Commentary by Karen Bernardo
John Cheever is a novelist of suburbia. But in his short story “The Country Husband,” however, Cheever reveals suburbia’s darker side—the side which traps its residents in a web of conformity.
Cheever’s protagonist, Francis Weed, is a successful, middle-aged man who works in New York City and lives in the suburbs. His life is one of genteel complacency, as we see from this description of his house: “The Weed’s Dutch colonial house was larger than it appeared to be from the driveway. The living room was spacious and divided like Gaul into three parts. Around an ell to the left as one entered from the vestibule was the long table, laid for six, with candles and a bowl of fruit in the center. The sounds and smells that came from the open kitchen door were appetizing, for Julia Weed was a good cook. The largest part of the living room centered on a fireplace. On the right were some bookshelves and a piano. The room was polished and tranquil, and from the windows that opened to the west there was some late-summer sunlight, brilliant and clear as water. Nothing here was neglected; nothing had not been burnished.”
But this description is already several pages into the story, for as “The Country Husband” opens, Francis Weed is brought up short in a confrontation with his own mortality; the plane on which he is flying from Minneapolis to New York is forced to make an emergency landing due to bad weather. No one is injured—the passengers are more shaken and inconvenienced than anything else—but the experience starts Francis thinking of his life in more epic terms than he has been accustomed to do.
When he arrives home, however, no one is interested in hearing his story. Francis’ ruminations about the meaning of life have no place in Shady Hill. The meaning of life here is perfectly plain: one must maintain a respectable appearance, speak kindly to the neighbors, and accept an adequate amount of the right type of social invitations. Despite several attempts to try to share his airplane experience (“Daddy was in a plane crash this afternoon, Toby. Don’t you want to hear about it?”), he is unable to get any kind of response out of anyone, because his story is too far out of the bounds of what they expect to hear.
Thus Francis is left frustrated and unsatisfied; he feels, without knowing it, that something in his family and in his life is wanting. He soon injects some excitement into his existence through an encounter with a teenage babysitter, Anne Murchison. Anne unexpectedly starts to cry on his shoulder because her father, an alcoholic, is mean to her when he is in his cups. Francis is aroused by this unexpected physical contact, and pulls her closer, intending to kiss her. She breaks away and he drives her home, but at her doorstep she kisses him. Suddenly all his feelings of restlessness come together; he is in love.
He isn’t, of course; he simply needs a focal point for his dissipated energies. He observes that “The image of the girl seemed to put him into a relationship with the world that was mysterious and enthralling. Cars were beginning to fill the parking lot, and he noticed that those who had driven down from the high land above Shady Hill were white with hoarfrost. The first clear sign of autumn thrilled him.” Francis’ brief contact with the girl has reawakened him to life.
But he realizes that having an affair with Anne, to say nothing that leaving Julia for Anne, would be completely incompatible with Shady Hill society. For much of the story he vacillates between dreams of Anne and “the realization that this music might lead him straight to a trial for statutory rape at the county courthouse.” Yet immediately after articulating these thoughts to himself, he goes out and buys Anne a bracelet.
Clearly Francis is rebelling against the pompous propriety of Shady Hill. When he meets Mrs. Wrightson at the train station and she rants on and on about what in the world she should do about her odd-sized windows, he tells her to shut up and paint them black. Both the irrepressible child Gertrude, who dresses like a bag lady and wanders in and out of people’s homes, and the untrainable retriever Jupiter, who “broke up garden parties and tennis matches, and got mixed up in the processional at Christ Church on Sunday, barking at the men in red dresses” represent for Francis a deliberate flouting of the social mores which so completely constrict him within the bounds of Shady Hill.
As the story goes on, Francis’ rebellion, vague and unfocused at first until it centers itself on Anne, is starting to fly apart again, with destructive force. When he was still trying to come to terms with his brush with death, he sought some kind of release “which would injure no one,” and came up with skiing. By the last third of the story, however, he is behaving in a way that could certainly hurt people—insulting a friendly old woman, for one thing, and in the process jeopardizing his daughter’s chances of getting invited to the society dance; ruining a young man’s chances for getting a job. As he notes, “He had been lost once in his life, coming back from a trout stream in the north woods, and he had now the same bleak realization that no amount of cheerfulness or hopefulness or valor or perseverance could help him find, in the gathering dark, the path that he’d lost. He smelled the forest. The feeling of bleakness was intolerable, and he saw clearly that he had reached the point where he would have to make a choice.”
For a brief, shining moment, Francis glimpsed a world beyond suburbia, and it was exciting and mythical and he wanted to be a part of it. He didn’t know how to do this, however, and he struck out blindly as a child will do when he doesn’t know his way. Despite his desperate sessions with a psychiatrist (the shaman of suburbia), he will never be happy until he again finds a way to make real contact with himself. Unless he experiences another plane crash, however, that may never happen.
This story can be found in The Stories of John Cheever, which is available from Amazon here.
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