The Enormous Radio
"The Enormous Radio" is a short story written by John Cheever in 1947. It first appeared in the May 17, 1947 issue of The New Yorker and was later collected in The Enormous Radio and Other Stories. The story deals with a family who purchases a new radio that allows them to listen in on conversations and arguments of other tenants living in their apartment building.
Jim and Irene Westcott live contentedly on the 12th floor in an apartment building with their two children near Sutton Place (their city of residence is not mentioned, but Sutton Place is in New York City). Both Jim and Irene enjoy music very much, regularly attending concerts and spending a lot of time listening to music on their radio. However, the Westcotts keep their interest in music from their friends.
When their old radio breaks down, Jim orders a new one, but when it arrives Irene is shocked at the complete and utter ugliness of the device that Jim has bought. The radio is described as a large gumwood cabinet with numerous dials and switches that light up with a green light when it is plugged in. Until the new radio arrived, the Westcotts hardly ever argued and seemed to have a happy marriage.
One night, as Irene is sitting in the apartment listening to the radio she starts to hear interference in the form of a rustling noise over the music concert that is being broadcast. She tries to get the music back by flipping all of the switches and dials, but then begins to hear the sounds of people from other apartments in the building. She is so surprised by this that she shuts off the radio. Later that evening when Jim arrives home from work, he tries the radio to get some music. Instead of music, Jim hears elevator noises and doorbells.Believing that the electronics in the building are interfering with the signal he decides to turn off the radio and call the people who sold it to him and demand to have the radio repaired.
The radio is examined and the problem apparently fixed, but the next day while Irene is listening to a Chopin prelude she hears a man and woman who seem to be arguing. Realizing that the conversation is coming from people who live in a nearby apartment, she flicks a switch, but next hears a woman's voice reading a children's story, which she recognizes as belonging to her neighbor's children's nanny. She flips the switch again, but each time she does so she becomes privy to the events in another apartment. Irene demands that Jim turn off the radio because she is afraid her neighbors will hear her and Jim, just as they can hear the others in the building.
Over the next few days Irene listens in on the lives of her neighbors, and finds herself becoming both intrigued and horrified. Irene becomes so obsessed with listening in on her neighbors, that she cuts a luncheon short with a friend to go home and listen to the radio to hear what news would be revealed next in the lives of friends and neighbors. Jim notices how strange Irene has become in her ways and conversations, especially at a dinner party the Wescott's attended. On the way home, Irene speaks of the stars like a little candle throwing its beam as to "shine a good deed in a naughty world."
Irene becomes totally involved in the lives on the radio and becomes depressed herself. She has gone from a pleasant, rather plain woman, to a woman who doubts who she is and doubts her relationship with her husband Jim. Once more, Jim arranges for the radio to be examined and this time the repairs are successful. The repairs are expensive and a great deal more than Jim can afford. All he wanted was for Irene to get some enjoyment from the radio. Instead the radio brings the Westcotts' peaceful life to an end. Not only is the second repair of the radio more than Jim could afford, but he also finds unpaid clothing bills on Irene's dressing table. Thus the beginning of the hidden truths coming to the surface; Jim worrying about money issues and Irene worrying about the radio hearing their argument and the past indiscretions of her life.
According to Alan Lloyd Smith, author of American Gothic Fiction - An Introduction ISBN 0-8264-1595-4, a concept of domestic abjection is one that "disturbs identity, order, and system". This is exactly what the new radio did in the Westcott household. When Mrs. Westcott saw the new radio in the large gumwood cabinet, she did not like the enormousness of it. The Gumwood cabinet is a "dark" cabinet and did not fit in with the living room furnishings and colors that Irene had personally chosen. This cabinet is dark and ugly, bringing darkness into the living room and their lives. Eventually, Irene identifies herself with the object.
Another gothic concept of The Enormous Radio is the element of buried secrets. Both Jim and Irene begin to recognize that there is tension in their marriage. Irene had many deep dark secrets that she feels guilty about. She has successfully hidden these secrets all these years until the ugliness of the radio brings up her neighbors problems. Irene has suppressed and hidden her feelings to others and herself for a long time. This is the reason she is drawn to the radio, it exposes the inner life of others and eventually hers. Irene identified with the others in the building as her own problems. It is ironic that the thing purchased to bring joy to the Westcott's life did nothing but cause trouble between them. Secrets revealed are sometimes not able to be handled well.
Alan Lloyd Smith also identifies Domestic Gothic as, intimately bound up with the idea of the house, gender, and family, which becomes through metaphor, a way of externalizing the inner life of fictional characters.
Adaptations in Film
Adaptations in Radio
- Cheever, John (1953). "The Enormous Radio And Other Stories". Funk & Wagnalls Company. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
- Smith, Alan Lloyd (2004) American Gothic Fiction, p 102, The Continuum International Publishing Group ISBN 0-8264-1594-6
- "The Enormous Radio" at the Internet Movie Database
- Dennis Nyhagen. "The Definitive CBS Radio Workshop Radio Log with Parley Baer, Herb Butterfield and William Conrad". Digitaldeliftp.com. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
- Relic Radio (February 7, 2010) "ST05: The Enormous Radio by CBS Radio Workshop"