"Just Tell Me Who It Was:" Wives and What Could Be



By John Dyer

The Shady Hill depicted in "Just Tell Me Who It Was" is such a nice place, so sweet a place, that it's cloying. Characters in the tale are so excessively affectionate, they are always on the brink of smothering each other and blinding themselves with love. The story is about their reactions to those moments when their excessive affection threatens to overturn the precariously pleasant life they have built up around themselves.

The points of concern in the story are the initial descriptions of Will Pym, the few scenes after the country club party, and the moment when Will lashes out at Henry Bulstrode on the train platform.

Will is a euphoric person. He is so intensely happy to have a nice house, a family, and all the other trappings that come with suburbia, we can safely say that he is almost completely satisfied with his life. Cheever paints a picture of Will that connotes this vitality:

He was a cheerful, heavy man with a round face that looked exactly like a pudding. Everyone was glad to see him, as one is glad to see, at the end of a meal, the appearance of a bland, fragrant, and nourishing dish made of fresh eggs, nutmeg, and country cream. (138)
However, the reader should question the nature of Will's perfect world. As the above passage implies, there is something excessive about Will. He is undoubtedly healthy, but perhaps too much so. His face doesn't just resemble a pudding, it looks "exactly" like a pudding; his appearance, equated with a large dessert, which comes at the end of a meal, is described in terms of excess, for a dessert tops off any food already consumed. Will is "heavy."

These questions are addressed more fully when Cheever begins describing Will's adoration for his wife. Will's heaviness translates into oppression in the realm of marriage:

At dinners, he would look across the table at her in the candlelight--laughing, talking deeply, and flashing the rings he had bought her--and sigh deeply. He was always impatient for the party to end, so that they would be alone again, in a taxi or in an empty street where he could kiss her. When Maria first got pregnant, he couldn't describe his happiness. Every development in her condition astonished him. He was captivated by the preparations she made for the baby. When their first child was born, when milk flowed from her breasts, when their daughter excited in her the most natural tenderness, he was amazed. (139)
By identifying Maria in connection with the things he has given her, the rings and the baby, for example, and by wanting always to spirit her off so that he can give her more things, like kisses, Will seeks to control Maria through kindness. However, Will's amazement at Maria and his child shows us that his possessive love is more than simple domination. Judging by Cheever's earlier description of Will in terms of country cream and other 'nourishment,' we can say that Will's fascination with Maria's pregnancy, her 'nourishing' milk, and her natural tenderness is an extension of his fascination with himself and his material success. Will is so pleased with his ascendancy into Shady Hill, everything he sees is touched by his self-absorption. Cheever's comparison of Will's face to a pudding takes on new meaning here. Will is plush and heavy physically, and psychologically his perspective is similarly enveloping. He is magnanimous to a fault, to the point that his liberality overwhelms his wife with passion.

An example of this overpowering love occurs when the couple are walking in the park. Will enthusiastically carves the pair's initials into a tree. Maria is less than excited:

Will stopped and took a knife from his pocket and began to cut their initials in the bark of a tree. What sense would there be pointing out that his hair was thin? He meant to express love. It was Maria's youth and beauty that had informed his senses and left his mind so open that the earth seemed spread out before his eyes like a broad map of reason and sensuality...But Maria was cold and tired and hungry...When they got home, she would have to fix the supper. (141-2)

The couple's differences come to a head in the few days surrounding the annual Apple Blossom Fete, a costume ball. A week before the ball, Maria is tying paper apple blossoms to branches as part of her duties as a member of the decorations committee. Will is sitting in his bathrobe, the children are upstairs sleeping, and all seems right in the world. Then Maria models her costume for Will:

She was wearing gold slippers, pink tights, and a light velvet bodice, cut low enough to see the division of her breasts...A terrible sadness came over Will. The tight costume--he had to polish his eyeglasses to see it better--displayed all the beauty he worshipped, and it also expressed her perfect innocence of the wickedness of the world. (143)
Will protests that Maria cannot wear such a flattering and revealing outfit, but she pleads and begs he allow her to. Will cannot resist her entreaties:
"You're lovely and innocent," he said. "You don't know what a bunch of dogs men are."
"I don't want to be lovely and innocent all the time."
"Oh, Mummy [Maria], you don't mean that! You can't mean that! You don't know what your saying!"
"I only want to have a good time..."
"All right, Mummy, all right," he said. (144-5)

Here Cheever preaches a lesson about the advantages of moderation. Will is so consumed with his vision of innocence and beauty, he cannot believe that Maria has the urges of a normal individual. Will's infatuation has set him up for a fall. His vision of Maria was wonderful, but unrealistic, and now, when the fete is approaching, he cannot react to her in any sensible manner. His adoration has been equivalent to idolatry, and, in an inversion of the Pygmalion myth, his statue has become real, but has turned into exactly what he feared most. If he had not been so excessive in his adoration, Maria asserting herself would not have been such a blow to him.

The fete is just the beginning of the unraveling of Will's elation, however. Maria returns from the ball early in the morning, long after Will has gone to bed. The fete was the equivalent of Mikhail Bakhtin's 'carnival,' a celebration in which the mores of the dominant strata of a social hierarchy are questioned and subverted. In whooping it up all night long, Maria has similarly undermined Will's hegemony. She realizes that by staying up all night she has shattered the image Will has always had of her:

She had lost her pocketbook. Her tights had been torn by the scales of a dragon. The smell of spilled wine came from her clothes. The sweetness of the air and the fineness of the light touched her. The party seemed like gibberish. She had had all the partners she wanted, but she had not had all the right ones. The hundreds of apple blossoms that she had tied to branches and that had looked, at a distance, so like real blossoms would soon be swept into the ash can.
The trees of Shady Hill were filled with birds--larks, thrushes, robins, crows--and now the air began to ring with their song. The pristine light and the loud singing reminded her of some ideal--some simple way of life, in which she dried her hands on an apron and Will came home from the sea--that she had betrayed.
After this episode, Will begins to question Maria's fidelity. We never really know whether Maria has committed adultery or not, but this is irrelevant, for Will himself is not truly concerned with facts. The tribulations he goes through before resolving his crisis are a series of self-deceptions designed to mend the shattered illusions that previously constituted his view of life.

Looking over his marriage with a suspcious eye, Will recounts a number of episodes from the past, each one raising questions about Maria's behavior that hitherto had not been asked. Times when she came home late from the city, or when he thought he saw her walking arm-in-arm with another man--these moments feed his paranoia. At a gathering held the day after the fete, he discovers that a pair of gold slippers and a blue lace girdle were found on the floor of the country club hall. He confronts Maria over the lost garments, but she has no idea of what he is talking about. He rifles through her closet in hopes of finding prove of either her guilt or innocence:

He went upstairs to their room, which was dark. He turned on a light in her closet and opened the chest where she kept her shoes. There were a great many pairs, and among them were gold shoes, silver shoes, bronze shoes, and he was shuffling through the collection when he saw Maria standing in the doorway. "Oh, my God, Mummy, forgive me!" he said. "Forgive me!"
"Oh, Willy!" she exclaimed. "Look what you've done to my shoes." (157-8)
The miscommunication between the two at this point is clear. Will's world has been shaken, while Maria simply sees the problem in terms of a pile of disordered shoes. The inference in this passage is that Maria has not drastically changed in her affection for Will, while her husband's internal conception of the world has gone through a complete metamorphosis. She has easily recuperated from the 'carnival,' whereas Will, who has always placed all his eggs in one basket, that of the role of lead actor in his marriage, cannot so easily put his world back together now that he questions the idyllic basis on which his marriage depended. As a result, he is cut off from himself, from the faith in his wife around which his life revolved, and thus he cannot reflect on what he is doing. It is only when he remembers his adoration for his wife, and then feels guilt for questioning her innocence, that he is able to comprehend his own actions.

However, since Will's vision of his wife has always been his own construct, to reassert it he must change his vision of himself. He reforms his identity when, for a variety of specious reasons, he decides that Henry Bulstrode is his wife's lover, and makes his move at the train station:

And then Henry Bulstrode stepped out of the waiting room, showed his white teeth with a smile, and frowned at his newspaper. Without any warning at all, Will walked over to him and knocked him down. Women screamed, and the scuffle that followed was very confusing.
After this brief moment, Will is back to normal. Suddenly he is the master of his world again:
Now his fruitful life with Maria would be resumed. They would walk on Sunday afternoons again, and play word games by the open fire again, and weed the roses again, and love one another under the sounds of the rain again, and hear singing of the crows; and he would buy her a present that afternoon as a signal of love and forgiveness. He would buy her pearls or gold or sapphires--something expensive; emeralds maybe; something no young man could afford. 162

The story ends as it began. Will's adoration is signified by him giving Maria, the gem of his life, precious stones, which will adorn her, yet be indications of his place at the head of the table. His role in Shady Hill has been reaffirmed, at least in his own mind, and Maria still will not know the intensity of his feelings, or the lengths he has gone to love her so deeply, and wrongly.


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