“The Enormous Radio” was first published in the May 17, 1947 issue of The New Yorker and is collected in John Cheever’s The Stories of John Cheever. Click here for reviews of other John Cheever stories.
“The Enormous Radio” is the third piece in Cheever’s collected stories, but the first one chronologically I’m covering here. “Goodbye, My Brother,” one of Cheever’s most famous stories, leads off the collection, but appeared in The New Yorker several years later, so I’ll cover it later, too.
Let’s begin with the sentences.
One of the literary traits that distinguishes John Cheever is how he is able, usually within the first paragraph, to offer a complete diagnosis of a character in one or two lines. The opening of “The Enormous Radio” is a master class in characterization:
Jim and Irene Westcott 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. They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theatre an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester.
The whole of the story is contained in those two sentences. There is also a deadpan element to this description, a cutting detachment, that not for the last time calls into question the figure narrating it.
The story features a classic voyeur plot: after their living room radio breaks for good, Jim surprises Irene with a new one, an extravagance they can barely afford. When it gets delivered and uncrated, Irene first notices how ugly it is, the “large gumwood cabinet” standing “among her intimate possessions like an aggressive intruder.”
Later, while listening to a Mozart concerto, Irene begins hearing strange noises coming out of the loudspeaker. She soon realizes the radio is transmitting the ambient sounds of her apartment building: elevator doors, doorbells, electric razors.
When Jim gets home from work, he has the same experience as his wife, and vows “to call the people who sold it to him and give them hell.”
The radio is fixed the following day. Over dinner, when Jim is “too tired to even make a pretense of sociability,” Irene listens to a Chopin prelude before, once again, the music is interrupted, this time by a man chastising his wife for always playing the piano when he comes home. When the man leaves the room, the piano music picks back up.
It soon dawns on the Westcotts that they can hear the conversations of their fellow tenants through the radio. A woman asks her husband to button her up. Another man wishes his wife wouldn’t leave apple cores in the ashtray. A nurse sings to her wards.
What’s interesting about this revelation is how un-revelatory Cheever presents it. “The Enormous Radio” might be Cheever’s most overtly fantastical story, but it doesn’t feel fantastical. After their initial surprise, Jim and Irene take it as a matter of course that their radio could broadcast private conversations. It makes the story feel more like an allegory of some kind.
The story then follows an expected trajectory: at first Irene is reluctant to turn her radio on, then eager, then incapable of stopping. Every free moment she has is spent reveling in the juicy details of her apartment building:
Irene shifted the control and invaded the privacy of several breakfast tables. She overheard demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair.
Finally, Irene realizes what most users of social media should realize: if it’s this easy for her to know the intimate details of her neighbors’ lives, it must be just as easy for them to know hers. The radio thus becomes a tool of validation; if her neighbors can hear the evidence of a happy marriage, then it must be a happy marriage.
“We’re happy, aren’t we, darling?” she pleads to Jim. “We are happy, aren’t we?”
Of course, the Westcotts do not have a happy marriage. Right from the start, Cheever has told us they are well-versed in playing the part of a successful couple and in hiding the serious fault lines on the verge of erupting.
And erupt it does. The story ends dramatically when Jim, fed up with Irene’s self-deception, violently expels himself of years of accrued grievances:
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 your virtue 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…
It’s a savage ending, blindsiding Irene and us both in its intensity, but all Irene can do is turn the station on the radio, hoping once again to hear the reassuring sounds of the upstairs nurse as Jim continues yelling.
“The Enormous Radio” has lingered in my mind because it sets the terms for the rest of Cheever’s characters: uncommunicative, envious, status-obsessed people. They might not have access to an all-knowing radio, but they’re all listening carefully for any telltale transmissions that might give meaning to their own lives.