John Cheever, ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.

In Cheever’s story ‘O City…’, about which I wrote last time, the protagonists are not his usual cocktail party circuit suburbanites, but working class. The story showed his ability to blend light humour with a darker moral purpose: Evarts comes to the big city not just to try to become a successful playwright, but really to make his fortune – without necessarily doing much to merit it. This is a theme found in other Cheever stories. We saw that Evarts’s story was a sort of inverted Country Mouse fable.

This time I’d like to respond to Michael Pucci’s recent post on The Mookse and the Gripes website on Cheever’s story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.  He really nails what the story is doing, and how the themes are conveyed. So not much to add on that score. I’d just like to offer here a few extra thoughts, but would strongly recommend you check out his post: it’s first rate.

As Michael and those who comment on his post point out, this is a story, first published in the Christmas 1949 edition of The New Yorker, that takes Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and other sentimental stories like it (‘Miracle on 34th Street’, perhaps), and subverts it, just as Cheever did with Aesop’s fable in ‘O City…’

There are frequent echoes of the Dickens content and style. This is Dickens:

Mr Fezziwig's ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

Mr Fezziwig’s ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled…etc. (Fezziwig’s ball, Christmas past)

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts… There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions…There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes…[this goes on for some time] (Christmas present)

And here’s Cheever’s description of Charlie’s haul from his tenants:

There were goose, turkey, chicken, pheasant, grouse, and pigeon. There were trout and salmon, creamed scallops and oysters, lobster, crab meat, whitebait and clams. There were plum puddings, mince pies…etc.

The stylistic similarity is clear; so is the intent. When it comes to the booze Charlie is plied with, there are ‘Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds’…etc.

It’s a cornucopia of food, drink and gifts. Unlike Scrooge, however, Charlie is the recipient of this anxious generosity; he’s given his wealthy tenants a sob-story and they’ve salved their consciences by showering him with gifts.

The plot and circumstantial detail are carefully presented in Michael’s post, so I won’t repeat them here. I’ll look instead mostly at style.

The theme is the problem of charity: how do the comparatively rich deal with the problem of the ‘worthy poor’, and what leads them to show liberality and benevolence? Conversely, what’s to stop the poor from tapping the rich meretriciously, and if they do who’s to say they’re to blame in a capitalist world of inequality?  Cheever uses the brilliant phrase ‘licentious benevolence’ for the murky impulse to be selflessly charitable on just one day of the year. Does the upper-class person with wealth and a conscience pass by the beggar on the street without taking pity and putting money in their cup on the patronising grounds that they’ll probably spend it on booze or drugs? But what if they have, like Bob Cratchit, a hungry, disabled child at home who relies on them to bring food to the table? It’s an enduring dilemma.

Both stories belie Cheever’s reputation as the Chekhov of the suburbs, and deal with the working-class poor; in both cases their straitened circumstances are highlighted by contrast with the immoderate wealth of the rich, who live in opulent luxury. I’m not sure he fully understands them.

The imagery throughout the story places heavy emphasis on the opposing binary fields of dark and light: ‘the sky outside his window was black’ appears in the first paragraph. In paragraph two there’s this:

…the only lights burning were lights that had been forgotten…The neighbourhood was dark…[there’s a]wall of black windows.

On the next page, as Charlie starts work, we read that the heating system didn’t

lighten his loneliness or his petulance. The black air outside the glass doors had begun to turn blue, but the blue light seemed to have no source…It was a tearful light, and as it picked out the empty street, he wanted to cry.

We’ve previously noted how Cheever isn’t shy of using pathetic fallacy – maybe too heavy-handedly. Here ‘a tearful light’ strikes me as a little forced – though it links neatly with Charlie’s desire to cry.

Like ‘O City’ this is a parable, a fable, a fairy tale. It’s also, again, very humorous, despite its darkness and sombre undertones.

There are some typically fine turns of phrase that stand out in their lyricism in relief against Cheever’s otherwise characteristically unshowy style. As early as the second paragraph – he does like to start and end his stories with panache – there’s a terrific description of Charlie’s grumpy, grudging, misanthropic journey to work on Christmas morning:

Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall of the city, the end of time.

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

I’ve noticed Cheever’s predilection for images introduced by ‘as if’; this is one of several in the story, and he makes frequent use of the device elsewhere. Here the language in the simile soars daringly, and the author shows a preparedness to reach for magniloquent, lofty philosophical , even spiritual heights (and depths) that complicate the otherwise jocular narrative. Like Dickens, Cheever isn’t afraid of taking risks with such juxtapositions, of flirting with sententiousness; both writers at times therefore fire duds, or lapse into sentimental or overcooked prose, but when they get it right, as here, they’re breathtaking.

What I find interesting as well here is the way Cheever’s narrative voice shifts in and out of the protagonist’s consciousness: whose ‘impression’ is this? Surely not Charlie’s, who’s too full of self-pity at this point, and lacking in introspection and vocabulary, to entertain such thoughts. Although he’s sorry for himself, he doesn’t come across as the type to have notions of eschatology like this.

So: I intended keeping this post shorter, and find I’ve rattled on at length yet again. There are other outstanding features in this story I’d like to explore, like the wonderful thumbnail sketches of the varied tenants Charlie taps for gifts. I can’t resist one: Mrs Hewing, who Charlie ‘happened to know, was kind of immoral’ – note the comical use of Charlie’s own idiom within the narrative there, that modernist technique Genette calls focalisation (but Jane Austen also uses it with aplomb)– and when he first takes her down in his elevator ‘hadn’t been to bed yet’; later she calls him to her floor to give him his gift and appears

Standing in the hall, in a kind of negligee…She had been crying and drinking.

There’s a whole novel compressed there.

And there I’d better stop.

In his Journals Cheever expressed a desire ‘to disguise nothing, to conceal nothing, to write about those things that are closest to our pain, our happiness’. That polarity – pain and happiness – I’d like to have shown more clearly in my previous post. It’s central in this story.

Beneath the veneer of sly humour this is a grim, furious fable again, like ‘O City’, about the potential for inhumanity in people, of our capacity for selfishness and hypocrisy, and for convincing ourselves that taking a course of action that serves our own purposes, even if it costs others, is justifiable.