When it was first published in 1954, few readers—and certainly very few males—singled out for criticism the proposition that Miss Dent seems to be yet another incarnation of the jilted lover driven crazy by rejection to the point of potentially murderous psychopathy. The primary reason for this lapse was, of course, that such a character was not yet a stereotype when everybody liked Ike and drove cars with great bit fins on them. In fact, it would take another quarter of a century or so for revisionists to start crying foul on one of Cheever’s most celebrated short stories. Call it the “Fatal Attraction Syndrome.” In the wake of Glenn Close’s character in that film which sent shiver down the back of many men who might feel some sympathy toward Mr. Blake, a wholesale re-evaluation of Miss Dent was undertaken. And the conclusion arrived at by many was a mixed message to be sure. Sure, Cheever could be said to be guilty of taking a shortcut to characterization by making Miss Dent a bona fide mental case who had suffered from a nervous breakdown so severe in the wake of “the Blake Incident” that she actually had to be briefly institutionalized.
The flip side of that equation, of course, is that it situates Cheever as a visionary. He had essentially—to a point—already written Fatal Attraction and even seen it adapted for the screen (not just once!) The first airing under the purview of no less the voice of authority than Alfred Hitchcock. So it was not just the admittedly fractional part of the population that read the New Yorker and bought short story collections who were familiar with the story and yet failed to raise any objection to the characterization of Miss Dent as mentally out of whack. Besides, how mentally unbalanced could Miss Dent be if she had her prey on the ropes and then just walks away without wreaking the full extent of her revenge? Miss Dent may be many things, but a comrade-in-harms to Alex in Fatal Attraction she is not.
If it is true that Cheever was simply being lazy by making his agent of vengeance a so-called “crazy jilt” then he certainly redeemed himself by positions the story as a progenitor for crazier jilted lover to come. Before jumping to that conclusion as many revisionists have, however, it may be worth noticing something of tremendous import. Mr. Blake is every bit as mentally unstable as she is. Blake exhibits many of the classic symptoms associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He has an unrealistic perspective of his own superiority and importance, he takes advantage of others without recognizing their feelings or the importance of their own needs, he is arrogant with a sense of entitlement and believes that others are envious of him.
In short, Mr. Blake is almost certainly a certifiable examples of the narcissist that is pervasive among those who work in offices in big cities and have become successful enough to warrant a personal secretary. Even more to the point: Blake’s actions and behavior demonstrate a mental state that seems to require institutionalization at least as much as Miss Dent’s actions and behavior warranted such a step. So, if reader armed with the pop culture history of those crazy rhymes-with-witches want to accuse of Cheever of contributing to a stereotype that condemns women as hysterical beyond sane reasoning, then the reader must also castigate him for contributing to the stereotype of the narcissistic man in the gray flannel suit.
Or, perhaps more suitable, come not to bury Cheever, but to praise him for being honest enough to show that in the 1950’s a woman who was dealing with mental problems would have to locked away while a man dealing with his own mental problems every bit as severe would be considered for the promotion that became available.