Discussion of John Cheever's "The Enormous Radio"

  Post your answer in the comments below. Make sure to include the number of the question you're answering and either cut and paste the question or answer in complete sentences so that we know which question you're answering.


A-3, B-4, C-5, D-6, E-7, F-8, G-9, H-10, I-11, J-12, K-13, L-1, M-2

If you have further thoughts or questions about the story, please feel to also post these below. 

13 Questions To Ask of Every Story: 

1.          What makes this story “literary”? 

 

2.          Why is this story considered one of the best stories of the past hundred years? If it’s an old story, why has it endured?

 

3.          Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?

 

4.          Plot: What is the “rich ground situation” (conflict) of the story? What happens to complicate this ground situation?

 

5.          Plot: What is the climax of this story? How does the moment irrevocably change everything?

 

6.          Character: In what ways does the writer show character?

 

7.          Character: In what ways does the character drive the action of the story?

 

8.          Point of view: Why do you think the writer chose this particular point of view for the story? How does the point of view function to establish distance or make us feel a certain way?

 

9.          Setting: How does the setting work within the story? What are the key places, and in how does the writer describe them?

 

10.      Pick three of the best lines in the story. Why are they good lines?

 

11.      Do a little bit of research on this author. Is this story a good example of his/her work? Is there anything else you learned that could add to our understanding of the story?

 

12.      What do you think the reader is supposed to take from the story? What can we, as writers, learn from studying it? 


13.    How is this story similar to others we've read? How is it different?

Comments

  1. 5. Plot: What is the climax of this story? How does the moment irrevocably change everything?

    The climax of this story is when Jim starts talking about their money problems. This moment irrevocably changes everything because it is when they become like the people they are listening to on the radio. Once they start arguing, there is no going back. Before this point, they seem to be happy and "the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability...". Irene seems to hold herself higher than everyone else in their apartment complex and at this point it is shown that they are just like everyone else.

    -Bailey

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    1. I would have picked this moment too. It's the moment when the tension just boils over.

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  2. 12. What do you think the reader is supposed to take from the story? What can we, as writers, learn from studying it?

    A: I think the big takeaway of this story is that it does us no good to fixate or become obsessive over the lives of others. When Irene discovers the strange inexplicable powers of the radio, she becomes addicted to the intimacies of those living around her. Ultimately, this leads to friction in her relationship with her husband and negatively impacts her social behavior.
    As writers, the thing I learned most explicitly from this piece is how to ground the fantastical to reality effectively. We're given no explanation for the radio's odd malfunctions at any point in the piece; the mystery there is left unsolved. But Cheever very effectively sets the uncertainty of the radio aside to focus on the tension within Irene and Jim's relationship in a way that doesn't feel as if something has been left unresolved that wasn't intended to be.

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    1. Good, I especially liked what you had to say here about how we can learn, as writers, to ground the fantastical in reality. I also like that there's no explanation. A habit that annoys me in modern storytelling is the effort to over-explain everything, but sometimes it's just so much more effective to not explain it. Gregor becomes a cockroach. We don't know how. That doesn't really matter.

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  3. 7. In what ways does the character drive the action of the story?
    The characters drive the action of the story by having Irene listen to her neighbors and their problems. This leads to her getting so absorbed with their problems that she finds out all of the abuse and affairs going on and she tries to get involved herself.
    Jim's character drives the plot by declaring that Irene needs to stop listening to all of it and tells her that they are getting the radio fixed. This leads to him complaining about their financial problems and ends up mocking Irene's delusions about the neighbors listening.

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    1. Agreed=what happens in the story is so completely focused on Jim and Irene-- it really couldn't be told by anyone else.

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  4. 13. How is this story similar to others we've read? How is it different?

    This story is very similar to "Brothers" in how it is repetitive in dialogue. Interestingly I felt that this story didn't feel as character driven as the other stories. I felt like the conflict came from the strange circumstance with the radio and how that altered Irene's behavior.
    This story was also similar to the discussion we had with the "The Gilded Six-Bits" where the story avoided an obvious event with the husband not going to stop the abuse, or Irene not intervening not interfering with other people's lives with the radio.
    This story is also similar to "Brothers" in the way it looks into darker aspects of the human experience. In this story it focuses on how our curiosity can compel us to do continue to do something unpleasant just to satisfy our curiosity. This can somewhat be applied to the main character in "Brothers who listens to this old man's story.
    Money is also a theme that this story and "The Gilded Six-Bits" share as well. In this story Irene hears many people talk about their money problems over the radio, and then in the end Jim is talking to Irene about their own money problems. While as not as big of a theme in "The Gilded Six-Bits" money also caused some conflict as well between Missey Mae and her husband.

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    1. I think money was a HUGE factor in "The Gilded Six-Bits," as grounded there as it in in Cheever. I liked how you compared the stories using not just theme or subject but also technique, like with the repetition.

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  5. 2. Why is this story considered one of the best stories of the past hundred years? If it’s an old story, why has it endured?
    This story was published in 1947, but I think the idea of self-consciousness because of hypervisibility has only grown more relevant since its publication. I think this story kind of preempts the idea of the panopticon that Foucault wrote about in the 70’s. Just the awareness that someone could be watching or listening to the Westcotts at any time is enough to cause Irene to censor her own speech and try to censor Jim. The possibility that someone could hear these unflattering details causes her significant distress. The character of Irene is so fascinating and human because she understands that her and her husband are not their worst moments and is distressed by the possibility that people would judge them based off of those, and yet she’s unable to extend that same grace to her neighbors. She is aware of it at least at some level, as she tries to hide her listening in on the radio from the maid. There’s also the dynamic of class. Irene is an upper class woman, and her position has only isolated her from the people around her even more. Her maid takes care of her children, and her husband works through the day, so she spends most of her time alone. The radio’s view into the lives of her neighbors allows her a sense of connection, but ends up alienating her from them even more as at her luncheon, she finds she does not see her neighbors, but their arguments, affairs and abuses.

    -Cassie

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    1. Loved what you said here: "The character of Irene is so fascinating and human because she understands that her and her husband are not their worst moments and is distressed by the possibility that people would judge them based off of those, and yet she’s unable to extend that same grace to her neighbors." That is so well said. Great analysis.

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  6. 3) Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?

    Overall, the reason why The Enormous Radio may be an iconic story is because of the symbolism within the work. A main theme here is perception, especially in how the family portrays themselves. But it isn’t in the natural perception, but in the carefully cultivated mask that has both helped the family and hindered the family. Seen even in the first line of the poem, that the main characters “were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.” It’s a subversion of the trope that they are trying to portray, a modern middle class family living in New York. The stress of society and the way they must be seen is something that tears them down. The stress of being seen as the idyllic family brings all their problems to bear.

    The commentary is impressive, especially when you take into consideration the setting being New York. Preconcieved notions in your head, due to stereotypes or otherwise, that make you think of yourself as you read. Little things that end up making you realize that you may also be in the Wescott’s shoes.

    -Nicole!

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    1. Yes. Not only does that work as symbolism, but it also serves as a kind of "poetic truth" that we discussed earlier.

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  7. 4. Plot: What is the “rich ground situation” (conflict) of the story? What happens to complicate this ground situation?

    In essence, the divisive device and cause of the conflict stems from the radio, but the stability of Jim and Irene Wescott is the rich ground in this story. The stability in their s relationship was already wavering, and all that the radio provided became an ever increasing source of difficulty. Jim reiterates that the radio was to provide happiness, yet what Irene discovers is a window into the unhappiness of others, an eye opening experience to say the least. The constant gap in this relationship, though perhaps not the centralized issue, is at least the initial source of difficulty.

    - Tomio

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    1. Agreed. Even in the opening paragraphs we're allowed to see a little bit into the cracks in Jim and Irene.

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  8. 9. Setting: How does the setting work within the story? What are the key places, and in how does the writer describe them?

    The setting in "The Enormous Radio" is in the apartment of Irene and Jim, but it also takes place in other people's apartments through the radio. Irene is a stay at home mother and she does not leave the apartment much, especially not after getting the new radio. Through Irene, we see the setting of multiple different apartments as she listens to the radio and different people's conversations. When she goes to lunch and gets in the elevator, she tries to place and figure out everyone she has overheard and what apartment they live in. The radio takes us into other people's apartments and gives us a view into their lives as well as Irene's. The author describes these key places as awful and sad because either people are fighting, arguing, or there is talk about life troubles. Another way the writer describes the multiple apartments is through the conversations we hear and it shows the setting through tension and an anxious feeling.
    -Taylor

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    1. Yes, the apartment is key. It would be helpful, I think, to look at the particular sentences where the setting is described (which aren't a lot in this story, although the one where it described how Irene so carefully chooses their decor springs to mind) and analyze how Cheever does that. Does this place feel like New York in 1947?

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  9. 10. Pick three of the best lines in the story. Why are they good lines?

    1) "Her children came home from school then, and she took them to the park." (page 162) This line stood out to me because of how its simplicity contrasted the more poetic language of the surrounding sentences. It says so much in so few words. Also, It references her children who really aren't part of the story at all. It serves as a grounding point to show how disorienting the radio is.

    2) "Irene had two martinis at lunch, and she looked searchingly at her friend and wondered what her secrets were." (page 166) I liked the complex simplicity of this sentence as well. The short glimpse of Irene's inner monologue is refreshing and relatable.

    3) "'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?'" (page 168) This line appears to capture the purpose of the short story. Jim questions Irene why she chooses to make herself miserable through others misery. It confirms that Irene is looking for some sort of external validation of her happiness through comparison. It's a very subtle observation of the human condition.

    - Elizabeth S.

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    1. Good analysis on all three of these lines. They are also fairly simple, but effective at conveying the feeling of the scenes.

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  10. 1. What makes this story “literary”?

    “The Enormous Radio” is a short story whose themes are as applicable in 2021 as they were in 1947 when it was written. With the character Irene, Cheever conveys the idea that most people have a selfish inclination to want to know things they shouldn’t and how listening or spreading petty gossip will not increase the quality of a person’s life. By introducing Irene as a character that strives to have more— greater wealth, nicer clothes, and living in a better neighborhood, there is the perception that if Irene and her husband were as successful as the people she envies, then she would be happier. However, spending her time drinking in the radio’s every word, listening to it divulge her neighbors’ secrets, she becomes more and more miserable and exhausted with her life. Cheever’s critique on the human condition and people’s desire to gossip with his character makes this piece more literary than genre. With the presence of the radio and Irene’s fascination with it, Cheever is exploring peoples’ compulsions and the dangers of them (his take on the human experience).

    -Samantha W.

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    1. I agree, it is the characters who really make this story feel literary.

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  11. 8. Point of view: Why do you think the writer chose this particular point of view for the story? How does the point of view function to establish distance or make us feel a certain way?

    I think point of view is especially effective in this story. We get a limited third-person point of view that follows the main couple, the Westcotts. The point of view purposely creates a distance between the readers and the character. As they get this inside look at other people's lives, we see what turns out to be surface level reactions to the secrets, like how the wife is horrified by their fights and proclivities. We actually see so much of how the wife feels, that we feel like we are getting the whole story, that this couple is above all the ugliness coming from the radio. In the end the truth the point of view was hiding comes out. The husband picks a fight, revealing that they lie, cheat and have scandals like everyone else. It makes the reader realize the pretenses we put on are so strong that we come to believe them ourselves.
    -Logan O.

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    1. Yes! I agree that the point of view is part of what Cheever uses to make the twist feel like a real surprise! We feel like we know these people and then more is revealed about them.

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