One of Cheever’s most frequently anthologized stories (along with “The Swimmer”), The Country Husband is the author’s modern take on the English bawdy Restoration comedy William Wycherly’s The Country Wife (1675). It was first published in Cheever’s collection The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958). Protagonist Francis Weed’s predicament may be viewed as the now-classic rendition of an American male midlife crisis—and, as such, is a serious topic. The story is also profitably read, however, as a seriocomedy containing many of the elements of the humorous picaresque. Critics and readers alike are divided over whether to interpret Weed as a flawed hero who overcomes his peccadilloes, a comic figure reduced to a Casper Milquetoast by story’s end, or a 1950s chauvinist with a reprehensible attitude toward women. Although the plot is slim and the dialogue sparse, the story has been praised for its third-person narrative, which reveals Weed’s journey from a near-death experience through a mild rebellion against his suburban marriage to his return to the confines of his marriage and the conventions of his suburb.
The story opens as Weed is flying from Minneapolis to the East Coast, presumably New York. The plane has engine trouble and makes a forced landing in an Iowa cornfield, but the passengers are so expeditiously rounded up and sent on their way that he arrives at his home in Shady Hill at the usual time. Because his family cannot fathom the upheaval he has suffered, they behave normally: Weed’s wife, Julia, lights candles for the dinner table, and his children engage in childish bickering and rebellious teen behavior. Weed sees his world through the eyes of one who nearly rendezvoused with death, and he now sees his family as conventional and uncaring, his world as cloying and petty, with its parties, its barbecues,
A great deal of criticism has focused on Cheever’s use of metaphor in this story, particularly in the imagery of war: His house is a “battlefield” as he invokes the “war cries of Scottish chieftains” (201), and, at the party the next evening, he believes that the Farquarsons’ maid is the woman he saw stoned for sleeping with a Nazi during his WORLD WAR II sojourn in France. Another major metaphor is that of the “thread” that links Weed’s experiences together, from plane crash to suburban battlefield to sexual upheaval, and the implicit comparison of Weed to the other disruptive forces in the story: the irrepressible Labrador retriever Jupiter, the unconventional and unpredictable child Gertrude, and Weed’s childish feelings, which, as does the Beethoven sonata played by his neighbor, constitute “an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity— everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know” (202).
On one level, Weed is a sad case, a man misunderstood by his wife and children and one who thus naturally gravitates toward the charms of Anne Murchison, the teenaged babysitter, whose beauty seems perfect as he breathes in “her light, her perfume, and the music of her voice” (207). On another, Weed seems a comic figure as, overcome with lust, he denies the clichéd nature of his response to the teenager and wants “to sport in the green woods, scratch where he itched, and drink from the same cup” (209). He becomes the fool as he “salivated, sighed and trembled” (212), then childishly and jealously argues with Anne’s boyfriend, Clayton Thomas. On still another level, Weed is not comic at all, but selfcentered and imperious in his dealings with women: He inappropriately squabbles with his teenaged daughter Helen, tries to force himself on Anne Murchison, speaks rudely to his older and less attractive neighbor Mrs. Wrightson, and fantasizes about the Farquarsons’ maid, imagining her naked and humiliated, just as he fantasizes about a woman in a passing train, imagining her naked and Venus-like. When Julia accuses him of childishness, he strikes her across the face; Julia threatens to leave but reverses herself at the last minute. Miss Rainey, his secretary, tells him she wishes to “leave as soon as possible” (218).
Toward the end, Weed realizes that he “is in trouble” (218), caught between his family, imaged in the photograph on his desk, and the sexual coils of the Laocoon, imaged in his firm’s letterhead. He chooses to see the psychiatrist Dr. Herzog, who encourages him to take up a hobby. In the final paragraphs, Shady Hill shows no signs of change: In this 20th-century version of America’s “country,” the suburb is a far cry from the paradise set forth in myth. Francis sits happily in his basement with his woodworking equipment and builds a coffee table. “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains” (221). The contrast between the subdued Francis Weed and the elevated language is comic or ironic or just plain sad, depending on one’s interpretation.
Cheever, John. “A Country Husband.” In Contemporary American Short Stories. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1967.
Categories: Literature, Short Story
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