The Enormous Radio – the short story by John Cheever in the 20th century – covers the themes of privacy and has an exceptional plot with underlying irony. The writer narrates the story from the third perspective to portray the life of a happy first-glance family. The reader witnesses how the average married couple becomes miserable after buying a new radio. Cheever criticizes dishonesty and gossip, warning his audience about the repercussions the unsolicited intervention brings by using stylistic devices, suspenseful tone, symbolism, and changing nature of characters.
The description of Westcotts at the beginning of the story unintentionally depicts the allusion to the perfect post-war nuclear family with decent and wealthy lives. They have a “satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability” and “two young children” in the nine years of marriage (Cheever 250). Even the facts that they go “to the theater on an average of 10.3 times a year” and Irene chooses “furnishings and colors as carefully as she chose her clothes” reflect the idea that they have better lives than others around them (Cheever 251). Thus, this introduction, with allusion to respectable and prosperous lives, makes the reader question the changes in the characters even more.
The story’s protagonist, Irene Westcott, is the mother of two children and the wife of an average man in New York. The reader first perceives her as a woman who loves comfortable life and enjoys listening to music on the radio. However, the whole picture changes as she starts listening to the new radio with the sounds of her neighbors. She does not feel ashamed that she peeks into other people’s secrets. On the contrary, she flatters her ego and vanity, blindly believing that her marriage is built on trust and mutual understanding: “We’ve always been good and decent and loving to one another (Cheever 256).” The illusion Cheever uses breaks when Jim reveals all their family’s unspoken and terrible secrets. It turns out that Irene is a cruel liar having many sins such as theft, abortion, and brutality.
Jim Westcott is a family’s breadwinner who tries to look younger than he is. He belongs to the elite of Andoren and highly values his family as he wants to make his wife happier: “I’ve worked hard to give you and the children a comfortable life (Cheever 255).” Cheever uses imagery to describe Jim: “his manner was earnest, vehement, and intentionally naïve (Cheever 250).” The intentional naivety proves that Jim might have secrets like his neighbors.
Jim Westcott also listens to the neighbors’ quarrels to have some fun, but he does not use it to justify his superiority. Instead, Jim shows less interest in confronting other people compared to Irene. Moreover, Jim acts as a passive character when he does nothing to help Mrs. Osborn, even knowing that her husband beats her terribly (Cheever 256). Thus, he remains ignorant of others’ struggles. However, he catalyzes Irene’s realization of their disappointing financial situation and she loses self-awareness by asking her “to learn to handle the money I give you a little more intelligently (Cheever 256).” Jim becomes the one who destroys Irene’s self-deceptive fantasies and discloses the truth to the reader.
Starting from the story’s name, the radio is the most significant object of the plot. The new radio that Westcotts buy symbolizes the power and danger of tracking down others’ lives. The radio is “sensitive to electrical currents of all sorts (Cheever 252)”, thus causing more chaos and loud, violent forces in the house. No wonder, after listening to the radio, the couple begins to quarrel too. Interestingly, Irene finds all the skeletons in her friends’ closets, and her family starts to ruin them from the inside. She gets a chance to get into other people’s problems but pays a hefty price.
Additionally, the radio has a similarity to Irene, who is shocked by “the physical ugliness” of “an aggressive intruder” when she first sees the enormously big cabinet (Cheever 251). However, when she constantly eavesdrops on other people’s conversations and condemns people for their misdeeds, it turns out that she is not “a convent girl (Cheever 257)”. She also becomes an intruder into her neighbors’ lives, just like her new radio.
Cheever touches on the theme of privacy many times throughout the story. In the beginning, the married couple keeps in secret even their great love for music “they seldom mentioned this to anyone (Cheever 251).” Every time the protagonist listens to the radio, she closes the doors so that even her maid does not disturb her privacy. However, Irene does not hesitate to interfere in other lives. Thus, Cheever condemns the hypocritical nature that pushes Irene to believe that she is better than her neighbors.
The Enormous Radio is an example of domestic gothic literature. Its suspenseful mood contributes to the idea that the house becomes a place of trauma rather than the perfect place for romantic ideas of companionate marriage. The psychological distress experienced by Irene in the form of panic illustrates the intense feelings, one of the elements of gothic literature. For example, her moaning “don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t quarrel with me” points out the idea that the depressing things she listens to on her new radio drive her to insanity (Cheever 257). The ironic and mocking tone of the writer correlates with Irene’s sense of impending doom when she hopes that “the instrument might speak to her kindly (Cheever 258).” Instead, she hears a “suave and noncommital” voice on the radio informing her about current affairs. This way, Cheever finishes his narration with an anxious and ironic tone.
The stylistic devices Cheever uses in his story include foreshadowing. Irene’s mood deteriorates shortly before the conflict with her husband as if she knows that he will remind her of all her sins: “She seemed sad and vague (Cheever 255).” Furthermore, unusual for her impolite behavior indicates her “radiant melancholy (Cheever 255).” By foreshadowing, the author generates narrative tension and hints at a further quarrel. This technique keeps readers interested and contributes to the gothic narration.
To conclude, The Enormous Radio reflects the times when people lived in apartments and listened to the radio. Cheever delves into the darker side of Irene and Jim Westcott’s lives. The writer critiques peoples’ desire to gossip and poke a nose into others’ lives by showing the heaviness that arises as someone’s privacy is disturbed. The source of Westcotts’ pleasure and the symbol of the plot, the radio, becomes the reason for the family quarrels. Thus, Cheever skillfully depicts the destruction of all illusions through literary devices and a suspenseful tone to warn the audience how easy intrigues diminish happy lives.
Cheever, John. The Enormous Radio. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Edited by Richard Bausch and R. V. Cassill, 2006.