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“The Enormous Radio”, by John Cheever, can be viewed as a study of addiction and its detrimental effects on the individual and their surroundings. The story introduces the Westcott family and the radio they listen to daily. The radio stops functioning one evening, and knowing how much his wife Irene enjoys listening to the radio, Jim purchases a very big, expensive replacement. At first Irene is rather put off by the “physical ugliness of the large gumwood cabinet.” Its “dials flooded with a malevolent green light,” and held “violent forces” inside. Irene’s initial reaction to the radio parallels many alcoholics’ initial reactions to alcohol, namely its bitter taste and the “violent forces” that overcome a person not used to its effects, but the metaphor can extend to addictions of other kinds as well. Cheever’s brilliant story details every step of a classic addiction: torment, reaching bottom, self-realization, recovery.
Alcoholics are not born addicts; rather, they develop the habit after enjoying the feelings felt by alcohol consumption and seeking them again and again until becoming consumed and addicted to its effects. For alcoholics, alcohol consumption usually began as a social activity or simply as a beverage had on occasion to stimulate relaxation. Similarly, the Westcotts at first have a completely innocent interest in the radio, utilizing it simply as a means to listen to music; a means to relax and spend time with their spouse after a day’s work. But after the new radio is delivered, they discover that this one has other capabilities – it gives them the ability to access the private worlds of their neighbors.
When they realize what their radio can do, the Westcotts’ first reaction is paranoia: “Maybe they can hear us,” says Jim. This feeling transforms into curiosity, as Irene says “I guess she [the Sweeney’s nurse] can’t hear us. Try something else.” Their third response is delight and mirth with a shadow of bewilderment. By the end of the day the radio’s “music” leaves them both “weak with laughter.”
The next day, after completing her morning chores, Irene rushes to the beckoning new radio and becomes consumed by the conversations of her neighbors. She listens intently and cannot seem to stow her intense curiosity. Embarrassed by her new addiction, she hides this new interest from her maid as she walks by. Like an alcoholic hiding his booze, Irene becomes “furtive.” Jim on the other hand has to work all day and does not have the time nor interest to indulge in this new radio, so he avoids becoming hooked like his wife. The conversations of her fellow neighbors astonish Irene, and after spending many hours by the radio, she becomes increasingly uneasy from the radio’s revelations. She quickly learns that the lives of her neighbors are much different than those they display to the public. Many of their lives are more “melancholy” and filled with “despair” than she had ever imagined.
The more Irene gives in to her curiosity, the stronger her addiction becomes. Her new addiction drastically alters her personality, causing her to become “sad” and “vague.” The sadness eventually becomes a “radiant melancholy” that even Jim is not familiar with. Like an alcoholic steeped in his habit, Irene becomes depressed and withdrawn. At a party, she is extremely uncomfortable and uncharacteristically rude: “she interrupted her hostess rudely and stared at the people across the table from her with an intensity for which she would have punished her children.” Just like an alcoholic’s loss of self-control and the whirlpool of misery that sucks them in deeper and deeper, Irene is unable to control the curiosity that is destroying her life. One day, after her husband arrives home, Irene finally confesses that she had “been listening all days” and that “it’s so depressing.” At first an innocent pleasure, the radio has become a source of sorrow.
Seeing the detrimental effects the radio is having on his wife, Jim solves the problem by having the radio “fixed” for four-hundred dollars – a very expensive repair, both financially and emotionally. The cost of the repair opens a Pandora’s Box of money problems, causing Jim to become upset and berate Irene. The old paranoia returns and she begs Jim to stop, worried that her neighbors may hear. Jim goes on shouting and hurls many of her past shortcomings at her. Similar to the spouse of an alcoholic, Jim is exasperated after doing everything possible to help the wife whose problematic habit tore through their once peaceful marriage.
After being “disgraced and sickened” by what she heard and experienced, Irene must now recover from her destructive addiction. Realizing the depths to which she sunk, Irene yearns for the naivety she had before the radio came along. Now she must repair her marriage and come to terms with people’s imperfection. As for any recovering addict, Irene’s life will never be the same.
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