The Country Husband | Study Guide

John Cheever

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The Country Husband | Themes


Confinement and Powerlessness

The suburban neighborhood of Shady Hill, ruled by a strict social code, is something of a gilded cage that represses individuality and stifles dreams. The community is governed by an unspoken set of rules and hierarchy of power. When Francis Weed is rude to Mrs. Wrightson, he threatens not only his own social standing, but also that of his children. Julia Weed is furious with him. She has carefully established them within the acceptable bounds of the community, and when he breaks those bounds with his insults, Mrs. Wrightson, who controls the invitations to various important events, cuts the Weed children off the list. Every weekday, Francis takes the same train into the city and back home, and at work the photo of his children on his desk is a constant reminder of his responsibilities. Even his conversation at lunches with friends during the week must be limited to certain acceptable topics. Yet as stifled as Francis feels, he seems incapable of escaping the confines of the suburb or his marriage. He has the perfect opportunity when Julia packs her things to leave, but he ends up convincing her to stay.

The confinement of life in the Shady Hill community creates loneliness and unmet needs. Francis is forced to contain "his physicalness within the patterns he has chosen" as a married man in Shady Hill, a constraint he likens to the weight of the world on the shoulders of Atlas. Not only is Francis lonely and seemingly unable to connect authentically with anyone around him, but Julia is lonely and disconnected too. She keeps up a frenetic social schedule to stave off "chaos and loneliness." She can't bring herself to leave though, even when Francis hits her, so she is stuck in her circumscribed role as housewife, married to a man she believes subconsciously hates her and incapable of escape. Francis comes to the edge of the social limits of Shady Hill, only to turn back. At the end of the story he is right back where he started, even deeper in the clutches of suburban life, literally in the basement of his home building furniture.

The only character who openly repudiates the social structure of Shady Hill is also powerless to leave, despite his intentions to do so. Clayton Thomas recognizes that Shady Hill is a hypocritical, amoral, snobby, soul-killing place. The prison of Shady Hill not only traps people within its structure, but, as Clayton complains, also works to keep certain people out. Clayton is an idealist who believes in individual dreams, and he intends to leave Shady Hill to make his own way. It seems unlikely that he will be able to escape though, try as he might. He is already having trouble finding work when Francis lies about his character, probably ruining his chances of finding employment. The short story paints a picture of the suburbs as an unlikely sort of suburban prison.


From the start of the short story it is clear that things are not as they seem. While the plane, shaking with turbulence, is making a dangerous emergency descent, the pilot sings a jaunty tune as if nothing alarming at all is happening. The community of Shady Hill is one where "things seem ... arranged with more propriety even than in the Kingdom of Heaven." The Weeds' home, which looks so neat and tidy, is actually filled with conflict and chaos. Julia cheerfully announces dinner, as if she can't hear the screams of her children. Shady Hill is a community that demands the appearance of order, and generally the Weed family fits the bill. Dressed in their best, the family poses outside their suburban home for their yearly photograph, blithely waving to the neighbors who pass by. But this idyllic presentation masks a dysfunctional family whose father is infatuated with the teen babysitter and whose matriarch desperately tries to fill the emotional void in her life with dinner parties.

One character is not afraid to call out the hypocrisy of appearances in Shady Hill, and another refuses to conform to them. Clayton doesn't fit in at Shady Hill. Being raised by his mother after his father was killed in the war means that Clayton has had to work for money mowing yards. He dropped out of college to get a job rather than be a burden on his mother, an idea that seems shocking to Julia, who asks why he doesn't go back to school. Clayton disapproves of a lot of behaviors he sees in the suburbs, drunken revelry in particular. The "phony" dovecotes on the houses represent the fake marriages underneath them. Appearances are of paramount importance to the community. According to Clayton, the residents spend "so much energy ... in keeping out undesirables"—people who don't fit the image Shady Hill wants to convey—that they have none left to look to the future. One undesirable can be found inside Shady Hill already though. The little girl Gertrude Flannery doesn't appear to be concerned in the slightest with appearances. She goes wherever she likes, "unwashed" and in "clothing ... ragged and thin," deliberately confounding her parents' attempts to clothe her appropriately. Clayton and Gertrude may rebel against the tyranny of appearances in suburbia, but neither is free of their effects: their differences identify them as outsiders.

Inability to Communicate

Despite their efforts and frustration, characters in the short story cannot communicate. After his near-death experience, all Francis wants to do is share his experience with someone. He tries first with a coworker, but he can't really convey the harrowing feelings that the emergency landing elicited, and the man doesn't show an ounce of enthusiasm. Francis can't even talk to his family about what he's been through. His teen daughter isn't interested, and the rest of the family is in too much chaos to care what he has to say. He tells Helen that she may not read the teen magazine she has borrowed, but she disregards him entirely. Even his wife doesn't seem to understand the impact of his day. Nor does he understand his family. His children try to explain their grievances in a fight, but he just scolds them. All the youngest can do is cry on the ground, for which Francis threatens him. Dinner finally ends with Julia in tears when Francis can't understand why she doesn't want to make a separate dinner for the children. The freest communication is that which will never be shared. Francis can only write down his feelings for Anne Murchison because "no one would see the letter, and he used no restraint."

Social conventions in Shady Hill play a large role in the inability of its inhabitants to communicate. There is a "tacit claim that there had been no past, no war—that there was no danger or trouble in the world," so when Francis realizes that a year before during the war he witnessed a neighbor's maid being publicly humiliated and punished, "he could not tell anyone." In the midst of his infatuation for Anne, he is tempted to share his feelings with a friend, but he quickly concludes that it is not possible to admit his feelings because "the moral card house would come down on them all" if he did.

The inability of characters generally to express themselves and be understood leads to unmet needs and the widespread loneliness and dissatisfaction that permeates the short story. Julia believes that her husband hates her, so she can't hear his reassurance during their fight. He tells her that he loves her, but she insists that his laundry on the floor is a passive-aggressive expression of his disapprobation. In the odd moment when Francis's words have their intended effect—insulting Mrs. Wrightson—Francis actually enjoys being "deliberately impolite." However, this only leads to social isolation and more marital conflict for the Weeds.

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