‘The World of Apples’ is a short story by the American writer John Cheever (1912-82). It appeared as the title story in his 1973 collection of the same name. The story concerns an elderly poet who, while living in Italy, develops and overwhelming urge to write bawdy limericks instead of the more dignified and refined poetry that he had written all his life.
Before we offer an analysis of ‘The World of Apples’ – a story whose themes include art, ageing, and the clash between purity and worldliness – it might be worth summarising the story’s plot.
‘The World of Apples’: plot summary
The story concerns Asa Bascomb, an eighty-two-year-old poet living in Italy. Bascomb is American by birth, having spent much of his life in Vermont in New England, but he came to live in Italy some decades ago and now lives in a villa below the hill town of Monte Carbone, near Rome. He is widowed, his wife Amelia having died ten years before.
Bascomb has been showered with awards and honours by the literary community, but the one prize he has never won is the Nobel Prize for Literature, and this clearly preys on his mind. Although he has published a number of books of poetry, he is universally known and admired for one book, titled The World of Apples. A steady if small string of admirers regularly turn up at his house to pay their respects and ask him to sign their copy of The World of Apples.
After Cheever has introduced us to Bascomb’s life, background, and daily routine (he writes in the mornings, takes a siesta in the afternoons, and walks into the nearby village in the evenings), something happens. He is out walking in the hills with a Scandinavian admirer of his work, when he sneaks into the woods to relieve himself, only to surprise a couple engaged in sexual intercourse. He catches sight of the man’s naked backside, and finds himself unable to forget it.
Thereafter, he finds himself feeling increasingly ‘unclean’, unable to enjoy anything innocently without impure thoughts breaking in. When two nuns arrive to ask him to sign their copies of – you’ve guessed it – The World of Apples, he finds himself unable to concentrate as they praise his ‘voice of moral beauty’, because he is too busy recalling the sight of the man’s naked back in the woods.
He takes to writing bawdy and scatological verse, and then out-and-out smut, including irreverent limericks, which he burns on his stove every afternoon. Taking himself off to a musical concert, he even finds himself imagining he is undressing the soprano who is singing on stage. He is even strangely drawn to a male prostitute he accidentally walks in on in one of the public toilets.
Slowly, he begins to analyse his own impulse to write such things. He links it to anxiety, and wonders if he has finally liberated a side to himself which a conservative society had formerly forced him to suppress. Then he remembers his wife, the birth of his children, and the day his daughter married, and he realises that these innocent moments are a world away from the smut he is writing.
The next day, he writes ‘F—k’ over and over on six or seven sheets of paper, before burning them at noon. When his housekeeper, Maria, burns her finger at lunch and swears in pain, she announces she will go and visit the sacred angel of Monte Giordano, who can cleanse a man’s heart of impure thoughts.
Taking a seashell from Amelia’s possessions because he has heard that one carries a seashell while on a pilgrimage, Bascomb then takes a gold medal he had received from the Soviet government in recognition of his literary achievement. He intends to give the medal to the angel as an offering.
On his journey to the church, he takes shelter from a thunderstorm in an old man’s farmhouse, and is struck by the man’s sense of inner calm, which he envies. He is also struck by a dog’s fear of the thunderstorm. He receives the offer of a lift to the church, and when he arrives he makes a prayer to God to bless a number of dead American writers, among them Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Ernest Hemingway. Then he leaves the church.
That night, he rents a bed in a nearby café and sleeps well, his mind at peace. On his way home, he finds a waterfall which reminds him of his home back in Vermont, and a memory from his childhood comes back to him, and he recalls seeing an old man undress and go and stand under the waterfall, bellowing with joy. It was only after the man had dressed and departed that the young Bascomb had realised the old man had been his father.
Now an old man himself, Bascomb undresses and does as his father had done all those years ago, standing under the cold water and bellowing with joy. Then he is picked up by the mounted police who have been searching for him, and he goes home and begins work on a poem on ‘the inalienable dignity of light and air’, having purged himself of his urge to write limericks and smut.
‘The World of Apples’: analysis
Larry Woiwode, reviewing The World of Apples in the New York Times in 1973, remarked that John Cheever is never a complacent writer and ‘enters each of these pieces as if to save his life.’ And perhaps nowhere is this more apparent in that collection than in the title story. ‘The World of Apples’ is itself about a writer who is out to save, if not his life, then his soul, and reconnect with what linked his life and his art and gave them both meaning.
In ‘The World of Apples’, Cheever shows us a man who finds himself strangely attracted to obscenity, scatology, and impure and inappropriate thoughts about sex, such as his daydream about undressing the opera singer. He undergoes a joyous epiphany at the waterfall when, reminded of a suppressed (or merely forgotten?) memory of his father bellowing in Whitmanian fashion under the waterfall back in Vermont, he has the urge to do the same thing. The cold waters, and the visit to the sacred angel at the church, have cleansed his soul of impurities and he can return to writing dignified poems in his final months of life.
However, epiphanies in short stories can be tricky things. In James Joyce’s short stories, to offer one of the best-known examples, they are often ambiguously poised between capturing genuine enlightenment (the protagonist has a life-changing realisation) and temporary change of mood (the protagonist thinks they have undergone a life-changing experience, but this is a delusion).
The ending of ‘The World of Apples’ suggests that we should take Bascomb’s catharsis at face value and see him as a changed man who, after a brief period of writing four-letter words out onto multiple sheets of paper, or penning a poem titled ‘The Fart That Saved Athens’, has finally recovered his senses and his propriety.
And yet one is also tempted to ask where those impulses came from in the first place. As Cheever’s narrator suggests earlier in the story, Bascomb’s natural ‘instincts’ are ‘rowdy’ and ‘indiscreet’, yet have been repressed – to an unhealthy degree, we might venture – in the name of a ‘conservative’ economy and tradition founded on religious piety and social proprieties. After all, as Bascomb himself briefly acknowledges, his limericks are only about ‘the facts of life’. Yet he is once again forced to repress such impulses, much as something had made him repress (suppress? forget?) the sight of his father giving his emotions joyous free rein under the waterfall all those years ago.