"The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" and Nakedness: Cheever's Puritanism and the Pastoral



By John Dyer

"The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," from which John Cheever's 1958 collection of stories derives its name, is the best example of the author's use of the Puritan conscience and the pastoral in his fiction. The primary image in the story is that of nakedness. Cheever introduces nudity in the opening scenes of the narrative and then plays with this trope in order to make statements about his characters' feelings of innocence and guilt.

In one sense, nakedness is a sign of the unadorned nature that is part of the literary convention of pastoralism. Throughout the story the protagonist, Johnny Hake, desires to return to the days of his youth, and specifically to his vacations in the countryside, when he was carefree and innocent. When he expressees these desires, he day-dreams of an imaginary and timeless paradise. In this light, nakedness refers to the shamelessness of the idyllic, prelapsarian, pastoral landscape. However, Hake at times also feels intense guilt in the story. In this sense nakedness is a way the reader can think about the main character's conscience, which is laid bare to an inspection comparable to the Puritanical concept of self-scrutiny described by Austin Warren in The New England Conscience.

The three points of our concern in this tale are the moments when Hake steals from the Warburtons, the guilt that results from this burglary, and the strange conclusion of the story.

Hake finds out about Carl Warburton's money when Mrs. Warburton mentions her husband's wallet. The Hakes and a number of other Shady Hill families are over at the Warburtons for dinner. It is late, and Carl has not yet returned from work:

...Sheila [Warburton] was worried. "Carl has to walk through a terrible slum to get to the station," she said, "and he carries thousands of dollars on him, and I'm so afraid he'll be victimized...." [author's italics](8)
Carl returns unscathed, and the night continues without interruption. The Hakes goes home, and Johnny goes to bed and sleeps, dreaming first of plastic wrap:I had been dreaming about wrapping bread in colored parablendeum Filmex. I had dreamed a full-page spread in a national magazine: BRING SOME COLOR INTO YOUR BREADBOX! The page was covered with jewel-toned loaves of bread--turquoise bread, ruby bread, and bread the colors of emeralds. (8)Then, of his mother, with whom he is estranged:
She sent me through college, arranged for me to spend my vacations in pleasant landscapes, and fired my ambitions, such as they are, but she bitterly opposed my marriage, and our relations had been strained ever since...I wanted to do it all over again in some emotional Arcadia, and have us both behave differently, so that I could think of her at three in the morning without guilt, and so that she would be spared loneliness and neglect in her old age. (9)

Then, finally, Hake has a coughing fit and must get out of bed. Standing in the bathroom, he is reminded of death: "I was suddenly convinced I was dying of bronchial cancer," and then he remembers his failing business:
I tossed my cigarettes into the toilet (ping) and straightened my back, but the pain in my chest was sharper, and I was convinced that the corruption had begun. I had friends who would think of me kindly, I knew, and Christina [his wife] and the children would surely keep alive an affectionate memory. But then I thought about money again, and the Warburtons, and my rubber checks at the clearing house... (10)

After this plot-line, which goes from plastics, to a nostalgic longing, to a fear of death, and finally to a fear of insolvency, Hake promptly gets dressed, sneaks into the Warburtons, and steals Carl's wallet. By analyzing the succession of thoughts leading up to this theft, we can see much of what lies behind the hopes and fears of one of Cheever's suburbanites.

We know that Hake is worried about money, and that he hasn't told his wife about their financial troubles. An analog to this anxiety about problems with money is Sheila Warburton's fear of her husband being mugged in the city. The Warburtons have money, and their money is what separates them and the other suburban dwellers from the slum that exists in the city. This is the tacit backdrop to Hake's financial troubles, the conflict between the dissolute, victimizing city and the theoretically secure suburbs.

Second, Hake's job with the plastics business gave him the money that enabled him to reside in his suburban haven. The loss of his job, and his subsequent failure as an independent businessman, is the root of his anxiety. Hake equates plastic with health and wealth. He thus dreams of food in terms of precious gems. Furthermore, his dream of the plastic-wrapped bread takes the form of an advertisement. The bread is something that can be his if he has the money to buy it, which implies that it is something that he does not have in the context of the dream. And because he does not have the bread now, it is an enchanted article, seen as an advertisement, which makes things appear more attractive than they really are. The shiny bread is thus both a sign of the wealth he once had access to, and of his nostalgic desire to reclaim that wealth.

Hake's reaction to the possibility of losing these adornments forever is to remember his youth, of his mother and the vacations he used to go on. He wants to start over in an Arcadia, a clear allusion to the myth of the pastoral. As his coughing-fit reminds him of his own mortality, and of the end of the possibility of ever rectifying his tense relationship with his mother, however, he is brought back to the present, where he realizes that he has got to have money if he is going to retain his lifestyle.

Hake has somewhat contradictory emotions at this point. His mother was the person who enabled him to achieve his station in life. She educated him, fired his ambitions, and he wants to keep the house and family he has built with the tools she gave him. However, at the same time, Hake is not pleased with the changes his life has undergone as a consequence of his success. His marriage has caused a rift between him and his mother, for example, and now, while he is living in Shady Hill, he is cut off from her. To regain the love of his mother, he would have to change his lifestyle, something which he refuses to do, although retaining that lifestyle is also the source of much of his guilt. Hake thus feels regret for leaving behind the very things which have allowed him to push forward in his life. He cannot go back for them without altering everything he so wants to retain, although back in time are the only things that can fully perfect his present life.

It is in this state that Hake gives into his impulses and robs the Warburtons. Hake seems unconcsciouss of himself during these scenes. He narrates his actions from the past-tense, looking back himself at this time as if he was a fly on the wall: "I could hear the sound of deep breathing. I stood in the doorway for a second to take my bearings. In the dimness I could see the bed, and a pair of pants and a jacket hung over the back of a chair (11)." Furthermore, Cheever focuses on outward description in this scene. The most the reader sees within Hake are the mechanical functions of his body: "All my saliva was gone, the lubricants seemed to drain out of my heart, and whatever the juices were that kept my legs upright were going (11)."

But his theft clearly engenders the opposite of everything his suburban-pastoral dream represents. In stealing from his neighbors, he is victimizing them, bringing the corruption of the city into his suburb. Instead of recreating an Arcadia, a region of simple pleasures and delights, Hake's theft has drastically complicated his life. The drive for naked, unadulterated simplicity has ironically turned into an indulgence of shameless compulsion.

After the theft, Hake begins to notice many of the more corrupt aspects of life that formerly didn't attract his attention, including those corrupt aspects of himself:

I looked at the paper. There has been a thirty-thousand-dollar payroll robbery in the Bronx. A White Plains matron had come home from a party to find her furs and jewelry gone. Sixty thousand dollars of medicine had been taken from a warehouse in Brooklyn. I felt better at discovering how common the thing I had done was. But only a little better, and only for a short while. Then I was faced once more with the realization that I was a common thief and an impostor, and that I had done something so reprehensible that it violated the tenets of every known religion...My conscience worked so on my spirits--like the hard beak of a carnivorous bird--that my left eye began to twitch, and again I seemed on the brink of a general nervous collapse. (13)

Hake suffers from what Warren calls the 'New England, or Puritan, conscience,' which "is not the mark of those who suffer, but of those who suffer interiorly from their own consciences. They are tormented by doubts and scruples; feel the mixed--and hence impure--motives which prompt them to perform 'good works.' (7)" In this case, Hake's 'good work' is anachronistically his theft, which was enacted for good ends, but undertaken through illicit means. We might say that his sense of security dominated him so during the crime, he became avaricious.

His conscience is naked in the sense that it cannot conceal itself from its own scrupulousness. Hake himself undeniably knows the wrong he has committed. Because he is so tormented inside, everything he witnesses is tainted by his perception which, as part of himself, projects that contamination onto the outside world. Consequently, this change in Hake's reality alters everything about him. He cannot disguise an outward demeanor that reflects an inward sin. Thus, even though Hake never tells his wife explicitly that he has stolen the Warburtons' money, she senses that he is "not himself (26)."

One would think that these many examples of Hake's conscience in the story would inspire him to somehow make amends for his crime. Eventually it is something outside of Hake that causes him to change, however. All through his travails, Hake continues to scope out his neighbor's houses, and one day he does actually attempt a second burglary. During this second attempt, before Hake enters the Pewters' house, it starts raining. Caught in the rain, Hake has a revelation:

I was not trapped. I was here on earth because I chose to be. And it was no skin off my elbow how I had been given the gifts of life so long as I possessed them, and I possessed them then--the tie between the wet grass roots and the hair that grew out of my body, the thrill of my mortality that I had known on summer nights...I looked up at the dark house and then turned and walked away. (29)

This baptism seems to be the end of Hake's problems with his conscience. He apparently has won out over the anxiety of relinquishing his suburban way of life. Perhaps at this point in the story he has transcended the fears of dropping down on the suburban social ladder. Luckily, at this time, as if it was destined, Hake winds up regaining the means to keeping the suburbia he so feared losing. The old boss at the plastics manufactory calls and offers Hake his job back. The new Hake takes out an advance on his pay, and resolves to return the Warburtons' money. When he does, something happens that complicates our appraisal of Hake's conversion:

There was no sense in overdoing prudence, and I went around to the back of their house, found the kitchen door open, and put an envelope on the table in the dark room. As I was walking away from the house, a police car drew up beside me, and a patrolman I knew cranked down the window and asked, "What are you doing out at this time of night, Mr. Hake?"
"I'm walking the dog," I said cheerfully. There was no dog in sight, but they didn't look. "Here Toby! Here, Toby! Here Toby! Good dog!" I called, and off I went, whistling merrily in the dark. (30)
This curious episode renders problematic Hakes' new-found probity. Although we are supposed to believe Hake underwent some kind of conversion, since he does not rob the Pewters,' his interaction with the patrolman tells us he still has an inclination to conceal the naked truth. Hake is still an impostor of sorts, thief or not. Hence, he utilizes his skills at dissembling to solve a problem that began with dissembling. He illicitly enters his neighbor's house for a second time, albeit this time to repay, rather than steal.

Hake's crisis of conscience appears rather superficial. After all, it was rather easily dispelled soon after he got his job back. In truth, Hake was operating under delusions from the very start, and his crisis of conscience brings him no closer to really understanding why he was ever prompted to steal. It was a delusion for Hake to think that stealing money would somehow solve his financial problems, a fact highlighted by the farrago of feelings concerning death, his mother, and the pastoral that occurred previous to his theft. And it is similarly a delusion to think that returning the money will really make life any better; Hake is a false convert. He ends the story exactly as he began it, talking to himself in the dark.


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