The main theme of the story is the death of Justina. Justina is elderly cousin of Moses' wife. Justina dies on the living room sofa in Moses' house. But, the town is so carefully zoned that in his neighborhood there are no undertakers and none are permitted to come from outside to pick the dead body. The only solution, his doctor tells him, is to take the dead body across the zoning line in his car.
The way in which the society handles death is almost too much for Moses to take. He feels that the world cannot hold down a person who lived with old values. At Justina's funeral, Moses comments, "How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm" He breaks down.
Through this comment from the protagonist of the story, Cheever is trying to make a point that at the heart of our culture's moral sickness is a growing aversion to death and the dying. At the heart of this sickness is a growing aversion to death and the dying life.
But, Justina's death is just an incident to bring out the suppressed discontent of a man. Moses is prompted by his doctor to stop smoking and drinking. This being important to lead a healthy life, he quits these "humble stimulations".
But, the fact that his wife ignores his change for the better, affects Moses a lot. He feels that no one rewards him for his privations. He opines on this matter that "men had honored one another with medals, statuary, and cups for much less" and that "abstinence is a social matter". Moses' state of mind and his comments highlight the diminishing factors of love and care in human relations.
That night, Moses starts thinking about the neglected graves of his three brothers. He considers death to be "a loneliness much crueler than any loneliness hinted at in life". Contrary to the ideology of many religions regarding death, Cheever tells us that "the soul does not leave the body but lingers with it through every degrading stage of decomposition and neglect".
Although he is very proud of his abstinence, his privation of cigarettes and his regular drinks, towards the end of the story, Moses starts smoking cigarettes and drinks Martinis hidden in the coat closet.
The way in which Cheever ends the story sounds very cynical. But, the effect it leaves on the mind of the reader is worth noting. Cheever drives home his point of view in a very subtle, sarcastic way. The underlying meaning is that life and society are better perceived in the mind's eye as what each individual wishes his or her perception to be. This feels necessary, as reality is capable of pushing the mind to create a false world that we all live in together.
The Style of John Cheever
Cheever has a special place in the American literature. He has a unique style for telling his stories. His stories are elusive.
Typically, Cheever's stories are based on middle-class suburbanites. The stories are presented with an ironic humor.
Cheever exhibits a powerful narrative style. He provokes us to add our own input. He begins the story as a passive observer. Gradually, the narrator of the story transforms into a commentator who interprets the thoughts and feelings of