“The Season of Divorce”: Literary Analysis and Its Criticism on Male Dominance

In “The Season of Divorce” by John Cheever, the story of a couple is told from the perspective of the husband. Their marriage is disturbed when Dr. Trencher, a neighbor, falls in love and begins to pursue Ethel, the narrator’s wife. Though Dr. Trencher succeeds in emotionally moving Ethel through his expression of love for her, Ethel remains faithful to her husband. Through the events that occur in the story, one can sense the lack of fulfillment Ethel feels in her marriage; this feeling is magnified as readers perceive the lack of affection in which the narrator treats Ethel with. Throughout the story, the narrator’s passive tone suggests a detachment between him and his wife, ultimately appealing to the readers’ feeling of sympathy for Ethel. The lack of regards that Ethel’s husband treats her with is evident, providing justification for her desire to leave him and touching base on the idea of male dominance that readers can later come to explore.
The lack of connection between the couple can immediately be perceived in the introduction we are given about Ethel. Instead of depicting her as an individual- one with various qualities or experiences in life the narrator merely describes her physical appearance. According to the narrator, “because [their] lives are confined by [his] modest salary, the surface of Ethel’s life is easy to describe.” This tells us that the narrator’s scope and understanding of his wife is limited to her visible and tangible qualities This is peculiar, as one would expect a husband to refer to his spouse with much more depth, as opposed to providing what seems like a basic profile of a stranger. The narrator’s inability to present his wife with a greater level of insight suggests a sense of detachment and a lack of understanding. Their lack of connection is taken a step further as the narrator begins speaking of his wife with a sense of inferiority; he degrades Ethel when referring to her educational background, calling her possession of a diploma “a short-lived joke”. When learning about Dr. Trencher’s pursuit of Ethel, he responds in disbelief –believing that no one would make a move at Ethel given her choice of clothing. In addition, the fact that Ethel never directly refers to her husband by his name reinforces the disconnection between the two. The lack of a name given to the narrator gives us little to no information regarding his identity, creating an unreliable voice that may cause readers to find it difficult to accurately judge his viewpoints in the story. This can be regarded as an intentional quality given to the husband, further depicting the story in justification of Ethel’s position.

Ethel’s story is greatly undermined by the narrator. One can see how Ethel has become restricted to her role as a housewife after her marriage, living a life that merely revolves around tending for her children and taking care of housework. She is confined to the boundaries of her home. Despite Ethel’s contributions to her marriage, the narrator takes her for granted, treating her words with little to no significance. When the narrator questions Ethel about her relationship with Dr. Trencher, she responded by expressing her lack of satisfaction at herself and at the life she is living. She says, “I am ashamed at my incompetence, ashamed of the way I look. Oh, I guess I love you, I do love the children, but I love myself, I love my life, it has some value and some promise for me and Trencher’s roses make me feel that I’m losing this, that I’m losing my self-respect.” Essentially, after experiencing the romantic treatment by Dr. Trencher, Ethel realizes the lack of self-worth she is deriving from her marriage; the newfound understanding that she should be treated with respect and equality, thus, makes her feel as though she is losing her self-respect. Instead of seeking to further understand his wife’s feelings, the narrator quickly dismisses and cuts off Ethel’s statement, telling her to go to bed. The notion of Ethel’s dissatisfaction is explicitly reiterated at the end of the story as she breaks down and cries. She addresses her husband’s questioning of her crying, saying “I cry because my father died when I was twelve and because my mother married a man I detested or thought that I detested…I cry because of some unkindness that I can’t remember. I’m tired- because I’m tired and I can’t sleep.” This statement is one of the most powerful parts of the story not only because of the strong emotions of Ethel’s words but also as it is the only part of the story where we do not hear a response from the narrator’s thoughts. Readers can see the ending that resulted from everything that Ethel has had to hold in, from her father’s death to the lack of regard the narrator treats her with. Overall, readers may come to perceive Ethel’s initial attraction to Dr. Trencher as justified because of the outlet he provides for her outside of the monotonous life she lives; his genuine care and affection towards her introduces the type of treatment that has been missing from her marriage.

Ultimately, though some may perceive the return of both families to their normal lives as a consolation and a positive ending to the event, a different interpretation of the conclusion can be given from a contrasting perspective. Readers may decide that Ethel deserves to be treated with greater respect by her husband and that her staying with him would mean that she will never be able to reach a feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment in her life. The image at the end of the story of her return to a normal life as a housewife shows the lack of excitement and interest, creating a contrast with the times she spent with Dr. Trencher. She acquiesces to her responsibilities as a mother and wife; she “then… feeds [her children], bathes them, and sets the table, and stands for a moment in the middle of the room, trying to make some connection between the evening and the day. Then it is over. She lights the four candles, and [the family] sit down to [their] supper.” The reoccurring image of the candle, in this case, symbolizes Ethel’s feelings for Dr. Trencher. When Dr. Trencher is kicked out of the house, the narrator throws one of the candles at him, as though making an end to the bond Dr. Trencher had with his wife. The fact that it was picked back and restored at the end of the story shows that despite Dr. Trencher’s exit from Ethel’s life, she still retains him in her mind and may yearn for an alternative life. In reality, however, Ethel has to act as though everything is in place with her marriage and accept the return to her role as a housewife.

It is, in a sense, ironic that Ethel’s name means “noble” as the life she lives is far from what would be expected of royalty. The confinement she faces in her life shows the patriarchy and notion of male dominance that continues to prevail within so many aspects of our lives. The narrator’s treatment of Ethel reflects upon the societal norms that allow the degradation of the female role in a household. It also reflects upon the idea of female inferiority and touches base on how the husband figure in a household is dominant—capable of leading to the events like those that occur in the story. In conclusion, “The Seasons of Divorce” explores themes of detachment, gender roles in a family, and the lack of fulfillment that so many people struggle with in their everyday lives, through the poignant story of a familial rift.