The Wapshot Chronicle
by John Cheever

Published: 2011-06-28
Paperback : 368 pages
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When The Wapshot Chronicle was published in 1957, John Cheever was already recognized as a writer of superb short stories. But The Wapshot Chronicle, which won the 1958 National Book Award, established him as a major novelist.

Based in part on Cheever’s adolescence in New England, the ...

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When "The Wapshot Chronicle" winner of the 1958 National Book Award, was published in 1957, Cheever was already recognized as a writer of superb short stories. Based in part on Cheever's adolescence in New England, the novel follows the destinies of the wildly eccentric Wapshots of St. Botolphs, a quintessential Massachusetts fishing village.

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Chapter One
St. Botolphs was an old place, an old river town. It had been an inland port in the great days of the Massachusetts sailing fleets and now it was left with a factory that manufactured table silver and a few other small industries. The natives did not consider that it had diminished much in size or importance, but the long roster of the Civil War dead, bolted to the cannon on the green, was a reminder of how populous the village had been in the 1860s. St. Botolphs would never muster as many soldiers again. The green was shaded by a few great elms and loosely enclosed by a square of store fronts. The Cartwright Block, which made the western wall of the square, had along the front of its second story a row of lancet windows, as delicate and reproachful as the windows of a church. Behind these windows were the offices of the Eastern Star, Dr. Bulstrode the dentist, the telephone company and the insurance agent. The smells of these offices -- the smell of dental preparations, floor oil, spittoons and coal gas -- mingled in the downstairs hallway like an aroma of the past. In a drilling autumn rain, in a world of much change, the green at St. Botolphs conveyed an impression of unusual permanence. On Independence Day in the morning, when the parade had begun to form, the place looked prosperous and festive. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Describe the Wapshot family. What is it, beyond the tie of blood relation, that connects them? How attuned are they to each other's internal strife? Describe the family dynamic -- why do Leander and Sarah allow themselves to continue to be bound to Honora? Is it only that she controls the family purse strings and their income? Is the wielding of this control a flaw of Honora's character? Is this the only element of control that Honora impresses upon them?

2. Even though it is Moses who is commanded to leave St. Botolphs, Coverly follows him. Why does Coverly also leave St. Botolphs? What do Moses and Coverly stand to gain by seeking futures outside of St. Botolphs and what do they actually accomplish? Do they cling to one another at the expense of their individuality -- or does their separation release them and allow them to grow independently of one another?

3. Uncle Lorenzo, whom we never directly meet, travels to the South Pacific on a voyage of expiation with his wife, where, subsequently, Honora is born. How do Honora's standards of decency live up to the missionary precedent set by her parents? How does she diverge from those standards? What do the townspeople come to expect of Honora, what does she expect from herself, and how is this brought to bear on other Wapshots?

4. Leander keeps a journal in which he regularly writes rules by which a man should live. To what extent did Leander live by these rules? What did he gain in his specificity? To what extent did the other residents of St. Botolphs, including the Wapshots, organize their lives by rules? Did the mores of the town reflect the changing mores of the nation?

5. Purity and carnality are major themes in Cheever's works. Which of the characters abide by traditional sexual codes? How does their behavior reflect their attitudes about mid-20th-century America? Are the male characters more concerned with carnality than the female characters?

6. The Wapshot Chronicle is a family saga that focuses on intergenerational differences. Think about the differences between the earlier, esteemed Wapshots, Thaddeus and Lorenzo, and a comparison of Honora, Leander, and Sarah's generation to that of Coverly and Moses. How does each generation come of age? Does St. Botolphs nurture them all in the same way?

7. The Wapshots traditionally place great importance on family lineage. Do you think this was a factor in the choice of brides for either Moses or Coverly? How do Melissa and Betsey compare to Sarah and Honora? How do they compare to their husbands?

8. The beginning of the novel is comparable to that of the Bible's Genesis. What place, if any, does God occupy in the lives of the Waphsots? Why did John Cheever structure the novel in this way? What response from readers might he have been trying to evoke?

9. Did Honora apply her moral dictates to her own behavior? Who was Honora's fiercest judge? Does Honora see the new and emerging America as powerful and progress-minded? Does she harbor a patriotism for the nation that matches her love of St. Botolphs?

10. Many of Cheever's characters feel a compelling need for rebirth. The desire human beings have for a cleansing or baptism is universal and is evident in his characters. How do Leander and Sarah achieve this? To what extent is the Topaze a part of it? Are Cheever's women more desirous of inner rebirth than the men?

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