Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever

Goodbye, My Brother - John CheeverIn 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.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 16 Jul. 2015. Web.


  • What about Anna, the Polish cook’s reaction to Laurence’s interference in her kitchen?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tony. On the surface it looks as though Anna is siding with the narrator however it is possible that she is doing so out of fear. Though she suggests she could work anywhere it is possible that she is afraid to join a union due to the possibility that she may lose her job. When it comes to Anna being a famous cook I also think that is more to do with the narrator attempting to inflate his own ego. Suggesting that he (and the family) are as privileged as those who are famous. Throughout the story I found the narrator to be one-sided and for that reason I don’t consider him to be reliable. We don’t really get to see Anna’s side of the story rather it is a version of it being relayed to the reader by the narrator.

  • Interesting analysis, though I think that your unfavorable view of narrator colors your own reading. Consider the theme of unchanging nature’s, but this time flip it. The story takes place shortly after the Second World War where morality and social norms were undergoing massive changes. The narrator’s cohort has accepted this change and moved toward a more sexually liberated woman, the ideals of gentrification, and a greater use of alcohol. Meanwhile Lawrence has held to the puritanical roots of the family condemning his sinful sister, his jocular brothers, his mother’s drinking, His wife is alone and lives in subservience to him. I would therefore posit on this score at least that Lawrence is the unchanged agent of the story. I could continue at length but as your review is already a year old I doubt this shall receive a reply

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Thomas. I did take sides when I read the story favouring Lawrence over the narrator. I had read several reviews of the story on other sites/blogs and all seemed to be one-sided favoring the narrator. So I attempted to balance things though by doing so I did unfortunately blindly adhere to an allegiance to Lawrence. You make some interesting and valid points which I had not previously thought of particularly in relation to how Lawrence may treat his wife. I missed that totally. A side effect of having shown such allegiance to Lawrence. It may very well be a case that Lawrence is the one who is unable to change.

  • Excellent review. I, also, have an unfavorable view of the narrator. It is troubling to me that so many readers are willing to overlook the unjustified violence committed by the narrator upon his unsuspecting brother. In some ways, the narrator’s treatment of Lawrence parallels today’s treatment of traditionalists by so-called progressives. Of course, as Orwell realized late in life, violence and coercion are necessary ingredients of any Leftist government, and yet it has always surprised me how much and how far progressives will continue to support government overreach without seeming to recognize any of its dangers.

    I’ve always wondered whether Cheever wasn’t actually making a hero out of Lawrence; after all, he’s the one who is really saying goodbye – saying goodbye to a violent and fatuous person.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Chip. We appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet. I would also agree with you that Lawrence (for me at least) is the real hero. He has been ostracized by his family or at least they make no accommodation for how he thinks.

  • What of Lawrence’s comment at the story’s beginning about Diana and her new boyfriend “is he the one she’s sleeping with?” The problem with Lawrence is that while much of what he says is true, he mistakenly thinks that honesty requires that he say it as bluntly and nastily as possible. And I just reread the story and it is not true that Lawrence says very little.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lawrence. It’s been a long time since I read the story but Lawrence may feel isolated by his family and as such this may be his reason for being so blunt and impersonal. As for Lawrence saying very little (or not). My recollection is that his brother throughout the story commented on Lawrence. Without giving Lawrence the chance to defend himself.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Part of the problem is that Cheever himself in a famous letter to Malcolm Cowley from 1953 states that Lawrence say very little beyond a few lines, and, thus, most of his feelings and views are attributed to him by the narrator. The critics have ( naively?) taken Cheever at his word, but a close examination of the story which I just made ( I actually counted the lines of direct speech allotted to each character) shows that Cheever’s claim simply does not hold up. Lawrence speaks rather frequently and makes a number of extended speeches. Indeed, he speaks more than anyone else in the story. The only one who comes close is his mother. As D H Lawrence said ” Trust the tale, not the teller.”

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      You know more about this story (and Cheever) than I do Lawrence. Thank you for going to such lengths to highlight to me the many different lines of direct speech that I was unaware the story contained. I simply did not see this while I was reading the story.

  • Lawrence is a miserable killjoy whose own kids are afraid of him. For all the narrator’s faults, he has an imagination, appreciates beauty, and loves the women in his life.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Caroline. It seems that Lawrence is a divisive character for people. Some like him and some don’t.

  • Cheese told Malcolm Cowley in his 1953 letter that there is no brother; “this is the story of one man. There is no Lawrence.”

    Cheever is exploring his own divided nature: the pleasure-fearing Puritan and the life-loving sensualist. He struggled with this internal conflict through much of his life; his secret homosexual life added to the anguish.

    Since you mention symbolism: the author’s final act of rejection echoes Cain’s murder of Abel in the Bible.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the insight Ted. This is one story that does raise a lot of controversy. I feel somewhat more informed after reading your comment.

  • Cheever left this story deliberately ambiguous. There is no need to conclude that one brother is good, and the other bad; one right, the other wrong.

    What is most fascinating to me is, in re-reading the story, to note how little Lawrence actually says, and how much the narrator assumes that this is what Lawrence is thinking. The narrator may be right in his assumptions, but what is clear is that these thoughts are in the narrator’s own head. He is easily able to conjure up Lawrence’s pessimistic point of view, a view that he needs to extinguish. Thus, his lack of remorse in “smiting” his brother — he’s trying to destroy that part of himself — and his pleasure when Lawrence leaves the island.

    A few small insights: The incident on the beach is the second time the narrator attacked Lawrence. The first time, when they were children, Lawrence went crying to their father.
    The antipathy of Anna, the cook, against Lawrence seems to be a strike against him, but her constant urgings to “eat, eat, eat” may indicate that there’s something deficient in her point of view.

    How many children are present in the house, and where are they? They seem to disappear as their parents get drunk and attend to their own pleasures.
    What are we to make of the long backgammon session? The concern for money and winning are questionable, perhaps childish, but why is Lawrence so fascinated in the proceedings?
    The nostalgia for a lost past in wearing bridal gowns and football uniforms seems rather pathetic. Does Lawrence see this, or are there other reasons he doesn’t participate in the dance?
    The final scene of the two (mythical?) nude women emerging from the sea seems genuinely beautiful. To enjoy life we need to be able to savor such moments.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comprehensive insight Steven. Cheever definitely does leave the reader with a lot of questions to try and answer. Which is often the dynamic in familial relationships.

  • A bit more on symbolic references: Lawrence’s wife has an Old Testament name. Diana and Helen have classical Greek names. Stern, admonishing god of the Old Testament vs. sensually alive Hellenism? One can easily spin this into another read of the story. And consider the irony – especially through a 21st century perspective on a 1951 story – embracing unionism as the Cotton-Matherist scourge’s banner of moralism, while the modernist (though not modern) narrator embraces Dionysian pleasure in his glorification of conservatism.

  • what was the resolution in this book??

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