The Hartleys by John Cheever, 1949
The magic trick:
Punishing his characters’ typically middle-class selfishness with an atypically extreme consequence
I must admit I did not see this story’s ending coming. There is something to be said for small stories about small feelings where the plot ruptures in only small ways. Certainly, that’s where I thought this story’s heart lay until that ending ruptured the plot in a very large way. But I anticipated incorrectly, and the story is all the stronger for Cheever’s surprising choice.
Mr. and Mrs. Hartley never are portrayed in a particularly good light. They clearly are sad and selfish as they pursue the happiness and freedom they enjoyed in the years before parenthood. It’s the kind of behavior, though, that is likely to prompt as much sympathy as criticism from the reader. This is the kind of behavior endemic to American middle-class culture.
But instead of just presenting the Hartley’s midlife crisis and leaving it sit for the reader to consider, Cheever takes the story to a totally different place in the end. Instead of letting the Hartleys linger on in quiet desperation he gives the couple exactly what they want: life without a daughter complicating things. In doing so, their attitudes toward parenting that might have previously been considered unfortunate but acceptable now take on a much darker tint. And because their feelings would have been so easily relatable to most middle-class readers of the time (and now), the reader feels the characters’ punishment as his or her own. I, for one, finished the story with more than a slight feeling of guilt. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.
“Why do we have to come back?” Mrs. Hartley was crying. “Why do we have to come back? Why do we have to make these trips back to the places where we thought we were happy? What good is it going to do? What good has it ever done? We go through the telephone book looking for the names of people we knew ten years ago, and we ask them to dinner, and what good does it do? What good has it ever done? We go back to restaurants, the mountains, we go back to the houses, even the neighborhoods, we walk in the slums, thinking that this will make us happy, and it never does.