negative passions; analysis on “the enormous radio”

Essay by Maddie Blanchard

Summary of “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever

“In the story’s opening paragraph, the narrator spares no effort in presenting Jim and Irene Westcott as a typical, moderately successful Manhattan couple, married nine years, with one child of each sex; significantly, the Westcott children are seldom seen in the story and are never mentioned by name. Jim and Irene, observes the narrator, differ from other, similar couples only in their shared devotion to “serious” music, an interest carefully concealed from friends and acquaintances lest the Westcotts appear too “different.”

The Westcotts spend many hours together listening to broadcast music, and when their radio falls into disrepair Jim hastens to replace it with an expensive new model in a “large gumwood cabinet” that clashes with their other furniture. The new radio, although quite superior in tone to its predecessor, soon begins picking up sounds from the elevator and from appliances in neighboring apartments; before long it is receiving and amplifying the neighbors’ voices as well, providing the astonished Westcotts with a unique opportunity for eavesdropping: Each turn of the dial tunes in the sounds from a different apartment.” Summary by

The Destructive Downward Spiral of Obsessions 

At the opening of “The Enormous Radio” Irene Westcott was a typical wife, who played tennis with her husband and listened to the radio (classical was the couples favorite).  However, after they got the “enormous radio” and Irene found that the radio was tuned in to her neighbors’ conversations, she became consumed with listening and she was completely unaware of how it was affecting her thoughts, as well as how she began acted towards others.  In modern day we have developed many of our own obsessions, with no clue how much it is affecting us.  Whether we’re consumed with our phones, appearances, exercise, food, or even figures in the media, no matter what, an obsession will have an enormous impact on your overall life.  It affects your sleep, awareness, emotions, as well as your relationships and most people don’t even realize it.  Obsessions can be like a virus, creeping into lives and destroying them without warning.  

An obsession by definition is; to preoccupy or fill the mind of (someone or something) continually, intrusively, and to a troubling extent.  An important thing to know when examining obsessions, is that an obsession and a passion are actually quite similar.  The difference between a passion and an obsession, is that obsessions consume you to the point that you are too blinded to see that it has entirely sidetracked you from the things that will truly make you happy and thrive throughout your life.  A passion is something that gives you joy and happiness, something you are working towards to greater improve every aspect in your life.  Having a passion for something is not only healthy but often necessary to have a joyful life.  An obsession may give you temporary happiness, but it isn’t the same happiness that a passion will give you.  Similarly, Irene was initially intrigued by her neighbors’ conversations, but as that intrigue grew it became an addiction that provided no true happiness. Passions enhance your life, whereas an obsession could destroy it.  

One example of this might be someone who truly loves working out; they know that working on their physical strength will enhance their mental strength, exercise makes them feel better, and the strength they gain from exercising increases how well they can go about the important things in their life.  In contrast, someone who is obsessed with exercise will put the desire to be fit before their relationships, sleep, mental health, and education.  There are a few things however, such as listening to your neighbors’ private conversations, which are unhealthy no matter how you look at it.  There are people who are affected by obsessions with money, food, celebrities, school, and even their careers and don’t even know it.  None of these things are bad in general, but when someone crosses the thin line between a passion and an obsession their general happiness is impacted significantly. 

Another way to look at an obsession, is to look at it like a drug addiction.  When someone is addicted to drugs their life begins to revolve around it, they rely on it, and it impacts their life tremendously.  Typically, at first, they are aware that what they are doing is unhealthy, but they feel that they can control it, but as their addiction grows they become blinded by the consumption.  They make themselves believe it isn’t really harming them, but it, in reality, isdestroying more of their life than they thought.  In the story, Irene was aware that the initial act was bad, “Then she turned off the radio quickly, since this insight, she realized, was a furtive one.” (pg, 165), however, as she continued listening, the less horrible the act seemed to her.  When a drug addicts first quits, they go through withdrawals and can become depressed and disconnected.  Similarly, when someone fills up their mind constantly with something (their “drug” of choice; exercise, a figure in the media, their careers…etc), and it then is removed from their life, they are likely to develop signs of depression and become lost and even more disconnected than before.  At the end of the story, after the radio had been fixed and Irene’s ability to fuel her obsession disappeared, she hadn’t quite gone back to her normal self, rather she became very anxious, “’Please, Jim,’ she said ‘Please. They’ll hear us.’” (pg, 168).  She had spent so much time listening to her neighbors’  private conversations, she began to feel concern that others could hear hers.  In the same way as recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction, it can take months or years to completely heal from obsessions.  

In his story, Cheever illustrates how damaging an obsession can be.  Irene’s personality changed the more her life revolved around the radio and the conversations she heard.  Looking closely at the story we see hints of her becoming closed off, nosey, gloomy, and disconnected; to the point that even when she was spending time with her friends, she wondered what secrets they may have,  “… she looked searchingly at her friend and wondered what her secrets were.” (pg. 166).  Furthermore, as she continued to listen to the depressing conversations, the more depressed she became.  We see as the story began, Irene was a happy naive wife and mother of two.  They were a happy family, but as she became utterly consumed with the private lives of her neighbors, her life began to falter.  Irene was showing the same characteristics as an obsessive person does today; focusing on the wrong things, disconnected, anxious or depressed.  The important things in their life may begin to waver and the person enters a constant battle for happiness, focusing even more on the object of their obsession without realizing that it is creating a downward spiral.  

Being consumed with something or someone can cause major effects on the lives of those who are consumed and their loved ones.  Alex Lickerman, editor at Psychology Today, explains, “If allowed to become too consuming, obsession causes us to devalue important dimensions of our lives and tolerate their atrophy and even their collapse.”   One example of this may be someone who is constantly thinking about their appearance; how they look, who is looking, and how to further enhance their appearance.  How they look to others on the outside is their top priority and it is often all they worry about, and in turn everything that is important becomes secondary to their desire to look good.  Having an obsession with something isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when it distracts and deters from the important things it becomes unhealthy.  Towards the end of the story, Irene’s life had become so consumed with the private lives of her neighbors, that we saw her relationships with her loved ones begin to crumble, and she began to question their happiness, “We’re happy, aren’t we, darling? We are happy, aren’t we?” (pg, 168).  Although, the story ended before anything detrimental happened we could tell that if Irene had continued, her overall joy and satisfaction in life could have worsened significantly. 

In conclusion, having an interest in something is perfectly fine, but when it takes over every aspect of your life it can be detrimental.  There is a quote I once read by a writer named Paul Carvel, which says, “Passion is a positive obsession.  Obsession is a negative passion” (Carvel).  Everyone must avoid crossing the line between a positive obsession and a negative one.  Negative obsessions can cause mayhem mentally, physically, and spiritually. It is important that we can recognize an obsession before it becomes too disastrous.  Cheever showed us what an unhealthy obsession looked like through Irene Westcott and illustrated how blind a person can be to their own addiction.  The radio and the things she heard on it devoured her true happiness, and she lost sight of what was truly important.  Some people fool themselves into thinking that their obsession is a passion and is doing no harm.  Being able to tell the difference between a passion and an obsession is vital, as an obsession is often an escape from difficulties, conversely, a true passion gives you the ability to overcome difficulties, fueling you with a hunger to achieve extraordinary things.   


Works Cited 

Carvel, Paul. “Paul Carvel Quotes”. Succesories Accessed 24 April 2019. 

Cheever, John. “The Enormous Radio.” 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, Lorrie Moore. pp. 160-170. 

Lickerman, Alex. “Obsessions”. Psychology Today, Accessed 24 April 2019. 

Thank you so much for reading,

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