The Death of Justina - John Cheever

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John Cheever (1912-1982), American writer, called the "Chekhov of the suburbs", best known for his short stories dealing with the ironies of contemporary American life. Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, Cheever was expelled from preparatory school in 1929; rather than seek further formal education, he wrote a story, "Expelled," about his expulsion and submitted it to the magazine The New Republic, which published it in 1930. Cheever lived in New York City during the 1930s. His stories typically are subtle and finely worked comedies of manners, concerned with middle-class suburbanites, presented with an ironic humour, which softened his basically dark vision. His characters tend to be less specific than symbolic, although the situations in his narratives are realistic and detailed. Cheever's work often portrays individuals who yearn for self-expression within a society whose values make it difficult to achieve this freedom. He was skilled in using seemingly insignificant events in his characters' lives to expose their emotional complexities. Cheever's main theme was the spiritual and emotional emptiness of life. 

A few words on his most important works

Beginning in the 1930s, Cheever's stories were originally published in various prominent magazines, notably The New Yorker, and were subsequently collected in several volumes: The Way Some People Live (1943), The Enormous Radio (1954), The Housebreaker of Shady Hill (1958), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), and The World of Apples (1973). An omnibus edition, The Stories of John Cheever (1978), won him the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in literature. As a novelist, Cheever is noted for The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) and its sequel, The Wapshot Scandal (1964); the first volume received a National Book Award in 1958. These novels deal with the wealthy, eccentric Wapshot family in suburban Massachusetts and expand on themes that Cheever explored in his shorter fiction. Much more sombre commentaries on modern family life are found in his later novels: Bullet Park (1969), which deals with a suburban family threatened with violence, and Falconer (1977), the story of a drug-addicted college professor imprisoned for fratricide. Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1982), a very short novel, marked a return to Cheever's more amused and hopeful contemplation of contemporary life. The Journals of John Cheever was published posthumously in 1991.

Analysis of The Death of Justina

The Death of Justina, a reflection of the society contemporary with Cheever, was also one of Cheever's personal favourites. It reveals to us the writer's perceptions and ideas on death, which occurs in a wrong part of the city, "Zone B-two-acre lots". Cheever presents this whole situation with irony. 
Cheever tells his story from the perspective of a ne'er-do-well father who must take care of his wife's cousin after she dies on their living room sofa. The facts take place in five days - from Saturday till Thursday - the writer tells us what happens on each day, like in a diary. 
During the first two days we are presented some facts that are not really important or that are not connected to Justina's death. On Saturday the main character is told to stop smoking and drinking, which he does, this being important to him. The advice coming from a doctor, we can understand that maybe his life is in danger due to these self-destroying habits of his. When he tells his wife that he has quit smoking, she doesn't seem to care, and this affects him a lot, as no one rewards him for his privations. His opinion on this matter is that "men had honoured one another with medals, statuary, and cups for much less" and that "abstinence is a social matter". That evening, after dark, and "through the lack of these humble stimulations", he begins thinking of the neglected graves of his three brothers. At this point we get the first idea on death, the writer considers death to be "a loneliness much crueller than any loneliness hinted at in life". Unlike the position of many religions regarding death, Cheever states that "the soul ( I thought ) does not leave the body but lingers with it through every degrading stage of decomposition and neglect". This thought can be considered as a first premonition. The characters in this work are haunted by threatening, as, when they went out for dinner, the main characters imagines a series of events, that would lead to the house burning down, or to his daughter being attacked with a carving knife, or, even to death in a car crash. This is the second time when the character's thoughts lead to death. 
Although he is very proud of his abstinence, his privation of cigarettes and his regular drinks, on Sunday he smokes a few cigarettes and drinks two Martinis hidden in the coat closet.


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