John Cheever’s story, first published as part of the collection The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), is notable for the way it presents, through an apparently uninvolved, objective third-person narrator, a man’s callous and reprehensible treatment of a female employee. The story’s powerful impact is due in part to the narrator’s nonjudgmental tone but also to the details this narrator presents by limiting the point of view so that the action unfolds through Mr. Blake’s thoughts, allowing the reader to decipher the meaning of his behavior and to applaud Miss Dent when, at the end of the story, she bests him. In brief, Cheever has given us a tale of sexual harassment, 1950s style.
The story opens with Blake’s startled recognition of Miss Dent as he steps out of the elevator in his office building. At first he cannot recall her name, and we follow him along the street, momentarily wondering whether she is a stalker, wondering whether we should sympathize with him. Through a series of flashbacks the story provides the information we need: Miss Dent, a shy and timid temporary employee, falls in love with Blake when she goes to work for him. After he engages in sex with her, he feels distaste for her powerlessness and her poverty. Clearly, Blake is a powerful businessman, accustomed to using people to achieve his goals.
He thinks he has eluded her as he boards the commuter train home to Shady Hill. He recognizes two of his neighbors seated in the same car, but neither greets him with friendliness. We learn that the woman neighbor knows about Blake’s shameful treatment of his wife, Louise, who has turned to her for sympathy. The other neighbor offends Blake because of his casual way of dressing and because Blake’s son spends nearly all his time with this man’s kind and amiable family. Apparently neither Louise nor Blake’s son has the power to speak out against him and he has punished them both, ceasing to sleep with or speak to his wife and forbidding his neighbors to entertain his son. Blake feels angry at these personal betrayals by both his wife and his son; ironically, of course, he fails to reckon with his own betrayal of them.
His superiority and power wielding are about to end, however, as Miss Dent boards the train, shoves a concealed pistol into his side, and tells him why and how he has wrecked her life. Although she has been institutionalized for emotional problems and has been unemployed since Blake fired her six months earlier, she demonstrates a newfound strength and a self-confident voice as she castigates him for his arrogance, his superficiality, his self-centeredness. Not only does she know more about love than he, she says, but she knows she is a better person than he. The story ends in an act that is more self-affirmation than punishment of Blake: Miss Dent forces him to kneel at her feet and put his face in the dirt, thereby avenging herself and attaining self-respect (Charters 35). Timid no longer, Miss Dent understands the phallic power of the gun and the authority of a self-confident voice: Cheever has artfully constructed the story so that readers feel justified in approving Blake’s humiliation and applauding Miss Dent’s newfound confidence.
Charters, Ann. Resources for Teaching: Major Writers of Short Fiction. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1993, 34–36.
Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978.
O’Hara, James E. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989