The Enormous Radio Summary

John Cheever

The Enormous Radio

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The Enormous Radio Summary

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The Enormous Radio is a 1947 short story by John Cheever. The story focuses on the lives of Jim and Irene Westcott, an average American couple living in an apartment building. When the Westcotts get a new radio, they discover that they can use it to listen in on the conversations of their neighbors. The story was first published in the New Yorker before being included in a short story collection entitled The Enormous Radio and Other Stories. The story is widely acclaimed and has been adapted for both television and radio.

Jim and Irene Westcott live a comfortable, respectable life in Manhattan. They have been married for nine years and have two children. They live on the twelfth floor of their apartment building, and have a maid to help with household chores. They go to the theater often and hope to save enough money to move to Westchester someday. The Westcotts enjoy music and listen to the radio regularly. One day, however, their old radio breaks down and Jim tells Irene that he will buy a new one. When the new radio is delivered to the Westcotts’ home the next day, Irene notices how large and ugly it is. She fidgets with the dials, and an eerie green light floods the radio. The sound then blasts on so loudly that a china ornament falls off the table. Irene quickly turns off the radio.

When Irene turns on the radio again later in the day, she hears piano music mixed with various loud sounds from the apartment building, such as doorbells ringing, elevator doors closing, and electric razors humming. She realizes that the radio is sensitive to all types of electric currents and picks up other sounds besides music. Jim gets home and tinkers with the radio, but has the same experience with it as Irene did. He tells her he will call the people he bought it from to complain. The next day, the maid tells Irene that a man came by to fix the radio. Irene turns it on again and listens to a song called Missouri Waltz. This time, she can hear the music more clearly, but there are still strange sounds in the background.

Jim comes home for dinner, and the couple listens to the radio together. They are listening to a Chopin tune when a man’s voice cuts through the music, chiding a woman for playing the piano every time he gets home from work. Jim and Irene realize that the voices belong to their neighbors,the Sweeneys, a couple who live in a neighboring apartment. They have a nurse called Miss Armstrong and Irene recognizes her voice on the radio as she reads a bedtime story to the Sweeneys’ children. They also overhear the sounds of a raucous cocktail party, someone complaining about a bank overdraft, and a woman telling a man named Charlie that she feels ill. They turn off the radio.

The next day, Irene listens to the radio again after Jim and the children go out. As she is listening to Missouri Waltz, she hears sounds coming from the neighbors’ apartments again. When she returns home from a luncheon later that day, she looks furtively at the people sharing the elevator with her and wonders whether any of the voices she heard over the radio belongs to them. A woman in a mink cape gets off the elevator, humming Missouri Waltz. Irene shuts herself in the living room and switches on the radio again. She spends the entire afternoon listening to her neighbors’ conversations.

That night, she and Jim go out to dinner with friends. Jim notices Irene behaving strangely at dinner, interrupting the hostess rudely and staring intensely at the other guests. On the way home, she gives money to a street band and compares a star in the night sky above them to a “little candle” that shines like “a good deed in a naughty world.” When Jim gets home from work the next night, Irene rushes to greet him with tears streaming down her face. She tells him that their upstairs neighbor, Mr. Osborn, is beating his wife and begs him to go intervene. Jim realizes that she has been listening to their neighbors on the radio all day.

Irene says she is depressed after becoming aware of all their neighbors’ troubles. She tells Jim that Mr. Osborn quarrels with his wife often, that Mrs. Hutchinson’s mother is dying of cancer, that Mr. Hendricks is about to lose his job, and that everyone in the building worries constantly about money. Jim tells Irene that he bought the radio for her enjoyment, and that she should stop listening to it if it makes her so unhappy. He reassures her that they have a happy marriage,unlike their neighbors, and offers to have the radio fixed as soon as possible. The next day, a man comes by to fix the radio again. This time, the radio seems to have been repaired for good, since it only plays music and nothing else.

After a relaxing day of listening to music on the radio, Irene joins Jim for dinner and cocktails. Jim tells her that he just paid the bill for the radio, and it was four hundred dollars. He says that the radio is probably the last indulgence the family will be able to afford that year, because things are going slowly at work. He expresses concern about money, and scolds Irene for not paying her clothing bills. When Jim raises his voice, Irene urges him to quiet down because she is afraid that they will be heard over the radio. Jim gets very angry at this, and begins yelling at Irene about her past misdeeds including stealing jewelry from her mother, refusing to help her sister, and getting an abortion. Irene looks sickened, and turns on the radio for comfort but hears nothing except the news.

The main themes of the story are secrets, denial, voyeurism, and domestic strife.By listening to the radio, Irene learns about other people’s lives and realizes that the happy and carefree facades that people often present in public belie the dark secrets concealed behind closed doors. What she learns makes her worry that her own marriage and life are not as blissful as they seem. When Jim scolds her and airs her dirty laundry at the end of the story, she is sickened to realize that she had been listening in on her own life the entire time, and that ignorance was bliss. She tries to return to that state of ignorance, but can’t unlearn what she has learned about her neighbors and herself.