In “The Country Husband,” Cheever shows that appearances do not necessarily reflect reality. The people of Shady Hill, including the Weeds, maintain an illusion of happiness and control. Francis endures a life-threatening experience, yet outwardly, life goes on as before. During a party hosted by a married couple named Farquarson, Francis recognizes the maid as a woman he saw in France during the war. He remembers that she was publicly humiliated for living with a German officer, yet he never considers sharing her story with any of the other guests because “[t]he people in the Farquarsons’ living room seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world.”
Francis knows that life in Shady Hill means keeping up appearances. He doesn’t like this practice but he goes along with it. He begins to lose some of his inhibitions, however, after his near-death experience. Thinking about his lifestyle, he has certain regrets; the narrator explains, “Among his friends and neighbors, there were brilliant and gifted people—he saw that—but many of them, also, were bores and fools, and he had made the mistake of listening to them all with equal attention.” Clayton is the only resident of Shady Hill who openly criticizes the culture of the community. Francis seems to envy Clayton because he is planning to leave Shady Hill to make a life elsewhere, and because he plans to marry Anne.
Surviving the crash landing gives Francis a sense that he has a second chance to live his life and that he can live it differently. Almost immediately, he indulges in inappropriate fantasies about the teenaged babysitter and speaks rudely to Mrs. Wrightson. In doing so, he appears to feel that he is being true to himself rather than playing the social games expected of him.
His wife, Julia, is a kind and decent person, but the marriage lacks connection and passion. In the spirit of second chances, Francis fixates on Anne, imaging that a sexual relationship with her will make him feel alive. He tells himself (and his psychiatrist) that he is in love with her, but he is really in love with the idea of youth and a promising future.
When Francis speaks rudely to Mrs. Wrightson, he feels energized for having said exactly what was on his mind without regard for the consequences. As she walks away, Francis feels liberated:
“A wonderful feeling enveloped him, as if light were being shaken about him. … The realization of how many years had passed since he had enjoyed being deliberately impolite sobered him…. He was grateful to the girl [Anne], for this bracing sensation of independence.”
In the end, Francis is seemingly content again. He is changed as a result of his ordeal in the airplane but not in the way he expected, which was to live boldly and selfishly. Ironically, his decision to embrace his second chance leads him not to an exciting new life but to the same life with the addition of a new, home-based hobby: woodworking. He is still a conventional man living in American suburbia.
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.