The Swimmer Essay - The Swimmer, John Cheever

The Swimmer, John Cheever

Introduction

“The Swimmer” John Cheever

American short story writer and novelist.

The following entry presents criticism of Cheever's short story “The Swimmer” (first collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, 1964). See also, John Cheever Criticism.

One of Cheever's most critically acclaimed and well-known works, “The Swimmer” (1964) is representative of his suburban stories, those which explore the grandeur and pathos of individuals living within the turmoil of a seemingly placid American suburbia. Cheever has been labeled the “the Chekhov of the exurbs” for his detailing of cocktail parties and swimming pools, hallmarks of the tranquil and leisurely cosmos his characters inhabit. Often regarded as Cheever's finest story, “The Swimmer” blends realism and myth as it follows Neddy Merrill's eight-mile journey as he attempts to swim the pools of Westchester County. The image of a former athlete who tries to regain his lost youth through physical endeavor is common in Cheever's fiction. “The Swimmer” was distilled from 150 pages of notes for a novel Cheever planned to write. Additionally, the story is believed to have further stemmed from Cheever's short story entitled “The Music Teacher,” published in 1959, which shares the cardinal image of a swimmer. In 1968, “The Swimmer” was adapted into a film starring Burt Lancaster as Neddy Merrill.

Plot and Major Characters

“The Swimmer” begins with suburban couples gathered around a backyard pool, nursing their respective hangovers from the previous night's cocktail party. The hero of the tale is Neddy Merrill, a youthfully middle-aged, athletic, and affluent denizen of suburbia. Neddy's desire to rise above complacently takes the form of an odd, comical quest. He decides to swim home, fifteen pools to the south. The narrative follows Neddy's journey from pool to pool, allowing the reader to experience his initial exhilaration and subsequent exhaustion. The beginning of the story, after a brief exposition, is quick and realistic, even deceptively simple. When the pace begins to slow, the story's tone also changes. The day turns darker and colder, and Neddy is depicted as unprepared and exposed. After crossing a highway, Neddy descends into a public pool, a hell that his social class has successfully avoided. However, Neddy is excluded here after failing to provide the proper identification. Neddy's trek is further corrupted when he finds his mistress has replaced him with a new lover, and a couple he has previously dismissed socially denies him. When Neddy is alienated from what he knows to be true, and dispossessed of his comfortable reality, he arrives home to a dark, empty, and locked house.

Major Themes

The mythic parallels in “The Swimmer” enhance and dignify a story that might otherwise have been little more than another social parable about the dark side of the American dream. While containing much of Cheever's social realism concerning the American experience, “The Swimmer” is as phantasmagoric as the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Franz Kafka. Thus, critics have placed Cheever among serious practitioners of the weird tale—transforming a comedy of manners into fantastical nightmare and pandemonium. Throughout “The Swimmer,” the reader is left doubtful concerning the ambiguity of time in the story—an afternoon seemingly becoming months and years—and the tale's conclusion, presenting either Neddy's confrontation with the actual present or a glimpse into the future.

Critical Reception

Cheever is often lauded for combining the mundane with the mythic, thereby achieving a spiritual transcendence. Considered Cheever's most famous story, “The Swimmer,” has been compared to such works as Dante's Inferno, Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, and the Holy Grail legends. It is Cheever's ability to make the prosaic lives of his suburbanites, like Neddy, seem fantastical, spiritual, and universal that warrants these comparisons. Cheever has stated: “Literature is the only continuous and coherent account of our struggle to be illustrious, a moment of aspiration, a vast pilgrimage.” Although Cheever did not receive much serious scholarly attention until the republishing of sixty of his short stories in The Stories of John Cheever (1978), critics now point to “The Swimmer” as evidence for pronouncing Cheever one of the finest American short story writers. Critics note a previously unseen, darker tone in Cheever's collection The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, in addition to a more experimental technique, particularly in “The Swimmer,” which is often termed somber. Critics concur that “The Swimmer” transforms realistic details, myths (specifically Odysseus and Rip Van Winkle), and Cheever's own personal fears of financial and emotional ruin into a masterwork of twentieth-century short fiction.

Principal Works

The Way Some People Live 1943

The Enormous Radio and Other Stories 1953

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories 1958

Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel 1961

The Brigadier and the Golf Widow 1964

The World of Apples 1973

The Stories of John Cheever 1978

Oh What a Paradise it Seems 1982

Thirteen Uncollected Stories of John Cheever 1994

The Wapshot Chronicle (novel) 1957

The Wapshot Scandal (novel) 1964

Bullet Park (novel) 1969

Falconer (novel) 1977

The Letters of John Cheever (letters) 1988

The Journals of John Cheever (journals) 1991

Good Tidings: A Friendship in Letters: The Correspondence of John Cheever and John D. Weaver, 1945-1982 (letters) 1993

Criticism

David Segel (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Segel, David. “Change is Always for the Worse.” In The Critical Response to John Cheever, edited by Francis J. Bosha, pp. 83-4. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in Commonweal in 1964, Segel provides an overview of “The Swimmer,” asserting that “Cheever is working with an attitude toward life, acutely observed and full of variation.”]

When I was a boy I read a story that terrified me. It was about a child who declared that he needed the help of no living creature. That night the sheep came and took from him everything woolen, the tree came and took everything wooden, and so on until he was naked and cold under the sky. I remembered this fairy tale while reading The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, a collection of the short stories John Cheever has written over the last ten years. My children's story contains both Cheever's most successful technique and his obsessive theme. The technique is the use of magic progressing logically; the theme is the chanciness of possessions.

If Louis Auchincloss writes the best fiction about the rich these days, Cheever writes the best fiction about people living like the rich. Auchincloss' characters are at home with what they own, and are free to worry about moral questions; Cheever's live in constant terror that the paraphernalia of their lives will suddenly vanish. And they are right. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and the swimming pool goes down the drain.

Cheever's people tend to live in Connecticut. They are investment bankers, and the acquaintances they don't much like, but keep meeting at cocktail parties, manufacture tongue depressers. They are filled with unearned snobberies which are used as a bulwark against change, because in Cheever's world change is always for the worse. In “The Swimmer,” Donald Westerhazy, at a pool-side party, realizes that he could swim home, by way of all the pools between the party and his...

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Nora Calhoun Graves (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Graves, Nora Calhoun. “The Symptomatic Colors in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” In Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, pp. 191-93. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Graves offers a close reading of the use of color in “The Swimmer.”]

A close reading of John Cheever's “The Swimmer,”1 reveals many angles for study, but an emphasis which proves intriguing is the use of color. Since “The Swimmer” deals primarily and figuratively with water, the chief color is one esthetically and normally associated with water—green with some variants.

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Robert M. Slabey (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Slabey, Robert M. “John Cheever: The ‘Swimming’ of America.” In Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, pp. 180-91. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.

[In the following essay, Slabey declares “The Swimmer” to be “an imaginative vision of American reality,” comparing the story with Washington Irving's “Rip Van Winkle,” suggesting that both tales are “re-visions of archetypal Americans and situations which link the destiny of characters with the meaning of American history.”]

… the story of Rip Van Winkle has never been finished, and still awaits a final imaginative recreation.

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Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet (essay date fall 1984)

SOURCE: Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Perverted Sacraments in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 4 (fall 1984): 393-94.

[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet probe Cheever's “ironic use of three holy sacraments” in “The Swimmer.”]

John Cheever indicates the distance between the goal of Ned Merrill's quest in “The Swimmer” and what he actually achieves—nothing—by the ironic use of three holy sacraments, the Eucharist, baptism, and marriage. Specifically, Merrill's perversion of these traditional Christian ceremonies suggests the reason for his emptiness at the story's conclusion.

“The...

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Michael D. Byrne (essay date summer 1986)

SOURCE: Byrne, Michael D. “The River of Names in ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 3 (summer 1986): 326-27.

[In the following essay, Byrne analyzes Cheever's utilization of a list of names as a narrative device in “The Swimmer,” claiming that the list functions as a symbol “for Neddy's dilemma, writ small.”]

Like modern writers as diverse as Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Barthelme, John Cheever found an artistic delight in lists, specifically a list of names: “It's perfectly beautiful. You can use an invitation list as a lyrical poem. A sort of evocation. I believe I've used it once or twice.”1 One of Cheever's most anthologized...

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Loren C. Bell (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Bell, Loren C. “‘The Swimmer’: A Midsummer's Nightmare.” Studies in Short Fiction 24, no. 4 (fall 1987): 433-36.

[In the following essay, Bell compares “The Swimmer” to Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, focusing on motifs of dreams and nightmares.]

The opening paragraph of John Cheever's “The Swimmer” establishes the common malady lingering poolside at the Westerhazys' that midsummer Sunday. “We all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill. While the others talk about their hangovers, Neddy Merrill sits “by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin.” Apparently instead of talking, Neddy “had been...

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William Rodney Allen (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Allen, William Rodney. “Allusions to The Great Gatsby in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26, no. 3 (summer 1989): 289-93.

[In the following essay, Allen explores allusions to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in Cheever's “The Swimmer.”]

Several literary echoes float through John Cheever's “The Swimmer.” Just as Cheever compresses much of a man's adult life into a single afternoon in this story, he also gives the reader a quick tour of literary history by alluding to works by Homer, Shakespeare, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His protagonist, Neddy Merrill, after hitting on the idea at a cocktail party of...

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James W. Mathews (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Mathews, James W. “Peter Rugg and Cheever's Swimmer: Archetypal Missing Men.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 1 (winter 1992): 95-101.

[In the following essay, Mathews examines the narrative and thematic similarities of “The Swimmer” to William Austin's “Peter Rugg, The Missing Man,” citing both as “mythic American” stories.]

John Cheever's fiction has generally been acclaimed as much for its timeless mythic dimensions as for its topical satire of American suburbia. Among the short stories, “The Swimmer” (1964) has received praise for its fresh treatment of the homeward journey, a traditional motif that Cheever Americanized and modernized....

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Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet (essay date summer 1992)

SOURCE: Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Cheever's Dark Knight of the Soul: The Failed Quest of Neddy Merrill.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 3 (summer 1992): 347-51.

[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet consider “The Swimmer” to be a representation of the “familiar archetype of the Grail quest.”]

Although critics, including ourselves, have noted many minor patterns throughout “The Swimmer” such as the color imagery (Graves 4-5), the Shakespearian parallels (Bell 433-36), the names (Byrne 326-27), an historical allusion (Blythe and Sweet 557-59), and the autumnal images (Reilly 12), all have overlooked the major pattern that dominates and hence...

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Stanley J. Kozikowski (essay date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Kozikowski, Stanley J. “Damned in a Fair Life: Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993): 367-75.

[In the following essay, Kozikowski views “The Simmer” as a spiritual allegory, akin to the work of Dante Alighieri.]

Cheever's ever-popular, many-faceted short story, “The Swimmer,” accommodates various readings, particular and universal. Within its range of appeal, for instance, it has been read as suggestive autobiography,1 contemporary American Odyssey (Hunt 280-83), dazzling literary structure (Kruse 221), as a “midsummer's nightmare” (Bell 433), sacramental parody (Blythe and Sweet 393),...

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David J. Piwinski (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Piwinski, David J. “Lisbon and Hackensack in Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 273-74.

[In the following essay, Piwinski investigates Cheever's reference to the cities of Lisbon and Hackensack in the opening passage of “The Swimmer.”]

The opening of John Cheever's “The Swimmer” contains the following passage describing the atmospheric conditions on the Sunday that Ned Merrill undertakes his quasi-epic swim through the succession of swimming pools he names the “Lucinda River”: “It was a fine day. In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance—from the...

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Rebecca Hughes and Kieron O'Hara (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Hughes, Rebecca, and Kieron O'Hara. “John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer’ and the Abstract Standpoint of Kantian Moral Philosophy.” In The Ethics in Literature, edited by Andrew Hadfield, Dominic Rainsford, and Tim Wood, pp. 101-15. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc. 1999.

[In the following essay, Hughes and O'Hara consider “The Swimmer” in terms of Kantian philosophy.]

KANTIAN MORAL ABSTRACTION

In Kantian philosophy, morality demands that individuals be treated as deserving significant and equal respect. People should be seen as ends of moral behaviour, and not just as means to independently desirable outcomes. Morality is grounded...

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