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The Wapshot Chronicle

The Wapshot Chronicle

The Wapshot Chronicles (1957) is a domestic fiction novel by American author John Cheever (1912-1982). The story follows the once prestigious Wapshot family members as they struggle to balance their long-held customs and the rapidly modernizing world of mid-20th century America. Cheever uses dark humor to analyze themes of tradition and modernity. In 1964, Cheever published a sequel, The Wapshot Scandal.

The Wapshot Chronicles: Summary

The small fishing town of St. Botolphs, Massachusetts, was once a thriving port that is now struggling to stay afloat. The town's fortunes reflect the status of the once-great Wapshot family. Leander Wapshot descended from a family of seafaring adventurers who made their fortunes traveling around the world. Only a few Wapshots remain, and Leander spends much of his time remembering the past in the family home, which is now an empty shell filled with memories of when the family was prosperous.

In 1958, The Wapshot Chronicles earned John Cheever the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.

Although Leander is technically the leader of the remaining Wapshots, his cousin, Honora, controls the family's finances. Eccentric and childless, Honora exerts her power by refusing to give Leander any of the family's fortunes, instead promising to bequeath it to his sons, Moses and Coverly, on the condition they first made their way in the world. They must secure careers, find wives and produce male heirs of their own before they can inherit the money.

An increasingly frustrated Leander tries to carve his time by working on his memoirs. To give him some meaning in life, Honora buys Leander the Topaze, a run-down boat he fixes up and uses to ferry passengers across the bay. As Moses and Coverly grow, Leander attempts to instill family traditions in them, prompting them to seek adventure and the desire to find women who will match their passion for life.

Leander Wapshot is obsessed with his sons upholding the family tradition of travel and adventure. Has Leander lived up to this family custom?

Moses is the first to leave St. Botolphs in search of adventure. He secures a top-secret job in Washington and then moves to New York to work in finance. Coverly can not stand to be at home without his brother and follows him to the city, where he begins his series of adventures. After failing an intense psychological test for a job at a carpet factory, he finds work at a department store while studying at night school. He becomes involved in a government project and travels around the country.

The Wapshot Chronicle, St. Botolphs, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The novel is set in the fictional town of St. Botolphs, a small New England fishing town similar to where John Cheever grew up.

Through their adventures, each brother finds a wife. Moses marries Melissa, the ward of a distant Wapshot cousin, Justina Wapshot Molesworth Scaddon. The couple moves in with Justina, who proves to be controlling and damaging to their relationship. Coverly marries a laid-back Southerner named Betsey McCaffery. The couple moves to the suburbs hoping for an idyllic life but they bicker and become distant.

How do the brothers find themselves ill-equipped to cope with the modern world?

Each couple produces a son and secures the brother's share of the family fortune. Moses and Coverly prepare to return to St. Botolphs, where they will buy their father a bigger boat. During his sons' absence, Leander's fortunes have worsened. After he crashes the Topaze, Honora refuses to pay for repairs, and he is unable to work. His wife converts the boat into a floating tea shop selling crafts and gifts. Feeling increasingly rudderless, a heartbroken Leander attempts to put his energy into writing his memoirs but finds remembering the past too painful.

On its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, The Modern Library ranked The Wapshot Chronicle at #63.

When Moses and Coverly return home, they find Leander has drowned himself. While going through his possessions, Coverly finds a note hidden in one of Leander's books. The letter outlines Leander's philosophy of life and provides his son with a simple list of life advice.

Fear tastes like a rusty knife, and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord." (Ch. 37)

The Wapshot Chronicles: Characters

In The Wapshot Chronicles, Cheever introduces the world to an eccentric group of characters from the Wapshot clan.

Characters Description
Leander WapshotThe novel's protagonist is a proud man who seeks to uphold his family's long tradition and heritage. Leander sees the Wapshots as a line of adventurers who made their fortune traveling the high seas. His romantic notions of tradition often clash with the reality of a world that cares less and less about the past.
Honora WapshotHonora is Leander's cousin and the Wapshot who controls the family's fortune. She disdains Leander because he has not made his way in the world. To keep him busy, she buys him a small boat as a distraction. Like Leander, Honora believes in upholding family traditions and customs.
Moses WapshotLeander's eldest son is forced to leave St. Botolphs to remain eligible for his share of the family fortune. Following the family tradition, Moses sets off to make his fortune. During his journey, he procures a top-secret job with the government, has an affair with a married woman, and ends up settling down with a distant Wapshot cousin.
Coverly WapshotUnable to bear life in St. Botolphs without his beloved elder brother, Coverly sets off on his journey. He initially moves to New York City, where he fails to adapt to the modern workplace. Ultimately Coverly finds his way by attending night school and marrying Betsey McCafferty.

The Wapshot Chronicles: Themes

One of the most critical themes Cheever explores in The Wapshot Chronicles is the clash between Leander's beliefs in tradition and the modern world outside St. Botolphs.

Tradition and modernity

The commitment to tradition and ceremony evens refers to a national scale. Like the Wapshot's customs, America finds its identity through annual events and celebrations. The novel starts and finishes during a July 4th celebration.

In the novel, the Wapshot are a family steeped in history and traditions which have sustained them for generations. However, this rigid commitment to the past leaves them unsuited for the rapidly modernizing world of mid-century America.

Leander believes deeply in ideas of traditions and rituals. He follows a strict daily routine which becomes his ritual and sees the repetition of family traditions as a crucial part of his sons' upbringings. He encourages them to go out into the world and seek adventure and fortune, just like their forefathers.

Characters like Leander, Coverly, and Honora all express nostalgia for a return to a simpler time when their traditions and New England manners were highly valued. As America moved from tightly-knit small communities into vast, anonymous suburban landscapes, many people felt isolated and disappointed by their new disconnected lives.

The Wapshot Chronicle, Disconnection, StudySmarterFig 2. - The theme of disconnection in the modern world is prevalent in the Wapshot Chronicles.

As Moses and Coverly embark on their journeys, they encounter a bizarre set of characters who are often only interested in making a profit. They feel unable to make genuine connections with people and build community. Even their marriages suffer from a sense of distance, as Cheever shows that in the modern world, even married couples are isolated from one another.

John Cheever drew inspiration from his life and relationships in his short stories and novels. The Wapshot Chronicle is one of Cheever's most autobiographical works. The Waphot's hometown of St. Botolphs is loosely based on Quincy, the small coastal city in Massachusetts where Cheever grew up. Like Quincy, St. Botolphs had once been a thriving fishing port that had fallen on hard times by the middle of the 20th century.

The Cheever family, like the Wapshots, boasted a long history in their local area and had enjoyed financial success in previous generations. Both families had slipped financially but still maintained the manners and traditions of the New England upper classes. Cheever's father had managed a successful business ruined by the financial crash of 1929. Like Cheever, Cheever's father sought solace in alcohol and attempted to escape his problems by focusing on sailing. Cheever wrote the book to make peace with his father's ghost.

Cheever's mother served as the model for the Wapshot's eccentric matriarch, Honora, and Leander's loyal wife, Sarah. Like the women in the novel, Cheever's mother was independent and maintained the strict social graces of her upper-crust upbringing. Later in life, Cheever's mother operated a gift shop similar to the one Sarah opens in the novel.

The most apparent personal relationship which informed the book was Cheever's close kinship with his brother, Frederick. Like Moses and Coverly, the pair were inseparable during childhood, and each suffered when Frederick left the Cheever home for boarding school. Coverly acts as Cheever's literary stand-in. During one chapter, Coverly is shown to struggle with his bisexual identity just as the author did in real life.

The Wapshot Chronicles: Analysis

A deeper analysis of John Cheever's The Wapshot Chronicles illustrates the author's use of style and technique to explore family dynamics. Like many of Cheever's works, it details the intimate workings of an American family and can therefore be classified as an example of domestic fiction.

Domestic fiction: a literary genre that developed during the middle of the 19th century. Works of domestic fiction focus on the complex relationships and dynamics of upper and middle-class families.

Throughout the novel, Cheever shifts between multiple perspectives as he follows the cast of characters. This changing viewpoint often focuses on one character, isolated from others, which illustrates the isolating nature of modern society.

Some of the book's most striking sections are told through Leander's view as diary entries highlighting his philosophy of life and his struggle to find meaning in a rapidly modernizing world. In an attempt to fill his time, Leander writes his memories, but many of his attempts end up as dull or sad recollections of the past.

Leander provides much of the novel's dark humor as his existence is filled with irony.

Irony: A literary technique that shows a contradiction between what you expect to happen and what actually happens.

While he coaches his sons to go out into the world to seek their fortune and partake in adventures to fulfill the family tradition, Leander has rarely ventured out of St. Botolphs. He has tried to prepare his sons to make it in the world, but the advice and rituals he's given them have left them woefully unprepared for the modern world outside their small community.

To create or to build some kind of bridge between Leander's worked and the world where he sought his fortune seemed to Coverly a piece of work that would take strength and perseverance." (Ch. 17)

Ultimately, Coverly and Moses can take the positive elements of their father's advice and adapt this to living in the modern world. However, they can only achieve this by leaving the confines of St. Botolphs.

The Wapshot Chronicle: Quotes

The following quotes showcase Cheever's ability to explore themes of tradition using his trademark humor.

Your underwear is clean in case you should be hit by a taxicab and have to be undressed by strangers." (Ch. 15)

Leander imparts many impractical and outdated advice to his sons, Moses and Coverly. When the boys venture out into the modern world, they soon find themselves ill-equipped to navigate the complex world but cling to many positive memories of life in St. Botolphs.

Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely grey hair." (Ch. 36)

Perhaps realising the impractical nature of his rules, at the end of the novel, Leander is overwhelmed by feelings of uselessness and commits suicide. In one of Leander's books, Coverly discovers a simple set of rules for the sons to live their lives by. The list displays both Leander's old-fashioned views and John Cheever's rye humor.

The Wapshot Chronicle - Key takeaways

  • The Wapshot Chronicles is a novel by American author John Cheever, published in 1957.
  • The novel follows members of the once-great Wapshot family as they struggle to balance their long-held customs in the modern world.
  • Cheever uses dark humor to analyze family relationships, tradition, and modernity themes.
  • Many of the characters and locations are inspired by elements of Cheever's life and family.
  • The novel is an example of the domestic fiction genre.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Wapshot Chronicle

The Wapshot Chronicle was written by John Cheever. 

The Wapshot Chronicle deals with themes of family, tradition and modernity.

The Wapshot Chronicle follows members of the Wapshot family as they struggle to find their way in a slowly declining Massachusetts fishing village. 

The main character in The Wapshot Chronicle is Leander Wapshot, the father of Moses and Coverly Wapshot.

The Wapshot Chronicle was published in 1958.

Final The Wapshot Chronicle Quiz


The Wapshot Chronicles is based in the small fishing town of ________. 

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St. Botolphs

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Which family member is in charge of the Wapshot finances?  

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The Wapshot Chronicles is John Cheever's final novel. 

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Which of the brothers is the first to leave St. Botolphs? 

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Which genre best describes The Wapshot Chronicles

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Domestic fiction 

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What is the name of Cheever's sequel to The Wapshot Chronicles

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The Wapshot Scandal

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Which award did the novel receive in 1958? 

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The U.S. National Book Award for Fiction

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What is the name of the boat Honora buys for Leander? 

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Cheever drew on his upbringing as an inspiration for the novel. 

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Which brother marries a woman named Betsey? 

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