‘The Music Teacher’ by John Cheever

The Music Teacher by John Cheever, 1959

The magic trick:

Examining the routines of marriage through a story about witchcraft

It’s tough to know quite what Cheever is saying here. He seems to be punishing his male protagonist for his failed marriage and controlling instincts. So in a sense, he gets decent marks on the 1950s misogyny scale. But then again, he mitigates that punishment through another woman, described quite literally as a witch.

What you wind up with is a male point of view and two problematic female characters. So there’s more than one reason these stories feel so dated.

Still, there is much to be said for the story. It is another of Cheever’s slanted takes on homogenized suburbia. The music teacher’s presence in the story is strange enough to begin with. As her particular part of the tale devolves into violence, it becomes all the more odd. Ultimately, it’s really just another of his stories that examines the soul-crushing routines of suburban life. But to do so through witchcraft, certainly adds a twist. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.

The selection:

“Please commence,” she said. All the feeling had left her voice.

“My wife wanted to know if I couldn’t have something different – a new piece.”

“They always do,” she said wearily.

“Something a little less repetitious,” Seton said.

“None of the gentlemen who come here have ever complained about my methods. If you’re not satisfied, you don’t have to come. Of course, Mr. Purvis went too far. Mrs. Purvis is still in the sanatorium, but I don’t think the fault is mine. You want to bring her to her knees, don’t you? Isn’t that what you’re here for? Please commence.”

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