An Analysis of John Cheever's "The Country
John Cheever's "The Country Husband"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
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John Cheever is a novelist of suburbia. But in his short story "The Country Husband", however, Cheever reveals
suburbia's darker side -- the side which traps its residents in a web of conformity.
Cheever's protagonist, Francis Weed, is a successful, middle-aged man who works in New York City and lives in the
suburbs. His life is one of genteel complacency, as we see from this description of his house: "The Weed's Dutch
colonial house was larger than it appeared to be from the driveway. The living room was spacious and divided like
Gaul into three parts. Around an ell to the left as one entered from the vestibule was the long table, laid for
six, with candles and a bowl of fruit in the center. The sounds and smells that came from the open kitchen door
were appetizing, for Julia Weed was a good cook. The largest part of the living room centered on a fireplace. On
the right were some bookshelves and a piano. The room was polished and tranquil, and from the windows that opened
to the west there was some late-summer sunlight, brilliant and clear as water. Nothing here was neglected; nothing
had not been burnished."
But this description is already several pages into the story, for as "The Country Husband" opens, Francis Weed is
brought up short in a confrontation with his own mortality; the plane on which he is flying from Minneapolis to New
York is forced to make an emergency landing due to bad weather. No one is injured - the passengers are more shaken
and inconvenienced than anything else -- but the experience starts Francis thinking of his life in more epic terms
than he has been accustomed to do.
When he arrives home, however, no one is interested in hearing his story. Francis' ruminations about the meaning of
life have no place in Shady Hill. The meaning of life here is perfectly plain: one must maintain a respectable
appearance, speak kindly to the neighbors, and accept an adequate amount of the right type of social invitations.
Despite several attempts to try to share his airplane experience ("Daddy was in a plane crash this afternoon, Toby.
Don't you want to hear about it?"), he is unable to get any kind of response out of anyone, because his story is
too far out of the bounds of what they expect to hear.
Thus Francis is left frustrated and unsatisfied; he feels, without knowing it, that something in his family and in
his life is wanting. He soon injects some excitement into his existence through an encounter with a teenage
babysitter, Anne Murchison. Anne unexpectedly starts to cry on his shoulder because her father, an alcoholic, is
mean to her when he is in his cups. Francis is aroused by this unexpected physical contact, and pulls her closer,
intending to kiss her. She breaks away and he drives her home, but at her doorstep she kisses him. Suddenly all his
feelings of restlessness come together; he is in love.</p>
<p>He isn't, of course; he simply needs a focal point for his dissipated energies. He observes that "The
image of the girl seemed to put him into a relationship with the world that was mysterious and enthralling. Cars
were beginning to fill the parking lot, and he noticed that those who had driven down from the high land above
Shady Hill were white with hoarfrost. The first clear sign of autumn thrilled him." Francis' brief contact with the
girl has reawakened him to life.
But he realizes that having an affair with Anne, to say nothing that leaving Julia for Anne, would be completely
incompatible with Shady Hill society. For much of the story he vacillates between dreams of Anne and "the
realization that this music might lead him straight to a trial for statutory rape at the county courthouse." Yet
immediately after articulating these thoughts to himself, he goes out and buys Anne a bracelet.
Clearly Francis is rebelling against the pompous propriety of Shady Hill. When he meets Mrs. Wrightson at the train
station and she rants on and on about what in the world she should do about her odd-sized windows, he tells her to
shut up and paint them black. Both the irrepressible child Gertrude, who dresses like a bag lady and wanders in and
out of people's homes, and the untrainable retriever Jupiter, who "broke up garden parties and tennis matches, and
got mixed up in the processional at Christ Church on Sunday, barking at the men in red dresses" represent for
Francis a deliberate flouting of the social mores which so completely constrict him within the bounds of Shady
As the story goes on, Francis' rebellion, vague and unfocused at first until it centers itself on Anne, is starting
to fly apart again, with destructive force. When he was still trying to come to terms with his brush with death, he
sought some kind of release "which would injure no one", and came up with skiing. By the last third of the story,
however, he is behaving in a way that could certainly hurt people -- insulting a friendly old woman, for one thing,
and in the process jeopardizing his daughter's chances of getting invited to the society dance; ruining a young
man's chances for getting a job. As he notes, "He had been lost once in his life, coming back from a trout stream
in the north woods, and he had now the same bleak realization that no amount of cheerfulness or hopefulness or
valor or perseverance could help him find, in the gathering dark, the path that he'd lost. He smelled the forest.
The feeling of bleakness was intolerable, and he saw clearly that he had reached the point where he would have to
make a choice."
For a brief, shining moment, Francis glimpsed a world beyond suburbia, and it was exciting and mythical and he
wanted to be a part of it. He didn't know how to do this, however, and he struck out blindly as a child will do
when he doesn't know his way. Despite his desperate sessions with a psychiatrist (the shaman of suburbia), he will
never be happy until he again finds a way to make real contact with himself. Unless he experiences another plane
crash, however, that may never happen.
This story can be found in "The Stories of John Cheever."
It is available in paperback from Amazon here:
and as a Kindle download from Amazon here:
It is also available in paperback from Barnes and Noble here:
and as a Nook download here: