(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Similarities between The Wapshot Scandal and the work to which it serves as sequel, The Wapshot Chronicle, are readily apparent: the similar cast of characters (though Leander and Sarah are both dead), the use of a framing device (two Christmases at St. Botolphs), and the interweaving of multiple narratives. Honora, still eccentric but now more sympathetic, tries to escape persecution for nonpayment of taxes by traveling to Italy. There she finds herself homesick rather than free and, in the company of an equally lonely Internal Revenue Service agent, returns to St. Botolphs, where she must forfeit the family fortune and soon drinks herself to death (a death that Cheever somehow seems to make funny).

Cheever depicts the lives of Coverly and Betsey in a missile-site housing complex named Talifer and of Moses and Melissa in affluent Proxmire Manor. The differences between the two books, however, are of greater importance than the similarities. In The Wapshot Scandal, the narrative is more discontinuous (so much so that Cheever once described it as “an extraordinarily complex book built upon non sequiturs”). The temporal vagaries of The Wapshot Chronicle here seem more pronounced, resulting in a more mythified realism, a fictive world that is simultaneously now and never. (In this sense it resembles the strangely familiar setting of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which significantly first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1940’s.)

The narrator’s relation to his story has also grown more problematic: It is at once more intimate and more detached. He claims to have personal knowledge of the Wapshots, who, he says, always made him feel like an outsider. Most important, The Wapshot Scandal is a darker and at times blackly humorous novel haunted by death, as the now-vacant Wapshot house is said to be haunted by the ghost of Leander, described here as a man who always looked like a boy but who in his last years “looked like a boy who had seen the Gorgon.” Coverly cannot understand why his father would want to come back, least of all to a decidedly fallen world which seems to promise nothing ahead and offer nothing to which to return.

The modern world has almost entirely displaced the “old river town” of the earlier novel. The potency of this new world is almost entirely destructive, as figured most clearly in Dr. Lemuel Cameron, né Bracciani, director of the Talifer missile site and believer in the inevitability of nuclear war, who is more than willing to dispose of all who do not measure...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)

The Wapshot Scandal Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Wapshot Scandal reveals the Wapshot family in four principal settings: St. Botolphs, Talifer, Proxmire Manor, and Italy. In all of these locations the atmosphere of spiritual emptiness prevails, and European American characters struggle against the oppressive and morally destructive forces of a mechanized and technological world.

The title might suggest that the Wapshot family is the central focus of the novel, and that Coverly and Moses Wapshot and their wives are major figures, but many auxiliary characters are introduced, and their problems and struggles are important to the themes of the novel.

“How orderly, clean, and sensible the world seems,” the narrator says, describing St. Botolphs; nevertheless, an ominous warning is issued: “It is late in the day, late in this history of this part of the world.” Despite “brutes,” “shrews,” “thieves,” and “perverts,” St. Botolphs preserves appearances and maintains its hope. Cheever dampens that hope, however, as he relates the feelings of Mr. Applegate, who optimistically senses “his faith renewed” and feels “that an infinity of unrealized possibilities” lies ahead, yet pessimistically halts his reverie with an alarming turnabout, asking himself if his good feeling comes from his gin.

In Talifer, a place where nuclear missiles are developed and deployed, Betsey and Coverly Wapshot take up residence because of a computer error. Betsey...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

The Wapshot Scandal Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Honora Wapshot is an eccentric spinster and the septuagenarian guardian of the Wapshot treasure trove, oldest living descendant of a family that settled in the town of St. Botolphs, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century. Honora supervises—but mainly underwrites with quarterly checks from a trust fund—the lives of her two young cousins, Moses and Coverly Wapshot. The two brothers have lost both their mother, Sarah, and their father, Leander, who drowned while swimming.

After a Christmas visit to Honora during which he is haunted by the ghost of his high-minded father, Coverly travels west. He returns to a world that would have baffled his father—the Talifer Missile Site. At this top-secret complex of experimental laboratories and space-travel equipment, some irrevocable error by a personnel-selecting machine has recently placed Coverly in the department of public relations, although he was trained for computer programming. He lives in Talifer with his wife, Betsey, and their son, Binxey, but their social life in the community is a little bleak. One day Betsey, after watching with bland indifference as a neighbor falls to his death on a cement terrace, neglects to notify anyone because of her vague fear that she might violate security regulations. Coming home one day, Coverly learns that their garbage pail has been taken by a neighbor, and Coverly and the neighbor’s husband come to blows and bites over the incident. Shortly afterward, Betsey and Coverly attempt to meet their neighbors (who have never called on them since their arrival) by inviting twenty-five people to a cocktail party; the plan is aborted, however, when no one appears. Betsey is shattered, and her reaction takes the form of a lasting resentment of Coverly, whom she blames for making her live in Talifer.

Through a strange accident of circumstance, Coverly is offered a position on the personal staff of Dr. Lemuel Cameron, the egomaniacal titan of the missile complex. Coverly, however, is entirely at the mercy of Cameron’s caprice and soon discovers that he is nothing more than a chauffeur for the great man. Also, beneath the surface of Cameron’s brilliance and cultural pretensions (he is capable of quoting a little poetry) lies the viciousness of a man who professes a belief in the blessedness of the universe but who talks with perfect equanimity of the destruction of the world. Cameron also suffers agonies of lust that can be satisfied only by a mistress in Rome, beats his subordinates in ferocious outbursts of temper, and has driven his son to insanity by practicing hideous extremes of cruelty in the name of discipline. In a short time, therefore, Coverly finds that he has hitched his wagon to a rather sinister star.

When Coverly’s security clearance at the missile site is withdrawn because of Honora’s delinquency on her federal income tax, he expects that Cameron will get him reinstated. When he goes for that purpose to Washington, where Cameron is being questioned by a congressional committee, Coverly witnesses a rather startling phenomenon: As a result of Cameron’s savage temperament, his own security clearance is withdrawn.

Moses Wapshot has trouble with his work but far more trouble with his wife, Melissa. He works at a brokerage house (presumably in New York City), and the couple lives with their son in an affluent suburban cocoon called Proxmire Manor, where the only thing that occupies the police is the...

(The entire section is 1407 words.)