Style in The Five-Forty-Eight by John Cheever January 21st, 2009 ·

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Poetry Journal September 2001

Style in The Five-Forty-Eight by John Cheever

January 21st, 2009 ·

John Cheever’s short story, The Five-Forty-Eight, is an example of how an author can use connotations within his diction to manipulate reader’s sympathies toward the characters of a short story. A quick reading of this story may give the reader the impression that the protagonist, Blake, is a victim. Upon reading the selection more carefully, it becomes apparent that the author intends for the reader to understand that Blake is a villain.

Blake is a married man with a history of many affairs. His most recent was with Miss Dent, a lady he had employed as a receptionist. Blake was willing to try her out and found her acceptable except for a few things about her. She appeared to him to be overly sensitive and her handwriting was an anachronistic scrawl compared to her apparent level of functioning. Despite these imperfections, he beds her. Then he fires her. When she tries to see him, he refuses to, and the lady stalks him.

Although the author does not at first tell us what Blake had done, it is apparent from his diction that he had done something. When he saw Miss Dent “her face took on a look of such loathing and purpose” that the reader may believe she has a reason to hate him. In the next sentence, Blake feels guilt, not about anything he has done, but the astute reader is guided towards making a connection. Blake does not “turn and look back” to find the true source of his guilt. He “foolishly” listens as if he could hear the “something” that “had been torn down” through “the steel structure” that “was being put up.” This steel structure is not yet solid enough to block out the light. In the reflection from this light, Blake sees his world clearly and it is a world of “cups on the coffee table, magazines to read, and flowers in the vases.” However, the flowers are dead and the cups are empty. We discover the reason why when the “contorted face” of Miss Dent appears closely behind him.

Even before the author tells us what Blake had done to Miss Dent he carefully uses language that suggests Blake is afraid of her. When water runs down his neck it is described as feeling “like the sweat of fear.” Even the smell of the wet city is used to suggest his fear. At the same time, Blake has a “morbid consciousness … of the ease with which he could be hurt.” The author continues to prepare the reader for the acceptance of Blake’s fault as he stops for a “Gibson” and recalls what he knows of Miss Dent.

Miss Dent is described as a dark woman with dark hair and dark eyes leaving “a pleasant impression of darkness.” This suggests to the reader that Blake has dark tastes. Miss Dent is a person who imagines other’s lives to be more brilliant than they are. Blake is one of those whose life is not as brilliant as it seems. If he were so brilliant, would he have “been willing to try her out”? Try her out he does, but in order to do so he has to enter her room “which seemed to him like a closet.” This is a metaphor for where Blake keeps his dark tastes. This metaphor is repeated later in the story to describe the closet that he built at his house so the children would not “see his books.”

That this story is really about Blake’s hidden life becomes clear when the author uses language that suggests Blake is hiding that life. Blake appears “undistinguished in every way” but is concerned that others “could have divined in his pallor or his grey eyes his unpleasant tastes.” The author hides Blake within the “sumptuary laws” and places him in a bomb shelter of a train, described as stinky, filthy, and filled with rank smoke. It is almost possible to imagine Blake in the depths of his personal hell. Blake recognizes the futility of regret but feels the full force of it. His life is “nailed together out of scraps of wood that had washed up on the shore.” By now, the reader understands Blake’s unpleasant tastes are his real life. This “rubber heel” of a man is so distasteful that his son moved half his possessions to the neighbor’s house.

The author uses every bit of this story to show the reader how uncomfortable Blake is with himself. By the end of the story, it is clear to the reader that the results of his actions are written on cheap paper and feel “abhorrent and filthy to his fingers.” As Miss Dent wrote to him, “They say that human love leads us to divine love, but is this true?” For Blake it is not true and the author finally spells out what he has only inferred before. Blake represents evil and preys on weak people. He uses “calculated self-deceptions” to cheer himself. When the stationmaster leaves on the lights, Blake’s waiting room is well lit and Miss Dent sees how shabby it looks.

The plot of this story progresses as if Blake was a victim of a deranged lunatic. However, the author’s diction belies that explanation. Thanks to John Cheever’s style, the reader is clear that The Five-Forty-Eight is about Blake’s shabby morals and that even though Blake has been given knowledge of his own darkness, he will pick up his hat, put it on, and true to his villainous heart, resume his self-deceptions and walk home.

The Five-Forty-Eight

John Cheever’s “The Five-Forty-Eight” is a captivating story that shines light on the struggle to create a facade of perfection in order to cover up one’s true inner turmoil. Blake’s stalker, a mentally ill and emotionally unstable woman, becomes the object of Blake’s deception. Blake is a well-off businessman, who feeds on those who are weak, confident that there will be no dire consequences. When his stalker gets the job as Blake’s secretary, it is her chance to recreate herself, and overcome her mental illness. Instead, Blake messes with her mind, and leaves her jobless, alone, and more frail than ever. In the end, though, it is not Blake’s stalker who works to cover up her inner conflicts, it is Blake. Despite the fact that the reader is meant to see the stalker as the psychotic character, it is Blake whose deep-rooted problems begin to seep through his phony exterior.

When the reader is first introduced to Blake, he is overly confident and distracted. He notices his stalker as he leaves his office, and wonders why she is following him, but seems preoccupied by the recent construction and window displays to worry about her for more than a moment. And for that moment that he does worry, he reassures himself with the fact that, “She was not clever. She would be easy to shake.” (4) Blake is completely oblivious to why the woman, whose name he has not yet taken the time to remember, would be following him. Maybe she was “misled, lonely perhaps.” (4) Despite this false sense of comfort, Blake takes a detour into a men’s bar on his way to the train, believing that his stalker was too simple-minded to wait for him. While in the bar, Blake tries, unsuccessfully, to remember his stalkers name-“Miss Dent, Miss Bent, Miss Lent”. It then becomes obvious to the reader how Blake can live with himself after the way that he feeds on women. He picks women who have a lack of self esteem because to him, they are not people. He dehumanizes them to the point where they are all nameless, each a star on the wall.

After realizing he has missed the express, Blake leaves the bar in order to catch the local five-forty-eight. He is sure that he has lost his stalker, boards the train, and uses the evening paper to “avoid speculation or remorse about her.” (16) “Mr. Blake”, he hears her voice from above him, and suddenly he remembers her name. Miss Dent. While, to the reader, Miss Dent is becoming seemingly more dangerous, her timid voice gives Blake some relief. He still feels as though he has the power to manipulate her, and instead of being worried about what Miss Dent is capable of, Blake looks around to make sure that none of the people on the train that he knows are watching them. But it doesn’t take long for Blake to realize that Miss Dent is serious. She tells him she has a pistol, and that she is not afraid to kill him. This scene shows that there has been a role reversal between Blake and Miss Dent. Blake is now the weak one, the one who is being dehumanized and messed with. The consequences of his actions have finally come back to torment him. He is now the coward, for once he does not have the upper hand of being the tabby in this cat and mouse game he often plays. Miss Dent, although mentally tormented, has found the strength to stand up to the man who has caused her unwarranted trouble and pain. She has realized that she has a problem, and found Blake to be the principle source. Miss Dent uses the train ride to share with Blake how he has made her feel, and instead of listening and trying to fix what he has done to Miss Dent, Blake is distracted by the ads on the walls of the train stations, and who is getting on and off of the train.

Miss Dent is a symbol of Blake’s past. She symbolizes all of the women that Blake has manipulated and used in the past. Instead of confronting the women, Blake has always avoided them-after sleeping with Miss Dent, he fired her, and refused to allow her into his office building. When Miss Dent first met Blake, she had imagined his life to be “full of friendships, money, and a large and loving family.” (6) But once Miss Dent sees Blake’s weaknesses and heartlessness, and once the train stops in Shady Hill, she realizes Blake’s life was not what she had imagined. She says that she ought to feel sorry for him, and that despite what she has been through, she is still better than him. This is ironic, because most of the story, the reader sympathizes with poor Miss Dent, a troubled woman, so desperate for the adoration of such a man as Blake. In the end though, it is Blake whose tormented soul is visible and pitied. It seems as though he is past the point of being cured, whereas Miss Dent can now wash her hands clean of Blake, and finally find peace of mind. After having just been held at gunpoint with his face down in the dirt, Blake, who realizes that Miss Dent has left the station and he is safe, “got to his feet and picked up his hat from the ground where it had fallen and walked home,” and unchanged man. (63)

Discussion Questions- The Five- Forty- Eight

  1. Describe the tone of this short story. Explain the role that diction plays in the development of the tone. Give 4-5 examples to support your argument.

  1. Examine the role of monosyllabic and polysyllabic language in this short story. Examine any shifts or sustained patterns. At what points does the author seem to rely on such a device and why?

  1. What is the point of view utilized in this story? In what ways is the reader manipulated by this form? What information is given and what is withheld that creates the intended effect?

  1. There are numerous mentions of light and darkness in this text. Identify several references throughout the text and examine the author’s intent. Is there a progression of the images or are they mirror images in various settings representing a motif? What might be symbolized by such references?

  1. Emily Dickinson’s poem “Much Madness is Divinest Sense” argues that the “mad” are often closest to the truth and are feared by the “sane.” What is the nature of psychosis as presented in this short story? Who is sane and who is not? Identify the evidence that supports your position.

  1. What universal idea might the author be trying to examine through this story?

( theme- meaning of the work as a whole)

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