Opening with a description of a New York City couple, Jim and Irene Wescott, who aspire someday to move to Westchester, “The Enormous Radio”— first published in the New Yorker before reappearing in the 1953 collection The Enormous Radio and Other Stories—begins as a realistic story about people who, a few decades later, would be called “yuppies.” Irene and Jim, the uninvolved, third-person narrator tells us, fit the profile of successful couples with reasonably good incomes, a reasonably fashionable address, and the prescribed total of two children. They differ from their neighbors only in their serious interest in classical music.
Almost immediately, however, in a move that today we call Magic Realism, John Cheever introduces a new radio into their lives, a radio described as powerful, uncontrollable, and more than faintly disturbing. Unlike nonmagic radios, this one tunes in to neighbors’ private conversations. Irene identifies these people because she can recognize their voices. She becomes mesmerized by the way the radio transmits the marital arguments, conversations of drunken revelers, angry words spoken to children, disclosures of dishonest behavior, and secret liaisons she never would have imagined. In Irene’s reactions to the worry, hypocrisy, and even violence among her neighbors, the story portrays her desperately clinging to a belief in Jim and herself as different from all the others with their sordid secrets.
Voyeuristically, the reader sees into Irene’s and Jim’s lives just as Irene eavesdrops, through the radio, on the lives of their neighbors. Despite Irene’s pleas for reassurance that they are different from the others, Jim finally snaps and angrily contradicts her rosy and complacent view of their relationship. He yells furiously at her—and Jim’s words and tone sound exactly like those of other men shouting at their wives, those angry voices Irene has listened to through the radio. As do the other men, he complains to her that he is tired and overworked, feeling already old at age 37. He then criticizes Irene’s extravagance and inability to manage finances, accusing her of stealing jewelry from her dead mother, cheating her sister, and hypocritically forgetting her visit to an abortionist, an act he now discloses he has always thought of as out-and-out murder.
Irene feels humiliated and ill after Jim’s outburst but, significantly, makes no move to contradict him. Our final view of her shows her standing by the radio, childishly hoping for loving, kind words, obviously still in denial of the reality of Jim’s accusations. Jim continues to yell at her through the door. Because we know that Irene fears that the malevolent radio might transmit their voices just as it has transmitted those of her neighbors, we cannot be sure that the radio is not doing exactly that. In any case, the radio has done its work, and a return to innocence is impossible. The story itself, like an enormous radio, has transmitted to readers the ugly facts that, like Irene, we would prefer not to confront. Instead, we may just listen to the calm voice of the radio announcer in the final lines of the story, hearing impersonally the headlines about good deeds and ill and an hourly report on the weather.
Cheever, John. The Enormous Radio and Other Stories. New York: Harper & Row, 1953.
O’Hara, James Eugene. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.