The Enormous Radio

The Enormous Radio Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Cheever's The Enormous Radio. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Cheever

John Cheever was the second son of a middle-class family. His father, originally a successful shoe manufacturer in New England, lost money in the declining economy, and the family fell into financial straits. As a young student, Cheever attended Thayer Academy, but was later expelled; he wrote a short story, “Expelled,” about the experience, which was published in 1930 in The New Republic. In 1938, he worked as an editor for the Federal Writers’ Project in Washington, D.C., and married his wife, Mary Winternitz, in 1941. In 1942, Cheever enlisted in the Army and became part of the Signal Corps; a year later, in 1943, he published his first collection of short stories, The Way Some People Live. Cheever’s short stories were published in many magazines, including The Atlantic and The New Republic, but he was often associated with the style and aesthetic sensibility of The New Yorker. After the war, Cheever moved his family to Sutton Place, in Manhattan, and then out to the suburbs, eventually residing—from 1961 onwards—in Ossining, New York. Many of his stories draw clear inspiration from this suburban milieu, including those in his 1953 collection The Enormous Radio and Other Stories and The Stories of John Cheever (1978), the latter of which won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979. His debut novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. Despite his notoriety, Cheever’s personal life was troubled: he was a heavy drinker, received psychiatric treatment for depression, and sustained multiple affairs with both men and women. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1981, and died in 1982.
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Historical Context of The Enormous Radio

The Westcotts, alongside many of their neighbors, hide deep-seated worries about their financial stability; this preoccupation with finances is characteristic of the Depression and post-Depression era in the United States. Though the Great Depression—an ongoing period of financial uncertainty—ended years before the publication of this particular story, Cheever grew up during this era, and his family’s livelihood and social standing were impacted by precipitous shifts in the economy throughout his childhood. Cheever was also writing shortly after the end of World War II, a time of great cultural upheaval as soldiers returned to civilian life. This period also marked the start of the “Baby Boom,” which saw a temporary increase in the national birth rate. This renewed emphasis on domesticity is reflected in Cheever’s characters’ desire to maintain an air of social respectability and familial normalcy.

Other Books Related to The Enormous Radio

“The Enormous Radio” dramatizes the domestic life of the Westcotts, who live in New York City and dream of moving to the suburbs. The story, which reveals the anxieties that remain hidden beneath the couple’s untroubled façade, acts as a thematic antecedent to Cheever’s later stories chronicling life in suburbia. These later stories fit within the genres of “suburban gothic” or “domestic gothic”—stories within this genre often discuss themes of marital tension and household unhappiness, and were typical of Cheever’s era. Other writers, like Richard Yates and John Updike, often wrote on similar themes of middle-class disillusionment; in fact, Cheever once lived in a suburban home that had been previously owned by Richard Yates, who wrote the novel Revolutionary Road. Like “The Enormous Radio,” Revolutionary Road chronicles the slow dissolution of a couple’s picturesque lifestyle. Additionally, Cheever was known as the “Chekhov of the Suburbs,” as, like Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya), he often wrote sharply observant short stories about unhappy or conflicted characters. With Cheever’s story itself, Irene quotes a passage from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a play known for containing a speech about the “quality of mercy.” The speech highlights how mercy and understanding are the kindest offerings one can make to one’s peers. Within the context of the story, Irene’s quote is thus ironic: she is rendering judgment on her neighbors when she should be merciful and sympathetic to their problems.
Key Facts about The Enormous Radio
  • Full Title: The Enormous Radio
  • When Written: 1947
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 1947
  • Literary Period: Twentieth century literature, Contemporary
  • Genre: Short story, Domestic Gothic
  • Setting: An apartment building in Sutton Place, a neighborhood of New York City.
  • Climax: Irene, having overheard her neighbor beating his wife via the radio, begs Jim to intervene. In response, Jim turns off the radio—and act to which Irene ultimately does not object.
  • Antagonist: The radio
  • Point of View: Third person limited

Extra Credit for The Enormous Radio

The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. The Westcotts overhear Miss Armstrong, a nurse who cares for the children of the Sweeneys, sing a nonsensical poem as a lullaby.  The poem, written by Edward Lear, is titled “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,” It describes the doomed relationship between the titular gentleman, Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, and Lady Jingly Jones.