Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cheever's "Goodbye, My Brother"

            I'll make a few comments about this short story by John Cheever:  The occasion is a Pommeroy family get-together at a summer place on Laud's Head where the children, in their thirties or early forties, jointly own this vacation property.  What makes this particular get-together unusual is that the brother, Lawrence, who has essentially disowned them, is showing up for this one.  That wasn't his purpose.  He didn't come to the resort for the get-together.  He came to sell his part of the resort to his older brother Chaddy. 

            The narrator, one of the brothers, is a school teacher and Lawrence is a lawyer.  The narrator doesn't like Lawrence, but then none of the other members of the family do either.  Still, he is their brother and they try to draw him into their fun, but Lawrence won't be drawn.  He is critical of all he sees and hears.  He doesn't like the house, the weather, the beach or either of the games his family enjoys playing: backgammon and tennis. 

            The narrator tells us that the "Pommeroys were ministers until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the harshness of their thought -- man is full of misery, and all earthly beauty is lustful and corrupt -- has been preserved in books and sermons.  The temper of our family changed somewhat and became more lighthearted, but when I was of school age, I can remember a cousinage of old men and women who seemed to hark back to the dark days of the ministry and to be animated by perpetual guilt and the deification of the scourge.  If you are raised in this atmosphere -- and in a sense we were -- I think it is a trial of the spirit to reject its habits of guilt, self-denial, taciturnity, and penitence, and it seemed to me to have been a trial of the spirit in which Lawrence had succumbed."

            I thought at this point of Hawthorne who did not have balanced view of this phenomenon.  There were indeed those in New England who correspond to this description but there were probably more who did not.  The narrator might have something like Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" in mind but Edwards was an unusual preacher and that was an unusual sermon.  Edwards did not represent the majority Christian-viewpoint of his day.  And even if we go back further, to the days of the Puritans, when historians without axes to grind examine the lifestyle of those times, we learn that the Puritans were not as Puritanical as they have been portrayed.  They were not like the narrator's brother, most of them, but lived more balanced lives

            William James wrote Varieties of Religious Experience in which he categorized believers in terms of "sick souls" and "healthy souls."  The sick soul dwells upon his own sin.  He may accept in theory that he has received forgiveness from God, but he won't forgive himself.  The healthy soul on the other hand has no trouble accepting God's forgiveness, nor does he have any difficulty forgiving himself.  But Cheever's Lawrence isn't like either of James' categories.  Lawrence doesn't dwell upon his own sin, at least not according to the Narrator.  He dwells upon the sins of others.  He is like the Pharisee who said "thank God I am not like any of these." 

            Is it worth writing about a Pharisee-type New Englander?  Are there people as critical as the narrator's brother?  Perhaps, but Lawrence seems almost a caricature.   Cheever goes a little far, it seems to me, in describing Lawrence and his thin family who recoil for joy.  The narrator eventually loses his temper and hits Lawrence on the back of the head with a root, and then, afraid that he might have killed him, attends to his wound, feeling half-way between a murderer and the Good Samaritan.  Perhaps the narrator is here representing the family as giving up on Lawrence.  Lawrence has been in the process of rejecting them, but now, by bloodying Lawrence, the family has reciprocated.  Lawrence rushes back to tattle on the narrator the way he used to as a child, but the family is mute.  They don't turn against the narrator.  By their silence they let the narrator's rejection of Lawrence stand.  This has no effect on Lawrence in the sense of causing any change in him.  He was always going to sell his share.  He had long since rejected his family, but now his family has rejected him.           

            Cheever concludes, "The buoys would toll mournfully for Lawrence, and while the grace of the light would make it an exertion not to throw out your arms and swear exultantly, Lawrence's eyes would trace the black sea as it fell astern; he would think of the bottom, dark and strange, where full fathom five our father lies.

            "Oh, what can you do with a man like that?  What can you do?  How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless?  The sea that morning was iridescent and dark.  My wife and my sister were swimming -- Diana and Helen -- and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water.  I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea."

            The narrator believed that Laud's Head was a place that ought to emphasize beauty.  It was a place where one could praise nature if not the God that the Pommeroy ancestors praised.  His wife and his sister ascend from the sea -- very like, perhaps, Diana the Goddess of the hunt and Helen, the beautiful consort of Paris.  The narrator watches them with admiration.  Earlier he spoke of the rest of the siblings and their spouses using the sea to cleans themselves from the effect of Lawrence; so it is appropriate to learn that as Lawrence travels by boat back to the mainland, dwelling on the black depths, the narrator's sister and wife, representing what is most beautiful about the Pommeroy family, have cleansed themselves in a final act.

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