The Country Husband | Study Guide

John Cheever

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The Country Husband | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Plane Crash and Aftermath

On a flight from Minneapolis to New York, Francis Weed's plane encounters a storm. As turbulence increases, flashes of fire from the plane's exhaust can be seen through the windows of the dim cabin. The plane makes a rough and frightening emergency landing, crashing in a field, and the passengers hurriedly disembark and take shelter in a nearby barn until taxis arrive to ferry them into the city. A passenger remarks that the experience is "just like the Marne."

On his regular commuter train from New York, Francis tells a coworker, Trace Bearden, about his brush with death, but the story falls flat. Reaching his pristinely kept suburban home in Shady Hill, Francis is eager to share his news with his family. Usually greeted with affection, this evening Francis walks in to find two of his children in an altercation. When he tries to intervene, he accidentally knocks over his youngest. All the children are in tears when his wife, Julia Weed, announces dinner. At this the uproar only increases, and Francis goes upstairs to tell his eldest child, Helen Weed, that it is time for dinner. He finds her reading a friend's copy of True Romance magazine, which he has forbidden. She doesn't understand about the plane crash since the weather in Shady Hill was calm.

Family bickering continues at the table. Francis complains that no one wants to hear about his day and that the home is like "a battlefield." At this Julia begins to cry, and Francis seeks refuge in the backyard. The garden is filled with the usual neighborhood sounds. A neighbor scolds squirrels at his bird feeders, while another plays his nightly song at the piano, a doleful rendition of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." Jupiter, a black retriever belonging to a neighbor, bounds up with a hat in his mouth. The dog is a menace in the neighborhood, stealing steaks off barbecues and interrupting gatherings. Francis imagines that someone will poison the dog one day.

Encounter with the Maid

Julia Weed lives for parties, and she and Francis find themselves at a social gathering several times a week. At a dinner party Francis notices a maid who seems familiar. He realizes that he has seen her before. It was in France during the war. He recalls witnessing her public humiliation for living with a German commander. She was stripped naked and had her head shaved as punishment. Francis realizes that he can't share this knowledge with anyone because society in Shady Hill exists as if the war never happened; "the atmosphere ... made the memory unseemly and impolite."

Falling in Love with Anne Murchison

After the party Francis stays in the car to drive the babysitter home. Instead of the usual elderly woman, he is surprised by a lovely teen named Anne Murchison. When he expresses concern that she appears to have cried recently, she shares that her father, a drunk, has just called her "immoral." She cries in Francis's arms. When they reach her home, he takes her hand and walks her up the steps. At the top she kisses him briefly and goes inside. That night his dreams are full of her.

The next morning at the train station, Francis stands on the platform, watching trains pass by, with his mind still on Anne Murchison. Through the window of one of the trains, Francis catches a fleeting glimpse of a naked woman combing her hair. Then he runs into Mrs. Wrightson, a town acquaintance, who prattles on about curtains, much to his annoyance. He tells her shortly to paint her windows black on the inside and be quiet. Affronted, she walks away. Francis reflects on how long it has been since he was purposefully rude and how enjoyable it is. He credits Anne for his newfound sense of freedom. He has lunch with a friend but realizes that he can't share his feelings. There hasn't been a scandal or a divorce in Shady Hill since he's lived there. Later that day he buys Anne a bracelet. He passes a well-known statue of Atlas with the world on his shoulders and feels a similar weight of repression.

When he gets home that evening, he finds Anne. As he embraces her, they are interrupted by Gertrude, a wandering neighborhood child. Alarmed, Francis gives Gertrude a quarter, instructing her not to tell. He looks forward to driving Anne home after his social event that evening. The host of the party boasts about his affection for his wife, whom he claims makes him "feel like Hannibal crossing the Alps." When they arrive home late that evening, Francis is disappointed to find that Julia has already instructed Anne to go home.

A few days later Francis comes home after work to find his family dressed up and ready to take their annual Christmas photo. When he goes upstairs to change, he writes a love letter to Anne, pouring out his feelings "with no restraint." The family poses in front of the house, waving to neighbors who pass by.

Clayton's Visit and the Fight

Later that evening, a neighbor, Clayton Thomas, visits the Weed house. Chatting over coffee, Clayton says that he plans to look for work in New York instead of returning to college, for financial reasons. He dislikes Shady Hill society with its excessive drinking and materialism. People are phony, he says, and the suburb is so concerned with keeping people out that it has no real future. Clayton claims that the stifling atmosphere kills dreams. When Clayton shares that he is engaged to Anne Murchison, Francis is filled with dislike for the young man.

After Clayton leaves, Julia complains that Francis's rudeness to Mrs. Wrightson has compromised their children's social positions, since Mrs. Wrightson has a lot of town influence. Francis hits Julia in the face. She rushes upstairs and begins packing her things to leave. She tearfully claims that Francis really hates her. She believes that he leaves his dirty clothes on the floor as a passive-aggressive expression of his true feelings. He convinces her to stay. The next morning Francis follows a woman at the train station, thinking it is Anne, but it is a stranger.

Crisis of Conscience and Resolution

At work later that day, Trace Bearden calls to ask Francis to provide a reference for Clayton Thomas, who is having trouble finding a job. Francis declines, calling Clayton "worthless" and "a thief." His secretary, Miss Rainey, who heard the exchange, resigns in protest, telling him that she has been offered another position. Francis suddenly feels guilty, and he realizes that he is in crisis. He calls his secretary's psychiatrist, demanding an appointment that afternoon. A police officer greets him at the doctor's office. The doctor's secretary was alarmed at his manner over the phone. Once he is allowed into the office, he tells the psychiatrist that he is in love.

After dinner one evening sometime later, all the usual sounds of Shady Hill fill the night air. Francis is in the basement building a table, a therapeutic hobby the psychiatrist has recommended. He feels happy. Darkness falls on "a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains."

Analysis

Three Eye-Opening Events

Three events early in the story change Francis Weed's perspective on life. The violence and near escape of the plane crash heighten Francis's senses and cast his suburban existence in a new light. He realizes that no one, no matter how close a personal friend or family member, can understand his experience, nor is anyone interested. Not a single person asks about the crash or expresses any concern at all.

When he meets the maid, he knows that he has seen her before. He recalls how years before, during the war, he was in France and saw the woman stripped in public and her head shaved as a punishment for living with a German commander. With the memory fresh in his mind, Francis knows that he can't tell anyone about it. It would be socially unacceptable because everyone in Shady Hill lives with the unspoken agreement that the war never happened. This realization is just another way he begins to see Shady Hill as a place of confinement where the stifling force of its unspoken rules constrains even his speech.

Meeting Anne Murchison, the beautiful teenage babysitter, awakens lust and romance in Francis's middle-aged heart. She makes new things seem possible. In an effort to bypass the social conventions that constrain his activity and attitudes, Francis seeks an escape in fantasy, which his idea of Anne provides. He is fully aware of how inappropriate his behavior and feelings are, but he gives in to his desire, and the pleasure of yielding allows him freedom that he hasn't enjoyed since he was much younger. This event brings out a whole other side of Francis. He says what he really thinks to Mrs. Wrightson, buys jewelry for a woman who is not his wife, and smacks Julia in the face for chastising him.

His newfound freedom is quickly put back under the control of his previous social constraints. He never gives the bracelet to Anne, and he ends up asking his wife not to leave him. The sense of danger, passion, and individual agency that the three events awaken in Francis Weed is no match for what scholar Diane Ross calls the "domestic banality" of Shady Hill.

Allusions

The short story includes a number of historical allusions. In the barn after the crash as the plane passengers wait for transportation to the city, a man comments that it reminds him of the Marne. This is a reference to a World War I battle in Marne, France, in September 1914, when hundreds of Parisian taxis carried two French infantry regiments to the battlefield. There are two references to Hannibal, the Carthaginian general. A host at a dinner party brags that his wife still turns him on, making him feel so manly that he is like Hannibal crossing the Alps. In 216 BCE Hannibal used elephants to navigate over the Alps to invade Italy and defeat the Romans in the Second Punic War. This is the same event alluded to in the final line of the story about men in golden suits riding elephants over mountains.

Cheever sprinkles in a number of classical allusions, beginning with the name of the Weeds' neighbors' family dog. Jupiter is an ancient Roman god of the sky, a deity concerned with ethics and correct behavior. The name is applied with verbal irony, however, because the dog is quite the opposite: a sneaky thief and rule breaker. The letterhead on Francis's work stationary features the mythological figure Laocoon (also spelled Laocoön), a Greek priest of Apollo who warned the Trojans not to touch the wooden horse sent by the Greeks. He was soon killed, along with his sons, by huge snakes, which was interpreted as a sign of the disapproval of the gods. As Francis contemplates his feelings for Anne Murchison, the letterhead feels vaguely like a warning. The statue in New York that Francis passes and identifies with is of Atlas, the son of the Titan Iapetus. Atlas is responsible for holding the pillars that separate the earth and the heavens. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders, literally, which Francis too feels, figuratively. Scholar Diane Ross claims that Cheever's use of classical allusions proves that "romance and beauty can be found in the modern world."

War Imagery and Identity

Cheever uses war imagery to emphasize both physical and psychological conflict in the story. The story begins with the harrowing scene inside the shaking plane cabin, with sparks and flames against the dark stormy sky, reminiscent of World War II aerial battles. Francis is almost shell-shocked afterward and finds, like many soldiers returning home, that no one can really understand his near-death experience. He comes home only to find it like "a battlefield" full of kids screaming like "Scottish chieftains." The face of the maid takes Francis right back to his time in the war, with the memory of her punishment. The host of the party likens himself to Hannibal, referring to an ancient general who invaded Italy. Francis rudely tells Mrs. Wrightson to paint the inside of her windows black, a suggestion reminiscent of blackout curtains used during the war to block light from homes to avoid being a target of the bombs of enemy planes.

The imagery of war serves to describe not only conflict, but also Francis's crisis of masculinity. In the relative peace and plenty of the 1950s, suburban American men like Francis felt pressure to conform to certain standards that were in opposition to their previous ideas of masculinity. As corporations grew in size, so did the cultural emphasis on uniformity, and masculine identity—which had before been aligned with nonconformity—was threatened. Faced with his mortality after the plane crash, Francis seeks meaning and self-expression, seeing the confinement of his suburban life in a new light. The author uses war imagery to evoke his inner turmoil.

DIY and Self-Help

Historian Steven Gelber writes about DIY (do-it-yourself) and masculinity in the period of the rise of white-collar work in the mid-20th century. He claims that "DIY provided men with an opportunity to recapture that pride that went along with doing a task from start to finish with one's hands." The psychiatrist's recommendation to Francis to take up woodworking is one example of the therapeutic use of DIY to reclaim masculinity in a rapidly changing society. In a time of great emphasis on conformity, the new genre of self-help books, such as Dale Carnegie's How Make Friends and Influence People (1936), as well as popular fiction, sought to show readers how they could be individuals while still fitting into expected roles.

The Country Husband Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 The plane Francis Weed is on crashes in a storm.

Rising Action

2 Francis's family is in chaos and uninterested in his day.

3 He falls in love with his kids' babysitter, Anne Murchison.

4 He buys Anne a bracelet and writes her a love letter.

5 Clayton Thomas reveals that he is engaged to Anne.

6 Francis refuses to give Clayton a recommendation.

Climax

7 Francis feels guilty and goes to see a psychiatrist.

Falling Action

8 Francis takes up woodworking as therapy.

Resolution

9 Life goes on as normal in Shady Hill.

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