“Reunion” by John Cheever: Analysis, Theme & Summary of Short Story

Reunion by John Cheever Analysis Theme Summary Short Story
“Reunion” Analysis, Summary & Themes

“Reunion” is a short story by John Cheever, first published in 1962. It’s the story of a boy who spends a lunchtime layover in New York near Grand Central Station with his father, whom he hasn’t seen in three years. It’s a frequently anthologized story, and one of Cheever’s shortest. This “Reunion” analysis starts with a summary then looks at themes and some questions.

“Reunion” Summary

The narrator, Charlie, recounts the events of the last time he saw his father. He wrote to his father, telling him he would be in New York for an hour and a half between trains.

His father arrives at Grand Central Station at noon. Charlie hadn’t seen his father in three years but he feels a connection to him. His father is big and good-looking. They go somewhere close for lunch because his father’s club is too far away.

They go to an empty restaurant with a very old waiter. When they sit down, his father boisterously calls the waiter and claps his hands.

The waiter objects to being clapped at. His father insultingly remarks on the waiter’s age and competence. He’s asked to leave.

Charlie and his father go to another restaurant. His father isn’t as boisterous. They have drinks and make small talk. After his drink, his father loudly asks for another. The waiter asks how old Charlie is. His father answers rudely. They leave the restaurant.

They go to another place. His father is loud and rude immediately. After a short argument with the waiter, they leave.

They enter an Italian restaurant. Charlie’s father orders in Italian. The waiter doesn’t speak Italian, but Charlie’s father doesn’t believe him. The captain comes over and asks them to leave.

Charlie has to go back to catch his train. His father apologizes. He wants to get Charlie a paper to read on his trip.

At the newsstand, his father rudely asks for a paper. The clerk ignores him. Charlie has to go. His father wants him to wait a minute so he can get a reaction from the clerk.

Charlie says goodbye and leaves.

(End of “Reunion” summary)

“Reunion” Theme Analysis: Coming of Age

Charlie’s lunchtime reunion with his father was a significant episode for him—he hadn’t seen him in three years and never saw him again.

Charlie felt a strong connection to his father. As soon as he saw him he felt that he “was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations.”

It seems Charlie was already aware of his father’s failings and was concerned about failing similarly.

In a sense, Charlie was reuniting with a part of himself. This was a chance for him to see in action some potential qualities of his own. He has to decide if he wants to move toward or away from these tendencies.

Charlie doesn’t reveal how he feels about his father’s behavior, so the reader is left to decide what he does. Charlie’s awareness of being something like his father and recognizing his limitations suggests he’s on guard against his father’s worst qualities.

The fact that Charlie never saw his father again also implies he distanced himself from his father’s influence.

It seems likely that this reunion gave Charlie a push in becoming the person he would be as an adult.

“Reunion” Theme Analysis: Communication

Communication has to be important in a story that shows us the first in-person interaction between a father and son in three years. However, this doesn’t mean the communication shown will be worth imitating.

There’s a red flag in the communication in this story in the opening paragraph. Charlie wrote to his father, but “His [father’s] secretary wrote to say that he would meet [Charlie] . . .” This impersonal response foreshadows the lack of meaningful communication throughout their lunch.

The way Charlie’s father interacts with the waiters confirms that no meaningful connection is forthcoming. In all four restaurants, he’s loud, rude and uses foreign words. His only conversation with Charlie during this time was superficial and matter-of-fact: “. . . he cross-questioned me about the baseball season.” This is in contrast to the restaurants, which are empty. They seem an ideal place for an intimate conversation.

Charlie’s father’s interaction with the newsstand clerk sums up his motivation in speaking to people. He says, “I want to get a rise out of this chap.” This seems to be the only way he’s comfortable talking to people.

There was a flash of genuine communication right before this. Charlie’s father apologized and hugged him. This was all he was able to muster in an hour and a half. He immediately fell back into his familiar pattern.

His communication style is selfish and alienating.

“Reunion” Analysis Questions

1. Why doesn’t Charlie see his father again?

We can’t state this for certain, but there are a few possibilities:

  • He chooses not to see him again due to his father’s behavior.
  • His father refuses future contact, knowing he’s incapable of a proper relationship.
  • His father dies, probably of an alcohol-related reason.

I think most readers lean toward the first reason. His father’s behavior was so unpleasant that it doesn’t seem like any good would come from associating with him. This reason would support a coming of age interpretation.

The second reason is also possible. We were shown that his father’s drinking was a serious problem. He could have recognized that he wasn’t in a position to be a father to Charlie due to his drinking. This reason seems less likely because the narrator wouldn’t have to take any action.

The third reason is also possible. Again, there’s no doubt his father’s drinking was a big problem. Although dying takes the responsibility away from Charlie, this reason still makes sense. Knowing his father’s drinking contributed to his bad behavior and death also supports a coming of age interpretation of Charlie’s experience.

2. What is the irony of the title?

Reunions are associated with positivity—lively conversation, fond reminiscing, and genuine concern for others.

Charlie’s reunion with his father didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations. The only connection between them was a slap on the back, a handshake, and a brief hug.

It felt more like an obligatory meet-up between two old acquaintances than a reunion between father and son.

3. Is there any symbolism?

One thing that stands out as a potential symbol is the train station. This is a temporary stopping point before a final decision is made to go somewhere specific. As such, it could represent a transition or a turning point.

Charlie’s lunchtime meeting with his father seems to have been a significant transitional experience. Throughout lunch, Charlie follows his father from restaurant to restaurant, allowing him to take the lead. At the end, at the newsstand, his father tells him to wait. Charlie says goodbye and goes into the station. He’s not following his father now. He’s less of a boy than he was earlier.

4. Why didn’t they go to Charlie’s father’s club for lunch?

Charlie’s father said his club was too far away, that it was “in the sixties”, referring to the street address. Grand Central Station is on forty-second street.

This could be an excuse. It’s possible he’s been kicked out of his club, judging by the way he interacts with restaurant staff.

They had time to go into four different restaurants. It seems reasonable that they could have made it to the club. Presumably, Charlie’s father didn’t walk to the station. He probably got a ride. As a successful businessman, it would likely have been easy for him to arrange a ride for them both.

I hope this “Reunion” analysis, look at themes and summary by John Cheever was helpful.