The Enormous Radio by John Cheever
In The Enormous Radio by John Cheever we have the theme of privacy, secrecy, obsession, doubt, change and control. Set in an apartment building in 1940s New York the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed, omniscient narrator and has a suspenseful mood. Cheever succeeding in drawing the reader further into the story, right to the end, till it reaches a climax. It is also noticeable that Cheever is using symbolism in the story, the radio itself. Irene considers it to be ugly, Cheever telling the reader that Irene was ‘struck at once with the physical ugliness of the large gumwood cabinet.’ She is also concerned that the radio will not fit in with the décor she has in her living room. This ugliness will later be mirrored with the ugliness that Irene feels when Jim (her husband) tells Irene the truth about her own life and begins to reveal some of Irene’s secrets. There is also a sense of irony in the story. The radio was bought by Jim to bring happiness into the family home, instead it brings, conflict (internal), doubt and obsession.
Cheever explores the theme of privacy several times in the story. There is the obvious eavesdropping by Irene on her neighbours. There is also is also the fact that Irene and Jim live a relatively private life. Their friends are unaware of their interest in classical music, they have never told anyone. Also Irene when she listens in on her neighbour’s lives, does so in the privacy of her own living room, with the doors shut and her maid aware that she is not to be disturbed. Not only does this suggest a heightened privacy within Irene but it also delves into the theme of secrecy and obsession. Irene doesn’t want anyone to know what she is doing. No longer is she interested in listening to classical music on the radio, her main focus (or obsession) is on listening to her neighbours.
The theme of obsession is further explored in the story when the reader finds that Irene, as soon as Jim has gone to work and her children have gone to school, turns on the radio to find out more about her neighbours. Cheever also explores the idea of obsession, a little earlier in the story when Irene gets up from bed and turns the radio on. Throughout the story she is fixated or obsessed by the radio. In modern terms it would possibly be coined as an addiction. The reader also begins to realise that Irene is not in complete control, every day revolves around the radio and eavesdropping on her neighbours.
There is also a change within Irene. She no longer is the plain, ordinary, middle class woman that the narrator describes at the beginning of the story. She feels in some ways empowered by the knowledge she has acquired from listening to her neighbours arguments and their hidden secrets. In essence she has begun to judge people and may possibly consider herself to be better that those around her (neighbours). An example of this is when Jim and Irene are at the dinner party. The narrator telling the reader that Jim noticed that Irene ‘interrupted her hostess rudely and stared at the people across the table.’ Another example of Irene judging people is while she and Jim are walking through the park on their way to the dinner party. She tells Jim that the Salvation Army Band ‘they’re really such nice faces. Actually, they’re so much nicer than a lot of people we know.’ Again this suggests a change within Irene, all which has been caused by her eavesdropping of the lives of her neighbours.
The theme of doubt is explored in the story when Jim tells Irene that she doesn’t have to listen to the radio, that there is no need to eavesdrop on their neighbours if it upsets her so much. It is obvious that Irene has started to get depressed listening to the sordid details of her neighbour’s lives. She starts to question herself, asking Jim ‘We’re happy, aren’t we darling? We are happy, aren’t we? The radio has not only brought obsession but it has brought doubt too for Irene.
The end of the story is also significant because Cheever not only explores the theme of control a little further but also the theme of secrecy. Jim has gotten the radio fixed and it no longer relays the lives of their neighbours to the Westcott’s living room. It has cost four hundred dollars to repair and Jim tells Irene that he can’t really afford it. He also tells her that he is aware that she has not paid her clothing bill. Both the cost of the radio repair and Irene’s clothing bill are significant as it highlights to the reader that not only are the Westcott’s financially strained but they are beginning to lose control of their finances. Jim telling Irene that things are not looking positive in his job.
Angry with the circumstances he finds himself in, Jim starts to list Irene’s secrets, the reader learning that she has stolen from her sister and that she once had an abortion. Irene’s private life at the end of the story has been exposed, her secrets revealed by her husband. This in some ways mirrors the lives of Irene’s neighbours, their secrets have also been revealed (though without their knowledge). It is also by the end of the story that the reader becomes aware that Jim and Irene’s life contains just as many problems and dark secrets as their neighbour’s lives.