Significance of Blake and Dent in Cheever’s “The Five-Forty-Eight”

John Cheever’s cynical ruminations on man’s loss of humanity in the modern world are artfully articulated in his short story “The Five-Forty-Eight” (Kennedy, 316). A brief recollection of an average man’s flight from a jilted, seemingly psychotic ex-lover in New York City to the suburbs allows Cheever to admonish the indifference, disdain, and lack of compassion he believes have infected society. The conclusion of the story offers no definitive resolution to this syndrome of hostility, which may highlight the author’s thematic position that our culture’s dissolute attitude toward respecting human dignity and value. To convey this pessimistic message, Cheever crafts and reveals the natures of two characters whose conflict is representative of the greater denigration of man. The main characters, Mr. Blake and Miss Dent, represent the clash between the unfeeling, sardonic predilection of society and its opposition to the faltering traces of reverent goodness left in men. To achieve this via characterization, Blake – whose name, not coincidentally, sounds like “bleak” – is categorized as a self-described “insignificant man” who subscribes to the “sumptuary laws” of fashion, rendering him “undistinguished in every way… like the rest of us”. Such ambiguities lend Blake’s character and actions more universal application, which aids the author in critiquing society at large. Such behaviors and ideas elucidated include his habit of never “turn[ing] back and look[ing]” at other people, “bypassing an old friend or classmate” and pre-judging people as being “rich, poor, brilliant or dull” without ever communicating with them. More serious, though, is his estrangement from his wife and son, which he dismisses as “human nature”. Lastly, his high regard for his memory is thrice betrayed, as he fails to recall Dent’s name despite their sexual past, misplacement of a coffee ring moments after its purchase, and utter inability to remember innocent boyhood. Such insights reveal a character emotionally severed from all persons, even his immediate family. In addition it is clear that Blake disregards the value of interacting with others beyond a quick assessment of wealth and position.Blake’s relationship with Dent exemplifies his devaluation of human contact. He suspects Dent of toting violence against him and flees from her. While we learn that his suspicion was correct, it began simply as uncouth paranoia and rejection; Dent may well have been following him only to exchange brief conversation, or not following him at all. Blake’s flight highlights his fear and loathing of communication. His shock at her being the “[first] of the thousand [he had seen] weep” shows the reader the extent of Blake’s emotional isolation – without extreme detachment, how could one avoid the sight of weeping in a city as vast as New York?It is only after Blake begins to consider Dent’s plight that he feels “the full force of regret”, and only after being nearly executed by Dent that he displays emotion and cries. Yet after Dent leaves, he appears to recover without having learned from the experience – he appears as detached and insensitive as ever. Cheever herein laments our society’s unwillingness to acknowledge its emotional and virtuous deficiencies by proving that even after being threatened wildly at gunpoint, Blake – and society – will remain unmoved, with little chance of a return to human fellowship. The abrupt ending of the story underscores Cheever’s grim assessment. Cheever utilizes the fragile character of Miss Dent to represent the flailing goodness that survives, however tenuously, amidst the emptiness of modern society. The correlation between Miss Dent and the spirit of human unity is first underlined by the false conception that Blake forms of Dent. Despite her accounts of being in a mental hospital and her admittedly bizarre pursuit of Blake at gunpoint, she truly does only want “to talk to [him]’. Furthermore, Blake gaffes when trying to recall her name, sputtering “Miss Dent, Miss Bent…”, suggesting that it is not so much her personal character but more her message of compassion that Blake and others have misconstrued. Another misperception is Blake’s recollection of Dent as “dark, her eyes were dark… a dark woman” and his feeling of repulsion toward her ungainly, crooked handwriting. Cheever suggests that just as Blake finds these benign traits threatening, so too does society mistake goodness for a threat.Another telling characteristic of Miss Dent is her fragility. She is noted as being “slender, thin”, “formless” and the wearer of “thin cloth,” suggesting that she and her compassion are weak and easily overlooked. Her dreams of “picnics, and heaven and the brotherhood of man” are idealistic and almost childish in a world Cheever has framed as tainted and unemotional. Miss Dent’s goodly intention is finally confirmed in her quotation of the Book of Job, which includes one of the unfortunate but pious Job’s laments regarding the seeming absence of wisdom and goodness in the world. The religious undertones carried with the character of Miss Dent are punctuated at the conclusion f the story, where she assumes a semi- God like dominion over her captor, Blake. Her drawn-out, thoughtful judgment of him reaches its pinnacle when she commands Blake to kneel before her, conjuring a correlation between a disappointed God trying to warn man, however mercifully (Dent releases Blake upon his weeping), that man must repent. In conclusion, the contrasting parallels of the unchanging but rich characters of Blake and Miss Dent succeed in supporting Cheever’s criticism of human kinship in “The Five-Forty-Eight.” The names, appearances, inclinations and perceptions of the two characters, and the interaction between them, serve as an allegorical recreation of a cultural sickness and alienation. Works Cited X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, eds. New York, Pearson Longman, 2007: The Five-Forty-Eight; 317-325.