31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 5: “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever

May 5, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

From The Stories of John Cheever

John Cheever is perhaps best known for pulling back the curtain on the polite facade of American suburban life in the postwar period – he prefigures and anticipates writers such as John Updike, A.M. Homes, and Jay McInerey. His preferred mode is naturalism, and in this regard “The Enormous Radio” might be seen as something of a departure, tending more toward the fantastical or the allegorical.

First published in 1947, the story focuses on Jim and Irene Westcott, an apparently typical, upper-middle-class couple, “the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.” They reside “near Sutton Place,” one of the most affluent addresses in New York City (the fact that they reside near Sutton Place indicates that the couple has not quite cracked the upper echelons of American society), and they attend the theatre “an average of 10.3 times a year.” They have been married for nine years and have two children. The only thing that distinguishes them from their peers is their “shared interest in serious music.” The fact that they share an interest in “serious” music, as opposed to the popular music that dominated the airwaves in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, is a subtle dig at the superficial tastes that much of American society evinced at the time; the implicitly elevated tastes that the Westcotts espouse will turn out to have an ironic tinge by the time Cheever’s story has unfolded.

To indulge her taste for serious music, Irene listens to the radio during the day while her husband is at work and her children are at school. Unfortunately, the Westcott’s radio is “an old instrument, sensitive, unpredictable, and beyond repair.” When it finally ceases operating altogether, Jim goes out and buys his wife a new radio so that she can continue to listen to her beloved classical music. But when the new radio is delivered, Irene is repulsed by its “physical ugliness” and “confounded by the number of dials and switches on the instrument panel.” When she turns the radio on, the dials glow “a malevolent green.”

The word “malevolent” is not accidental: the radio has a kind of devilish effect on the Westcotts, acting as a catalyst in exposing the carefully concealed secrets that exist behind the pleasant surface of their daily life. It turns out that the appliance has the peculiar ability to broadcast the activities in other units in the Westcotts’ apartment building. Irene and Jim listen to their neighbours’ nanny reciting nursery rhymes to a little girl; hear another neighbour complaining that she “just [doesn’t] feel like” herself anymore but won’t go to the doctor “because the doctor’s bills are so awful already;” and eavesdrop on an “enraged woman” telling her recalcitrant child, “We paid eight hundred dollars to get you into that school and you’ll go if it kills you.”

Through it all, Irene feels vaguely uncomfortable listening in on her neighbours’ problems: “Irene’s life was nearly as simple and sheltered as it appeared to be, and the forthright and sometimes brutal language that came from the loudspeaker … astonished and troubled her.” The word “nearly” is significant, as it becomes clear that Irene and Jim’s married life is just as fraught as those of the couples they eavesdrop on; the facade of placid normalcy in the Westcotts’ lives is just that – a facade. The Westcotts’ entire existence, it becomes clear, resembles their old, broken-down radio: it is “sensitive, unpredictable, and beyond repair.” The dials on the new radio are a “malevolent green,” indicating a kind of Satanic agency: Irene takes on the mantle of Eve in the garden, and the radio becomes the tree of knowledge that leads to her eventual downfall.

Right from the opening paragraph of his story, Cheever insists on the ways in which the Westcotts have embellished their circumstances to make themselves appear to be something other than what they are. Irene wears “a coat of fitch skins dyed to resemble mink,” and Jim dresses “in the kind of clothes his class had worn at Andover.” Jim’s attempts to appear younger than his chronological age become fully apparent late in the story when he complains to his wife, “I’m not getting any younger, you know. I’m thirty-seven. My hair will be gray next year. I haven’t done as well as I’d hoped to do. And I don’t suppose things will get any better.” They cloak themselves in the veneer of respectability, but the longer Irene listens to the goings-on in other apartments, the more she comes to doubt this veneer, and to suspect that if she can spy on her neighbours, they must also be able to see the unvarnished truth about her life.

It is her husband who eventually calls her out on her hypocrisy, reminding her that she appropriated her mother’s jewellery before the will went through probate and that she never gave her sister the money that their mother had bequeathed her. “[And] where was all your piety and your virtue when you went to that abortionist?” Jim demands. “You packed your bag and went off to have that child murdered as if you were going to Nassau.” Irene has managed to convince herself that she and her family exist on a separate plane, untouched by turpitude or moral relativism. She takes pride in the way she has decorated her home and the clothes she wears, assuming that these exteriors will convey the image of a perfectly flawless existence. It is only when Jim brings the “hideous cabinet” into the apartment that this vision begins to unravel.

“The Enormous Radio” has been called an allegory of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is certainly a merciless examination of hypocrisy and denial in early postwar America. As Ian Colford suggests:

On a superficial level, “The Enormous Radio” can be read as a relatively simple tale of one couple’s moral downfall. However, if we regard the apartment building as the human psyche and the radio as an unexpected means of tapping the hidden depths of the unconscious mind, then the story takes on additional resonance. The radio is also very clearly a demonic presence in the “Eden” of the Westcotts’ home, one that precipitates their fall from innocence. And finally, as Henrietta Harmsel notes, a case can be made for interpreting the story as a criticism of the many ways in which technology invades and encroaches upon our lives, interfering with our attempts to communicate with one another and encouraging isolation by offering itself as a tempting surrogate for human contact.

If Harmsel’s reading is accurate, Cheever’s story is arguably more pertinent today than it was when it first appeared.


One Response to “31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 5: “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever”
  1. I, too, blogged about a Cheever story in celebration of Short Story Month! (“The Day the Pig Fell in the Well.)

    I’m glad you commented that Cheever is relevant today. While ‘respectability’ isn’t the potent value it once was in the middle class, the world he depicts has not vanished. And hypocrisy is ever with us, but he shows great compassion as he unmasks it. I also like a good, long, old-fashioned story that takes its time creating a world and a sensibility.

    I’ll subscribe to your blog when I can figure out all this feed stuff. I’m stuck in the stone age of email communication…