‘The Season Of Divorce’ by John Cheever


The Season Of Divorce by John Cheever, 1950

The magic trick:

Insightfully portraying the plight of a middle-class stay-at-home mom at the outset of the baby boom

Wow, what a depressing story. Even by Cheever’s high standards of gloom this is a bleak picture of marriage at midlife. It’s also typical of Cheever in its remarkable clarity of storytelling. I wouldn’t call it minimalism in the Hemingway or Carver manner. But there certainly isn’t any noise to fight through on your way to the guts of the story. The narrator lays it all plain from the very beginning. This is who I am, this is how my life is, this is what happened one autumn. Crystal clear. The conflict lies in his ability to empathize with his wife’s stay-at-home-mom depression vs. his willingness to act on this understanding.

The picture we get of Ethel’s life is pretty astounding. We get a detailed breakdown of her weekly routines, when she goes to the supermarket, how long she stays at the playground with the kids, etc. The plot – and her not-so-secret admirer – accentuates her boredom. It comes to a head in the scene where she laments her lost ambitions to her husband. She was educated. She was smart. She had ideas and goals. Now she just washes the vegetables and babysits the kids.

This is 1950. The baby-boom beginnings. This is the start of the middle-class white ideal, right? The time Reagan desperately wanted to bring back in the ‘80s. And it’s easy to see years later that the narrative of perfect America was a sham. But to see the flaws exposed in a work of the time? It’s utterly fascinating. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.

The selection:

“In Grenoble,” she said, “I wrote a long paper on Charles Stuart in French. A professor at the University of Chicago wrote me a letter. I couldn’t read a French newspaper without a dictionary today, I don’t have the time to follow any newspaper, and I am ashamed of my incompetence, ashamed of the way I look. Oh, I guess I love you, I do love the children, but I love myself, I love my life, it has some value and some promise for me and Trencher’s roses make me feel that I’m losing this, that I’m losing my self-respect. Do you know what I mean, do you understand what I mean?”

“He’s crazy,” I said.

“Do you know what I mean? Do you understand what I mean?”

“No,” I said. “No.”

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