Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
"The Swimmer'' is recognized as one of Cheever's best short stories and explores themes that are considered typical of his fiction as a whole. In this story, which is set in an affluent community, Cheever chronicles the morals, rituals, and hypocrisy of the upper class through his focus on Neddy Merrill, who is, at the beginning of the tale, a vibrant man with a home, a wife, and four beautiful daughters. The story opens with the protagonist Neddy, his wife, and some friends sitting around a pool complaining that they had too much to drink the previous night. Furthermore, when the protagonist tries to do something new—something heroic and legendary—all he can come up with is to swim home through a chain of 16 pools. The hypocrisy of Neddy's situation becomes more evident as the tale unfolds. It is revealed that Neddy and his wife are something of snobs; they only associate with the ''right'' kind of people. Additionally, the illusion of Neddy's wealth and happy domestic life is shown to be fleeting and illusory. If the events that Cheever describes are to be taken at face value and accepted as true, it is revealed, at the story's end, that Neddy's marriage has been shattered by adultery, that he is financially broke, and that he has lost his home and children. In this manner, this American Chekhov of the suburbs has been recognized as providing yet more insight into the upper strata of American society, proving the adage that money and power can't buy you happiness. Indeed, for Neddy, privilege breeds unhappiness and empty actions. Furthermore, Neddy is so wrapped up in his own life, heroism, and desire to keep up with—and surpass—the proverbial Joneses that he cannot even admit to himself and to others that he is having a string of bad luck.
"The Swimmer" has also been praised by critics as a dream vision and a thematic exploration of decline and the life cycle. When the story begins, Neddy is a youngish and vibrant man who desires to do something legendary—though he hopes to accomplish this through the meaningless act of swimming home. As the story progresses, he becomes more fatigued. Critics note that this is reflected in the story on a textual level; Neddy completes the first part of the journey in record time, but the crossing of a busy highway—at which point he is feeling and looking horrible—is revealed through numerous lines of text. (In other words, the pace of the story slows as Neddy's energy level does.) Similarly, the reader learns that friends that are Neddy's age, notably Eric Sachs, are no longer the images of good health that they once were. Eric, for example, has had to give up drinking for health reasons. Neddy's denial of his problems—and confusion about his friends' statements and behavior—can also be seen as signs of senility. Even Neddy's surroundings reflect this deterioration. When the story begins, it is a temperate, sunny day in early summer. During the course of Neddy's journey, which supposedly takes places in a matter of hours, the weather turns cold, storms take place, flowers associated with the autumn are seen, and the summer constellations disappear. It must be noted, however, that although this tale succeeds as an allegory about one man's physical decline, its surreal qualities contribute to the story being interpreted as a dream (or nightmare). The seasons cannot logically change within the course of day, nor can a man age in the course of one afternoon. Critics note that Cheever's blending of realistic and surrealistic detail and use of the third-person narrative...
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enhance the reader's experience of the tale and the story's ability to work on various levels.
The symbolism and irony of the tale have also been praised by critics. Many critics note that one of the story's strongest points is its use of mythology and focus on the hero. Like Homer's Odysseus, Neddy undertakes a voyage by water to get home. Neddy's obstacles, however, pale in comparison to those of Odysseus; Neddy only has to deal with gravel paths, drunken friends, a busy highway, empty pools. Other characters in the story also find their counterparts in Odysseus's tale: his wife, Lucinda, can be seen as Penelope; Shirley Adams as Circe; the Bunkers as the Sirens; and the various party-goers as the lotus-eaters who try to dissuade the hero from his objective. The highway and public pool that Neddy must cross have similarly been likened to the rivers Lethe and Styx. Critics have also noted similarities between other classical heroes, including the character Dante in La divina commedia (c. 1300; The Divine Comedy), and other myths, including those of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail. Neddy's journey is, however, told ironically. His quest is of relatively no importance, and his homecoming is presented as less than hospitable. Critics note that the closer that Neddy gets to home, the more alienated and troubled he becomes. The trivialness of Neddy's quest is often interpreted as further commentary on the meaningless lives of the American upper-class.