The Swimmer Essays and Criticism
by John Cheever

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Major Themes of the Swimmer

(Short Stories for Students)

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On a literal level, "The Swimmer" is the story of one man's initially fanciful, ultimately quite serious adventure swimming through every pool in the county on his way home. On a deeper level, though, the story alludes to some of Western literature's most enduring themes. Neddy Merrill, Cheever's hero, is Odysseus, Dante, the Fisher King, a knight of King Arthur. Through his story,of a man's exhausting journey home, Cheever examines themes of dissociation, alienation, and the loss of purpose.

"The Swimmer" examines the plight of a character familiar to readers of Cheever's fiction. Along with John Updike and J. D. Salinger, Cheever is one of the famous trio of "New Yorker authors" of the 1940s through the 1960s (Cheever published a total of 121 stories in the New Yorker magazine), and he quickly became well-known for chronicling the lives of New York professionals and surburbanites. "The Swimmer" appeared during a period in which Cheever's own alcoholism was bringing a dark tone to his writing.

Neddy Merrill, the story's hero, is "far from young'' but not yet middle-aged—''he might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one." Incipient darkness and age is everywhere in the story, haunting the apparently idyllic summer day on which the story takes place. The setting is the well-to-do Westchester County suburbs of New York City, where the towns and villages divide themselves up along very strict lines of class, religion and national origin. The weekend parties and barbecues, and their carefully delineated guest lists, are the social milieu in which these divisions play out, and Neddy seems quite at home there.

When the story begins, we see Neddy in the middle of the most desirable party, the Westerhazy's. He feels comfortable in his surroundings—''his life was not confining," the narrator tells us—but he has "a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure." To accomplish what he sees as his modest contribution to the tradition of mythical figures, he decides to make the eight-mile journey home from the Westerhazy's not by car, as would be customary, but by water. He will swim ''that stream of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county." He names the stream "Lucinda" after his wife and departs.

The gently humorous irony of Neddy's quest draws attention to one of Cheever's enduring concerns: the lack of transcendent meaning, or even of base importance, in the lives of the privileged in the middle of the American century. Cheever's men are troubled by their lack of purpose, and often channel this frustration into alcohol (and Neddy drinks at least five times during his trip home). On first reading, it seems to the reader that it is a slightly drunken fancy that leads Neddy to embark upon his quest.

Neddy's project is, though, quite serious. Cheever originally intended Neddy to call to mind the Greek mythological figure of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who saw his reflection in a pool and kills himself trying to unite with his image. "When I began,'' Cheever is quoted as explaining in Patrick Meanor's John Cheever Revisited, "the story was to have been a simple one about Narcissus. Then swimming every day as I do, I thought, it's absurd to limit him to the tight mythological plot—being trapped in his own image, in a single pool."

Perhaps the strongest parallel Cheever's story has is to Dante's Divine Comedy , in which the poet travels into the depths of Hell in order to learn more about the purpose of human existence. Like Dante, as Neddy journeys on he reaches ever more perilous reaches of the county. The trip begins at the Westerhazy's, then continues on through the friendly estates of the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands and the Crosscups. Neddy's first trial is at the Bunker house, where a party is in full force. Greeted warmly by the hostess and many of the guests, Neddy is forced to delay his voyage. He moves on to the Tomlinson place and then to...

(The entire section is 3,056 words.)