How many times is the reader addressed in “The Swimmer”?

The two direct addresses to readers in John Cheever's story “The Swimmer” serve to involve them in the tale and then abruptly draw them back to a position of observing from the outside. This mirrors the growing detachment and confusion of the protagonist, Ned Merrill, as he progresses through his swimming journey.

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John Cheever's odd little story “The Swimmer” addresses the reader directly twice. At the very beginning, the narrator sets the scene, a midsummer Sunday on which everyone seems to be commenting, “I drank too much last night.” The narrator then remarks directly to the reader, “You might have heard it whispered.” This usage inserts the reader into the story, connecting the reader with the world of the characters.

Then, however, the narrator focuses in on the swimming adventures of Ned Merrill, and the reader is not addressed at all until the story is halfway through. In fact, during this first part of the story, the reader is relegated to the narrator's position, outside the story, an observer.

As Ned reaches the Welchers' home, however, something shifts. The pool is empty. The house is up for sale. Ned does not remember the Welchers leaving. He wonders if his memory is failing. Yet he continues on his swimming journey, ready for his “most difficult portage.”

Here the narrator breaks off his narrative and directly addresses the reader again. “Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him,” he begins. Again, the reader is invited to picture themselves as part of the story, riding along on a Sunday afternoon jaunt and seeing a nearly naked man on the side of the road. The narrator presents a couple likely scenarios of thought that might run through the reader's mind. Perhaps Ned's car broke down. Maybe he's just crazy. In any case, he is pitiful.

After this brief interlude of the second person, the narrator returns to his tale of Ned's journey, but now Ned seems more and more disoriented, and people respond to him in strange ways. He doesn't seem to remember what has happened in his life or in his relationships with others. He gets weaker and weaker as he swims, and eventually he ends up at his empty house, failing to get inside.

Readers are left to wonder what has happened. They don't understand Ned's world any better than he seems to. At one point, the narrator directly connects them. Then he draws them away and places them firmly on the outside. Of course, this mirrors what seems to be happening to Ned himself, who is at first attached to his world and then seems to view it only from the outside, no longer as a participant.

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