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Literature / The Stories of John Cheever

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The Stories of John Cheever is a 1978 short story collection by, you guessed it, John Cheever.

Cheever wrote four novels but spent most of his forty-odd years in literature writing short stories. The collection includes his most famous works dating back to the late 1940s, the majority of which were originally published in The New Yorker. Short stories in the collection include "Goodbye, My Brother", "The Enormous Radio", "The Hartleys", "The Five-Forty-Eight", "Reunion", and "The Swimmer", the latter of which was adapted into a movie starring Burt Lancaster.

The stories are not connected, but have many similar themes. Cheever grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, and most of his short stories were set in New York and New England, often dealing with suburban alienation and anomie in the upper-middle class in the post-World War II era. Cheever's stories are often said to have been a major influence on Mad Men, which dealt with similar people in a similar setting.


  • A-Cup Angst: Jill suffers from this in "An Educated American Woman".
    "...she had a small front and was one of those women who took this deprivation as if it was something more than the loss of a leg."
  • The Alcoholic:
    • Unsurpisingly, the central theme of "The Sorrows of Gin". Rosemary, the cook in the Lawton house, talks of the evils of gin, but comes home on the train one day smelling of liquor and drinking gin from a Coke bottle. She is fired. It turns out that Mr. Lawton himself is a drunkard who routinely needs alcohol to unwind and sometimes embarrasses himself by falling down at parties.
    • In "The Scarlet Moving Van" Charlie has to deal with his neighbor "Gee-Gee" (G.G.), who drinks constantly and routinely makes a huge spectacle of himself at parties. He sometimes goes over to protect G.G.'s wife when G.G. is in one of his rages. The ironic ending comes on the very last page of the story, when it's revealed that Charlie himself has a major drinking problem that causes him to lose his job.
    • "Reunion" features a boy named Charlie meeting his divorced father for the first time in three years, for lunch. Charlie can smell the alcohol on his father's breath and his father spends their whole lunch hour together yelling at waiters for liquor rather than talking to his son. They never get to talk, Charlie leaves, and as the narration states he never sees his father again.
  • Amazonian Beauty: In "The Common Day", Greta the cook is described as "a big, strong woman with a magnificent voice and the breasts of an operatic contralto."
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's not really clear at the end of "O Youth and Beauty!" whether or not Cash's wife Louise shot him accidentally or on purpose. It could have been by accident: Cash the idiot likes to run hurdle "races" over the living room furniture, he gave Louise the gun to use as a starter's pistol, and the narration specifies that Louise had never fired a gun before and didn't know how to use the safety catch. But Cash is also a failure, a drunkard, and a bad husband, and the last lines—"The pistol went off and Louise got him in midair. She shot him dead."—at least imply that Louise took the opportunity and shot Cash on purpose.
  • Armchair Military: Mr. Pastern from "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow" is the kind of guy who goes around the locker room at the golf club and yells stuff like "Bomb Cuba! Bomb Berlin!" The narration acidly describes him as "the brigadier of the club's locker-room light infantry."
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: In "A Vision of the World" the narrator starts to have recurring dreams in which people say the mysterious phrase "Porpozec ciebie nie prosze dorzanin albo zyolpocz ciwego." It sounds Polish, but it's gibberish.
  • Banister Slide: Ned Merrill does this in the morning at the beginning of "The Swimmer". This serves to illustrate his cheerful, upbeat nature, which is subverted later when the whole story is revealed to have been told Through the Eyes of Madness.
  • Bathroom Stall Graffiti: Takes a turn for the surreal in "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin". The narrator keeps finding writing scrawled in railroad bathrooms, but not the typical crude obscenities. No, he keeps finding highbrow literary writing, like a complete short story, or a quote from John Keats's "Bright Star".
  • Black Comedy: In "The Death of Justina" an old lady dies on the narrator's couch and he has enormous difficulty getting someone to come over and get the body, due to a bizarre zoning law that effectively banned death in the narrator's town.
  • Brainless Beauty: The theme of "The Chaste Clarissa". Clarissa is a sexy redhead but pretty dim—she thinks that rocks can grow, and when the protagonist, a seducer named Baxter, gets her to open up, she expresses a lot of pretty vapid, cliched opinions. All of Baxter's attempts to seduce her fail, until he says "You're so intelligent"—Clarissa is so self-conscious about being dumb that Baxter's flattery is what finally succeeds in getting her to have sex with him.
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: Clarissa from "The Chaste Clarissa" is pronounced by the narration as "deep-breasted" as part of her sex appeal.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Cash Bentley in "O Youth and Beauty!" likes to pretend that he is still young by running hurdle races at home, vaulting furniture. Early in the story the narration mentions that he does this at parties where one of the drunk suburbanites uses a real gun as a starting pistol. At the end he insists that his wife Louise fire the pistol as he runs the race, but Louise is unfamiliar with guns, and she shoots him dead.
  • Child of Forbidden Love: Implied in "Montraldo", in which an old lady signorina is always fighting with her mean servant woman Assunta. When the signorina is dying, she reveals that Assunta is her daughter.
  • Christmas Episode: In "Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor" Charlie the elevator operator grouses about how he lives in a single-room apartment and has to work an elevator on Christmas Day for the rich folks. He gets a bunch of food and presents from the uncommonly generous rich folks in the apartment building, which leads him to bring home a big bunch of stuff for the landlady of his apartment building and her kids—but the landlady's kids have plenty of presents so she rushes out to give the stuff to someone else.
    "...she knew that we are bound, one to another, in licentious benevolence for a single day, and that day was nearly over."
  • Continuity Nod: Several of Cheever's stories are set in a fictional upper-class New York City suburb called Shady Hill. Additionally, some of the residents of Shady Hill (the Beardens, the Farquarson, the Parminters) are mentioned in more than one story. Mrs. Henlein, a widow, is referred to as babysitting neighborhood children in "The Sorrows of Gin" and "The Country Husband". The character Moses from "The Death of Justina" is actually Moses Wapshot from Cheever's first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle.
  • Contrived Coincidence: In "The Country Husband", Francis meets the maid at the Farquarsons' house, and realizes that he saw her a full ten years before all the way over in France, when he was in the army. The maid got her head shaved for sleeping with a German officer.
  • Country Mouse: In "O City of Broken Dreams", Evarts and Alice Malloy come from a small town in Indiana to New York when Evarts writes a play. They are bowled over by the city and its attractions. Alice embarrasses herself at a fancy party, while Evarts falls into infatuation with a stage actress. Evarts is lied to and manipulated by slimy producers.
  • Culture Clash: "Clementina" is about an Italian peasant girl who gets a job as a maid for an American family and accompanies them to the United States. She hates the food, she's appalled when her master carries a water jug upstairs for her, and she's disgusted to see old ladies in America dressing colorfully, and the concept of a Christmas tree confuses her utterly. But she gets used to the luxuries and higher standard of living and winds up marrying a man 40 years older than her so she can stay in America.
  • Dead Sparks: "The Hartleys". A single outburst from Mrs. Hartley out of nowhere reveals that the husband and wife are in a loveless marriage, and the ski trip is just one more attempt to find happiness again.
  • Deleted Scene: In-Universe. "A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear" is basically a tossed-off list of anecdotes. Among the characters that will not appear in Cheever writing is a beautiful girl that he once saw catch an errant pass at a rugby match, a writer friend that Cheever visits on his death bed, and any character that could be played by Marlon Brando.
  • Divorce in Reno:
    • In "The Common Day", little Carlotta's mother Florrie is in Reno getting a divorce over the summer, which is why Carlotta is staying with her grandmother.
    • In "Torch Song" Jack's marriage lasts only a couple of years before his wife leaves for Reno to divorce him.
    • "The Season of Divorce" has Ethel's would-beau actually offer up a check that Ethel can use to head to Reno and get a divorce.
    • In "The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well", Joan Nudd, child of a wealthy family, gets married in the fall and is in Reno by spring and makes it back to enjoy the family's summer vacation in the country.
    • "An Educated American Woman" ends with Jill and George's marriage collapsing and Jill going to Reno for a divorce after their little son Bibber dies of pneumonia.
  • A Dog Named "Dog": One of the stories in the collection is called "Another Story".
  • Driver Faces Passenger: In "Metamorphoses", Orville is so in love with his wife that he can't stop staring at her, after picking her up and driving her away from her father's deathbed. He hits an oncoming truck and his wife is killed.
  • The Eeyore: Lawrence from "Goodbye, My Brother" is a really depressing guy who with his moodiness ruins the family weekend. He talks about how the family beach house is doomed to crumble into the ocean with the eroding beach, he tells the cheerful family cook that she works too hard and should go on strike, he refuses to go to parties or drink or play games. His brother, annoyed, thinks that Lawrence is the type to see sheep grazing in a field and talk about soil erosion, or to see picturesque New England farmhouses and talk about how hard a farmer's life is.
  • El Spanish "-o": An American tourist in Italy in "The Bella Lingua" wants ham and eggs for breakfast, but he doesn't know the Italian, so he resorts to "You gotta no hamma? You gotta no eggsa?" It doesn't work.
  • Family Versus Career: "An Educated American Woman" is a not-very-feminist tale in which Jill, a highly educated woman with refined tastes, marries George, a rather more simple fellow who sometimes finds her intellectual pretensions annoying. The story turns tragic when Jill, who has gotten wrapped up in community activism, leaves their little son at home alone. He catches pneumonia and dies.
  • Funny Foreigner: The narrator's friend in "Another Story" is an Italian prince working in New York who speaks with fractured syntax and pronounces "blue jeans" as "blugins". Played for drama eventually, however, as all the narrow-minded suburbanite Americans are mean and bigoted towards him, and eventually he breaks up with his wife.
  • Gay Aesop: In "Clancy and the Tower of Babel", a bigoted elevator operator refuses to take a gay man and his lover on the elevator car. But after Clancy saves the gay man from killing himself, and the gay man takes up a collection when Clancy has to go to the hospital, Clancy learns a lesson in accepting differences.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: It's raining when the Malloys leave New York at the end of "O City of Broken Dreams", Evarts' dreams of Broadway having been crushed.
  • Grief-Induced Split: In "An Educated American Woman," Jill and George's marriage collapses following the death of their young son Bibber, who catches pneumonia while Jill is away working.
  • Hangover Sensitivity: In "The Sutton Place Story" Katherine wakes up hung over and can barely talk with her daughter Deborah. This is one of many details showing how Deborah's parents don't pay any attention to her.
  • Happily Married: "The Worm in the Apple" is about the Crutchmans, a Happily Married couple with two well-adjusted children. The perspective is those of the rest of their community (Cheever's stock setting of "Shady Hill") who cannot understand why the Crutchmans are so happy when they are not. The Crutchmans are happy their whole lives while everyone else envies them.
  • Henpecked Husband: The narrator of "The Chimera" is stuck in an awful marriage to a shrewish woman who seems to hate being a Housewife and has turned all her rage on him. Her rage might be justified, but still, she threatens him with a straight razor, she eats all his food when they go out to restaurants, he has to read the paper in the bathroom because she doesn't like him reading in any other room of the house...
  • Hollywood Midlife Crisis: Cash Bentley is going through this in the ironically titled "O Youth and Beauty!". Cash, once a Big Man on Campus popular, athletic type, is having problems over turning forty and not having a particularly successful career. He likes to act young and impress people at parties by leaping over the furniture in hurdle "races", but when he breaks his leg and can't do it anymore, he plunges into a severe depression.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Joan in "Torch Song" has horrific taste in men. One's an alcoholic. Another's a heroin addict. Another one beats her. Another one gets her to sell her jewelry, supposedly to fund a business venture, then absconds with the money. This is however subverted in the ending, where it's implied that Joan is some sort of supernatural being feeding off the misery and death of others.
  • Housewife: "The Season of Divorce" centers around Ethel, a housewife who's beaten down by the tedium of her life—at one point she observes she hasn't left the apartment in two weeks—and who really enjoys it when another man starts paying her attention and courting her.
  • Imagine Spot: "The Chimera", in which an unhappy husband stuck in a terrible marriage imagines a much more accomodating sexy lady named Olga. The weird thing is that despite being a figment of his imagination Olga has a real, and rather troubled, life of her own—she gets fired from her job, she spends a couple of nights in jail, and she goes back to California while the narrator is begging her to stay.
  • Impoverished Patrician: "Boy in Rome" features a princess named Tavola-Calda, who is dirt poor and lives in a single room and wears rags, but insists that all her fine clothes are in a trunk that she doesn't have a key for. The titular boy can't decide if she's genuinely broke or she's an extreme miser.
  • Karma Houdini: In "The Jewels of the Cabots" Mrs. Cabot murders her husband, poisoning him with arsenic. Mr. Cabot's mistress Mrs. Wallace figures this out, but the local judge basically tells her not to bother doing anything, as no one will believe her.
  • Lady Drunk:
    • The mother in "Goodbye, My Brother" gets drunk at dinner and spends the rest of the island vacation complaining about how she's a lonely widow and her children are disappointments. Her son Lawrence later calls her an alcoholic.
    • Ellen in "The Summer Farmer", who just went through her second divorce. She is given to getting drunk at the dinner table and morosely remembering her and Paul's deceased father.
  • Lawful Stupid: In "The Death of Justina" the narrator's wife's cousin dies on his sofa. He calls the doctor only to learn that years ago, the town passed a zoning ordinance in order to stop a funeral home from going up in the neighborhood, to the effect that you can't sign a death certificate in that neighborhood—so the doctor will not come over and the man has to pile the body into the car and drive it to the next neighborhood in order to get a certificate signed. Hours later, when the narrator finds the mayor, the mayor won't do anything because he needs a quorum of the city council. It takes the narrator's threat to bury his wife's cousin in his yard to get the bureaucracy to do anything.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Amy from "The Sorrows of Gin". Amy is a fourth-grader who is constantly being left by her parents in the care of the help, or of neighbors, while they go to drunken parties. Eventually Amy tries to run away.
  • Medium Awareness: "Boy in Rome" is narrated by, well, a teenaged boy in Rome. Except that is for one paragraph near the end where the writer says "But I am not a boy in Rome but a grown man in the old prison and river town of Ossining"—in other words, John Cheever, then living in Ossining, NY. Cheever-as-Cheever wonders why he should write about a foolish mother and an asshole grandpa (the boy's relatives in the story) when he had known "affection and understanding" from his parents. Cheever-as-Cheever says he's got to finish what he started, so "we go back to the scene where he leaves the train in Naples", and the story picks back up there, with the boy on the train.
  • Moral Guardians: The anonymous narrator of "Brimmer" is very upset that his casual acquaintance Brimmer is having sex with a married lady while their passenger liner makes its way from America to Europe. Words like "immorality" and "depraved" are thrown around.
  • Ms. Red Ink: The narrator's wife Christina in "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill". He says that "her ignorance of financial necessity is complete," although he also admits that he can't bring himself to tell her how bad their financial situation is, even as they are "overdrawn at the bank."
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: The narrator of "The Fourth Alarm" asks his lawyer about getting a divorce, after his wife joins a "nude show" stage production in which she takes her clothes off. He is startled when he's told that taking your clothes off and simulating sex for an audience is not grounds for divorce in New York state. (Evidently he isn't really all that bothered, as he does not pursue Divorce in Reno like so many other Cheever protagonists do.)
  • Naked People Are Funny:
    • One of the pools Ned swims through in "The Swimmer" belongs to the Hallorans, an older nudist couple. Ned politely takes his trunks off.
    • The narrator of "The Fourth Alarm" doesn't know how to handle it when his wife starts an acting career and joins a "nude show", in other words some experimental play where everyone gets naked.
    "Now on the stage Ozamanides was writing something obscene on my wife’s buttocks."
  • No Name Given: The narrator of "Goodbye, My Brother" is unnamed. Ditto "The Cure". In both instances the unnamed narrators are also somewhat Unreliable Narrators who may be mentally unbalanced.
  • Old Shame: In-Universe in "The Golden Age". Seton the American writer tells everybody in the Italian village that he is a poet, when he is actually the writer of a terrible American sitcom called "The Best Family".
  • Our Vampires Are Different: For most of "Torch Song" Jack's friend Joan seems like she's just very unlucky in love, as she hooks up with drug addicts, alcoholics, thieves, abusers, and other unfortunate characters. But towards the end it's revealed that they all met bad fates—the heroin addict is dead, the alcoholic was lost at sea, the abuser killed himself, the thief died of unspecified natural causes. The married man she was dating died in a house fire. The Englishman Jack saw at Joan's apartment died of an Incurable Cough of Death. Then she finally shows up at Jack's apartment and starts holding his hand and calling him "darling"...after Jack himself has developed his own Incurable Cough of Death with Blood from the Mouth and in fact appears to be dying of TB. Also, Joan always dresses in black. Jack suddenly realizes that she enjoys death and is drawn to it, and indeed may even feed off it, as she seems to still be surprisingly young. At the end of the story he tells her to get out, referring to her "ugly misshapen forms." The last line of narration describes Joan as "that lewd and searching shape of death." If she isn't a sort of Life Energy vampire, she may be The Grim Reaper.
    "Does it make you feel young to watch the dying?" he shouted. "Is that the lewdness that keeps you young?"
  • Paranormal Mundane Item: The radio in "The Enormous Radio", which, after a repairman fiddles with it, starts pulling in not radio stations but the private conversations of every resident of the protagonist couple's apartment building.
  • Parental Neglect: In "The Sorrows of Gin", Amy's parents are alcoholics who generally ignore her and leave her with the help.
  • Percussive Maintenance: In "The Enormous Radio", Jim sometimes pounds the old radio with his hand when it stops working. This works for a while but eventually he has to get a new one.
  • Plagued by Nightmares: Irene in "The Wrysons" has persistent nightmares of nuclear holocaust.
  • Recitation Handclasp: In "O City of Broken Dreams", when Alice is invited to sing at a party, she responds by "folding her hands and holding them breast high" before she starts to sing. This helps to emphasize what a rube Alice is in New York.
  • Reluctant Fanservice Girl: Clarissa from "The Chaste Clarissa" is shy about appearing on a beach in a swimsuit. "...unlike the other women, who were at ease in bathing suits, Clarissa seemed humiliated and ashamed to find herself wearing so little. She walked down towards the water as if she were naked." All this does is turn on the man accompanying her even more.
  • Retraux: In "Goodbye, My Brother", Lawrence pours scorn on the family's beach house. It's only 22 years old but their father bought up 200-year-old shingles from old-timey farms, and had the doors scratched and stained to look much older.
  • Right Through the Wall: In "Brimmer", the unnamed narrator realizes that Brimmer took Mme. Troyan to his cabin (next door to the narrator's, on a passenger liner) by hearing "the sounds next door."
  • Rule of Pool: Not a pool, rather an ocean pier, but the same thing. In "Goodbye, My Brother" the guests at a nostalgic "as you were" party wind up milling around a pier, and after one falls into the pier chasing a balloon, they all dive in.
  • Sexy Sweater Girl: In "Artemis, the Honest Well Digger", Artemis takes a trip to Russia and falls in love with Natasha, a Russian interpreter who "wore a tight sweater that showed her fine breasts."
  • Skinnydipping: "Goodbye, My Brother" ends with the narrator watching his sister and wife walk out of the ocean after swimming, "naked, unshy, beautiful, full of grace." He finds the moment uplifting.
  • Slip into Something More Comfortable: So says Miss Dent, the secretary from "The Five-Forty-Eight", to her boss, Blake. Sex follows.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: In "The Scarlet Moving Van", Charlie lives in the "township of B__", and his alcoholic neighbor is forced to move to the more lower-class "town of Y__". It's an interesting use of the trope from Cheever, who more often set stories in the fictional but named upscale suburb of Shady Hill.
  • Sudden Downer Ending: "The Hartleys" seems to be a melancholy enough tale of a failed marriage, but it goes to hardcore Downer Ending in the next to last paragraph, when, out of nowhere, their little daughter Anne is killed when she's caught up in the towline of a ski lift.
  • Take That!: In "Characters That Will Not Appear", which is just that, one of the characters Cheever says won't appear is "All parts for Marlon Brando." Later, when Cheever talks of a writer that he dislikes, he says that other writer wrote "fat parts for Marlon Brando."
  • Through the Eyes of Madness:
    • "The Cure" features an unnamed narrator who is alone at home after his wife leaves him. He starts seeing a Peeping Tom in his window at nights. Eventually it's strongly implied that he is having hallucinations and going insane. A woman comes up to him and says "I see a rope around your neck" completely out of nowhere, and after that he starts seeing ropes all the time. He stalks a random woman in the streets. The story at the end where his wife calls and they get back together might be his imagination as well, since his wife Rachel calls for the exact reason that he earlier imagined the might call (one of their children having a fever).
    • In "The Swimmer" it eventually becomes clear that Ned Merrill has had a psychotic break. He thinks that he is still living an upper-class life in a fine house with four daughters. Other characters refer to his "misfortunes", and it turns out that Ned went broke, his house is empty and abandoned, and his wife and daughters are gone.
  • Torment by Annoyance: "The Music Teacher". Seton's wife Jessica lets her unhappiness with the marriage interfere with what Seton regards as a wife's duties—the children are ill-supervised, dinner is always burned. A friend makes a cryptic recommendation to Seton to take music lessons from a neighborhood teacher, Miss Deering. She assigns him a single set of scales that he repeats lesson after lesson, day after day after day. It turns out that the real purpose of the piano lessons is to drive Jessica crazy, until she basically submits to him and the lessons stop. (It's subtly implied that it may be a matter of witchcraft; at the end of the story cranky old Miss Deering is described as "like a witch".)
  • Twist Ending: The last of the three vignettes that together make up "Three Stories". A man gets on a plane going to Rome and a beautiful woman sits next to him. He makes stabs at conversation, which she rejects; he asks what book she is reading, and she won't tell him. She's standoffish throughout the flight, and it seems like a story about a guy who tries and fails to get to know a stranger—until they get in the same cab and the last line reveals the truth:
    "He is her husband, she is his wife, the mother of his children, and a woman he has worshipped passionately for nearly thirty years."
  • Unreliable Narrator: While Lawrence from "Goodbye, My Brother" is indisputably a sourpuss, but a careful reader will note that most of the negative, Debbie Downer thoughts from the story come from Lawrence's brother, the unnamed narrator, who seems to be projecting his own opinions on Lawrence.
  • Urban Fantasy:
    • "The Enormous Radio" is a Twilight Zone-ish story about a home radio that somehow receives not regular old radio broadcasts, but the conversations of every person in the apartment building.
    • It's more ambiguous in "Torch Song" but at the end, Joan is implied to be either some sort of vampiric being, or The Grim Reaper.
  • Woman Scorned: Blake from "The Five-Forty-Eight" is one hell of a Jerkass, who picks out Miss Dent for an affair solely because he senses her vulnerability, then not only dumps her, but has her fired. What he doesn't know is that she's mentally unstable and has spent time in an institution. She follows him home from work with a gun and makes him literally grovel in the dirt before leaving him.