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The Five Forty Eight is a short story, written by John Cheever and for the first time published in 1958, along with other stories(The Biography of John Cheever). It is the story of a man who after leaving his office finds himself followed by a woman with a serious grudge against him. She follows him to the train station and eventually threatens him with a gun. In this paper, the interpretation of the story is provided. Moreover, and I will argue that the Five Forty Eight is actually a tale of the darkness of human nature, where all the characters involved, the literary devices are used by the writer, and even the narrator himself -- everything leads to the same conclusion that it is a twisted battle of evil versus evil.
Summary and Plot
The story begins with Blake stepping out of the elevator of the Western Union offices he worked, where an old mistress he had fired after sleeping with her, is expecting him at the door. The woman, Miss Dent, is furious with him; she had been trying to reach him at the office for a couple of days, but she was never allowed inside. After a while she had stopped coming to the office and Blake thought she had given up. But apparently, she had not. She was standing right in front of him, filled with rancor and loathing. His tactics remained the same: complete indifference, as if he had never seen her before in his life. In fact, in the beginning he could not even remember her name. He was headed to the train station, when he became aware that he was being followed, and tried to lose her tail in a coffee house and later at a men’s bar. His efforts proved futile. She was still there, when he exited the bar and realized he had missed the express. With no other choice left, he decided to take the five-forty-eight local train, which actually lended the title to the work in study. The story is a linear narrative, which means that the events take place in the chronological order (Baldick 166). Blake’s flashbacks, however, are an important part of the exposition, in order to understand what incited the series of events that lead up to the story’s climax: Miss Dent pulling a gun from her pocketbook and pointing it at Blake. The climax takes place at a freight house near the station, where the woman brings Blake to his knees and claims her revenge.
Main Characters: the Hero or the Villain
The narrative’s main theme in Cheever’s Five Forty Eight is the alienation of man. Alienation is a result of the increasing impersonality of modern societies that reduces one’s self to a spectator of one’s own life (Collins 2). The main characters, Blake and Miss Dent, are definitely the examples. The story offers a rare twist in presenting them. In most literary works, there is a protagonist, whose story is presented in the narrative and an antagonist who stands in opposition to the hero. The very existence of the antagonist is a threat to the hero; an obstacle that the latter has to overcome (Baldick 12). In the Five Forty Eight, however, we do not really know who the hero is and who the villain is. The reader’s first impression is that Blake is the hero, because the story evolves around him. In the beginning, the reader develops feelings of sympathy for him, as he is the one being threatened by a psychologically unstable woman. But as the narrative progresses and details of his life are presented, the reader sees Blake’s dark side; a side that would arguably land him the role of the villain in any other story. Blake is a confident man with a typical white collar job. He seems successful from the outside, but in reality he has failed in his personal life. He has become a stranger to his wife and children; he is completely self-centered and obsessed with fitting the world into little boxes, filled with tons of judgment. He completely objectifies people around him whether it is simple strangers he sees on the train, the neighbors next door, or even his wife. He has lost track of his life without even realizing it. Most importantly, he asserted his confidence by preying on weak women, as he did with Miss Dent and others before her.
On the other hand, Miss Dent typically fits the profile of the villain. She is mentally ill and has been hospitalized in the past. She is socially dysfunctional and cannot find work. She lives alone and in the weeks before the events of the train and the freight house, her only connection to the outside world was her landlady (Cheever 295). Most importantly, she is the one holding the gun, with a man’s life hanging on a thread. The problem, though, is that her behavior does not seem irrational, if the reader takes into account Blake’s actions. Despite her psychological issues, she was a simple woman, who just wanted to find a job and make an honest living. When she finally got the chance to do so, she fell victim to a crude employer who used her to satisfy his sexual needs and then fired her. One can only imagine the pain Miss Dent suffered, when Blake abandoned her after intercourse; and how her world collapsed, when she found herself unemployed the following day. Although she is carrying a pistol, it is atypical for a villain to claim repeatedly that she does not intend to harm her sworn enemy; that she just wants to talk to him and set the record straight on a personal level.
In both their cases, the reader seems to be caught up in a hero-or-villain dilemma: is Blake the innocent protagonist who has to face his dangerous stalker? Or is Miss Dent the hero who has been wronged and rightfully seeks to restore justice? In my view, neither Blake nor Miss Dent is the hero; the Five Forty Eight is the twisted tale of two villains caught in their own web of personal madness. They both exhibit similar behaviors and possess similar qualities. For example, they are both socially dysfunctional: Miss Dent is literally isolated from the rest of the world, while Blake is a lonely character by choice. He has enough money so as not to worry about his daily expenses, while Miss Dent probably belongs to a lower socioeconomic class. However, they are both dissatisfied with their working and living arrangements, mainly due to the fact that they are both emotionally handicapped and unable to form serious relationships (Collins 3). Their predicament is a product of their own activity and life choices that go way back in time. The writer never actually provides the reader with the reasons to account for their psychological setup; they simply grew into the persons they are, as a result of a dark force in command of their human nature. Blake and Miss Dent are merely two sides of the same coin.
Secondary Characters: Their Role in the Development of the Narrative
The secondary characters of the story are Mrs. Compton, Mr. Watkins, and Blake’s wife, Louise. All the information the reader has on them, comes from the narrator and Blake’s thoughts. Mrs. Compton is portrayed as a typical gossiper, who had become the private confessor of Blake’s wife. He did not like her because he believed that she should be talking Louise out of her weeping and nagging self. In turn, Mrs. Compton knew of their marital status and their quarrels. Therefore, the enmity, she and Blake shared about one another, was mutual.
Mr. Watkins, the other neighbor, is also a passenger on the train. According to Blake, Mr. Watkins “broke the sumptuary laws every day” with his lifestyle as an artist, his dressing code, and his “long and dirty hair” (Cheever 290). He was only a seat away from Blake, but neither of them was interested in greeting the other.
As for Louise, the only information the reader gets, is a quarrel she had with her husband. The narrator tells the reader of the cold-hearted way Blake treated her once for not preparing supper: he shouted at her and decided not to speak to her for two weeks.
Blake’s relationships with other characters serve as examples for the reader; examples that illustrate the colorless lives of Blake and the people around him, which is actually a very common theme in Cheever’s works (Brown 624). Blake is, indeed, the darkest character of all: estranged from his family, cold and unfriendly to his neighbors, suspicious and judgmental of everyone that passed by him. But the secondary characters are shady, too. The neighbors have legitimate reasons not to interact with Blake, but there is no reason why they should not interact with each other. Still, they don not; they are simply indifferent to one another like absolute strangers. As for Louise, her case is even worse. She has been living with an uncaring husband who treats her in an awful ways; a father that had built a bookshelf, as an obstacle between his rooms and the others, so that his children would not see his books (Cheever 290). Had she not been a shady person herself, she could not have put up with such behavior.
Literary Devices and the Darkness in Cheever’s Story
Every aspect of the narrative is a means to the writer’s dark end. The psychological makeup of the protagonist and the antagonist, the behavior of secondary characters, the language and the literary devices that he uses serve his purpose of illustrating the darkness of human nature. The writer adopts a third person omniscient point of view (Baldick 198), but even the narrator is an agent of darkness. He shows no empathy for Blake’s or for Miss Dent’s predicament; he is indifferent to the neighbors’ thoughts and feelings; neither does he show any sentiments for Blake’s wife and family. What he does, instead, is he draws the picture of a colorless world, a world fading into darkness in every step. Very characteristic of this, is his description of people and the physical world, when he talks about the station platform before Shady Hills:
their (people on the platform) cheerful intent seemed to go no farther than the puddles of water on the platform and to expire there. The platform and the people on it looked lonely. The train drew away…into the darkness of the country and the river (Cheever 295).
This is one, out of many occasions, where the surrounding is depicted as dark.
In general, literary devices, like metaphors, symbolisms, and the language that the writer uses, are employed to convey the same darkness. A very common device used, is the repetition of the word dark on multiple occasions. For instance, when Blake saw Miss Dent for the first time, he “saw a dark woman” that “left him with a pleasant impression of darkness” (Cheever 287). A metaphor that gives away Blake’s dark nature and preferences. The “closet” metaphor by which the reader is told that Miss Dent’s room “looked to him like a closet” also adds to his character’s darkness (Cheever 288). The bookshelf that he built in the doorway is between his room and that of his children (Cheever 290). It is a powerful symbolism, one that stands for the dark secrets he wanted to hide from them. As a result, all of the characters involved, find themselves trapped in world of darkness, a world that is devoid of emotion.
A Battle of Evil versus Evil: A Story Without Resolution
In conclusion, the Five Forty Eight is an ode for the darkness of human nature: in the end, Miss Dent will leave the freight house – never to be brought to justice - to wait for the next villain to come, and Blake will go home the same person he left his office. As mentioned before, the Five Forty Eight is a story of two villains and, as such, a story without resolution for the reader. It is merely a battle of evil versus evil: the manipulative Blake character versus the deranged Miss Dent who will eventually spare his life out of mere courtesy from one villain to another.