Cheever's central theme is the loneliness and isolation of the individual, whose personal desires are frequently at odds with the prevailing social order. Although these concerns are most overt in Cheever's tales of suburbia, where the loss of a harmonious New England past is seen as a prelude to the alienation of modern corporate life, the theme of confinement is already present in the apparently pristine world of the Wapshot novels. Here the Wapshot sons, Moses and Coverly, feel the need to break away from the inbred society of St. Botolphs despite the compensatory comforts that make it a paradise lost. Like John Updike, with whom he is often associated in his celebration of a fading community of Protestant values, Cheever thus organizes his fiction around the rhythms of flight and homecoming in the lives of his characters. In Falconer he moves toward a total rejection of confinement as a symbol for the condition of the soul. Ezekiel Farragut is put in a real prison only to find that there are no "fields of paradise on the other side of the wall." Farragut escapes from jail at the novel's close to discover that what is confining in the social order is in fact what defines life and gives meaning to it.
A biographical memoir by his daughter, Susan Cheever, appeared in 1984 under the title Home Before Dark. A less haunting but more detailed biography, John Cheever by Scott Donaldson, was published in 1988. The two books reveal much about Cheever's personal problems and weaknesses, including his alcoholism and conflicts about his homosexuality as well as his need to "rewrite" himself as genteel and "traditional." Whatever the extent he was able to exorcise his demons through fiction, it is the work that remains--a testament to his powers of observation and invention.