Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever
In Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever we have the theme of paralysis, separation, letting go, change, acceptance and denial. Taken from his Collected Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by a thirty something year old man (whose surname is Pommeroy) and after reading the story the reader realises that he may not be a reliable narrator. Throughout the story Lawrence says very little and the narrator appears to be formulating his opinion of Lawrence based purely on how he personally feels about his brother. Apart from at the end of the story when Lawrence tells the narrator what he thinks about other members of the Pommeroy family at no other point in the story does the reader get any real insight into how Lawrence may actually think rather the narrator makes assumptions about his brother which may not necessarily be correct. However it does appear that both the narrator and Lawrence are very different from each other. While the narrator is enjoying his stay at Laud’s Head, Lawrence on the other hand seems to have no desire to participate in any of the activities that his family are participating in. This may be important as it is through Lawrence’s non-participation that the reader also realises that Lawrence is separating (or distancing) himself from his family and that he may be doing so consciously and deliberately. Something that becomes clearer to the reader when we discover that Lawrence’s only reason for going to Laud’s Head is so that he can sell his share of the family holiday home to his brother Caddy and say goodbye to his family.
Of all the members of the Pommeroy family Lawrence also seems to be the only one who is not accepting of the status quo and he appears to be the only member of the family who is making any progress in his life. Lawrence (possibly guided by his principles) has changed jobs on several occasions while the narrator is stuck in his job as an English teacher fully aware that he will never advance to the position of principal. Similarly every year when the Pommeroys are on holiday at Laud’s Head they do the same things. They go to the flower show, the boat club dance and play backgammon. This may be important as by highlighting to the reader the repetition that exists in the Pommeroys life while they are on holiday at Laud’s Head Cheever may also be suggesting that the Pommeroys (with the exception of Lawrence) live static if not unchanged lives which in turn would suggest a paralysis in the lives of each member of the Pommeroy family, again with the exception of Lawrence.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. Cheever may be using the Pommeroy’s holiday home, which the reader is aware is in need of repair, to symbolise the breakdown in relations between the narrator, his family and Lawrence. Just as Lawrence suspects that the house is falling apart so too does the relationship he has with the other members of his family. It is also possible that Cheever is using the condition of the house to suggest that the life that the Pommeroys are accustomed to is also falling apart and just as their father was taken by the sea (and killed by drowning) likewise the lifestyle that the Pommeroys enjoy at Laud’s Head may also be coming to an end. The fact that Helen dresses up for the boat club dance in her wedding dress (as do others) and the narrator decides to wear an old football uniform may also be symbolically important as Cheever could be suggesting that both Helen and the narrator long for a return to past glories (the theme of the dance after all is ‘come as you wish you were’) which in turn may suggest that neither Helen nor the narrator are accepting of any changes that may have happened in their lives and may not be open to change. It is also possible that Cheever is suggesting that neither Helen nor the narrator are able to let go of their past and by dressing up in clothes that they had previously worn when they were younger Cheever may be highlighting both Helen and the narrator’s inability to let go of the past.
The end of the story is also interesting as Cheever seems to be not only exploring the theme of denial but also the theme of acceptance. Rather than accept what Lawrence has said to him (about the rest of the family) the narrator ends up hitting Lawrence. This may be important as not only does it suggest that the narrator is not prepared to accept what Lawrence thinks about the family but it also suggests that the narrator may be in denial about the realities of his life, particularly if the reader believes what Lawrence has said about each family member is true. Rather than wanting to change, as Lawrence appears to want to do, the narrator when he sees that Lawrence has left the island continues as he always has by going down to the beach. It is also noticeable that the narrator feels no guilt about hitting Lawrence rather he appears to be happy that Lawrence has left Laud’s Head. This may be important as it is possible that the narrator is also aware that things will return to normal for him and the other members of the Pommeroy family now that Lawrence has gone. The narrator may no longer feel under any pressure (from Lawrence) to change how he and the family live their lives. There is a sense at the end of the story that rather than things changing for the Pommeroys things will remain as they always have and it is possible that the Pommeroys will remain as paralysed as they always have been, continuing to holiday at Laud’s Head and doing the same things.