arc. In a ‘mock-myth’, the hero doesn’t learn anything once returning home. (e.g. Ulysses, a modern form of The Odyssey.)
  • If heroes of myths win because they are essentially ‘good’, the heroes of anti-myths can lose despite their goodness, because shit happens.
  • Whereas myths focus on psychological states of the heroes, anti-myths focus on moral dilemmas.
  • Whereas heroes of myths tend to be separate identities, heroes of anti-myths can be represented by ensemble characters, with each character representing a different aspect of self. (Winnie-the-Pooh, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants)
  • Whereas myth stories are circular home-away-home structured stories, anti-myths can take on a variety of different forms, including linear, branching, explosive etc.

REFERENCES

  • The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva

Header painting: William Henry Mander A Welsh River Valley

Reflection and Delusion In The Cure by John Cheever

In his story ‘The Cure’, Cheever comes pretty close to writing a supernatural thriller story, with a few typical thriller genre beats. The stars are ordinary heroes, or to use Northrop Frye’s terms, mimetic heroes. Compared to detective stories there are fewer suspects in thriller stories (though the word ‘thriller‘ is used by Hollywood to mean anything that gets the heart racing).

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CURE”

From The New Yorker:

The story of a man’s attempt to cure himself of a disastrous marriage. His wife, Rachel, had left him for the 2nd time taking their three children with her. He had set up a routine for himself and wouldn’t answer the telephone, for he wanted no reconciliation with Rachel. But he was unnerved by a peeping Tom, who appeared at the window every night. When he discovered it was a neighbor who was harmless he felt no better. He seemed to see a rope around his own neck and he couldn’t sleep. Finally he answered the telephone. It was Rachel and a reconciliation followed. Tom was never seen again and all was well.

The New Yorker refuses to spoil the real story — theirs is a surface level summary, avoiding spoilers. The interesting question is: How much of this story is true, within the world of the story?



SETTING OF “THE CURE”

Place

Critics like to divide Cheever’s stories into:

  • Suburban stories
  • New York stories
  • Holiday stories

But “The Cure” fits into none of those categories. It is about a man crossing the boundaries between New York, where he works, and the suburbs, where he lives. Some critics call this an ‘exurban’ story.

I was in a neighborhood where most of the front doors were unlocked, and on a street that is very quiet on a summer night. All the animals are domesticated, and the only night birds that I’ve ever heard are some owls way down by the railroad track. So it was very quiet.

This is also a story about a man who crosses a different kind of border: Not only between urban and suburban life, but between day-life and night-life, and sanity to madness.

Time

It is the early 1950s when this story is published, though the narrator is writing of events long ago. He is reminded of the Depression at one point, so this story probably takes place sometime between about 1930 and 1950.

More than in other Cheever stories, the season is emphasised in this story as if symbolically significant. It is a very summery story — the reader feels the heat, and hears the sounds and smells the smells of the season. Is the season important to the story? Yes, in the sense that it allows for more outdoor living and longer evenings. Just as importantly, The New Yorker published this story in July, at the height of the Northern Hemisphere summer, and probably wanted to publish something seasonally appropriate.

THIS HAPPENED in the summer. I remember that the weather was very hot, both in New York and in the suburb where we live. […] I was glad that the separation took place in the summer because my job is most exacting at that time of year and I’m usually too tired to think of anything else at night, and because I’d noticed that summer was for me the easiest season of the year to live through alone.

Of equal significance: This turns into a story of ‘the night’. The narrator goes from being a day person to a night person.

I had never had anything to do with night people, but I know that they exist […] I was very sleepy the next day, but I got my work done and dozed on the train coming home.  […] The sky and the light and everything else seemed dim and remote, as if I saw it all from a great distance. […] It was about two o’clock on a sunny afternoon but it seemed dark to me.

The night becomes a symbol for his descent into darkness/depression/madness. Notice how many times in the following paragraph Cheever uses the phrase ‘I lay in the dark’:

It was after four then, and I lay in the dark, listening to the rain and to the morning trains coming through. They come from Buffalo and Chicago and the Far West, through Albany and down along the river in the early morning, and at one time or another I’ve traveled on most of them, and I lay in the dark thinking about the polar air in the Pullman cars and the smell of nightclothes and the taste of dining-car water and the way it feels to end a day in Cleveland or Chicago and begin another in New York, particularly after you’ve been away for a couple of years, and particularly in the summer. I lay in the dark imagining the dark cars in the rain, and the tables set for breakfast, and the smells.

As I read through the first time, I expected this story to end in suicide. We are encouraged into this reading, first with the obvious clue, then with the narrator’s slightly later realization:

I remember that I took a bath and put on pajamas and lay down. As soon as I shut my eyes, I saw this rope. It had a hangman’s noose at the end of it, but I’d known all along what Grace Harris had been talking about; she’d had a premonition that I would hang myself. The rope seemed to come down slowly into my consciousness.

As readers we’re trained to suspend disbelief when it comes to old women who can predict the future, even if we wouldn’t accept such supernatural stuff in real life. So when Grace Harris tells the narrator that she sees a rope around his neck, I am led to believe his descent will end in suicide. (Much like Mad Men, in fact, which apparently owes a lot to Cheever.) In other words, this is a form of foreshadowing. Why is he cashing a check for such a large amount? Why is he buying a suit?

I went to the Corn Exchange Bank and cashed a check for five hundred dollars. Then I went to Brooks Brothers and bought some neckties and a box of cigars and went upstairs to look at suits.

Mad Men Lead Fall, owes something to The Cure

Milieu

This is the New York where other people’s children are tangentially suffering from polio. When divorce was a rare and terrible thing. Polio has nothing to do with the plot, but is mentioned, perhaps as a way to place the story in time. Since men don’t cook they must eat steak at a bar if they’re to eat at all. The starkly gendered division of labour means a stable marriage is even more vital to one’s well-being. Instead of watching TV or surfing the net, evenings are spent at the drive-in theatre. Men are drinking martinis in the evenings. Readers might have been enjoying the work of Lin Yutang, as Rachel had done. Lin Yutang is best known for his book The Importance of Living, and I’m guessing this is the book the narrator is meant to have picked up when he couldn’t sleep.

CHARACTERS IN “THE CURE”

The Unnamed Narrator

Why is this narrator unnamed? (Must there be a reason?) If there’s a reason, it’s probably because this man has lost himself. Without his wife and family he is no one, descending slowly into a kind of madness.

The vast majority of Cheever’s stories are written in the third person, but this one is told by a character as narrator. Since this is not Cheever’s modus operandi, we might naturally ask: To what extent is this narrator reliable?

The final sentence turns this short story into a kind of newsy letter, as if to an extended family member:

Mr. Marston has never stood outside our house in the dark, although I’ve seen him often enough on the station platform and at the country club. His daughter Lydia is going to be married next month, and his sallow wife was recently cited by one of the national charities for her good works. Everyone here is well.

His psychological shortcoming is that he is lonely. His moral shortcoming is that he is paranoid, blaming a neighbour for peeping at him through the window with little in the way of evidence. On the other hand, he shows he is capable of compassion when it suits him:

I guessed that he was probably some cracked old man from the row of shanties by the railroad tracks, and perhaps because of my determination, my need, to put a pleasant, or at least a calm, face on everything, I even managed to think compassionately of the old man who was driven, in senescence, to leave his home and wander at night in a strange neighborhood, at the mercy of dogs and policemen […] I thought of the poor prowler and his long walk home through the storm.

Peeping Tom

Though the New Yorker snippet summarises the surface level goings-on in this story, if you read it, it’s unclear as to whether Peeping Tom even exists, or if the narrator is imagining a face at the window, then telling himself it is the face of one of his neighbours. Perhaps he’s seeing his very own face? There is a phenomenon called “mirrored-self misidentification“. Basically, it’s when you look into the mirror and you don’t recognise yourself. You actually think it’s another person. In children’s literature, New Zealand author touches on this phenomenon in her young adult novel The Changeover. Although this delusion is associated with head injury, dementia and mental illnesses, I do think most people can identify with it to some degree. Don’t all of us have a moment where we look into the mirror and we look much older than we feel? Or more tired, or perhaps we’re struck by how good looking we are? Or we catch ourselves at a different angle and realise our nose looks different from how we imagined. Looking at oneself for the first time in one of those three-way mirrors can have a similar effect.

The following writer interprets Tom as an hallucination, as I do:

In “The Cure” we see Rachel already separated from her husband. Twice before they had separated and the second time they had divorced and remarried. Her husband, though agreeing that it was a “carnal and disastrous marriage” is unable to bear loneliness. It starts pulling on him, giving him hallucinations, he even imagines a peeping Tom at nights whom he cannot shoo away. The only cure seems to be to get Rachel back — the errant on the right track. But in “The Country Husband” the protagonist goes off at a tangent since he is unable to communicate properly. He meets death very closely as his plane crashes. He wants to narrate this first to his neighbours then to his wife and children who are all unable to register his extraordinary experience.

from Uncovering Greyness In John Cheever’s Stories

Certainly we are given enough evidence that the narrator is not of entirely sound mind.

Tom didn’t appear-or I wasn’t conscious of him-until they had been gone for about two weeks, but her departure and his arrival seemed connected.

While cats are known to wander, I’m suspicious about the dog — did the pets leave out of neglect?

There were a few minor symptoms of domestic disorder. First the dog and then the cat ran away.

Perhaps sleeplessness is contributing to the narrator’s unsound mind:

But I don’t sleep very well in an empty bed, and presently I had the problem of sleeplessness to cope with. When I got home from the movies, I would fall asleep, but only for a couple of hours. I tried to make the best of insomnia.

Is it really possible to know you’re being stared at?

without lifting my eyes from the book, I knew not only that I was being watched but that I was being watched from the picture window at the end of the living room, by someone whose intent was to watch me and to violate my privacy.

The narrator may have trampled on his own flower bed the previous night while looking for the ‘mysterious footstepper’:

There is a flower bed under the narrow window. I looked at this with the flashlight, and he had been there, all right. There were footprints in the dirt, and he’d stepped on some of the flowers.

The policeman has never had reports of a prowler, which is not proof that there isn’t one, but nor is it good evidence. If the prowler’s activities have been in the news, the narrator may have read about the prowler, which then fuelled his delusion:

Then [the policeman] said that the village, since its incorporation in 1916, had never had such a complaint registered. He spoke with that understandable pride that we all take in the neighborhood.

The following sentence might be interpreted as symbolic. If only the narrator could work his way out of his madness, then the stranger would disappear:

I thought that if I could disengage the stranger from the night, from the dark, everything would be all right.

And it may not take much to send him over the edge:

I stood beside an old gentleman who was describing to a friend the regularity of his habits, and I had a strong impulse to crown him with a bowl of popcorn

Perhaps the best evidence that there is no stalker — that the man in the darkness is in fact himself — is that we find out on Madison Ave when he follows the housewife that he is capable of stalking in his own right. (He’s ‘stalking’ his wife.)

Like the main character of “The Chaste Clarissa”, and a number of other protagonists in Cheever’s stories, this guy does not see women as fully human. Once past their youth, women are uninteresting to him:

That night, I decided to stay in town and go to a cocktail party. It was in an apartment in one of the tower hotels-way, way, way up. As soon as I got there, I went out onto the terrace, looking around for someone to take to dinner. What I wanted was a pretty girl in new shoes, but it looked as if all the pretty girls had stayed at the shore. There was a gray-haired woman out there, and a woman with a floppy hat, and Grace Harris, this actress I’ve met a couple of times.

What else has he done to women? What might he do? His description of this woman emphasises her fragility, as if he’s sizing her up for an attack:

She had fair hair and the kind of white skin that looks like thin paper. It was a very hot day but she looked cool, as if she had been able to preserve, through the train ride in from Rye or Greenwich, the freshness of her bath. Her arms and her legs were beautiful, but the look on her face was sensible, humorous, even housewifely, and this sensible air seemed to accentuate the beauty of her arms and legs. She walked over and rang for the elevator. I walked over and stood beside her. We rode down together, and I followed her out of the store onto Madison Avenue. The sidewalk was crowded, and I walked beside her. She looked at me once, and she knew that I was following her, but I felt sure she was the kind of woman who would not readily call for help. She waited at the corner for the light to change. I waited beside her. It was all I could do to keep from saying to her, very, very softly, “Madame, will you please let me put my hand around your ankle? That’s all I want to do, madame. It will save my life.” She didn’t look around again, but I could see that she was frightened. She crossed the street and I stayed at her side, and all the time a voice inside my head was pleading, “Please let me put my hand around your ankle. It will save my life. I just want to put my hand around your ankle. I’ll be very happy to pay you.” I took out my wallet and pulled out some bills. Then I heard someone behind me calling my name. I recognized the hearty voice of an advertising salesman who is in and out of our office.

Rachel

Characters who are not there, or who have been there, are as important in a short story as characters ‘on the stage’. We might call these influential backstories ghosts. (Events and places and pretty much anything can serve as a ghost.) In this case we have Rachel, upon whom our narrator’s happiness seems to depend. Is Rachel — her ‘second coming’ — part of the narrator’s hallucination? If he can imagine peeping Toms at the window and starts reading things into people’s faces that aren’t there, it’s more than possible that he wholly imagines the phone call from Rachel. Making this even more likely, he has earlier presented (from his own made-up examples) some scenarios in which Rachel might call him, which is why he takes the phone off the hook in the first place. Coincidentally (or not) those are the exact reasons she calls him.

[BEGINNING OF STORY] I decided not to answer the telephone, because I knew that Rachel might repent, and I knew, by then, the size and the nature of the things that could bring us together. If it rained for five days, if one of the children had a passing fever, if she got some sad news in a letter-anything like this might be enough to put her on the telephone, and I did not want to be tempted to resume a relationship that had been so miserable.

[…][END OF STORY] “Oh, my darling!” I shouted when I heard Rachel’s voice. “Oh, my darling! Oh, my darling!” She was crying. She was at Seal Harbor, It had rained for a week, and Tobey had a temperature of a hundred and four.

THEME OF “THE CURE”

Cheever seems to be saying something about happiness in this story, and I suppose it depends on the reader, what exactly that thing is:

Cheever’s stories are stories that make us ask ourselves how happy we are. They are stories that make us confront our demons, our hushed fears, our secret shames. They are stories (like “The Cure” and “Seaside Houses”) full of quiet despair.

from the Things Mean A Lot blog

Life is full of ups and downs. Descent into despair can just as easily turn for the better, preceding many years of happiness. (With a moral thrown in for good measure: So don’t give up, and hang yourself with a rope.)

Even if you’re terribly unhappy, you can conjure up a completely different life for yourself by imagining your life how you wish it were. Failing that, write about your imagined better life to relatives in an attempt to fool yourself.

What is ‘the cure’, exactly? Reaching such depths of despair that you start having hallucinations to make yourself feel better?

Like the previous story in this collection, and perhaps the previous story that Cheever wrote — “The Chaste Clarissa” — this story delves into the disconnect between appearances and reality, making “The Cure” a kind of evolution on “The Chaste Clarissa”:

The belief that a crooked heart is betrayed by palsies, tics, and other infirmities dies hard. I felt the loss of it that morning when I searched his face for some mark. He looked solvent, rested, and moral-much more so than Chucky Ewing, who was job hunting, or Larry Spencer, whose son had polio, or any of a dozen other men on the platform waiting for the train. Then I looked at his daughter, Lydia. Lydia is one of the prettiest girls in our neighborhood. I’d ridden in on the train with her once or twice and I knew that she was doing voluntary secretarial work for the Red Cross. She had on a blue dress that morning, and her arms were bare, and she looked so fresh and pretty and sweet that I wouldn’t have embarrassed or hurt her for anything in the world. Then I looked at Mrs. Marston, and if the mark was anywhere, it was on her face, although I don’t understand why she should be afflicted for her husband’s waywardness. It was very hot, but Mrs. Marston had on a brown suit and a worn fur piece. Her face was sallow and plain, but it was wreathed, even while she watched for the morning train, in an impermeable smile. It was a face that must have seemed, long ago, cut out for violent, even malevolent, passion. But years of prayer and abstinence had expunged the inclination to violence, I thought, leaving only a few ugly lines at the mouth and the eyes and rewarding Mrs. Marston with an air of adamant and fetid sweetness.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN “THE CURE”

SURPRISE

In this short story, Cheever demonstrates the technique of the ‘sentence level surprise’. Surprise in general is essential in any good story. Plot = surprise. And surprise should happen at the macro and at the micro level. When the narrator bends down towards the hand prints his children have left on the wall, we expect him to wipe them off. But he kisses them. This isn’t entirely unexpected — the reader is already aware of his increasing loneliness and desperation, but at a sentence level, that’s not what we expect, especially when it’s hot on the heels of a borderline sociopathic stalking incident.

As soon as I stepped into the living room, I noticed on the wall some dirty handprints that had been made by the children before they went away. They were near the baseboard and I had to get down on my knees to kiss them

At the story level, it comes as a complete surprise (to this reader, anyhow) that the narrator is happy, reunited with his wife and children, living in the suburbs for many years since.

In my edition of collected short stories, the page breaks before the word ‘drunk’, but I’m sure this is just a coincidence of printing and page layout:

Then I came home one night and found Maureen, the maid, dead drunk.

Naturally, I thought he’d found the maid dead.

UNRELIABLE NARRATION

Here’s the thing about unreliable narrators: The ‘ghost’ is very important. Sure enough, our narrator also has a ghost. (See above.)

Some people tell writers to avoid adjectives like the plague, that they weaken the prose. But adjectives do have their uses, as demonstrated by Cheever in this story. Specifically, his use of ‘fiercely uninvested adjectives’. As Douglas Bauer says in his book on craft, The Stuff Of Fiction:

John Cheever’s story “The Cure” beautifully illustrates the characteristics of narrative precision and restraint. It is one of Cheever’s classic portraits of life in exurban New York, that country of rueful courtesies and decorous longing he made ineffably his own. The story begins with the narrator telling us:

My wife and I had a quarrel, and Rachel took the children and drove off in the station wagon. Tom didn’t appear-or I wasn’t conscious of him-until they had been gone for about two weeks, but her departure and his arrival seemed connected. Rachel’s departure was meant to be final. She had left me twice before-the second time, we divorced and then remarried-and I watched her go each time with a feeling that was far from happy, but also with that renewal of self-respect, of nerve, that seems to be the reward for accepting a painful truth. As I say, it was summer, and I was glad, in a way, that she had picked this time to quarrel. It seemed to spare us both the immediate necessity of legalizing our separation. We had lived together-on and off-for thirteen years: we had three children and some involved finances. I guessed that she was content, as I was, to let things ride until September or October.

We immediately hear in the narrator’s account a tone of extraordinary, even eerie dispassion that is at odds, to say the least, with the circumstances he is describing. He presumes his marriage is ending, that his children will be taken from him, that he will be forced to leave the comfort and history of his house, and yet he offers all this to us in a voice of resoundingly practical detachment. I particularly admire Cheever’s use of the pallid and almost offhand “glad”, with which the narrator twice characterizes his feelings about his wife’s choice of summer as the season for departure. Glad? we think. He may as well be confirming a Sunday morning tee time. Oh, good, I’m glad it’s ten. That’ll leave me time to clean out the garage.

This very mismatch of events and the abandoned husband’s apparent attitude toward them conveys not the absence, but the nearly palpable denial of emotion. In other words, feeling, sentiment, is very much present from the outset, but thoroughly tamped down, creating a mood of disquieting emotional unreliability. We feel sentiment in these sentences not because it is displayed but because it is under such repressive pressure we can sense the struggle required to keep it from escaping. Were the narrator to launch his story with a wail, some high keening of distress, the tone might at first sound more recognizable and seem more understandable to us but would quickly lose its strength and interest simply because it was, in our reflexive predetermination of how these domestic traumas affect those involved so much the sound we assumed we would hear. I do not believe it would produce the same energetic sentiment, the tension and curiosity, as does Cheever’s narrative restraint, which he accomplishes by giving the husband a voice of discordant calm. This voice, perfectly pitched, continues as the narrator explains his rational plan for passing the summer nights alone.

Logical as his decisions may be, affectless as is the tone in which they are explained, we recognize in the motives behind them the emotional turmoil he is so determined to keep dormant. Furthermore we begin to learn that he recognizes it, too. I knew enough to avoid the empty house in summer dusk. In other words, the texture of sentiment in the story is, with masterful subtlety, becoming gradually its surface as well as its substratum.

At this point the story takes a turn as the gathering strength of his loneliness and sorrow competes with his refusal to look directly at it. Waking in the the night and unable to get back to sleep, he goes downstairs to read. “Our living room is comfortable. The book seemed interesting.” (The fiercely uninvested adjectives, the reportorial flatness continues.) And then, after a few minutes,

I heard, very close to me, a footstep and a cough. I felt my flesh get hard — you know the feeling — but didn’t look up from my book, although I felt that I was being watched. … Then a fear, much worse than the fear of the fool outside the window, distracted me. I was afraid that the cough and the step and the feeling I was being watched had come from my imagination. I looked up.

I saw him all right, and I think he meant me to; he was grinning.

For the first time in the story real emotion explicitly appears on the narrative surface. (Being “glad” earlier, or his offering that he “likes” the house he’s about to lose — these hardly count.) Not only does it appear, he labels it for us and in so doing acknowledges that it has. More than that, he confesses that he wonders if he’s hearing and seeing things, a deeper admission that what’s going on inside him is considerably more turbulent than he’s insisted.

Douglas Bauer

STORY SPECS OF “THE CURE”

Initially published in The New Yorker, July 1952.

New Yorker The Cure

4,900 words.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH “THE CURE”

This short story reminds me a little of the children’s novel from the exact same year, Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (of The Hundred Dresses fame). Though this is a children’s book through and through, it’s also a family drama with the crime subplot of what Estes calls ‘a mysterious footstepper’. This footstepper wears an old, mustard-yellow hat and the children are not sure whether he is even real or not. Their theory is that he is after their new puppy.

Ginger_Pye

Incongruously, this story also reminds me a little of the harrowing short story by Mary Gaitskill that appeared in the New Yorker many years after this one. This time, Gaitskill gets into the mind of a rapist. I’m reminded of that story because of the scene in which Cheever’s narrator follows a woman because he wants to put his hands around her ankle, and continues to follow her down the street knowing that she is unnerved — in fact, he has picked her because she seems to be the type who wouldn’t cause him any grief should he molest her. This is a very uncomfortable scene, but Gaitskill crafted an entire short story out of this kind of ‘discomfort’.

You can listen to Jennifer Egan read Gaitskill’s story The Other Place here.

See also: Mary Gaitskill on The Other Place and What Can We Steal From The Other Place?

WRITE YOUR OWN

Cheever’s brief here might have been ‘to write a newsy letter reassuring a relative that all is well, but give the reader more than enough information to wonder how on earth things can be well.’ This is a story of one man’s descent into madness. Has he resurfaced?

In the short story anthology Certifiable Truths: stories of love and madness, edited by Jane Messer, Messer says in the introduction that so many of the ‘crazy’ stories had to do with love, which explains the subtitle. In Cheever’s story, too, the narrator’s delusional experiences are as a result of lost love. Are there other things in life that can lead to such acts? Or is love/lost love indeed the best desire-line to go with?

In order to paint your narrator as unreliable, make use of surprise at every level, and don’t forget to make use of your folder of ‘fiercely uninvested adjectives’.