'Think About Characters Like a Sphere': How John Cheever Wrote Inner Turmoil

Novelist Paul Harding explains what Cheever's short story "The Jewels of the Cabots" taught him about portraying humans' contradictory impulses.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

John Cheever, one of the best short-story writers of the 20th century, has an undeserved reputation as a square: He deftly portrayed the excesses and ennui of the affluent, so it’s often assumed that Cheever’s work is as conventional and straight-laced as the WASPs he chronicled. Not so, though. In his interview for this series, novelist Paul Harding makes the case for Cheever as a storyteller-mystic and prose magician, unafraid to dive into the subterranean chambers of the human heart. And from “The Jewels of the Cabots,” the stunning but overlooked capstone of Cheever’s Pulitzer-winning collected stories, Harding learned the aesthetic principle that undergirds his own work.

Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In his second novel, Enon, he returns to the landscape of Boston’s North Shore (“Enon” was the original, 17th-century name of Wenham, Massachusetts, Harding’s hometown). Tinkers starred the dying man George Washington Crosby, whose mind unravels as the novel charts his memories; Enon begins years later as Crosby’s grandson, Charlie, struggles to accept the accidental death of his 13-year-old child.

Paul Harding spoke to me from his home in Boston, where he teaches fiction at Harvard University.

Paul Harding: I first encountered John Cheever my senior year of high school. Reading The Wapshot Chronicle, I remember thinking what a strange, poetic, mythological kind of writer Cheever was. And then I immediately ran into his unfortunate reputation: the whole thing of Cheever being the chronicler of the upper middle-class suburbs, the man with the nice house in Connecticut who always wandered around in his wide wale corduroys and florsheim penny loafers. For me, that impression has never stuck. I think of him as a fabulist. I put him in the same category, broadly speaking, as writers like Italo Calvino. Not only does he write frankly surreal stories like “The Swimmer”—stories like “The Day the Pig Fell in the Well” or “The Jewels of the Cabots” have the mystery and weight of folktales or old legends. Cheever trades the principles of verisimilitude for his own inner, wonderfully imaginative logic.

I started really digging in to him in graduate school, when I was getting my MFA. For me, “The Jewels of the Cabots” the crown jewel of his collected stories. It’s basically a novel in 20 pages. I’ve read it a million times, I’ve taught it a million times, and I know it line by line.

The dramatic premise of the story is this: A guy talks about the town where he grew up. He’s obsessed with this family called the Cabots, who are the wealthiest people in the town. The title refers to the fact that the eccentric Mrs. Cabot has a large collection of diamonds—which she washes and hangs out to dry on her clothesline. They’re the quintessential cranky Yankees, these people, wealthy but parsimonious. And they’re an occasion for the narrator to agonize over, obsess about, and wrestle with questions of class, privilege, family ties.

Brilliantly, Cheever gives the narrator two equally strong but precisely opposite impulses. His first impulse is to confess: The story’s meant to be a confession, in the sense of St. Augustine. He wants to confess his sins, put all his cards on the table. But then he also feels an opposite, contradictory impulse, which is just as strong: to conceal. To evade. And much of the dramatic tension of the story rests in the fact that what he wants to confess is his impulse to conceal, or evade, the uglier sides of the reality he knows. I always hesitate to use the word “dialectics”—but there is a thesis/antithesis at play here, and as these two forces contradict one another, the story shapes itself.

The story’s structured in an amazing series of weird, inadvertent, backhanded revelations about the narrator, his family, and his community. It’s an advance and retreat structure—he’ll reveal something and then veer away. For instance, the story begins this way: “Funeral services for the murdered man were held in the Unitarian church in the little village of St. Botolphs.” The narrator of the story is a journalist, and he starts in the quintessential fashion of a newspaper article: who, what, where, why, when. But instead explaining about the murdered man in a straightforward account, he takes a detour. Before we’re even halfway down the page, the paragraph turns into this gigantic, long parenthetical statement that does everything but talk about this murder. There are these refrains throughout the story—“here are the facts,” or “back to the facts”—when the narrator tries to rein himself back in. But every time the facts get heavy, or require some kind of emotional candidness, he dodges them again.

It’s this astonishing, virtuoso performance on Cheever’s part—the idea that the human heart can be so evasive in this way. The murder he’s going to tell you about in that first sentence goes away, and doesn’t come back until the very end. And when it does, his strange confession is this: He knows who committed the murder, but he hasn’t gone to the police. So, he’s denying his inheritance while at the same time availing himself of it. He knows his inheritance is corrupt, but at the same time he’s utterly enthralled by his connection to these sinister, glamorous people. It’s absolutely genius.

You can see those contradictions at work here, in one of the story’s most powerful passages:

Children drown, beautiful women are mangled in automobile accidents, cruise ships founder, and men die lingering deaths in mines and submarines, but you will find none of this in my accounts. In the last chapter the ship comes home to port, the children are saved, the miners will be rescued. Is this an infirmity of the genteel or a conviction that there are discernible moral truths?

I’m drawn to the stunning aesthetic and intellectual depth here—and the economy, the capacity, of his language. But what I like best is how artfully he shapes this guy’s humanity out of frankly contradictory impulses. He’s telling us that his story eschews darkness and works towards happy endings—and asking whether this impulse to dissemble about the harder truths is a serious moral failure. The irony is that this whole story is about murder, suicide, racism! Even here, he’s hiding from the fact that his whole story really is about madness and darkness. His whole impulse is to disavow who he really is—someone who contains darkness. Of course, you can’t do that. And the great irony is that through disavowing himself, he only becomes more himself—because the very act of disavowal is the quality that most embodies this character. This kind of inner convolution is so recognizably, universally human.

Cheever is a writer who helped teach me to think about characters like a sphere: You’ve got the north pole and the south pole, a polarity with opposite charges contained inside one whole. But then there’s these magnetic fields created between the two of them, which is where the real complexity is, where the real intermingling of those contradictory impulses take shape.

So I strive for these polarities in my own work. You have to be careful that you’re not dogmatic or schematic about it. But the more I think about it, I’m aware that—in all art forms—contradiction is the essential move or method for art. In music it’s counterpoint. In landscape painting it’s the contrast between the foreground, which is always dark, and the background, which is light. And in writing, it’s death and life. The imminent arrival of death—what greater thing to set life in relief against? In Enon, the whole thing is just a sonata—it’s just one voice—against the threat of utter darkness. The darker it gets, when we arrives at just one remaining pinpoint of light, that pinpoint becomes all the more beautiful and resplendent for its rarity and clarity against the gloom. You put contradictory things next to each other, and in the intermingling of them you get something like the mystery of human experience.

The same kind of principle works for juxtaposition—the infinite with the infinitesimal. This works in writing, when you describe something on the scale of the universe, and then describe something as tiny as a grain of sand. So you could take a tiny, intimate domestic scene—someone drinking a cup of tea at a desk—that scalability, that intuitive human truth that the great and the small, the good and the bad, the light and the dark, are all intermingled.

The poles must be structured around the truly irreducible questions—mysteries you can’t get to the bottom of. Otherwise, you’re in danger of explaining yourself away. Second-rate writing will tell you which pole to pick: “Be kind to strangers!” Then you’re in the realm of propaganda or received opinion or truisms. I think the definition of kitsch, or sentimentality, is denying either pole in favor over the other. It goes back to what Cheever’s character, is attempting but failing, to do—trying to deny the dark part and show only the light. But in the model, that conceptual model, no subject has any meaning if it’s been separated from its opposite. It’s Einstein, it’s relativity: Nothing has meaning without being relative to its opposite.

These contrasts really can be the organizing aesthetic principle of fiction. One of the reason I’m attracted to Cheever is that he really doesn’t give a shit about plot. “The Jewels of the Cabots” really doesn’t have much of a plot. It is the drama of consciousness, the drama of wrestling with one’s moral reality—you take the events of the outside world, you pass them through a consciousness—and the angle of refraction is what you would call character. Once you start to look for this, you start to see it everywhere. This occurs in every sentence, every passage, every paragraph, and the entire story is actually constructed that way. In his hands, it becomes narrative circles—he keeps orbiting around it’s almost like he gets too close to the sun, which is the truth, so then he orbits back out into the dark distance—and then he always returns.

I group Cheever in with the transcendentalists. You can hear Emerson in him—every man understands that he’s better than how others perceive him. Every person wants to be perceived in terms of the ideals they have for themselves in their own heart. "Here are all the beautiful things I want most to believe in, and here are all the low-down dirty things I actually do." It’s like St. Paul to the Romans: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do.” It can be as mundane a thing as “I don’t want to smoke cigarettes, but I smoke cigarettes.” These contradictions are compelling from the most trivial vice to the deepest sinful stuff—that’s the real human arena, and Cheever is deep, deep down in it. So to the people who say Cheever is the great chronicler of postwar depthless upper middle-class prosperity and alcoholism, I say—Baloney! It’s crazy.

Every single day’s writing session is an attempt to get to that complexity. To climb down into the fictional realm and inhabit a character, and see the world and the dramatic circumstances that I’ve given him through his perceptions. And to write prose that reproduces his experiences, not only the events of his life but his interpretations of them. Life in its full range, irreducible, in its full, heartbreaking complexity. All I want to do is immerse the reader in the experience. I do not write in order to explain, I write in order to describe—the true mystery, the heartbreaking mystery of being a human being.