The Enormous Radio
"The Enormous Radio" is a short story written by American author 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 and 55 Short Stories from the New Yorker. The story describes a strange new radio that allows its owners to listen in on conversations of other tenants 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). They both love to listen to music, regularly attending concerts and spending time listening to music on their radio.
When their radio breaks down, Jim orders a new one, but when it arrives Irene is shocked at its complete and utter ugliness. It is 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.
As Irene listens to music on the radio one evening, she hears interference in the form of a rustling noise over the music. She tries to get the music back by flipping switches and dials, but 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. When Jim arrives home, he also tries the radio to get some music, but instead hears elevator noises and doorbells. Believing that the electronics in the building are interfering with the signal he turns the radio off, and determines to 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 neighbors' 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. She becomes so obsessed with listening in on her neighbors that she cuts short an outing with a friend, to go home and listen to the radio to hear what news would be revealed next from her neighbors. Jim notices how strange Irene has become in her ways and conversations, especially during a dinner party with friends. 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.
According to Alan Lloyd Smith, a concept of domestic abjection is one that "disturbs identity, order, and system". This is exactly what the new radio does in the Westcott household. When Mrs. Westcott sees the new radio in the large gumwood cabinet, she does not like its enormousness. The Gumwood cabinet is "dark" and does 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 in The Enormous Radio is the element of buried secrets. Both Jim and Irene begin to recognize that there is tension in their marriage. Irene has 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 why she is drawn to the radio; it exposes the inner life of others and eventually hers. Irene identifies with the others in the building as her own problems. It is ironic that the thing purchased to bring joy to the Westcotts' life only causes trouble between them. Secrets revealed are sometimes not 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 television
Adaptations in radio
- Cheever, John (1953). "The Enormous Radio And Other Stories". Funk & WagnallsCompany. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
- Smith, Allan Lloyd (2004). "American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction". New York: Continuum, 2004. Print.
- Smith, Alan Lloyd (2004) American Gothic Fiction, p. 102, The Continuum International Publishing Group ISBN 0-8264-1594-6
- "The Enormous Radio" on IMDb
- Relic Radio (February 7, 2010) "ST05: The Enormous Radio by CBS Radio Workshop"
- Dennis Nyhagen. "The Definitive CBS Radio Workshop Radio Log with Parley Baer, Herb Butterfield and William Conrad". Digitaldeliftp.com. Retrieved 25 March 2012.