Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In “The Swimmer,” John Cheever experiments with narrative structure and chronology. Apparently realistic on the surface, the story is eventually revealed as reflecting the disordered mind of the protagonist. When the story opens, Ned Merrill is youthful, strong, and athletic; by the end, he is a weak and broken man, unable to understand the wreckage of his life. Proud of his wife and his four beautiful daughters, Merrill at first seems the picture of health and contentment. This initial image quickly disintegrates as Merrill weakens and is confronted with his loss. However, the action of the story takes only a few hours.
One summer day, Ned decides to swim a series of pools between the home of his friends the Westerhazys and his own home eight miles away. He imagines the string of pools as a river, a “quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county,” and names it Lucinda, after his wife. He begins his peculiar trip with great gusto, imagining himself “a legendary figure” or “a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny.”
As Ned begins his journey, Cheever establishes the social context of a typical Sunday in Bullet Park. People go to church, it seems, but once there they commiserate with one another about their hangovers. Once home from church, most of their activities are athletic: golf, swimming, tennis, and perhaps some bird-watching at the wildlife preserve. Ned’s desire to swim across the county is presented as...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The comic absurdity and artful randomness of “The Death of Justina” differ sharply from the dark ambiguity and the tight, almost inexorable structure of “The Swimmer,” another Cheever story concerning modern people’s efforts to guard themselves from every painful memory and every proof of their own mortality. “The Swimmer” begins on a summer day around the Westerhazys’ pool when the youthful Neddy Merrill decides to “enlarge and celebrate” the day’s beauty and his own good fortune—including his wife and “four beautiful daughters”—by swimming home to Bullet Park, eight miles (sixteen pools) away. Thinking of himself as a legendary figure, a pilgrim, an explorer, “a man with a destiny,” Neddy seems childlike, even comically childish, yet nevertheless preferable to the others who sit around the pool complaining of having drunk too much the night before.
The first half of the story moves along rapidly from their chronic plaint to Neddy’s chosen plan and the swimming of nine pools in one hour. Neddy’s odyssey is not without some difficulties—a thorny hedge, gravel that cuts the feet, drinks proffered and politely drunk, a brief storm, a sudden coolness in the air, a drained pool, and an overgrown yard. There is also a small plane “circling around and around and around in the sky with something like the glee of a child in a swing,” which, twice noticed, delights Neddy but also distracts him and perhaps serves to...
(The entire section is 549 words.)