American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

CHEEVER, JOHN (1912-1982). John Cheever, a writer of predominantly short fiction, uses seaside cottages and beaches as backgrounds for many of his stories. Sometimes Cheever’s depiction of the sea is more significant, however, with references to the sea possessing curative, erotic, and even redemptive powers.

A belief in the spiritually curative benefit of the sea is expressed by several of Cheever’s characters. In “Brimmer” (1959), the narrator suggests that relationships filled with tension on the land can be escaped in the water. In “Goodbye, My Brother” (1951), swimming in the sea allows members of a family to suppress dislike of their brother; when they emerge from the waters, their words are filled with kindness for him. The narrator of the story suggests that the act of swimming in the sea has an effect like baptism, cleansing human spirits of negativity.

Cheever combines the erotic and the religious through nudity in his stories. In The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), the sea’s properties are claimed by Venus, an erotic figure of worship. In “The Seaside Houses” (1961), the narrator believes that people approach the sea as lovers. Cheever includes the scents of the seawater and women’s breasts among life’s perfumes in “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear” (1960). Ocean landscape evokes the erotic in “The Trouble of Marcie Flint” (1957), where the sea islands are compared to a woman’s thighs, and in “The Golden Age” (1959), the hills of the shore are compared to women’s breasts. In Bullet Park (1969), the nakedness of swimmers on ordinary beaches is compared to religious images of eternity and the apocalypse, which also depict naked figures. In “Montraldo” (1964), a typical beach scene is compared to a mythical paradise.

A famous image of naked women and the sea appears at the conclusion of “Goodbye, My Brother” when the narrator sees his wife and sister walk out of the sea. The nudity of the women recalls Venus’ birth from the sea and the nakedness in Eden. The image of women walking out of the sea, which is repeated in The Wapshot Chronicle, is consistent with Cheever’s view of the sea as possessing both the erotic and redemptive qualities of paradise.

Robert Imes