Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cheever begins and ends this novel with the same idea, that the story is one “to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night.” Thus, at the beginning, Cheever introduces an important image, water, and implies another, home. At the end, he reiterates their importance by repeating the line and comes full circle to arrive where he started. The narrative device, then, reinforces a major theme, the desire to go “home.”

Depicting the modern world as a nomadic society where everything is expendable, “home” for Cheever represents paradise. It is a feeling more than a place—a sense of being loved and being at one with God, man, and the universe. When Cheever has his characters long for home, he is telling the archetypal tale of fallen, wandering man’s desire to return to Eden.

Clean water also becomes an image for paradise; cleaning Beasley’s Pond represents a return to the garden. The narrator makes this point clear when he says that for Sears paradise was never a “sacred grove,” but “the whiteness of falling water.” The narrator also notes that once the pond is clean and clear again, it could serve as “a background for [a painting of] Eden.” Finally, by Sears’s equating the search for love with the search for clean water, Cheever makes love a way to return to paradise as well.

An early description of spring rains on harvest-ready fields and other references to agriculture and plenty indicate that an allied theme is the potential for renewal. Sears is rejuvenated by his affair with Renee and spiritually renewed by the newly cleansed pond. In the twentieth century, renewal comes with the glimpses of paradise that are possible in the contemporary spiritual wasteland. Although only glimpses are possible, to Cheever they are so spiritually uplifting that they are motivation enough for man’s continued striving to catch them.