Reunion, John Cheever: Summary & Analysis

'Reunion' is a 1962 short story written by renowned American author John Cheever (1912-1982). While the narrative may initially seem straightforward, it contains intriguing ambiguities that warrant closer analysis. In this section, we will delve into the nuances of the story and examine its underlying themes and implications.

Plot Summary

The story is narrated by Charlie, a young man anticipating a reunion with his father. While the narrator's age remains unspecified, he is likely a teenager, given the suspicion that he is underage for alcohol consumption.

Prior to their meeting, the narrator writes to his father, informing him of his hour-and-a-half layover in New York while waiting for a connecting train. Consequently, they arrange to meet for lunch. It has been three years since Charlie's parents divorced, and upon spotting his father approaching him at Grand Central Station, Charlie initially struggles to recognize him. However, as his father draws nearer, he catches a glimpse of his own potential future self within him.

The father and son visit a series of restaurants during their reunion. The father repeatedly attempts to order drinks, specifically two Beefeater Gibsons (gin martinis) for himself and Charlie. However, their reunion takes an unfortunate turn. At the first restaurant, the father's rude behavior towards the elderly waiter leads to their expulsion. In the second restaurant, they successfully order drinks, and the father engages in a discussion about baseball, potentially with or at his son. However, when the father attempts to order another round of drinks, the waiter becomes suspicious of Charlie's age, prompting their departure.

In the third restaurant, the father adopts quintessentially English mannerisms but takes offense when the waiter attempts to correct him regarding the country they are in. Consequently, Charlie's father insists on leaving to find an alternative location. In the fourth restaurant, an Italian establishment, the father attempts to order drinks in Italian, only to be met with the waiter's admission of not understanding the language. Disheartened by their unsuccessful attempts at ordering lunch, they return to the railway station. When the father's rude interaction with a newsstand vendor annoys the vendor, Charlie decides to leave his father behind, marking it as the last time he saw him.

Analysis of 'Reunion' by John Cheever

'Reunion' by John Cheever is a deceptively straightforward story that raises thought-provoking questions about the complex dynamics between a father and son. Through the narrative, Cheever explores themes of identity, communication, and the lasting impact of familial relationships. Let us delve into a deeper analysis of the story to gain a better understanding of its nuances and implications.

The Unspoken Emotions and Ambiguities

One of the central aspects of 'Reunion' lies in the unspoken emotions and ambiguities that permeate the relationship between Charlie and his father. Charlie's true feelings towards his father remain unclear, as he seems reluctant to openly express his emotions or confront his father about his rude behavior. The story invites us to question why Charlie chooses not to address these issues during their brief reunion and whether his silence stems from a mix of pity, filial duty, or even deeper unresolved emotions.

Charlie's initial description of his father as 'my future and my doom' adds further layers of complexity. It prompts us to consider whether Charlie's perception of his father reflects a realization that he may eventually become like him or if it signifies something more specific and troubling about his father's character.

The Ambiguous Last Encounter

The story begins and ends with Charlie stating that the reunion in New York was 'the last time' he saw his father. This repetition of the phrase raises ambiguity: does 'the last time' imply until their next reunion, or does it signify a definitive farewell, indicating that Charlie intends to never see his father again?

The divorce between Charlie's parents, mentioned in the story, adds another layer of significance. The fact that Charlie's mother divorced his father, with no mention of a mutual decision, hints at the possibility that her decision was influenced by his father's boorish behavior. This detail suggests that Charlie is now responsible for initiating any future reunions, as the dynamics of their relationship have shifted.

The Influence of Environment and Identity

The story subtly explores the influence of environment and identity on Charlie's perception of himself. Charlie's visits to his grandmother's home and his mother's rented cottage on Cape Cod serve as bookends to the reunion with his father. These female-dominated spaces hint at a stronger alignment with Charlie's own personality, potentially implying that if he were to become like his father, he may find himself distanced from these important figures in his life.

The limitations within which Charlie plans his 'campaigns' suggest a blend of genetic and cultural conditioning. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as the saying goes, but the story raises the question of how much of Charlie's behavior and future actions are shaped by his father's overbearing influence during his formative years.

The Complex Motivations of the Father

While 'Reunion' is narrated from Charlie's perspective, we are left to ponder the motivations of his father. The father's actions and behavior are largely seen through Charlie's eyes, offering a somewhat uncritical view. It is important to consider that the father may be under pressure to be a good host for his son, leading to his sharp attempts to get the waiter's attention. His apologies and regrets about not having enough time to go to his club reflect a desire to provide a memorable experience for his son.

The abruptness of the waiter and his refusal to serve a wealthy customer in an almost empty restaurant raises suspicion. It is worth noting that the father's boisterousness is toned down in the second restaurant, and they leave only when the waiter suspects Charlie of being underage. These details invite us to consider the possible intoxication of the father and the waiter's intuition regarding his state.

The Art of Ambiguity

'Reunion' is a quintessential example of John Cheever's writing style, characterized by its spare and straightforward narrative that hides underlying ambiguities. The story raises intriguing questions without offering definitive answers, encouraging analysis and discussion among readers. Cheever's skill lies in his ability to create a rich and thought-provoking story through hints and suggestions rather than explicit details.

Through its exploration of unspoken emotions, ambiguous encounters, and complex familial dynamics, 'Reunion' invites readers to contemplate the intricacies of human relationships and the profound impact they can have on identity and self-perception.

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