Grossmont College The Enormous Radio Story by John Cheever Discussion Requirements:
Look at the Attached document, and use it to address the following questions:
What issues about privacy (Links to an external site.) does Cheever raise in this story?
What are the differences in the responses the characters are having?
How might we use this story to reflect on our own experiences?
When answering these, think about using full paragraphs, and quoting passages from the argument that comes to mind that help support your explanations.
The Reader Response will be graded by a simple rubric you can see here, and must be done by the time we review the piece in class. Consider how you might use the Reader Responses to advance your work on the papers we’re working on.
Use 3 or more quotes and make It over 200 words. Page <
258 JOHN CHEEVER
when you went to that abortionist? I'll never forget how cool you were. You
packed your bag and went off to have that child murdered as if you were
going to Nassau. If you'd had any reasons, if you'd had any good reasons,”
Irene stood for a minute before the hideous cabinet, disgraced and sickened,
but she held her hand on the switch before she extinguished the music and
the voices, hoping that the instrument might speak to her kindly, that she
might hear the Sweeneys' nurse. Jim continued to shout at her from the door.
The voice on the radio was suave and noncommital. “An early-morning rail-
road disaster in Tokyo,” the loudspeaker said, “killed twenty-nine people. A
fire in a Catholic hospital near Buffalo for the care of blind children was
extinguished early this morning by nuns. The temperature is forty-seven. The
humidity is eighty-nine.”
> of 5
256 JOHN CHEEVER
The Enormous Radio 257
night until Jim had fallen asleep, and then went into the living room and
turned on the radio.
Jim came home at about six the next night. Emma, the maid, let him in,
and he had taken off his hat and was taking off his coat when Irene ran into
the hall. Her face was shining with tears and her hair was disordered. “Go up
to 16-C, Jim!” she screamed. “Don’t take off your coat. Go up to 16-C. Mr.
Osborn’s beating his wife. They’ve been quarreling since four o’clock, and now
he’s hitting her. Go up there and stop him.”
From the radio in the living room, Jim heards screams, obscenities, and
thuds. “You know you don’t have to listen to this sort of thing,” he said. He
strode into the living room and turned the switch. “It’s indecent,” he said.
“It’s like looking in windows. You know you don’t have to listen to this sort
of thing. You can turn it off.”
“Oh, it’s so horrible, it’s so dreadful,” Irene was sobbing. “I’ve been listening
all day, and it’s so depressing.”
, if it’s so depressing, why do you listen to it? I bought this damned
radio to give you some pleasure,” he said. “I paid a great deal of money for it.
I thought it might make you happy. I wanted to make you happy.”
“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t quarrel with me,” she moaned, and laid her head
on his shoulder. “All the others have been quarreling all day. Everybody’s been
quarreling. They’re all worried about money. Mrs. Hutchinson’s mother is
dying of cancer in Florida and they don’t have enough money to send her to
the Mayo Clinic.? At least, Mr. Hutchinson says they don’t have enough
money. And some woman in this building is having an affair with the handy-
man-with that hideous handyman. It’s too disgusting. And Mrs. Melville has
heart trouble, and Mr. Hendricks is going to lose his job in April and Mrs.
Hendricks is horrid about the whole thing and that girl who plays the ‘Mis-
souri Waltz’ is a whore, a common whore, and the elevator man has tuber-
culosis and Mr. Osborn has been beating Mrs. Osborn.” She wailed, she
trembled with grief and checked the stream of tears down her face with the
heel of her palm.
“Well, why do you have to listen?” Jim asked again. “Why do you have to
listen to this stuff if it makes you so miserable?”
“Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried. “Life is too terrible, too sordid and
awful. But we’ve never been like that, have we, darling? Have we? I mean,
we’ve always been good and decent and loving to one another, haven’t we?
And we have two children, two beautiful children. Our lives aren’t sordid,
are they, darling? Are they?” She flung her arms around his neck and drew
his face down to hers. “We’re happy, aren’t we, darling? We are happy, aren’t
“Of course we’re happy,” he said tiredly. He began to surrender his resent-
ment. “Of course we’re happy. I’ll have that damned radio fixed or taken away
tomorrow.” He stroked her soft hair. “My poor girl,” he said.
“You love me, don’t you? she asked. “And we’re not hypercritical or worried
about money or dishonest, are we?”
“No, darling,” he said.
A man came in the morning and fixed the radio. Irene turned it on cau-
tiously and was happy to hear a California-wine commercial and a recording
of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, including Schiller’s“ “Ode to Joy.” She kept
the radio on all day and nothing untoward came from the speaker.
A Spanish suite was being played when Jim came home. “Is everything all
right?” he asked. His face was pale, she thought. They had some cocktails and
went in to dinner to the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore. This was followed
by Debussy’ss “La Mer.”
“I paid the bill for the radio today,” Jim said. “It cost four hundred dollars.
I hope you’ll get some enjoyment out of it.”
“Oh, I’m sure I will,” Irene said.
“Four hundred dollars is a good deal more than I can afford,” he went on.
“I wanted to get something that you’d enjoy. It’s the last extravagance we’ll
be able to indulge in this year. I see that you haven’t paid your clothing bills
yet. I saw them on your dressing table.” He looked directly at her. “Why did
you tell me you’d paid them? Why did you lie to me?”
“I just didn’t want you to worry, Jim,” she said. She drank some water. “T’ll
be able to pay my bills out of this month’s allowance. There were the slipcovers
last month, and that party.”
“You’ve got to learn to handle the money I give you a little more intelli-
gently, Irene,” he said. “You’ve got to understand that we don’t have as much
money this year as we had last. I had a very sobering talk with Mitchell today.
No one is buying anything. We’re spending all our time promoting new issues,
and you know how long that takes. I’m not getting any younger, you know.
I’m thirty-seven. My hair will be gray next year. I haven’t done as well as I’d
hoped to do. And I don’t suppose things will get any better.”
“Yes, dear,” she said.
“We’ve got to start cutting down,” Jim said. “We’ve got to think of the
children. To be perfectly frank with you, I worry about money a great deal.
I’m not at all sure of the future. No one is. If anything should happen to me,
there’s the insurance, but that wouldn’t go very far today. I’ve worked awfully
hard to give you and the children a comfortable life,” he said bitterly. “I don’t
like to see all my energies, all of my youth, wasted in fur coats and radios and
“Please, Jim,” she said. “Please. They’ll hear us.”
“Who’ll hear us? Emma can’t hear us.”
1″Oh, I’m sick!” he shouted. “I’m sick to death of your apprehensiveness.
The radio can’t hear us. Nobody can hear us. And what if they can hear us?
Irene got up from the table and went into the living room. Jim went to the
door and shouted at her from there. “Why are you so Christly all of a sudden?
What’s turned you overnight into a convent girl? You stole your mother’s
jewelry before they probated her will. You never gave your sister a cent of that
money that was intended for her-not even when she needed it. You made
Grace Howland’s life miserable, and where was all your piety and virtue
4. Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), German poet and dramatist. Ludwig van Bee-
thoven (1770-1827), German composer. 5. Claude Achille rhura (10
Page < 3 > of 5
The Enormous Radio 255
254 JOHN CHEEVER
a woman shrieked. There were screams of laughter and a dish of some sort
crashed to the floor.
“Those must be the Fullers, in 11-E,” Irene said. “I knew they were giving
a party this afternoon. I saw her in the liquor store. Isn’t this too divine? Try
something else. See if you can get those people in 18-C.”
The Westcotts overheard that evening a monologue on salmon fishing in
Canada, a bridge game, running comments on home movies of what had
apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about
an overdraft at the bank. They turned off their radio at midnight and went
to bed, weak with laughter. Sometime in the night, their son began to call for
a glass of water and Irene got one and took it to his room. It was very early.
All the lights in the neighborhood were extinguished, and from the boy’s
window she could see the empty street. She went into the living room and
tried the radio. There was some faint coughing, a moan, and then a man
spoke. “Are you all right, darling?” he asked. “Yes,” a woman said wearily. “Yes,
I’m all right, I guess,” and then
she added with great feeling, “But, you know,
Charlie, I don’t feel like myself any more. Sometimes there are about fifteen
or twenty minutes in the week when I feel like myself. I don’t like to go to
another doctor, because the doctor’s bills are so awful already, but I just don’t
feel like myself, Charlie. I just never feel like myself.” They were not young,
Irene thought. She guessed from the timbre of their voices that they were
middle-aged. The restrained melancholy of the dialogue and the draft from
the bedroom window made her shiver, and she went back to bed.
The following morning, Irene cooked breakfast for the family-the maid
didn’t come up from her room in the basement until ten-braided her daugh-
ter’s hair, and waited at the door until her children and her husband had been
carried away in the elevator. Then she went into the living room and tried the
radio. “I don’t want to go to school,” a child screamed. “I hate school. I won’t
go to school. I hate school.” “You will go to school,” an enraged woman said.
“We paid eight hundred dollars to get you into that school and you’ll go if it
kills you.” The next number on the dial produced the worn record of the
“Missouri Waltz.” Irene shifted the control and invaded the privacy of several
breakfast tables. She overheard demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love,
abysmal vanity, faith, and despair. Irene’s life was nearly as simple and shel-
tered as it appeared to be, and the forthright and sometimes brutal language
that came from the loudspeaker that morning astonished and troubled her.
She continued to listen until her maid came in. Then she turned off the radio
quickly, since this insight, she realized, was a furtive one.
Irene had a luncheon date with a friend that day, and she left her apartment
at a little after twelve. There were a number of women in the elevator when
it stopped at her floor. She stared at their handsome and impassive faces, their
furs, and the cloth flowers in their hats. Which one of them had been to Sea
Island? she wondered. Which one had overdrawn her bank account. The ele-
vator stopped at the tenth floor and a woman with a pair of Skye terriers
joined them. Her hair was rigged high on her head and she wore a mink cape.
She was humming the “Missouri Waltz.”
Irene had two Martinis at lunch, and she looked searchingly at her friend
and wondered what her secrets were. They had intended to go shopping after
lunch, but Irene excused herself and went home. She told the maid that she
was not to be disturbed; then she went into the living room, closed the doors,
and switched on the radio. She heard, in the course of the afternoon, the halt-
ing conversation of a woman entertaining her aunt, the hysterical conclusion
of a luncheon party, and a hostess briefing her maid about some cocktail
guests. “Don’t give the best Scotch to anyone who hasn’t white hair,” the host-
ess said. “See if you can get rid of that liver paste before you pass those hot
things, and could you lend me five dollars? I want to tip the elevator man.”
As the afternoon waned, the conversations increased in intensity. From
where Irene sat, she could see the open sky above the East River. There were
hundreds of clouds in the sky, as though the south wind had broken the
winter into pieces and were blowing it north, and on her radio she could hear
the arrival of cocktail guests and the return of children and businessmen from
their schools and offices. “I found a good-sized diamond on the bathroom
floor this morning,” a woman said. “It must have fallen out of that bracelet
Mrs. Dunston was wearing last night.” “We’ll sell it,” a man said. “Take it
down to the jeweler on Madison Avenue and sell it. Mrs. Dunston won’t know
the difference, and we could use a couple of hundred bucks … ” “ ‘Oranges
and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s,’” the Sweeneys’ nurse sang.“ ‘Half-
pence and farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s. When will you pay me? say
the bells at old Bailey …?»1 “It’s not a hat,” a woman cried, and at her back
roared a cocktail party. “It’s not a hat, it’s a love affair. That’s what Walter
Florell said. He said it’s not a hat, it’s a love affair,” and then, in a lower voice,
the same woman added, “Talk to somebody, for Christ’s sake, honey, talk to
somebody. If she catches you standing here not talking to anybody, she’ll take
us off her invitation list, and I love these parties.”
The Westcotts were going out for dinner that night, and when Jim came
home, Irene was dressing. She seemed sad and vague, and he brought her a
drink. They were dining
with friends in the neighborhood, and they walked
to where they were going. The sky was broad and filled with light. It was one
of those splendid spring evenings that excite memory and desire, and the air
that touched their hands and faces felt very soft. A Salvation Army band was
on the corner playing “Jesus Is Sweeter.” Irene drew on her husband’s arm
and held him there for a minute, to hear the music. “They’re really such nice
people, aren’t they?” she said. “They have such nice faces. Actually, they’re so
much nicer than a lot of the people we know.” She took a bill from her purse
and walked over and dropped it into the tambourine. There was in her face,
when she returned to her husband, a look of radiant melancholy that he was
not familiar with. And her conduct at the dinner party that night seemed
strange to him, too. 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.
It was still mild when they walked home from the party, and Irene looked
up at the spring stars. “ ‘How far that little candle throws its beams,” she
exclaimed. “’So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” »2 She waited that
1. From a British folk song. 2. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice 5.1.
Page < 2 > of 5
252 JOHN CHEEVER
The Enormous Radio 253
the radio was sensitive to electrical currents of all sorts, she began to discern
through the Mozart the ringing of telephone bells, the dialing of phones, and
the lamentation of a vacuum cleaner. By listening more carefully, she was able
to distinguish doorbells, elevator bells, electric razors, and Waring mixers,
whose sounds had been picked up from the apartments that surrounded hers
and transmitted through her loudspeaker. The powerful and ugly instrument,
with its mistaken sensitivity to discord, was more than she could hope to
master, so she turned the thing off and went into the nursery to see her
When Jim Westcott came home that night, he went to the radio confidently
and worked the controls. He had the same sort of experience Irene had had.
A man was speaking on the station Jim had chosen, and his voice swung
instantly from the distance into a force so powerful that it shook the apart-
ment. Jim turned the volume control and reduced the voice. Then, a minute
or two later, the interference began. The ringing of telephones and doorbells
set in, joined by the rasp of the elevator doors and the whir of cooking appli-
ances. The character of the noise had changed since Irene had tried the radio
earlier; the last of the electric razors was being unplugged, the vacuum cleaners
had all been returned to their closets, and the static reflected that change in
pace that overtakes the city after the sun goes down. He fiddled with the knobs
but couldn’t get rid of the noises, so he turned the radio off and told Irene
that in the morning he’d call the people who had sold it to him and give them
The following afternoon, when Irene returned to the apartment from a
luncheon date, the maid told her that a man had come and fixed the radio.
Irene went into the living room before she took off her hat or her furs and
tried the instrument. From the loudspeaker came a recording of the “Missouri
Waltz.” It reminded her of the thin, scratchy music from an old-fashioned
phonograph that she sometimes heard across the lake where she spent her
summers. She waited until the waltz had finished, expecting an explanation
of the recording, but there was none. The music was followed by silence, and
then the plaintive and scratchy record was repeated. She turned the dial and
got a satisfactory burst of Caucasian music-the thump of bare feet in the
dust and the rattle of coin jewelry-but in the background she could hear the
ringing of bells and a confusion of voices. Her children came home from
school then, and she turned off the radio and went to the nursery.
When Jim came home that night, he was tired, and he took a bath and
changed his clothes. Then he joined Irene in the living room. He had just
turned on the radio when the maid announced dinner, so he left it on, and
he and Irene went to the table.
Jim was too tired to make even pretense of sociability, and there was nothing
about the dinner to hold Irene’s interest, so her attention wandered from the
food to the deposits of silver polish on the candlesticks and from there to the
music in the other room. She listened for a few minutes to a Chopin? prelude
and then was surprised to hear a man’s voice break in. “For Christ’s sake,
Kathy,” he said, “do you always have to play the piano when I get home?” The
music stopped abruptly. “It’s the only chance I have,” a woman said. “I’m at
the office all day.” “So am I,” the man said. He added something obscene
about an upright piano, and slammed a door. The passionate and melancholy
music began again.
“Did you hear that?” Irene asked.
“What?” Jim was eating his dessert.
“The radio. A man said something while the music was still going on-
“It’s probably a play.”
“I don’t think it is a play,” Irene said.
They left the table and took their coffee into the living room. Irene asked
Jim to try another station. He turned the knob. “Have you seen my garters?”
a man asked. “Button me up,” a woman said. “Have you seen my garters?”
the man said again. “Just button me up and I’ll find your garters,” the woman
said. Jim shifted to another station. “I wish you wouldn’t leave apple cores in
the ashtrays,” a man said. “I hate the smell.”
“This is strange,” Jim said.
“Isn’t it?” Irene said.
Jim turned the knob again. “’On the coast of Coromandel where the early
pumpkins blow,” a woman with a pronounced English accent said, “ ‘in the
middle of the woods lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò. Two old chairs, and half a
candle, one old jug without a handle …” »8
“My God!” Irene cried. “That’s the Sweeneys’ nurse.”
« These were all his worldly goods,” the British voice continued.
“Turn that thing off,” Irene said. “Maybe they can hear us.” Jim switched
the radio off. “That was Miss Armstrong, the Sweeneys’ nurse,” Irene said.
“She must be reading to the little girl
. They live in 17-B. I’ve talked with Miss
Armstrong in the Park. I know her voice very well. We must be getting other
“That’s impossible,” Jim said.
“Well, that was the Sweeneys’ nurse,” Irene said hotly. “I know her voice. I
know it very well. I’m wondering if they can hear us.”
Jim turned the switch. First from a distance and then nearer, nearer, as if
borne on the wind, came the pure accents of the Sweeneys’ nurse again:“ ‘Lady
Jingly! Lady Jingly!” ” she said, “ ‘sitting where the pumpkins blow, will you come and
be my wife? said the Yonghy-…
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