The book explores life inside a prison and the society that persists there. It is not about the brutality of prison - a theme of so many other novels; rather it is about the prisoners' relationships with the guards and with one another. Men come to Farragut and tell them about themselves - often confessing a great deal.
We also learn a lot about Farragut himself. We perceive that he is an educated man by the language of three letters he writes. Farragut is a former heroin addict and a current methadone addict, and we learn what led to his addiction. We learn about his failing marriage and his current relationship with his wife. And despite having a wife on the outside, Farragut begins a sexual and romantic relationship with another male prisoner. Interestingly, we do not learn the details of his crime until the end of the novel.
This delving into the mind of the protagonist gives the story a very personal feel, making one forget that it is written in the third person.
As a psychological analysis, Cheever's novel is brilliant. It goes beyond a story of crime and punishment and incarceration. It is the story of a man and how he feels and how he copes.