By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Enormous Radio’ is a short story by the American writer John Cheever, first published in the New Yorker in 1947 and then collected in The Enormous Radio and Other Stories in 1953. A magic realist story, ‘The Enormous Radio’ is about a middle-aged married couple who buy a radio which allows them to listen in on their neighbours’ conversations.
The story has a straightforward plot, and the effectiveness of the story lies chiefly in its details, its symbolism, and its delineation of character. Before we offer an analysis of these elements, however, here’s a quick summary of the story’s plot.
‘The Enormous Radio’: plot summary
Jim and Irene Westcott are a married couple living in New York City. They are reasonably financially successful, live in a nice part of the city, and have two children. They are much like the other people who live in their apartment block, except they have a fondness for classical music, which they listen to on the radio.
When their radio breaks one day, Jim goes out and buys a new one, which he tells Irene she will like. However, when it’s delivered, Irene is not impressed with its appearance, and doesn’t think it will blend in well with the other furniture. When she starts listening to it, she discovers some sort of interference which keeps disrupting the music she’s listening to, and discovers that the radio is somehow picking up the movement of the elevators in the apartment block.
The interference gets worse, growing to include the sounds of bells ringing and, eventually, the noise of the Westcotts’ neighbours talking in the nearby apartments. Jim tells Irene they shouldn’t listen in on private conversations, but they end up listening to their neighbours and laughing at the things they overhear.
Irene begins to become obsessed with the arguments and snippets of conversation she hears via the radio. But laughter gives way to depression, as she finds the things she hears upsetting. So Jim tells her to stop listening to it. When Irene overhears one of their neighbours beating his wife, she urges Jim to go and intervene, but he refuses.
Irene asks Jim to reassure her that their lives are nothing like those of their neighbours: sordid and marked by dishonesty and money worries. Jim assures her that they aren’t anything like their neighbours.
He gets the radio fixed, and it transmits the usual radio programmes, including classical music, with no further interference from the other apartments. However, it has cost Jim four-hundred dollars to get the radio fixed and he has noticed that his wife still has outstanding clothes bills. He grows angry with her and confesses that he worries about money a lot of the time, and fears they won’t have enough in future.
When Irene urges him to be quiet because she is concerned their neighbours will hear them, Jim snaps, bringing up Irene’s past behaviour – which includes stealing her mother’s jewellery before the will had been processed, and having an abortion – in order to show how she is just the same as their neighbours. Irene listens to the radio, hoping to find some comfort, but Jim continues to shout at her as the radio announcer reads out the news bulletin.
‘The Enormous Radio’: analysis
‘The Enormous Radio’ is an example of magic realism, a form of fiction in which fantastical or magical elements are incorporated, often at surprising moments, into the otherwise realist narrative. Jim and Irene are an ordinary couple: middle aged, two children, living in a nice apartment in New York. There is nothing remarkable about them or their lives. But the ‘enormous radio’ which Jim purchases turns out to be a device which can transmit the neighbours’ conversations.
In some ways, then, the radio device simply turns up (as it were) a familiar phenomenon – people in apartments being able to hear their neighbours’ arguments through the walls – and makes it something bigger, more exaggerated and, as it were, louder. It’s also symbolic.
The one thing which the thoroughly ordinary Westcotts think sets them apart from their neighbours is their fondness for ‘serious music’, and yet the ‘enormous radio’ ensures that they are tuned out from the Mozart or Beethoven they love to listen to, with their listening pleasure being literally ‘interfered’ with by the sounds of their neighbours’ relentlessly real lives breaking in.
John Cheever’s style can be deceptively simple, and thus hard to analyse. And one of the curious things about ‘The Enormous Radio’ is how casually Cheever sets up the main revelation of the story in the very first paragraph, telling us that their interest in ‘serious music’ is the only way in which they differ from their friends and neighbours.
In other words, when Jim and Irene laugh at their neighbours’ arguments and petty acts of hypocrisy (such as selling a diamond that fell out of a party guest’s bracelet rather than returning it to her – a detail which will be echoed at the end of the story when Jim accuses Irene of stealing her mother’s jewellery), we as readers already know that they are no different from the neighbours they so gleefully mock.
Indeed, Jim and Irene are complacent in their lives, convinced that they are not dishonest or worried about money, but it turns out that they are both of these things. They expose the bourgeois hypocrisy at the heart of many average people’s lives: people who need to convince themselves they are purer, more morally upstanding, and more decent than their neighbours and peers.
They tell themselves this, but do they really believe it? That tell-tale detail in the first paragraph, in which their love of music is the only thing which separates them from other people, implies otherwise. The introduction of the radio into the home simply makes their hypocrisy unavoidable until it has to be confronted.
The sense of superiority which Irene garners from overhearing her neighbours manifests itself in numerous ways. At the dinner party she and Jim attend, she interrupts the hostess and stares at the other guests. On their way home, she comments that the Salvation Army band members seem much nicer than the people they know in their life.
Rather than fostering sympathy for her neighbours with their flaws and their conflicts, the enormous radio has dehumanised those people, as if she has grown more detached from them by actually hearing them speak in the privacy of their own homes – as if, we might say, they were just so much entertainment, beamed into her home via the radio.
But of course, the hypocrisy and secrecy extends to within the Westcotts’ own home, too: Jim’s revelation that he was opposed to Irene’s abortion comes as news to her as well as to us. He had, it would appear, tacitly supported her decision at the time, but a gulf between them has opened up: he was against the decision she took. A question mark is left hanging over whether their marriage can survive such a revelation.
One other detail of ‘The Enormous Radio’ which is worth commenting on is how the story itself functions much like the radio within it: ‘The Enormous Radio’ is, in fact, like the enormous radio in the Westcotts’ apartment, because Cheever’s story broadcasts the Westcotts’ lives – and the lives of their neighbours – out into the world for others, namely us, to hear.
The story invites us to reflect on how private our lives really are; and whether we can really keep up the illusion of ourselves as better than we are when others know more about us than we may realise. In the seventy-plus years since Cheever wrote the story, and in an era where social media and the internet means people are putting more and more of themselves out into the world, these questions have arguably become more relevant than ever.