One of John Cheever’s most anthologized stories, “The Country Husband,” is a depiction of life in the American suburbs in the 1950s. The depiction is not flattering, as the main character, Francis Weed, feels empty and unfulfilled in his superficial world of parties and pleasantries. Similarly, the 1999 American film, American Beauty, depicts a middle-aged suburban man, Lester Burnham, who finds his life unsatisfying. Both Francis and Lester have come to a crisis although they have come by very different paths. Francis has survived a near-death experience. Lester has reached the boiling point via what is today understood as a mid-life crisis. The ways in which these two men respond to their crises are similar, but the outcomes are very different.
Cheever’s work is often commended for its ability to speak to generations of readers. The themes, subjects, and characters continue to be relevant because Cheever finds the universality in his characters’ situations. This relevance is certainly seen in “The Country Husband”; the modern-day Lester in American Beauty is in many ways an updated version of the same character. Both men decide to change after allowing themselves to be trapped in unsatisfying, conventional lives. In each case, the desire for change becomes focused on a teenaged girl. For Francis, it is his new babysitter, Anne; for Lester, it is his daughter’s friend, a cheerleader named Angela.
The ways in which the two men eventually release their fantasies, however, are very different. Francis seeks psychiatric help to deal with his feelings. The psychiatrist recommends woodworking as a hobby to distract him (which seems ultimately doomed to address the core problem that led to Francis’s obsession with the girl). Lester, on the other hand, lets go of his fantasies through the choice not to act on them. This is one of the ways in which American Beauty is a decidedly modern take on Cheever’s story. While Anne would never approach Francis for sex, Angela attempts to seduce Lester. Realizing that Angela is inexperienced, however, Lester comes to see her as she is—a young, naive girl. To go through with his fantasies would be to take advantage of her, and he cannot do it.
Another important similarity is that both men live in suburbia. The portrayal of the surface of this lifestyle is largely unchanged from the 1950s, when Cheever’s story takes place. Although American Beauty is set almost fifty years later, the two neighborhoods appear basically the same on the outside. People are superficially friendly to one another other, men mow their lawns, women work in their gardens, children play outside, and residents are expected to present themselves a certain way. But in both cases, there is much more going on below the surface than is evident. Francis and Lester know that there is ugliness below the surface, and they are both frustrated by everyone else’s refusal to acknowledge it. They are also, at least initially, unwilling to act as nonconformists. When they decide to rebel, they do so in very different ways. While Francis acts out by making rude remarks to one of the neighborhood ladies, Lester rashly quits his job, intentionally choosing a permanent change. He happily goes home and acts like an adolescent, refusing responsibility and later taking a job at a fast-food restaurant.
The problems beneath the pristine suburban surfaces in these two stories seem to be quite different, too, although Cheever never tells much about the neighbors’ lives. In “The Country Husband,” the problems seem to be isolation and loneliness (as with the piano player and the neighbor yelling at the squirrels) and hidden marital strife. In American Beauty, however, the problems are even more disturbing. The Burnhams’ new neighbors are a family in which the son is a drug-dealing peeping Tom who likes to videotape the Burnhams’ teenaged daughter, and the father is a strict retired military man whose intense prejudice against homosexuals belies his attraction to men.
Comparing these two stories is important because their similarities demonstrate what has become a reality of American life. Life in the suburbs is not—never was—the Utopian dream it once seemed. Further, people living in the suburbs seem no more likely to own up to their own flaws than they were in the 1950s. What is also telling is the differences in the two stories. Besides the differences in the ways in which Francis and Lester rebel, the ways in which they resolve their fantasies, and the types of problems found behind closed doors, these stories have starkly different endings. “The Country Husband” ends with Francis happily making a coffee table. He is pursuing his new hobby in hopes of forgetting about Anne and leading a normal life again. In American Beauty, Lester is murdered by the next-door neighbor. Interestingly, the scenes leading up to this denouement suggest that nearly everyone close to Lester is capable of this act. Both stories are disturbing, but in different ways. Cheever’s can be interpreted as hopeful, with Francis rehabilitated to stable suburban life by simply getting a hobby. (Francis’s rehabilitation can also be interpreted as his failure to escape bland conventionality.) Lester’s flouting of suburban convention leads to his violent death. These dramatic differences indicate that the dark underbelly of American suburbia has grown much darker and that the consequences of rebellion have become much more severe.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, John Cheever – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “The Country Husband,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.