Terrifying Averageness and John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio”
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
There is something very frightening about being average. You and I would like to think we’re not average. We have different hobbies, interests, experiences; my little biography at the bottom of this article is meant to tell you the exact ways that I’m not average. That’s why John Cheever’s clinical categorization of his characters in the opening of “The Enormous Radio” (1947) cuts so deep. His short story begins with: “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.” In doing this, Cheever immediately tells us that there is nothing exceptional about these characters, who appear more than content in their marriage, and that their lives can be boiled down to statistics; he even tells us that they went to the theater “on an average of 10.3 times a year.” It seems that the only aspect of their lives that supposedly differentiates them from their acquaintances is their shared, and somewhat secret, interest in “serious music.” So when Jim buys Irene a new radio, that becomes their most defining characteristic.
Inevitably, there is a sense of foreboding that accompanies the radio. And of course there is, since this material item is essentially a stand-in for individuality. Irene’s first thought is how ugly the thing is and, along with this, it is viewed as an “aggressive intruder.” The story’s title also hints at the radio’s forceful presence; it’s not about a “big” radio or even a “large” radio, but instead it is “enormous,” so grand in size that it is perhaps too much for the Westcotts to handle (and, indeed, it is). What Irene soon discovers about the radio is that it picks up the voices of the other residents in their apartment building and, more than that, their problems.
Before Irene was able to listen in on the lives of her neighbors, she was happy in her marriage. Why does hearing other people’s problems bring about one’s own? Maybe it has something to do with the frightening realization that your situation is not unique, that you may not be the exception that you consider yourself to be. More than anything, the problem that concerns the Westcotts, along with their neighbors, and probably the majority of readers, is money. The Westcotts are spending more than they have to create a facade of status; Irene is able to avoid confronting this by focusing on the problems of her neighbors, while Jim avoids it by blaming everything on Irene, causing his resentment of her to grow.
There is an emphasis in “The Enormous Radio” on the spoken word, on what is said and what is not. Irene listens avidly to the words of her neighbors transmitted through the radio and addresses their problems vocally to her husband, yet her own financial troubles are kept from him. From the conversations between the married couple, it can be understood that Jim, too, does not voice his concerns often. Much of the story’s tension comes from this lack of communication, which is highlighted by the radio’s ability to reveal what is seldom spoken publicly.
When at the end of the story the radio is properly fixed, and the voices of neighbors could no longer be heard, the domestic life of the Westcotts is irreversibly changed. It was this illuminating glimpse into the lives of others, and the subsequent reexamination of one’s self, that led to a disruption of contentedness. But what does being content really mean? Maybe it’s just a matter of avoiding confrontation with insecurities and dissatisfaction.
We all would like to think that our problems are the most important problems (because they are – to us, at least), but Cheever’s story reminds us just how much “average” people have in common. If I were to listen in on what my neighbors complain about, I’m sure I’d be reluctant to relate their issues to my own, just as I am with the problems of the Westcotts from a 72-year-old story; how could that possibly apply to me? By definition, a lot of people fall under the category of average; I'm sure I will stubbornly go to my grave believing I don’t – and I'm sure you will too. ▲
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms!