George W. Hunt has written that Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” is about “the mysterious communality of evil [. . . ]” (238). Without entirely disagreeing with Hunt, I suggest another interpretation for this well-known story. “The Enormous Radio” is actually a study of addiction: the kind of addiction common to many obsessive-compulsive personalities. No stranger to addiction, Cheever wrote the following in his journal: “Since I know so much about incarceration and addiction why can’t I write about it? [. . . I am both a prisoner and an addict” quoted by Clemons 92).
In fact, he was an alcoholic who recovered sufficiently to stay sober the last seven years of his life (Clemons 92). He was well equipped to write a story about an urban housewife’s addiction to an eavesdropping radio. Through her addiction to the radio and what it reveals about her neighbors, Irene discovers the “communality of evil” Hunt refers to. Before the advent of the new radio, the only way Jim and Irene Westcott differed from their upwardly mobile “friends [. . . ] classmates, and [. . . neighbors” was in the fact that the ouple had a mutual liking for “serious music” (Cheever 791).
At first Irene is rather put off by the “physical ugliness of the large gumwood cabinet. ” Its “dials flooded with a malevolent green light,” and inside the cabinet held “violent forces” (792). Many alcoholics will tell you that they initially hated the taste of alcohol, and no one will doubt that for them alcohol contained “violent forces. ” The same is true for any addiction, be it for gambling, overeating, undereating, or any drug. Of course most such addictions develop over a long period.
Within he limits of the short story, Cheever must condense the process of becoming hooked, as it were, living through the addiction’s torments, reaching a bottom, and beginning recovery. The Westcotts already have an interest in the radio because it brings them the music they admire (one might compare this to the initial compensations, be they personal or social, alcohol initially brings to the incipient alcoholic). Soon they discover the radio has other offerings–the private worlds of their neighbors. The first reaction is paranoia: “‘Maybe they can hear us,'” says Jim (794).
This gives way to curiosity: “‘I guess she [the Sweeney’s nurse] can’t hear us,’ Irene said. ‘Try something else'” (795). The third response is delight and mirth, tinged with uneasy astonishment. The radio’s offerings leave them both “weak with laughter” (795) by the end of the day. Jim, perhaps because he has to work all day and therefore isn’t tempted by the radio, doesn’t become “hooked. ” His is a non-addictive personality. Irene, on the other hand, can’t stay away from the radio, but she hides her new interest from the maid. Like the alcoholic hiding his booze, she is furtive” (796).
She becomes astonished and uneasy over the revelations about her neighbors in the high-rise apartment building, neighbors whose lives are far more “melancholy” and filled with “despair” than she’d imagined (795). She becomes “sad and vague” (796). This feeling turns into a “radiant melancholy” Jim is unaccustomed too. Her personality has changed, like an alcoholic on the bottle. She is uncharacteristically rude: at a party, “she interrupted her hostess rudely and stared at the people across the table from her with an intensity for which she would have punished her hildren” (797).
Her addiction now matches the definition for chemical addiction given by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence: “The loss of control and compulsive use of mind-altering chemical(s) coupled with the inability to stop the use in spite of the fact that such use is causing problems within one’s life. ” The euphoria experienced by most addicts soon gives way, typically, to depression: “I’ve been listening all day,” she tells her husband, “and it’s so depressing. ” “Everyone’s been quarreling,” she says. “They’re all worried about money” (797).
The radio, which used to give pleasure, now gives only sorrow. In a very short time she has reached her “bottom,” and in doing so she has lost self-control: she can’t turn the radio off. Jim solves the problem by having the radio “fixed” at a cost of four hundred dollars (798). The price is expensive, not only financially, but also emotionally and spiritually, for now Jim complains about money problems and the two have an altercation about the subject. The old paranoia returns (“Please,” she tells him, “They’ll hear us,” 799); and Jim throws all her past hortcomings at her.
Disgraced and sickened” (799), she must now face real life, not only her own problems but those of the world (the “fire in a Catholic hospital for the care of blind children” and so on, 799). And, like all recovering addicts, she must face these problems without the help of her drug of choice, so to speak. By means of this obsession she has come to new knowledge about evil in the world, not unlike Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown after his night journey, and faced the truth about her own life. The world will never be the same for her.