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John Cheever: The Five-Forty- Eight | Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1479 words Published: 14th Dec 2017

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John Cheever’s “The Five-Forty- Eight” explores how actions have consequences through his portrayal of the character Blake. Blake is introduced in the story as a heartless, selfish, and immoral man who is the victim of a stalking by an obviously upset woman. While married he has had a one night stand with Miss Dent, his secretary, and then he had her fired. He believed that ‘Her diffidence, the feeling of deprivation in her point of view, promised to protect him from consequences’ (Cheever 319). Unfortunately for him, Miss Dent is mentally impaired. Therefore, she seeks revenge by stalking him and then holding him at gun-point on a train near his home. Through the character Blake, Cheever uses irony, imagery, and flashbacks to stage this story in order to demonstrate that actions have consequences, but not all who experience aftermath, even negative aftermath, change from it.

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Blake, like a predator, seeks out weak women to quench his sexual appetite, and he has no emotional attachment to any of them. The story shows that he observed Miss Dent for awhile before he decided to use her being lonely to his benefit. Harold Bloom’s summary of the story puts it well; Bloom states that “He is interested in his secretary because of the power that he has over her, because she imagines his life as ‘full of friendships, money, and a large and loving family’ and herself has a ‘peculiar feeling of deprivation.’ ” He has gotten used to this scandalous life style because Miss Dent is not the first woman to be seduced by him: “Most of the many women he had known had been picked for their lack of self-esteem.”(Cheever 319) It is not surprising that he commits adultery because he does not value his marriage and does not care how it will affect his wife.

Through Cheever’s use of flashbacks, scenes from a character’s past that identify who the character used to be or some significant background information about that character that explains why the character is presently, a reader can see who Blake really is. He reveals Blake’s relationship with his wife through Blake’s flashbacks. In this flashback, Blake is married to Louise Blake for possibly 8-10 years. Also, the reader is introduced to Mrs. Compton, Louise’s neighbor and confidant, whom Louise Blake would go to whenever she was troubled by her husband’s quarrelling. Apparently, he has decided not to speak to her for two weeks because she did not fix him supper one night. Although she cries and pleads for forgiveness, her tears do not penetrate his concrete heart. Now that she is old, it seems as if the only thing that attracted him was her physical beauty. He has lost the love she believes he might have had for her at first. A close, tearful, and broken heart is not important to Blake. Through flashbacks like the one just mentioned, the reader observes that Blake has not changed because his wife’s tears are not the only ones he has caused.

A previous flashback lets the reader know that after the one night stand Blake had with Miss Dent, she “was weeping. He felt too contented and warm and sleepy to worry much about her tears” (Cheever 319). Despite Miss Dent’s crying, probably because of the sense of betrayal and no future with her lover, Blake remains content. He also has destroyed all possible friendships with his neighbors and people, yet he is still satisfied.

Blake’s unfeeling attitude is part of his non-changing, or static character.

In this story, Cheever uses situational irony to show that Blake’s actions have not gone unpunished. Situational irony is when the expected outcome is different than the actual outcome. He does this in a canny fashion. In the story to evade Miss Dent, Blake took the local train ‘The Five-Forty-Eight’, where he is sitting in a car alone trying to avoid ‘speculation or remorse’ of Miss Dent. While sitting, he sees a piece of yellow light in the break of clouds that would normally signify freedom, a safe haven, or refuge. However, the story does not end there. Someone calls him, and it is Miss Dent. The irony is present in that he seems to have successfully evaded his stalker but apparently he hasn’t and Cheever unveils just how big of a trap he is in as she sits next to him. Ironically, his neighbors are in the same train car, but they reasonably pay no attention to him but he needs their help. He is trapped with his ‘insane’ stalker that clearly wants to “eradicate him from the world–not to erase him physically, but to change his soul. Despite the frenzied nature of her accusation, she is quite accurate in her judgment, “…if there are devils in this world, if there are people in this world who represent evil, is it our duty to exterminate them? I know that you always prey on weak people…” He feels nothing and she feels too much.”‘(Bloom) Oddly, although checked by a gun, this normally unnerving situation does not faze him.

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To help him understand her hurt, she tells him of her damaged life after him. She begins to say how sick she has been and that she has had no job since. Then she tells him that she should kill him and her only punishment would to be readmitted into the mental hospital. She makes him read a letter that she was too ‘sick’ to mail out to him while holding the pistol to his belly. Soon the train arrives at Shady Hill, his stop. Ironically, the name Shady Hill implies nothingness, and a place that readers liken to a forgotten graveyard where nothing changes. This is the place Blake comes from. Here they get off and Miss Dent forces him to the ground and after ignoring her voice for the train on the third scream, “Kneel down!’ He got on his knees.” (Cheever 325) Now it would seem that she has taught him a lesson.

Examination of the text before and after his prostration reveal why Blake got down on his knees and did not escape Miss Dent in the first place. Before they exit the train in lines 30-35, Miss Dent interrupts his escape, “Don’t try and escape me. I have a pistol and I’ll have to kill you and I don’t want to. All I want to do is talk with you. Don’t move or I’ll kill you. Don’t, don’t, don’t!” (Cheever) Then Blake’s body language shows he has entered survival mode. The only way to survive at gun point is to do what the gun holder wants you to do and that is what he did. Then after they exit the train and he prostrates himself in lines 60-end, she says, “if you do what I say, I won’t harm you” Now, he knows he will not die if he does as she says. Then he realizes her motive “I really don’t want to harm you, I want to help you, but when I see your face is seems to me that I can’t help you” “if I called to show you the right way, you wouldn’t heed me”… Put your face in the dirt!”(Cheever) She had to say it twice to make him do it. In between that he had time to think of what he had to do to make her believe that he was a changed man and that her mission was accomplished. He knew that what he did next would satisfy her “He stretched out on the ground, weeping. ‘Now, I feel better,’ she said.’ “When Miss Dent leaves, he fakes to get up “warily at first, until he saw by her attitude, her looks, that she had forgotten him; that she had completed what she had wanted to do, and that he was safe. He got to his feet and picked up his hat from the ground where it had fallen and walked home.” These actions show no remorse rather, this play that he performed so well fulfilled its purpose, self- preservation.

In “The Five-Forty-Eight” Blake is introduced as a helpless victim of a stalking by a deranged woman. John Cheever uses informational flashbacks, situational irony, and clever imagery to show that actions have consequences. Blake has tricked and seduced his secretary, Miss Dent, whom he had fired, into having a one night stand with him, while he was married. This action along with many others shows that hurting others is no problem for him. The background information shows that he has grown a stubborn stone heart and he is a static character. Harold puts it best in his summary “But then the gun is taken away, he gets up, and sees that Miss Dent is “small, common, and harmless.” These words, coupled with his final act, and long lifestyle of heartless selfishness and callous abuse of others shows the reader that “Blake rises from the ground as the same man.” (Bloom)


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