John Cheever’s The Housebreaker of Shady Hill tells the tale of Johnny Hake, a relatively well-off suburbanite suddenly overcome by personal and financial troubles. After resigning from his job at the beginning of the story, Johnny must quickly come to terms with new financial difficulties and the increasing pressures of family life. Although The Housebreaker of Shady Hill is a relatively short story, the reader is provided with a remarkably vivid illustration of the narrator’s complex personality. By observing his actions throughout the story, it is obvious that Johnny is extremely neurotic. Moreover, it is evident that he struggles greatly when it comes to handling close family relationships. Some psychological theories on personality are enlightening when used to determine why Johnny acts and thinks the way he does. Although one theory cannot fully explain his personality, Sigmund Freud’s theory on psychological development is extremely applicable to Johnny’s character. Behaviorism, on the other hand, does not seem to logically explain Johnny’s personality to the same extent. Thus, it is clear that some psychological theories are more applicable to certain situations than others.
Freud focused his theory of psychology on the unconscious mind and the concept of life energy or libido. In addition to stressing the interplay between the id, the superego and the ego, Freud also believed that psychological development could be explained by tracking how a person’s psychic energy becomes invested and redirected throughout life. Thus, according to Freud, the focal points for this energy define the stages of psychological development. Freud believed that there are five such stages of development (the Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency and Genital stages) – each of which has its own physical focus, psychological theme, and effected adult character. Hence, the interaction between a person’s physical focus and psychological theme could have a significant effect on his or her related adult characteristic.
This theory can be easily applied to Johnny throughout the story. Johnny’s extreme neuroticism, lack of self control, and poorly developed morals reveal that he was greatly affected by incidents that occurred somewhere between the Anal and Phallic stages. In fact, it is possible that much of Johnny’s personality was shaped by his parents’ divorce when he was only five. Johnny makes this link himself when he attempts to rationalize his theft by referencing his parents: “I had read often enough in the papers that divorce sometimes led to crime. My parents were divorced when I was about five.” (Cheever 315).
Freud’s theory can also be used to explain the differences between Johnny and his father. When his father makes arrangements for Johnny to bring a dancer back home with him, Johnny becomes scared and frustrated: “The arrangements were all made. I could even have one of the specialty dancers. Now, if I’d felt that he [Johnny’s father] had crossed the Atlantic to perform this service for me, it might have been different, but I felt he’d made the trip in order to do a disservice to my mother. I was scared” (Cheever 316). While Johnny is made extremely uncomfortable by the situation, however, his father does not even realize what he has done wrong. In fact, he clearly thought he was doing his son a favor by making arrangements with the dancers. The two men’s conflicting reactions to the same situation could be the result of their differing stages of psychological development. While Johnny might be enduring anal fixation, his father could be more genitally fixated, causing his general tendency towards sexuality and procreation.
While Freud’s theory on psychological development can be directly related to aspects of Johnny’s character, Behaviorism and Social Learning Theory are less applicable. Behaviorists argue that individuals are shaped almost entirely by their experiences. Thus, people will remember how certain stimuli have affected them in the past and will, therefore, react in order to cause the most positive outcome. Moreover, Social Learning Theory asserts that responses to certain actions can directly influence an individual’s later response to the same stimuli. Hence, behavior can be manipulated through reinforcement and punishment.
Throughout The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, there are many incidents in which the reader can see past experiences directly affecting Johnny. For example, after Johnny first steals, the consequences of his actions begin to change his thoughts and outward personality. He begins to notice how much theft actually occurs in the world everyday and his morals seem to bend as a result of this realization. The effects of Johnny’s experience are quite evident on page 318, when he states, “I walked around the streets, wondering how I would shape up as a pickpocket and a bag snatcher, and all the arches and spires of St. Patrick’s only reminded me of poor boxes” (Cheever 318). Thus, it is clear that Johnny’s experience has a significant impact on his thoughts and has even altered his perception. Furthermore, Johnny never receives any disciplinary action for his crimes, and in some cases, even receives encouragement (via the papers) to continue to act the way he has. This subtle conditioning causes Johnny to have a clearer conscience when he looks back on his actions.
This theory’s applicability to Johnny’s personality begins to fall apart, however, when one considers the manner in which Johnny is unaffected by certain stimuli. For example, although Johnny is overcome by anxiety when he steals for the first time, this negative reaction does not deter him from doing it again. Moreover, the theory does not take into account the effects of biology in shaping Johnny’s personality. In basing personality development solely on an individual’s experiences, the Behaviorist theory does acknowledge that many of Johnny’s personality traits were directly passed down from his parents via genes. This possible genetic effect on personality is quite evident when one notices that both Johnny and his father have alcoholic tendencies. Moreover, Johnny and his mother both dislike talking about issues dealing with money. Thus, the analysis of Johnny Hake’s character in The Housebreaker of Shady Hill demonstrates the manner in which certain theories on personality fit specific situations better than others do. While Freud’s theory on psychological development seems to be strongly applicable to Johnny, the Behaviorist theory seems to ignore the clear effects of genetic influence.
Cheever, John. “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” Stories of John Cheever.
Funder, David. The Personality Puzzle. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007. Print.