Places: The Wapshot Scandal

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1964

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Early 1960’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSt. Botolphs

St. Wapshot Scandal, TheBotolphs. Massachusetts town, introduced in The Wapshot Chronicle as an old river town, that becomes in The Wapshot Scandal a seat of virtue and value in a corrupting, debased world. Cheever recapitulates his presentation of the town in the first pages of the second book, beginning with the square in the town’s center and then moving out to show the shops and homes which, in their individual characteristics, exemplify the positive attributes that Cheever admires.

In spite of the inevitable pressures wrought by changing economic conditions, the town is still a place of decorum and relative tranquillity. Its comparative insularity, which makes it seem quaint and old-fashioned, affords a place of refuge to its inhabitants, so that Coverly Wapshot exclaims on its “pathos and beauty” after returning from the outside world. He regards his aunt Honora’s bizarre behavior as one of the “eccentric niceties” of the village.

At the book’s close, Cheever steps out of the omniscient authority of the narrative to compose an envoi to his real/fictional setting, admitting “I love this water and its shores; love it absurdly as if I could marry the view.” The novel is his paean to a place that he feared was soon to be lost forever. On the last page of the novel, Cheever regretfully states about St. Botolphs, “I will never come back” and adds, “if I do there will be nothing left . . . there will really be nothing at all.”

Talifer

Talifer. Newly developed suburb near Boston that is the site of a missile research and development facility and a planned tract of homes for most of the people working at the complex. Coverly is employed there (until he loses his security clearance) and lives with his wife Betsey and young son in a nondescript mixed neighborhood, in which no one speaks to neighbors.

As Cheever conceives Talifer, it is an emblem of scientific heartlessness, cold and mechanistic, and inhabited by people who seem like robots, drones, and drudges. Its computer programmers and technicians are as eccentric as the residents of St. Botolphs, but their quirks tend to be antisocial, unfriendly, coarse, and often embarrassing. The sameness of the insubstantial houses that makes them seem to smell of shirt cardboard is set against distant mountains, which are the products of natural forces. Much of Cheever’s satire of contemporary America is built on Talifer’s repulsiveness.

*Rome

*Rome. Capital city of Italy in which the worst of the rest of the world is objectified. In spite of its reputation as the “eternal city,” Rome is used by Cheever to stand for non-American ugliness. When Moses Wapshot’s wife Melissa visits Rome on an adulterous tryst, she experiences “Roman Blues”; when Honora is in Rome she is swindled and confused; Melissa’s paramour Emile experiences a “suspension of conscience” in Naples when he participates in an auction of sexual favors. The Italian landscape exemplifies for Cheever a mood which he describes as “autumn in a European city with war forever in the air.”

Proxmire Manor

Proxmire Manor. Upscale suburb on three leafy hills north of New York City that Cheever contrasts with nearby Parthenia.

Parthenia

Parthenia. Ramshackle small town on the outskirts of New York City where the tradespeople who work for residents of Proxmire’s opulent mansions live. While Proxmire has “palatial” shopping centers, Parthenia’s few remaining stores are mostly deserted. Parthenia’s streets are dirty and dangerous. Whereas Proxmire is “handsome and comfortable,” Parthenia is a forecast of a future for once-thriving rural communities (like St. Botolphs) which had functioned as vital places where the local railroad station had “the rich aura of arrivals” prior to their current demise.

BibliographyBosha, Francis J., ed. The Critical Response to John Cheever. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Sampler of reviews and critical essays on all Cheever publications. Reprints five reviews of The Wapshot Chronicle and includes a new essay by Kenneth C. Mason on “Tradition and Desecration” in the two Wapshot books.Bosha, Francis J., comp. John Cheever: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Excellent discussion of the inconsistent critical response to Cheever’s fiction. Provides a comprehensive, fully annotated listing of works about Cheever, including reviews, articles, and interviews.Collins, R. G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Good overview of the critical reception of Cheever’s fiction. Reprints many of the most important and influential reviews and essays (some in revised form), including Frederick Karl on pastoral, Beatrice Greene on Cheever’s vision as an effect of style, and Frederick Bracher on comedy. A new essay by Samuel Coale on Cheever’s “Romancer’s Art” is especially noteworthy.Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988. Fair-minded and richly detailed, this biography offers the fullest and most objective, but nevertheless sympathetic, account of Cheever’s life and work, including the publication and reception of The Wapshot Scandal.Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983. Longer, more detailed, but more tendentious than the earlier book-length studies by Samuel Coale (1977) and Lynn Waldeland (1979). Hunt offers useful summaries of plot and criticism before offering his own critical reading in terms of Cheever’s Christian perspective.
Categories: Places