I was finishing up the last of the stories in The Stories of John Cheever the same week that I was to attend court to see a judge convert my legal separation from my husband to a divorce. The appropriateness of reading Cheever at this particular point in my life was not lost on me. In fact, I decided and floated the suggestion to a few friends that Cheever should be required reading in order to get a marriage license. I said it laughingly. I was only partly kidding. The fact is that nearly every story in Cheever’s collection centers around one or more “couples”: The Crutchmans, The Bentleys, and the Sheridans, to name a few. It is clear that Cheever is interested in analyzing the modern relationship in modern society, that he is interested in our ability to coexist happily together in communities and in families without loosing our identities, our souls. When our interactions are based on notions of propriety and social expectation and not on personal conviction or compassion—this is a pervasive and profound sort of corruption. This social critique is primarily achieved through Cheever’s mocking, ironic tone. Looking at three stories— “O Youth and Beauty!”, “The Season of Divorce” and “The Worm in the Apple”– closely and the tone of each, will demonstrate more clearly how Cheever’s tone forms his social critique.
“ O Youth and Beauty!” begins the mocking even in the title that addresses two things that may be nice indeed, but that we know are destined to fade. The degree to which a story employs this mocking technique in Cheever’s collection is evident even from the first line. The longer, the looser the opening sentence, the less sympathy Cheever is likely to have for the characters, the more pathetic he’ll make them. The first sentence of this story is over three inches of tiny font long. The sheer length of the sentence overwhelms us with the scene. And in this case, it is a pathetic, predictable scene of aimless intoxication and mundane pastimes. The main character, a former track star who gets drunk at parties and hurdles over furniture, is ironically named “Cash”. The truth is “the Bentleys had many money worries” (250). The fact that Cash has two children and a lovely compassionate wife makes him all the more ridiculous when we see him so dejected over the fact that he can no longer hurdle because of a broken leg. The depth of his depression repels us. We might understand if he was just a little down and out, but he is so overwhelmed by this loss that it taints how he perceives everything around him, like the faded roses on the table that to him gave off a “putrid, compelling smell. He dropped the roses into the wastebasket, but not before they had reminded him of the spoiled meant, the whore, and the spider web” (254). His shallowness taints the way he sees the world, doesn’t allow him to see passed his own self-pity. Cash does not think of his wife or children at all. The thing he cares about most is his reputation, how he looks to others at parties, whether he is able to keep putting on a show, being the life of the party. Cash does not have depth in his relationships, he does not have personal convictions, all he does for his community is get drunk and jump over furniture. The shallowness of his character is so absurd that it mocks the importance of keeping society, suggests that in making that our goal we lose what makes us human and worthwhile. When Cheever describes the effect Louise’s make-up (worn to be presentable to society), which is a kind of mask symbolically, “she was a lovely woman, and all the cosmetics what she had struggled with seemed, like her veil, to be drawn transparently over a face where mature beauty and a capacity for wit and passion were undisguisable” (253). Cheever mocks in heaping exaggerated detail upon detail in the first sentence and throughout, in his ruthless naming and characterization of cash and in the imagery that he uses throughout, hinting all the while that, as in the roses and in his wife’s face, there is beauty to be found beyond the surface, unless, as in the case of Cash, the surface is as far as we ever go. We don’t blame his wife in the end when when he hands her the gun for the first time ever and commands her to signal another ridiculous, self-indulgent hurdling event, she shoots him dead. He’s dead already, really.
“The Season of Divorce” is also ironically titled. Rather than ending with a divorce, it ends with reconciliation, a realignment with the things that matter in life. Cheever’s mockery in this story is of a gentler sort, a way of saying hey, see how easy it is to lose track on the important things, to get so caught up in the mundane details of “proper”, domestic life. The critique is gentler also because Cheever wrote this story in the first person, from the perspective of the husband. The husband who writes of his wife Ethel that “he can’t even remember when [he] first met her” (161) and then proceeds to list the chores she does every day and his own schedule in the most straight-forward, emotionless way. Some things happens though when Mr. Trencher (a married man) falls in love with Ethel and starts watching her at the park where she takes the children every day, talking to her, and buying her flowers. Ethel begins to remember herself and the motivation and education she gave up to be in her marriage, “I couldn’t read a French newspaper without a dictionary today”(169). And the husband seeing the flowers on the table, her passionate outburst, and how she takes care of the children with him when they get sick, remembers why he loves his wife. For appearances sake, because it is what is expected of them they took on the roles that a man and wife are supposed to and go to parties of socialize with other couples like The Trenchers, but in the end this couple is able to rise above mere convention and assert their own individuality. Louise cries for the suffering in her own personal history and shares that with her husband after witnessing her husband stand up and fight for her with Trencher, yelling at him to “Get the hell out of here!” and throwing a potted plant at him. So, though in the end, they are back to the same old routine, him returning from work, Ethel peeling vegetables in the kitchen, they have won a victory of sorts by allowing themselves to surface above the routine of life in the demands of modern society.
“The Worm in the Apple” mocks the very thing that makes “society” so important. The public face that we put out to society is open to ridicule and Cheever suggests in this story that one ought to be ready to accept that ridicule, because there are plenty of people who will see the world like the narrator of this story does, looking for the darkness, the underbelly of everything. This story cheats our expectation all the way through as the narrator is constantly looking for “clouds on the horizon” for the worm in the apple (338) and never finds them. The family really is happy, not without some of the struggles that make us human, but they’re happy. Cheever lets us in at the very end wherein lies the worm, “one might wonder of the worm was not in the eye of the observer who, through timidity or moral cowardice, could not embrace the broad range of their natural enthusiasms and would not grant that while Larry played neither Bach or football well, his pleasure in both was genuine” (342).
In the end the line “his pleasure in both was genuine” gets at what it is in story after story about couples and families that Cheever mocks, sees as a corrupting influence on society. People who care more about how they look on the outside than what is genuinely worth striving for: love, beauty, and truth.
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Some past posts to keep you making time:
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It’s about the routine and how you shake up the routine
There are things you will have to give up
See it to achieve it
Washing the dishes
A celebration of the pause
Monday, a run through the driving rain
Get out of your comfort zone