Complex Narrative Style
At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes with detachment the airplane’s near-crash. The narrator communicates facts rather than capturing the intensity of human crisis. As the story unfolds, however, the narrator enters Francis’s mind, telling the reader about his thoughts and feelings. The result is that the reader finishes the story with the sense that the airplane incident is not particularly engrossing, but the character’s reaction to it is. The narrator begins as a passive observer but becomes a commentator who frequently interprets the changes that take place in Francis.
One of the first insights into Francis’s psyche is revealed when he sees Anne. Francis is drawn to her innocence, purity, and youth, as the narrator relates:
“All those endearing flaws, moles, birthmarks, and healed wounds were missing, and he experienced in his consciousness that moment when music breaks glass, and felt a pang of recognition as strange, deep, and wonderful as anything in his life.”
The narrator’s intimate knowledge of Francis’s inner experiences is shown in minor incidents, too. After Francis insults Mrs. Wrightson, for example, the narrator tells the reader, ‘ ‘Even the smell of ink from his morning paper honed his appetite for life, and the world that was spread out around him was plainly a paradise.” Without this insight, the reader might only see Francis reading his paper and have no idea that the smell of the ink makes him feel alive or that he perceives his setting as perfect. Similarly, the narrator reveals Francis’s feelings of guilt. In one episode, he is in his office thinking about Anne, when
“[t]he photograph of his four children laughing into the camera on the beach at Gay Head reproached him. On the letterhead of his firm there was a drawing of the Laocoon [a Hellenistic sculpture of the priest who angered and was punished by the goddess Athena for warning the Trojans not to accept the Greek horse], and the figure of the priest and his sons in the coils of the snake appeared to him to have the deepest meaning.”
Throughout “The Country Husband” the narrator uses similes to describe Francis’s inner and outer experiences. The similes show that Francis’s perceptions of his world and of himself change. The world becomes a more engaging place where elements are interrelated and where feelings are sometimes intense. When Donald, a neighbor, begins his usual playing of “Moonlight Sonata,” the narrator says it is
“like an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity—of everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know. The music rang up and down the streets like an appeal for love, for tenderness, aimed at some lovely housemaid—some fresh-faced, homesick girl from Galway, looking at old snapshots in her third-room floor.”
Cheever uses these similes in at least three ways. Besides bringing the moment to life for the reader, he projects Francis’s feelings of longing into the music, and he also provides foreshadowing in the image of the young servant girl. Francis’s idealized image of this Irish servant contrasts with his recognition of the maid whom he remembers as having been humiliated during the war.
In other passages, Cheever uses brief similes. The narrator comments that Anne’s “perfection stunned him like a fine day—after a thunderstorm.” And after the insult to Mrs. Wrightson, “The sky shone like enamel.” These similes show how the plane crash affects Francis’s subsequent interpretation of experience.
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.