"The Sorrows of Gin" and the Consciousness of a Child



By John Dyer

In "The Sorrows of Gin," John Cheever writes on the experiences of a suburban child. In his portrayal of a little girl in Shady Hill, the author comments on the rootlessness and dislocation felt by someone who is not part of the predominant social life of suburbia. To a child who plays only a marginal part in her parents' cocktail and dinner parties, the festivities of adults seem more like a confusing set of games than something anyone would want to grow up into.

The three points of concern in this tale are the moments when Amy pours her father's gin down the sink, her decision to run away from Shady Hill for the city, and the conclusion of the story, when Amy's father comments on the emptiness of travel.

The idea to pour her father's gin down the sink comes to Amy from her friend, Rosemary, a cook. The two are talking one night when the Lawtons are out, and Rosemary, taking up the subject of Amy's parent's drinking, relates to the little girl the story of her sister, who was an alcoholic:

"Gin makes some people gay--it makes them laugh and cry--but with my sister it only made her sullen and withdrawn. When she was drinking she would retreat in to herself. Drink made her contrary. If I'd say the weather was fine, she'd tell me it was wrong If I'd say it was raining, she'd say it was clearing. She'd correct me about everything I said, however small it was. She died in Bellvue Hospital one summer when I was working in Maine. She was the only family I had." (88)
A number of elements in this passage relate to other facets of the story. First, Rosemary says alcohol alters people's personalities. Second, it makes them critical. Third, it tears families apart.

At many times in the story does Amy notice how alcohol makes adults act strangely. Her parents seem to behave so artificially when under the influence of alcohol, the little girl compares them and their friends to actors:

Amy had once seen Mrs. Farquarson miss the chair she was about to sit in, by a foot, and thump down onto the floor, but nobody laughed then, and they pretended that Mrs. Farquarson hadn't fallen down at all. They seemed like actors in a play. (97)
This willful suspension of social conventions is a use of parody similar to Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of parody, the 'carnivalesque.' Through gin can Cheever induce his characters to abandon the usual social conventions of suburbia, while still keeping that abandonment within the parameters of the traditional cocktail party, the time of 'carnival' in Shady Hill when deviation from social norms is allowed. Alcohol is the catalyst that turns the living rooms of Shady Hill into places where one may fall flat on one's face and not be criticized for lacking decorum.

Amy's parents are always pointing out ways for her to correct her appearance, straighten her posture, and act more mannerly:

like all the advice he [her father] gave her, it was superfluous. They were always at her. "Put your bicycle away." "Open the door for grandmother, Amy." "Feed the cat." "Do your homework." "Pass the nuts." "Help Mrs. Bearden with her parcels." "Amy, please try and take more pains with your appearance." (86)
Because Amy commonly witnesses these fastidious adults acting in a slovenly manner, there is a gulf of sorts between her and her parents. Amy doesn't initially realize that her parents explicitly have a double-standard, but in her own way she knows that they tell her to do things while doing the opposite themselves. When Rosemary comes back from the city intoxicated, Amy has clear proof of an adult's hypocrisy. Days earlier Rosemary had been delivering an invective against gin, and suddenly Amy can smell the alcohol on the woman's lips. This sudden knowledge of hypocrisy prefaces Amy's decision to pour the gin down the sink.

The two times when Amy pours the gin down the sink are moments when we only see little more than the outward actions of the little girl:

Her mother called down the stairs when Amy came in, to ask if Rosemary had returned. Amy didn't answer. She went to the bar, took an open gin bottle, and emptied it into the pantry sink. She was nearly crying when she encountered her mother in the living room, and told her that her father was taking the cook [Rosemary, intoxicated] back to the station. (92)
Amy went upstairs to her room. In a glass on her table were the Japanese flowers that Rosemary had brought her, blooming staley in the water that was colored pink from the dyes. Amy went down the back stairs and through the kitsch into the dining room. Her father's cocktail things were spread over the bar. She emptied the gin bottle into the pantry sink and then put it back where she had found it. It was too late to ride her bicycle and too early to go to bed, and she knew if she got anything interesting on the television, like a murder, Mrs. Henlein would make her turn it off. (99)
The reader sees some introspection after Amy dumps the gin, but on the whole there is little description of the thoughts behind the act. In fact, Amy herself forgets about emptying the gin until the next day, when she is playing at her piano: "In the middle of "Reflects d'Automne" it struck her that she was the one who had emptied the gin bottle [author's italics] (95)."

This lack of self-consciousness makes Amy very impressionable. She is aware of many of the inconsistencies in her parents' lives, but she also is naive enough to be influenced by them without her knowing it. Thus, the example they unwittingly set for her often causes her to act in ways that impinge on their lives. After Mr. Lawton discovers the missing gin, for example, he accuses the hired-help of stealing his liquor. Amy remains silent during these times, assuming the same kind of purposeful ignorance her parents and their friends engage in during their cocktail parties, when they ignore each other's drunkenness. In another scene, when some neighbors are at the Lawton's for a party, Amy answers Mrs. Bearden's question about school by saying: "I like it...I like private schools much better than public schools. It isn't so much like a factory (86)." One questions whether a young girl like Amy would think to compare a public school to a factory unless she has heard her parents making such a connection.

However, Amy is not simply a tabula rasa. She has her own opinions. For example, the girl ponders the way her parents perform when they are drunk, noticing that they do not get too rowdy when they are intoxicated. She notes that in many ways, their refusal to acknowledge their drunkenness is a sign of an excess of formality. If she wants anything, Amy wishes her parents would act sillier when they were drunk. If this were the case, she thinks, alcohol would at least be more fun. In Amy's mind, alcohol should be an escape from Shady Hill society, not an entrance into it:
Her parents never achieved the kind of rolling, swinging gate that she saw impersonated by a tightrope walker in the circus each year while the band struck up "Show Me the Way to Go Home" and that she like to imitate herself sometimes. She liked to turn round and round on the lawn, until, staggering and a little sick, she would whoop, "I'm drunk! I'm a drunken man!" and reel over in the grass, righting herself as she was about to fall and finding herself not unhappy at having lost for a second her ability to see the world. She had never seen them hanging on to a lamppost and singing and reeling but she had seen them fall down. They were never indecorous--they seemed to get more decorous and formal the more they drank...(96-7)
The name of the song Amy thinks of is of course a telling example of the mind-set of the little girl. Amy lives in a child's realm of fantasy that places her outside her parent's world. The story opens with her reading Black Beauty, a story about a exotic, faraway land, for example, and she bases her conception of alcohol on a circus performance that is totally unlike the way her parents act when drinking. Her decision to run away from Shady Hill reflects her desire to find a place that conforms to her simple vision of the world, and it reflects the guilt she feels from stirring up trouble in a place where she feels she doesn't belong. That pouring the gin down the drain was done with the best intentions in mind, yet was nevertheless discordant with the rules of the adults, highlights her alienation. Amy decides to leave a place she doesn't feel a part of. The argument between Mr. Lawton and Mrs. Henlein spurrs Amy to run away, fearing "the collapse, in the middle of the night, of her father's [not her] house (101)."

The alienation spurring this decision is emphasized by Amy's impulse to go back to the city. Cheever here inverts the pastoral myth. Normally, a character in the pastoral tradition would see the city as a place of disharmony, whereas Amy ironically sees just the opposite. However, the ultimate reason why Amy wants to get out of the suburbs is the same reason why someone would want to get into them, to escape the kind of corruption that caused Rosemary to return from the city drunk. Furthermore, Amy figures she can stay either with old friends or in a museum once she arrives in New York (103). Choosing both places shows a desire to return to a simpler environment, where one can fit into a place surrounded by others like oneself, and where things are seen nostalgically; in a museum, the value of the present is defined by the past.

When Mr. Lawton comes to stop Amy from leaving Shady Hill, he has a moment of reflection. For the first time do we see inside an adult's head in the story:

Oh, why should she want to run away? Travel--and who knew better than a man who spent three days of every fortnight on the road--was a world of overheated plane cabins and repetitious magazines, where even the coffee, even the champagne, tasted of plastics. How could he teach her that home sweet home was the best place of all? (104)
Mr. Lawton is essentially saying that he wants to tell his daughter that outside of Shady Hill there are no solutions to her problems at home, that travel only deracinates a person. The articles that he associates with traveling, examples of kitsch culture, such as repetitious magazines, and coffee and champagne tasting of plastics, are examples of the counterfeit nature one experiences away from Shady Hill. For Mr. Lawton, home radiates real life. Amy sees these examples of kitsch in a positive light, however--Black Beauty, circus shows and television murders are the kinds of things that amuse the little girl. They are easy to understand because, as kitsch, they are uncomplicated and easily digestible forms of the other worlds of the 'carnival', as opposed to something like gin, which has unpredictable, complex effects. This difference in viewpoints puts Amy and her father on a very different planes, a difference that is exacerbated by the contradictory signals Amy's ersatz parents, and the maids and cooks, like Rosemary, send her.

Mr. Lawton's ignorance of his daughter's involvement with the missing gin, and of how disconnected his daughter feels from her own home, underlies the complexity of the schism between Amy and her father. This ignorance is a consequence of the roles the father and daughter are constantly playing. Amy knows, and is disgusted by, the charade her parents play. Similarly, her father's reaction to seeing her at the station seems to infer that he does not comprehend the true, inner character of his daughter. He misreads her when he sees her at the station, thinking she is dependent on him, rather than independent from him at that moment:

It was dark by the time Mr. Lawton got down to the station. He saw his daughter through the station window. The girl sitting on the bench, the rich names on her paper suitcase, touched him as it was in her power to touch him only when she seemed helpless or when she was very sick. (104)
To Mr. Lawton, Amy's flight is a sign of a sickness, a sign of her misdirection that he must correct. To Amy, it is a flight from sickness, an escape from the place where the complex world of drunken adults and drunken cooks. And one does not get the impression that either the daughter or father is going to enunciate these conflicting arguments to each other.

When Mr. Lawton is at the station, we catch a glimpse of his side in this dynamic. He has an experience there that leads us to believe there is another side to the jovial drinker. We know that he is acquainted with the hollow world of traveling. It seems as if he has some opinions about the daily life of Shady Hill as well. Cheever describes his moment of reflection at the station, before he considers how he will convince Amy that home is the best place for her:

He shivered with longing, he felt his skin coarsen as when, driving home late and alone, a shower of leaves on the wind crossed the beam of his headlights, liberating him for a second at the most from the literal symbols of his life--the buttonless shirts, the vouchers and bank statements, the order blanks, and the empty glasses. He seemed to listen--God knows for what. Commands, drums, the crackle of signal fires, the music of the glockenspiel--how sweet it sounds on the Alpine air--singing from a tavern in the pass, the honking of wild swans; he seemed to smell the salt air in the churches of Venice. Then, as it was with the leaves, the power of her [Amy's] figure to trouble him vanished. He was himself. (104)
It seems that occasionally Mr. Lawton feels dislocated, too. When he is alone, and leaves pass by his car, he has a feeling that there must be more to life than the buttonless shirts and bank statements that he deals with from day to day. The pastoral sensations that follow this feeling of dread are a sign of that alternate life. However, Mr. Lawton chooses not to dwell on these sensations. He returns to earth and is above the sentimentality of swooning over his daughter. This down-to-earth reaction to fantasy is what he seeks to impart to Amy. The times when Mr. Lawton feels his skin coarsen are analogous to Amy's feelings of confusion when her parents are performing under the influence of gin. Just as pastoral sensations counteract her father's fear of the finitude of the literal implements of his day to day existence, so is Amy's flight from Shady Hill her childish enactment of these whims for another world. What Amy's father wants to teach her is to resist those whims, so that she may understand the way real life operates.

The catch-22 of this dynamic, however, is that Amy's parents seem to be able to understand real life only through the hazy lenses of gin. Which vision is clearer, the child's, or the parent's, is up for the reader to decide.


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