John Cheever’s depictions of life in suburbia and the use of satire in his short stories | Статья в журнале «Молодой ученый»

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Рубрика: Филология, лингвистика

Опубликовано в Молодой учёный №19 (153) май 2017 г.

Дата публикации: 11.05.2017

Статья просмотрена: 115 раз

Библиографическое описание:

Зарипова, М. Э. John Cheever’s depictions of life in suburbia and the use of satire in his short stories / М. Э. Зарипова. — Текст : непосредственный // Молодой ученый. — 2017. — № 19 (153). — С. 400-401. — URL: (дата обращения: 04.03.2021).

John Cheever is regarded as a master of a short story form by almost all critics of the 20th century American literature. He is named as the Dante of suburbia and the Chekhov of the exurbs for his ability to record the events in chronological order with impressiveness stating the actions taken from the lives of upper middle-class Americans. Besides, Cheever is considered as the one who built a bridge, which linked the eras between the great modernist writers of the first half of the 20th century including Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and many others and the simultaneously tough and unhappy period following the World War II. To understand Cheever is to understand many of the central concerns of American life during the middle of the 20th century. His works included the themes of the growth of suburban life, the banal torments of the postwar business world, the troubled fabric of the bourgeois family, the tension between the urban and suburban worlds, the pressures of consumerist society, the trivial dramas of the home and others. Many of the settings for Cheever's works were chosen from the cocktail parties, swimming pools, barbecues, and commuter trains that are typical places of suburbia. Reading his stories, we may find out that no other writer could give complete, emotional and lightly comic depiction of a certain moment in American culture. Some critics have called Cheever the Chekhov of American literature due to the fact that Cheever’s stories precisely reveal the cracks in families, marriages and friendships. Cheever started gaining his popularity for his early stories such as The Swimmer, The Enormous Radio and The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.

Through his stories it becomes apparent that John Cheever was capable of representing the American suburbanite at mid-twentieth century. Characters in Cheever's suburban stories sustain a constant balance between hope and anxiety. This aptitude to capture this human dilemma and to combine it with one of the newest and most overlooked indicators of the American suburbia reveals the strong power and vision of Cheever's art. In these three stories which are The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, The Sorrows of Gin and Just Tell Me Who It Was, Cheever refers to the questions of human activities in the American suburbs of the mid-twentieth century describing suburbanites as indecisive between two opposites of control and confusion and between the dream of what the suburban lifestyle suggests and the reality itself. This approach in the stories may be considered as a satiric attack on the American Dream. Cheever satires the suburbs, and by observing this method, we find that his critical view sometimes becomes challenging to understand. Characters in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, The Sorrows of Gin and Just Tell Me Who It Was show an awareness of themselves and their environment that is congruent with two of the major ideological traditions of American literature, the New England, or Puritan, conscience and pastoralism. [1] The reason of Cheever’s choice to use these ideological traditions in his stories is that he intends to demonstrate how they coincide with modern suburban life. By two approaches he tries to prove this phenomenon: by showing how essential these traditions are and by relating how misleading they might be when they are applied to suburbia. In the stories suburbs are described as immoral places where people tend to ignore each other. As a result, the characters often feel lonely in their moral problems. Subsequently, the actions they take to ease their sufferings are often careless of others, and for this reason these actions generally do more harm than good. The characters regard suburbia as essentially good, as a safe place from the evils of the city; nevertheless, they forget that they cannot avoid all the desires within themselves that might tarnish their community. The stories we mentioned above were collected in a collection of stories The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories which was published in 1958. All stories are set in the fictional town of Shady Hill, an affluent suburb somewhere between Albany and Westchester County. Shady Hill is linked by commuter train to New York City. Its inhabitants are Waspish who are educated homeowners. Social life in Shady Hill circles around cocktail parties, each other’s houses and the country club.

What connects these three stories is the focus on the basic unit of Shady Hill, the family. The Housebreaker of Shady Hill is about the worker, The Sorrows of Gin is about the child, and Just Tell Me Who It Was is about the husband and wife.

The climactic moments in the three stories are in the characters’ actions. Each is a seemingly accidental, physical action whose spontaneity is confusing; therefore, they are set for analysis. To illustrate, once Hake suddenly wakes up, and decides to burglarize his neighbor's house; Amy pours her father’s gin down the drain without missing a beat and other factors. By putting emphasis on the surface of the characters' actions and by revealing the automatic quality of the character's movements during these episodes the author tries to raise the reader's curiosity to the stories.

Although Cheever's suburbanites are sometimes spiritually alone, at least they try to enjoy their individualism placing themselves in a better living. According to John Dyer, Cheever introduces his suburban settings with allusions to the Jeffersonian «middle-state», the term for the moderate, wholesome, and salubrious lifestyle of the early American yeoman farmer who knows and feels comfortable with his sense of place. [1] In fact, in the story Just Tell Me Who It Was Will is described as the person who loves his Dutch Colonial house and is very proud of his ascendancy into Shady Hill.

Cheever in his stories criticizes the conservative idealism that the suburbs grew out of, but at the same time he admits that idealism is a respectable position. Thus, he approached this idealism through ridiculing the suburban myth and promoting it. By ridiculing, he opposes its unreality; by promoting, he appreciates the power of mankind's imaginary vision. For Cheever, the basic aim is to effectively function while living between these two extremes. To prove these ideas, a number of examples can be mentioned. The characters usually attempt to make their lives better based on an imagined way of life. For instance, Hake burglarizes to stay in crime-free suburbia. In addition, each character acts out of a sense of sentimentality, which is a crucial aspect of the pastoral: Hake wants to keep his house and way of life though he sees it collapsing; and Pym's objective is to get what he perceives to be his old wife back.…..Nevertheless, it is possible to note that solutions to the problems are given in the story. Hake, to some point, may be dissembler who hides real intentions or emotions; on the other hand, through that money he improves his financial condition and preserves his family. What is most important is that in the end he put his neighbor’s money back admitting the fault he did. It was mentioned that Pym never thinks of Maria as anything but a trophy-wife, even after he attacks her supposed paramour. Indeed, Maria is a very attractive woman, and Pym’s suspicions will never end as he strongly loves his wife. It is common with couples who get married with strong love. [2]

Although in these stories fun brings to a dilemma, anyway the celebrations still keep the air of pleasant entertainment. The utmost satire of these stories is that the social order doesn't change considerably in spite of confusions or uncertainties the characters come across. Nevertheless, despite its affirmed social similarity and stagnation, the suburbia presented in these tales relates to a type of festival; through alcoholism, theft and violence, Cheever at least hints at impeaching the organization. It means that Cheever, to some extent, approached his stories politically. In addition, Cheever satirizes the false hopes and peculiar, but understandable, rationalizations of his characters: their anxieties and wishes are outrageous and excessive, but their madness is kept within its right place, in the family and community, and within the restrictions of the travel and the cocktail party. Through the stories Cheever suggests a sympathetic picture of the transgressions that support a suburban community. Shady Hill’s vague spaces and uncertain characters invite us to reevaluate transgression as fundamental to Cheever’s embrace of suburbia as a literary site within, which to explore our essential human weakness. Here at the end of the article, it is crucial to mention what the author himself wrote about his stories and suburbia: There’s been too much criticism of the middle-class way of life. Life can be as good and rich there as anyplace else. I am not out to be a social critic, however, nor a defender of suburbia. It goes without saying that the people in my stories and the things that happen to them could take place anywhere. [3]


  1. John Dyer. (2000). John Cheever: Parody and The Suburban Aesthetic. John Murray Publishers Ltd.
  2. M. P. Baumgartner. (1997).The Moral Order of a Suburb. John Wilson Croker. Ed.
  3. John Cheever. (1943). Saturday Review. Retrieved February 2, 2013 from

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