Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Gender and Structure in John Cheever's "The Country Husband."

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Gender and Structure in John Cheever's "The Country Husband."

Article excerpt

"He struck her full in the face. She staggered ..." (Cheever, "The Country Husband" 340) "A deconstructive reading is an attempt to show how the conspicuously foregrounded statements in a text are systematically related to discordant signifying elements that the text has thrown into its shadows or margins...." (Johnson 17-18)

On more than one occasion, John Cheever described his short story "The Country Husband" (1954) with uncharacteristic satisfaction. In a 1973 interview, he spoke of the "seizure of lunacy when everything comes together. That is, of course, the most exciting thing about writing. I totally despair [and then] observations, emotions, and so forth all of a sudden calcify." A moment later Cheever called to mind an instance of this apogee of his experience of his art:

There is a short story of mine called "The Country Husband," which closes with something like seventeen images, including a dog with a hat in his mouth, I believe, and a railroad train, and a star, and a cat wearing a dress, and a man and his wife, and so forth. They are all sort of thrown together, and it's quite marvelous. It is one of the most exciting things that can happen to anybody, I think..... I must admit it's very exciting. I ran out of the room saying "Look! Look!" (Donaldson, Conversations 52-53)(1)

This story may indeed be seen as a marvel of structured complexity; its multitudinous elements, so casually "thrown together," come to be seen not as random but as essential elements of an intricately organized structure, an aesthetic object, a work of art. While the story's ending, in which a number of earlier characters and themes are briefly remembered and loose ends are deftly tied up one after another in rapid succession, is the most dramatic display of the story's presumed unity in variety, its themes are echoed and repeated in variation and parody throughout its 10,600 words. Indeed, "A miniature novel" is what Vladimir Nabokov found it, "beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic underlacings" (Nabokov). Although the story has been repeatedly anthologized and is often described with admiration (Waldeland, Morace, Hunt), neither the extent nor the coherence of its "thematic underlacings" have been critically examined in a deconstructive reading that questions its structural and ideological unity, the foundational assumptions of its binary oppositions, a reading that asks: What is this work hiding? What is in this well-wrought urn?(2)

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"The Country Husband" is structured as an elegant comedy, a farce with slapstick's precise coincidental timing. Many of its characters survive ominous but in the event harmless perils. The reiterated motif of narrow escapes leads readers to disregard those elements of the story that do not match or complement the pattern, structure guiding the hermeneutic impulse. The story's central action, its most dramatic potential disaster, concerns Francis Weed, the eponymous protagonist, who resides with his wife and their children in the Cheeverian suburban of Shady Hill, and who falls desperately in love with Anne Murchison, their 18-year-old baby-sitter. Francis himself sees his infatuation as a potential disaster as it threatens him with "a trial for statutory rape" (335) and puts in jeopardy his marriage and his family's standing in their hypocritically unforgivingly moralistic community. In farce's exaggerated despair, he lists his alternatives: taking some physical exercise, religious confession, a Danish massage parlor, or "he could rape the girl or trust that he would somehow be prevented from doing this or he could get drunk" (344). He chooses none of these, but no destructive consequences materialize - for him. Indeed, he finds 'some true consolation" in the basement woodworking which a psychiatrist had recommended. …

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