You can find the full story on this article from the New Yorker Magazine.
It is also found in the New York Times Best Seller “The Stories of John Cheever.”
Some of my classmates at my community college may not share my interest in reading more of the works by the authors I have read about in American Literature class. In this class, I was required to read works by authors dating from the Age of Realism through to the Post Modern era. Most people my age are not entirely familiar with short stories written by the late John Cheever. “The Swimmer” remains to be his most notable short story. A wealthy suburbanite male decides to take an unconventional method of transportation home via swimming pools owned by residents throughout his classy New Jersey county. He thinks this journey is going to change all of his previous failings and win the approval of people who already dislike him.
Cheever’s stories are known for their portrayals of affluence and how pretentious it can make those who are fortunate enough to live with it. However, one particular story “Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor” introduces a man named Charlie. He works minimum wage as an elevator operator in a swanky New York City apartment building. Of course, this means he has to get up and go to work on Christmas morning. He exhibits an expression of self-pity by claiming he is “the only one” who is expected to do so. The fourth paragraph provides some insight into why Cheever chose such a title for this story. Charlie utters many variations of the following refrain when he talks with the apartment residents.
“I think Christmas is a very sad season of the year. It isn’t that people around here aint generous – I mean, I got plenty of tips—but, you see, I live alone in a furnished room and I don’t have any family or anything and Christmas isn’t much of a holiday for me.
Naturally, most people would emphasize with someone who is in a similar situation to that of Charlie’s. Christmas is a very lonely time for many people. Finding coping mechanisms for such loneliness is essential for survival in a season that is ultimately supposed to be full of good cheer. Sometimes, we deal with such loneliness by unjustifiable actions such as lying to gain sympathy from others. He does just that when he speaks to Mr. and Mrs. Fuller. He lies about having two dead children and four who are still living. All of the apartment residents who interact with Charlie are sympathetic and empathetic towards him. His feelings of loneliness and sadness do not change.
The “woe is me” feeling is all too familiar for those of us who have gone through situations where it seems like complaining is the only way to cope. It seemed to work for Charlie. Residents shower him with all kinds of gifts as acts of kindness. The above takes place all the while being totally oblivious to the reality of his children being a pigment of his imagination. Just some of the gifts include eggnog, martinis, cocktails, a dressing gown, goose, turkey, pheasant, chicken, grouse, and pigeon. He drinks some of the drinks while he is on the job. Hilarity ensues after he begins to take Mrs. Gadshill down from the twelfth floor.
“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loopty loop!”
Mrs. Gadshill shrieked. Then, for some reason, she sat down on the floor of the elevator. Why was her face so pale; he wondered; why was she sitting on the floor? She shrieked again. He grounded the car gently, and cleverly, he thought, and opened the door. “I’m sorry if I scared you, Mrs. Gadshill,” he said meekly. “I was only fooling.” She shrieked again. Then she ran out into the lobby, screaming for the superintendent.
Drunken Charlie is now fired from his minimum wage job. This certainly does nothing for his sadness and loneliness.
The excess of food and presents around him began to make him feel guilty and unworthy. He regretted bitterly the lie he had told about his children. He was a single man with simple needs. He had abused the goodness of the people upstairs. He was unworthy.
The final events of the story begin when he flashes back to the landlady in his apartment building. She is eating dinner with her family when Charlie knocks on the door. He offers presents to her children. He also gives her the dressing gown that was previously given to him. She accepts the offer. But, says to her children that they have received enough gifts. She encourages her children to bring the presents to the poor kids on Hudson Street. She says this as Christmas day is nearing its end.
“Now, you kids help me get all this stuff together. Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she said, for it was benevolence for only a single day, and that day was nearly over. She was tired, but she couldn’t rest, she couldn’t rest.”
This story can be interpreted in a few ways. The title reminds us how sad Christmas can be for people who lack the money to buy presents for their loved ones. I especially began to notice it’s portrayal of clashes between rich and poor. Charlie works a minimum wage job. Mind you, it is inside the elevator of a luxurious New York City apartment building. He has no choice but to interact with people who can afford luxuries which he can only dream of. Cheever enlightens readers about the impact it can have on one’s psyche. It made Charlie a perpetual victim who expected everyone to know about his misfortunes. Thus, it caused him to lie in a successful attempt to win the sympathy of the wealthy apartment tenants. It only provides temporary relief for his unhealthy perpetual victim complex.
His face was blazing. He loved the world, and the world loved him. When he thought back over his life, it appeared to him in a rich and wonderful light, full of astonishing experiences and unusual friends. He thought of his job as an elevator operator – cruising up and down through hundreds of feet of perilous space – demanded the nerve and intellect of a birdman. All the contraints of his life – the green walls of his room and months of unemployment – dissolved. No one was ringing, but he got into the elevator and shot it at full speed up to the penthouse and down again, up and down, to test his wonderful mastery of space.
Finally and most importantly, those last few sentences remind me about the irony often associated with people who spend all of their time and energy to make Christmas more enjoyable for those who cannot afford it. This season only comes once a year. Like decorations, benevolence is placed in boxes and stored in the basement until next December comes around. I have tried to come up with a way, to sum up my writing about this story. All in all, I can say that reading it and interpreting it was time well spent. Charlie is a complex character. He is a con man who takes advantage of people’s kindness. Karma does come up to him. However, he looks back on his feelings of loneliness and tries to take a step in the right direction by performing an act of kindness.
At the very least, he teaches us the right and wrong approach towards coping with the holiday blues.