The Death of Justina Summary
by John Cheever

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The Death of Justina Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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In “The Death of Justina” it is not merely a brush with death (as in “The Country Husband”) but death itself that serves as catalyst not only for a change in the narrator-protagonist’s life but for Cheever’s comic genius as well. “So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions”; the speaker is a version of the figure Cheever imagined in 1959—the man in a quagmire looking up at a tear in the sky—but one whose predicament has somehow become funnier as well as more dire.

If, as the narrator would like to believe, fiction is art, and if art is the triumph over chaos brought about by the exercise of choice, then how is the writer or authorial narrator to continue to effect that triumph in a world in which change occurs too rapidly and in which the basis for making aesthetic as well as moral choices appears to have disappeared? How is one to build Coverly Wapshot’s bridge between “memories and ambitions”?

Aside from the setting (Proxmire Manor) and names (Moses and Justina), “The Death of Justina” exists independently of The Wapshot Scandal in all but two important respects, structure and theme, and specifically in Moses’s wanting to know how, in the world’s most prosperous land, there can be so many disappointed people. “The Death of Justina” provides a possible answer. When his wife’s cousin dies in his home, Moses suddenly learns that his neighborhood and the suburban good life it represents are not zoned for death. As the mayor explains, “The importance of zoning just can’t be overestimated,” and Moses will simply have to wait a few days or weeks until an exemption can be issued and the body can be legally disposed of. When Moses threatens to bury the corpse in his back yard, the mayor—acting illegally—relents.

Matters do not end there, however, for that night Moses has a dream in which a thousand grotesquely garbed shoppers, desexed and penitential, wander around a brilliantly lit supermarket, its windows darkened, the contents of all packages unknown. At the checkout counter, large men tear open the packages, express their disgust, and then push the humiliated shoppers out the door into a sea of tormented souls.

This blackly humorous updating of Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320) manages to create a certain sympathy for those it satirizes and for modern humans’ mistaken efforts to realize their deepest longings. Burying Justina in a cemetery which, like a dump, lies on the town’s outskirts leads Moses to ask, “How can a people who do not mean to...

(The entire section is 681 words.)