In the Stories of John Cheever, Cheever introduces his readers into a world of confused, self-conscious, delusional, corrupt, characters trying to live their lives in a New York Suburb known as Shady Hill. The name Shady Hill is an excellent representation of the suburb’s atmosphere; shady, where things lay somewhere between light and dark. Nothing is what it originally seems to be in the stories of John Cheever. Shady Hill is a representation of postwar American suburbia, a representation of the illusions people create as a result of the stereotypical American Dream. Cheever lets the reader see these illusions and also the reality behind them. The characters want to believe the world they live in is like the Garden of Eden, perfect, far away from the vices of the city and far from moral corruption. As we read we learn the characters are in denial, and that their world is full of problems, vices, and humanly impulses.
There is a common theme is most of Cheever’s stories. He usually presents to us an educated home owning family, where the father works in the city, the mother attends social gatherings, and servants assist the children. On the outside the families look as though they are living the stereo typical American Dream. As each chapter throws us deeply into a new family’s lifestyle we learn their lives are completely double-sided. FRONTS! It is all about the fronts the characters put up so no one else inShady Hill sees what their lives truly are. These characters force themselves to keep up this image of perfection, but to attain it they end up corrupting themselves even more. It is pretty ironic actually. For example in “Housebreaker on Shady Hill,” the main character Johnny Hake is petrified of losing his social status and letting his family down. When he loses his job he ends up stealing from his friends to keep up his wealthy life-style. In his mind he needed to live in that neighborhood, he needed to still belong to that country club and attend the cocktail parties of the upper middle class society. He did not want to let himself and his family down. The ironic thing is that by stealing he was lowering himself and causing more problems for his own life. Wrestling with his conscience and his own personal conviction made Hake more deeply troubled. Even at the end of the story when Hake gets his job back and returns the money to his friend Cheever makes it clear that Hake is still morally flawed. “‘I’m walking my dog,’ I said cheerfully. There was no dog in sight but the didn’t look… and off I went, whistling merrily in the dark.” (Page 269) Hake had just lied to the police officer and it did not even faze him, he was cheerful about it. It seems to me that a lot of Cheever’s characters wind themselves up in moral dilemmas, and then drown themselves in vices, like alcohol, in attempt to feel better. It gets them nowhere. It seems to me that in each of Cheever’s stories we see the fall of a man, similar to what we saw in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Goodman is Hard to Find.”
Cheever’s characters of Shady Hill clearly are in search of a better life. They are emotionally messed up. Some are petrified of death, others cannot let go of the past, and some cannot distinguish reality from illusion. It’s a truly corrupt society, and none of the people who make it that way want to believe it.
In “Goodbye my Brother” the setting is not in Shady Hill but it might as well have been. The characters, even on vacation, cannot accept reality. They built a house with a façade of shingles made to look aged in order to make the family’s money look older. The houses façade is a perfect metaphor for the front Cheever’s characters put up. In “Goodbye My Brother” these characters are fine with living in illusion, except for one: Tifty. In the story Tifty does not enjoy the alcoholic ways of his family nor the lies they attempt to live. He is a prick of reality that endangers his family’s bubble of illusion. The rest of his family makes him out to be the culprit, the one who has something wrong with him, the pessimist who can find no pleasure in life. When Tifty was found removing the shingles from the house’s façade he said to his brother, “Imagine the frame of mind this implies. Imagine wanting to live so much in the past that you’ll pay carpenters’ wages to disfigure your front door.” (Page 9) I think this is true about many of Cheever’s characters. They seem obsessed with creating illusions of a perfect pre-war world just to avoid the reality of life.
In “The Enormous Radio” the main character is very much so in denial. Through the radio she overhears her neighbors’ behind the scene issues that she had never thought previously existed. She continued to eaves drop and learned about more and more issues and conflicts. As she did so she became very upset. “Life is too terrible, too sordid and awful. But we’ve never been like that have we darling? Have we? I mean, we’ve always been good and decent and loving to one another, haven’t we? And we have two children two beautiful children… We are happy aren’t we darling? We are happy, aren’t we?” (Page 46) The radio in this story was a wake-up call from reality. What she heard defaced the fronts her neighbors all put up. It was like when Tifty tore off the shingles from the house. The radio burst the bubble of illusion. Later on in the story her husband accepts the reality, as Tifty did, and said to his wife, “What made you so Christy all of a sudden? What’s turned you into a convent girl? You stole your mother’s jewelry before they probated her will. You never gave your sister a cent of that money that was intended for her – not even when she needed it. You made Grace Howland’s life miserable, and where was all your piety and virtue when you went to the abortionists? I’ll never forget how cool you were…” (Page 41) His wife “disgraced and sickened” (Page 41) is a perfect example of Cheever’s delusional characters.
There is a lot of garden imagery in “The Stories of John Cheever” and I believe this is because the characters are trying to create the illusion of a perfect world that only existed before original sin. In many of the stories the characters dream about a peaceful garden-like scene as an escape from their problematic lives. The vices that we see Cheever’s characters dependent upon remind me of the forbidden fruit. Accepting the truth of what really goes on in their lives would be like corrupting their illusion of paradise. It would be like Adam eating the apple, the cause of mortality. For characters so obsessed with youth and fearful of death that would be very hard to accept.
In John Cheever’s world of Shady Hill his characters are in denial of who they truly are and disconnected from reality. They put up fronts and function under delusions, confusion and conflict, personal morality battles, human impulse, and the pressure of the American Dream, which inevitably leads to the falling of the character. The way Cheever presents these situations allows the reader to relate to his characters as well as see their shortcomings and tragic flaws. His characters view the suburban life as a safe refuge from the evil vices of the nearby city. We learn as the stories unfold that no matter what fronts these characters hide behind they cannot escape the impulses imbedded deep inside themselves.
Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
By Stacy A. Padula, 2006