Cheever, John (Vol. 7)

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Last Updated on August 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3088

Cheever, John 1912–

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Cheever is "a Chekhov of the suburbs"—with a touch of the absurd, the fantastical. An American, he is well-known for his New Yorker stories and his Wapshot novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[The] narrow thread on which happiness in the suburbs depends all are images of Cheever's sense of the modern fate. The turns in his stories, though, cannot be dismissed as tricks but must be given their due as repeated statements of the lack of connection between cause and effect. (p. 550)

Cheever is trying to handle his knowledge of human nature in the still recognizable Transcendentalist way. For Emerson, evil is an illusion; it is the lack of good and how can the lack of something be real? The argument can sound like a sophistical gimmick, the philosophical equivalent of Cheever's tricky endings. The voice of authorial wonder in Cheever's fiction is his device for refusing to acknowledge the finality of evil. (pp. 550-51)

What becomes clearest perhaps from a survey of the career of John Cheever, one filled with achievements of considerable substance but inconclusive still, is the drastic change in the nature of individualism that has taken place. Thoreau and Emerson protested against the follies of modern life with a contrariness that they insisted amounted to no more than reasonableness. The unlived life was what Thoreau opposed. But he never believed otherwise than that we could only have so much of one kind of life as we were willing to give up of another. The economy of the universe did not allow for having everything. Hence the solitary disciplined existence at Walden. This principle of economy provided Thoreau's moral intuition: the fixed point among the variable moods. But how small a band the Concord reformers seem now! Their formulas for living we could almost take as only literary parables although we know better. We are tempted to do so because looking back we most notice that there were fewer prophets then and fewer disciples and fewer opponents and fewer people altogether on the earth. The delicate balance of aesthetic and moral perceptions had not yet been subjected to the pressure of great numbers. The Cheever world, on the contrary, is bulging with people who have discovered the value of life and who suffer harsh agonies at the thought of its loss or diminishment, so that it is hard to tell whether their sense of the apocalypse is any more than a heightened awareness of individual mortality. Cheever, for his part, has never been able to trust preachers who would claim the right to deprive us of our fictions and to force the hard realities upon us. Even though we may acknowledge to ourselves the unreality of our lives, we cannot tolerate those who would claim to possess reality unto themselves. It is no wonder that Cheever's career as a writer of fiction is difficult to appraise. (pp. 551-52)

Eugene Chesnick, "The Domesticated Stroke of John Cheever," in The New England Quarterly (copyright 1971 by The New England Quarterly), December, 1971, pp. 531-52.

The [title] story "The World of Apples" seems to me virtually flawless, standing out in an otherwise uneven and rather tired collection, and reminding us that Cheever at his best is a remarkable writer….

Cheever's … art,… secure [in its] management of a limited range of tones and moods, is most impressive at moments of breakthrough, when it finds strange and haunting images of the mad or the marvelous penetrating ordinary experience…. Outside Cheever's neat narratives, there is usually more life lurking than he or the reader can quite cope with, and its intrusion into the stories provides an enlivening shock to his best work.

The danger is that a talent for disturbance can lapse into mannerism. Several stories in The World of Apples strain pretty hard for...

(The entire section contains 3088 words.)

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