Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5621
In a literary period that witnessed the exhaustion of literature, wholesale formal experimentation, a general distrust of language, the death of the novel, and the blurring of the lines separating fiction and play, mainstream art and the avant-garde, John Cheever consistently and eloquently held to the position that the writing of fiction is an intimate, useful, and indeed necessary way of making sense of human life and affirming its worth. Cheever’s ambitious and overtly religious view of fiction not only is unfashionable today but also stands in marked opposition to those critics who pigeonhole, and in this way dismiss, his fiction as social criticism in the conventional realistic mode. Certainly, there is that element of realism in his work that one finds in the fiction of John O’Hara and Anton Chekhov, writers with whom he is often compared. Such a view, however, fails to account for the various nonrealistic components of his work: the mythic resonance of William Faulkner, the comic grotesquerie of Franz Kafka, and, most important, the lyric style that, while reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finest prose, is nevertheless entirely Cheever’s own, a cachet underscoring his essentially religious sensibility.
Humankind’s inclination toward spiritual light, Cheever has said, “is very nearly botanical.” His characters are modern pilgrims—not the Kierkegaardian “sovereign wayfarers” one finds in the novels of Walker Percy, another contemporary Christian writer, but instead the lonely residents of Cheever’s various cities and suburbs whose search for love, security, and a measure of fulfillment is the secret undercurrent of their otherwise prosaic daily lives. Because the idea of original sin is a given in Cheever’s fiction, his characters are men and women who have fallen from grace. At their worst, they are narcissists and chronic complainers. The best of them, however, persevere and, as a result, attain that redemptive vision that enables them “to celebrate a world that lies around them like a bewildering and stupendous dream.”
This affirmation does not come easily to Cheever’s characters, nor is it rendered sentimentally. Cheever well understands how social fragmentation and separation from the natural world have eroded the individual’s sense of self-worth and debased contemporary life, making humanity’s “perilous moral journey” still more arduous. The outwardly comfortable world in which these characters exist can suddenly, and often for no clearly understandable reason, turn dangerously dark, bringing into sharper focus the emotional and spiritual impoverishment of their lives. What concerns Cheever is not so much the change in their fortunes as the way they respond to that change. Many respond in an extreme, sometimes bizarre manner—Melissa Wapshot, for one. Others attempt to escape into the past; in doing so, they deny the present by imprisoning themselves in what amounts to a regressive fantasy that Cheever carefully distinguishes from nostalgia, which, as he uses it, denotes a pleasurable remembrance of the past, one that is free of regret. Cheever’s heroes are those who embrace “the thrust of life,” taking from the past what is valuable and using it in their present situations. How a character responds to his world determines Cheever’s tone, which ranges from open derision to compassionate irony. Although in his later work Cheever may have been, as Richard Schickel has claimed, less ironic and more forgiving, his finest stories and novels, including Falconer, derive their power from the balance or tension he creates between irony and compassion, comedy and tragedy, light and dark.
The social and moral vision that forms the subject of Cheever’s fiction also affects the structure of his...
(The entire section contains 5621 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this John Cheever study guide. You'll get access to all of the John Cheever content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays