“The Five-Forty-Eight” is a short story written by John Cheever that was originally published in the April 10, 1954 issue of The New Yorker and later collected in The Stories of John Cheever. This story takes place in downtown Manhattan, New York City, where the protagonist (Blake), attempts to escape his former employee (Miss Dent), who was fired shortly after a one-night stand. Miss Dent eventually catches up to Blake, where they talk on the Five-Forty-Eight train towards Shady Hill.
|Publisher||The New Yorker|
|Media type||Print (Magazine)|
|Publication date||April 10, 1954|
The story begins with Blake exiting an elevator in the building where he works in New York City. He immediately spots a woman in the crowd outside the elevator, an old acquaintance, and is troubled by it. He disregards her and continues out of the building, and begins to head for the train station to catch the express train home. As he began walking, Blake begins to wonder if the woman is following him. He stopped at a storefront and gazed in the window for a moment, until he notices the reflection of the woman standing near him on the sidewalk. He quickly begins walking again, now wondering if the woman means to do him harm in some way. He decides to stop at a men's bar in an attempt to lose his pursuer. As he drinks his beer, he reflects on his relationship with the woman, and the reader is introduced to the backstory behind the mysterious woman. She had been hired by personnel to be his personal secretary several months before. After working together for three weeks, Blake offered to buy her drinks after work. She invited Blake to her apartment where they had a drink and then had sex. The next day Blake waited until she was out for lunch and then called personnel and asked them to fire her. Blake then took the rest of the day off.
After reminiscing in the bar, Blake drinks a second beer and decides to head for the train station to catch the local train, the five-forty-eight. At the station Blake buys a newspaper and then boards his train and finds his seat. He notices two of his neighbors sitting near him, Mrs. Compton and Mr. Watkins, neither of whom Blake cares much for. Blake begins reading his paper, but is soon interrupted as someone addresses him. He looks up to see it is the woman from before. He recalls her name, Miss Dent, and greets her. Miss Dent takes a seat next to Blake and they begin making small-talk. Blake begins to feel uncomfortable and attempts to leave to another train car. Miss Dent stops him and informs him that she has a pistol in her pocketbook, and will kill him if he moves or tries to leave. Now that she has Blake's full attention, Miss Dent informs him that she only wants to talk.
Miss Dent begins to explain how he she tried to contact Blake, but begins to ramble somewhat incoherently. She then urges Blake to read a letter she has prepared for him. The letter addresses Blake as her husband, details dreams she had and touches on her time spent in the mental hospital. Miss Dent interrupts Blake's reading by explaining how she has plotted against him, questioning whether she should kill him or not. The train then arrives at Shady Hill, Blake's destination.
Blake is escorted off the train at gunpoint by Miss Dent, who urges him to continue away from the train station and leads him towards a freight house. She then tells Blake to stop and turn around. Miss Dent orders Blake to his knees, as she explains that she doesn't want to hurt him, merely teach him the lesson he would otherwise be incapable of learning himself. She tells him to put his face in the dirt, Blake does so and begins to weep. Then Miss Dent, having fulfilled her revenge, explains that she can now wash her hands of Blake. She then turns and walks back to the train station. Blake watches her go, and when it seems clear she has forgotten about him, he picks himself up and continues to walk home.
Blake – The central character of the story. Blake is a middle-aged businessman, most likely an executive, who works in New York City and commutes to the suburbs via the train. He is petty, narcissistic, and highly critical of those around him. Blake has trouble connecting with others, as is evidenced by his relationships with the other characters in the story.
Miss Dent – Blake's former secretary, and the second central character of the story. Miss Dent spent some time in a mental institution before being released and getting a job as Blake's secretary. She was fired abruptly after having a sexual encounter with Blake, and has spent the subsequent months trying to contact him.
Louise Blake – Blake's estranged wife, whom he only married for her looks. She has turned to alcohol to deal with alienation from her husband. She confides her marital troubles in their neighbor, Mrs. Compton.
Charlie Blake – Blake's oldest son, who has recently made friends with the Watkins boy and has been spending an increasing amount of time residing at the Watkinses' house.
Mrs. Compton – A neighbor of the Blake's and fellow commuter, she is a friend and confidant to Louise. She does not care for Blake because of the way he treats his wife.
Mr. Watkins – A neighbor of the Blakes, and the father of Charlie's friend. Mr. Watkins does not care for Blake after being confronted about his lifestyle, where Blake expressed that the Watkinses were a negative influence on Blake's son Charlie.
Magill Book Reviews reviewed "The Five-Forty-Eight" in February 1990. This review talks about the plot and about the character Blake. The reviewer describes Blake's confidence being based on his own "Self-Importance" and to be nothing more substantial than acting upon the "sumptuary laws" of the upper/middle class. They then go on to explain Miss Dent's need to reclaim some of that self-respect she had lost sleeping with Blake. Also, by accomplishing her task of following Blake home to Shady Hill, she had taught him a lesson, and more dignified and merciful than Blake. The review finishes by talking about the ending and questioning whether Blake learned his lesson at the end of the story. It is also explained that Blake might as well be Cheever's most unlikable character, and is remarkable for his callous attitude towards others. Along with confusing the sumptuary laws, moral obligations, and human responsibilities he lives by.
Quentin Martin writes about the images within "The Five-Forty-Eight". He explores multiple examples of imagery within the story. First he writes about when Blake was walking in downtown Manhattan and turns to see a plate of glass. Inside that was a domestic model that contained cups of coffee, magazines, and flowers in vases. But, the cups were empty of coffee, the flowers were dead in the vase, and the guests had not come. But, Blake saw his own reflection in the plate glass. Martin explains that this illustrates a "false-front emptiness" where Miss Dent thinks Blake's life is full of friendships, money, and a large and loving family but in reality sleeps in a room by himself, torments his wife, and all but abandoned his son to a neighbor. Martin also states that his domestic woes and ego divided behavior which is fueled by what he perceives as people having wronged him. However, this all accumulates to his behavior being as open as the store-front window according to Martin. He then introduces another image theory about the ride home on the train. Martin explains that the first and third ad, that depict a women and man toasting wine and a Hawaiian dancer; show visual manifestations of Blake's and Miss Dent's emotional desolation and psychological dysfunction according to Martin. One final image that Martin explores is the Cat's Paw ad. Where a once popular rubber heel placed on the bottom of a shoe to prevent slipping and falling is actually a metaphor for Blake and Miss Dent. Martin explains when Miss Dent states, "You’re the only obstacle between me and my happiness" that the first and more literal meaning is that Blake is between her and the station ads that represent the relationship she seeks, but also that Blake is the heel between Miss Dent and her happiness.
Robert A. Morace gave his views on "The Five-Forty-Eight" in his Author Biography on John Cheever. Morace states that after his reading on "The Five-Forty-Eight" he found it to be close to another story also written by John Cheever called, “O Youth and Beauty”. Morace says that Blake is Cheever's least likable characters throughout Cheever's stories. Morace states that Blake has undergone a change based on this experience he had with Miss Dent saying that this is the first time that Blake experiences regret. Morace also states that we do not know if these changes Blake experiences will be long-lasting or not. What Morace says about Miss Dent is that with her not killing Blake she discovered some kindness and saneness within herself that could be put to use.
Philip N Meyer gave his views of "The Five-Forty-Eight" in an article that he has written called "The Inside Story". Along with his own views he also adds in an article written by Charles Baxter who is a writer and also teaches at the University of Minnesota. The article Meyer uses is called "In the Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot". Blaxter says that Blake as a character is "a completely loathsome suburbanite who keeps up the appearance of gentility in business and at home, but whose inner life is hypocritical and self-deluded". Baxter also says that Miss Dent's character is, "a lunatic of sorts, but in Cheever's story she is a messenger of fate. She is the ax to open the frozen sea of Blake's soul." What Meyer has to say about this story is that Cheever exposes gender power imbalances, social cruelty and sexual abuse in this short story.
Themes and meanings
"The Five-Forty Eight" presents the idea of stereotypical male superiority in the work place by introducing Blake as the "boss" and Miss Dent as a secretary. The story also demonstrates the idea of men depreciating the value of woman workers. Blake's actions show that he has the belief that males have more authority and are more important than women. Cheever is successful in making Blake come off as the typical male stereotype by giving the reader clear evidence that he has very little remorse for his actions taken against Miss Dent. Until he was confronted, Blake never questioned his decisions that he had made throughout his life.
Film, TV and theatrical adaptations
The story has been adapted for the theatre and also appeared in this form on the radio. It was also adapted into a 1960 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, starring Zachary Scott and Phyllis Thaxter.
- "The Five-Forty-Eight". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2017-04-24.
- Reviews, Magill Book (February 1, 1990). The Five Forty Eight Short Story. Salem Press.
- Martin, Quentin. "Image Making in John Cheever's THE FIVE-FORTY-EIGHT". The Explicator. 70 (#2): 141–143.
- Morace, R. A. (2001). John Cheever. Critical Survey Of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition, pg. 1-8.
- Meyer, P. N. (2017). "The Inside Story". ABA Journal, pg. 22-24.
- Hitchcock, Alfred; Thaxter, Phyllis; Scott, Zachary; Windust, Irene (1960-10-25), The Five-Forty-Eight, retrieved 2017-04-08
- 3 by Cheever: The 5:48 on IMDb
- Brennan, Elizabeth A.; Clarage, Elizabeth C. (1999-01-01). Who's Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9781573561112.