The Worm In The Apple by John Cheever, 1958
The magic trick:
Using an aggressively judgmental narrator only to have his exposé come up empty
The narrator in today’s story is almost akin to a carnival barker. Step right up, look at the miserable middle-class family of Long Island! See how they pretend!
The opening paragraph establishes an amazing tone of judgment, comedy and anger. It’s desperate.
The joke then becomes – and I hope this isn’t spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it (it’s three pages long, just go read it already) – the story’s shifting target. You can step right up and analyze the Crutchman family, as the narrator desires you to, but it turns out there isn’t much dirt under the surface. The joke isn’t on them; it’s on us. And that’s quite a trick on Cheever’s part.
The Crutchmans were so very, very happy and so temperate in all their habits and so pleased with everything that came their way that one was bound to suspect a worm in their rosy apple and that the extraordinary rosiness of the fruit was only meant to conceal the gravity and the depth of the infection. Their house, for instance, on Hill Street with all those big glass windows. Who but someone suffering from a guilt complex would want so much light to pour into their rooms? And all the wall-to-wall carpeting as if an inch of bare floor (there was none) would touch on some deep memory of unrequition and loneliness. And there was a certain necrophilic ardor to their gardening. Why be so intense about digging holes and planting seeds and watching them come up? Why this morbid concern with the earth? She was a pretty woman with that striking pallor you so often find in maniacs. Larry was a big man who used to garden without a shirt, which may have shown a tendency to infantile exhibitionism.
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