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Written by John Cheever in 1947, “The Enormous Radio” is a powerful short story written through an almost comical lens. The underlying themes are as applicable in present times as they were in 1947. Between winning a Pulitzer for fiction in 1979 and writing for more than fifty years, it is obvious that Cheever had a gift for the written word. At first glance, his short story “The Enormous Radio” may not appear as heavy and truthful as it actually is. Cheever was a brilliant writer and had a way of filling his words with deeper meanings. However, his writing paralleled his lifestyle. Although his writing skills were marvelous, he struggled deeply with alcoholism and sexual remorse. His lifestyle, just like his writing, varied significantly above and below the surface. “The Enormous Radio” picks at the natural desire human beings have to find out information they shouldn’t necessarily know. Through the use of specific character characteristics, rich themes, symbolism and setting, Cheever leaves his audience reflecting on their own “radios” that consume their lives.
The main character of the short story is a woman named Irene. Interestingly, the reader’s perception of Irene’s personality and character seems to change throughout the story. At the beginning of the story, she envies those who have more than her and her husband. The people around her start to symbolize the idea that the more she has, the more content she will be. Although she wants something different for her life, she doesn’t do a whole lot to fix it. Overall, she is portrayed as a passive character. This passivity carries over to her fascination with her new radio. The radio acts as the symbol that gives the information. The radio could represent the actual secrets or deceptions or the way a person finds out the secret information. Once Irene begins discovering other people’s secrets, she is at awe from the information but remains passive throughout each conversation. Even when she hears a woman being beaten by her husband, she refuses to act on the information. She tells her husband to do something, to go up and fix it, but neither of them do anything. She simply accepts that her job is not to engage or change what is happening, whether she was listening to the radio or not. She seems to embody the idea “ignorance is bliss.” It would be better if she knew less than she did. With each new piece of information on the radio came added exhaustion in her life. In the end, however, Cheever puts the woman on “pedestal” and is knocked down by her husband. She believes she and her husband are better and they live wiser than those around them. It isn’t until the husband has a complete outburst of frustration that the audience gets their own glimpse at her real life. All of the gossip and information she frowned upon (from the radio) actually existed in her own life. Her obsession with the neighbors’ dirty little secrets had somehow made her forget about her own flawed past. Although the beginning of the story portrays her as a normal, interested person, the audience finishes the story realizing she is covered in hypocrisy and a desire for secrets.
The setting of Cheever’s short story plays a significant role in plot. The timing of the story gives the reader a better understanding of the importance of the radio to the family. The radio during the forties would be as significant as the cell phone today. Most families had one and they provided entertainment and news. Another important aspect of the setting that effected the overall plot is the Westcott’s home. “They lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton place… and they hoped someday to live in Westchester” (1947). The families desire to leave the place they lived in hopes of moving somewhere else (somewhere nicer) gives information about the characters, specifically their thoughts and ideas.
Cheever successfully uses his short story to pick fun at the human desire to know. There is an odd desire in humans to gossip, to talk, to spread stories and to learn knew stories. Most everyone finds intrigue in stories about other people. This intrigue only increases when the stories are filled with scandals and secrets. The desire to know information, that should technically be confidential, is an age-old appeal. Secrecy has filled literature for centuries. Shakespeare delves into deception and trickery in Hamlet as the Ghost says to Hamlet, “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast… O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power So to seduce! – won to his shameful lust the will of my most seeming-virtuous queen” (1.5 49-64). The presence of an unsolved murder and the lusting after another man’s wife adds great anticipation within the piece. Another example of this longing to know is seen in “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. In the opening paragraph Faulkner writes, “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral… the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house” (356). The town’s obsession with Emily’s hidden life is identical to Irene’s obsession. The passing and keeping of secrets is a common sanction for a book being interesting and successful. Interestingly, the appeal to “know” has only gotten stronger as time has passed. Whether it is social media posts, celebrity filled magazines or controversial conversations on late night talk shows, the world eats up gossip. People crave the lives they don’t have and often can’t have. Cheever knew this. He used a story of a woman listening to a radio to criticize the world of its obsession with gossip. He showed the pain, heartache and heaviness that comes when private information escapes. He also criticized humans for being hypocritical. The fact that the wife truly felt she was better than the people on the radio is absurd. Cheever wanted to warn his audience and show them how easy hypocrisy entangles a human’s mind.
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