Major Themes of the Swimmer

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1683

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...

(This entire section contains 1683 words.)

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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 eerily deserted Levy house, where rain stops him for a time.

The next house, the Welchers', presents him with a disappointment: their pool has been drained, and the house is for sale, although Neddy cannot remember hearing any such thing about them. Neddy feels the first pains of his voyage—"was his memory failing?"—but then reaches his next test: the highway, where shivering he withstands insults and a flung beer can from passing motorists. "He seemed pitiful ... Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger?'' Finally across the highway, he then reaches the most difficult test: the public pool. The water is foul-smelling and acrid and murky, and the pool is crowded. The lifeguards demand he leave the pool, and he escapes.

Just as Dante survived the horror of the Inferno only to be confronted by the tests of Purgatory, Neddy still has to endure a few more hardships before arriving home. The Halloran pool is welcoming, but for the first time we hear about Neddy's own problems: "We've been terribly sorry to hear about your misfortunes," Mrs. Halloran sympathizes. He then stops at the Biswanger house, where he is regarded as a gate-crasher because of his own repeated social snubs of them, and finally at the house of Shirley Adams, "his old mistress." She, too, makes reference to Neddy's recent difficulties. Once Neddy makes it through the Inferno, therefore, the perils become less external and more internal. Not only is he now cold and tired, but the people he encounters allude to his own unspecified troubles.

Unfortunately for Neddy, the end does not bring a glimpse of Beatrice and the sacred rose. His arrival home does not bring him to the light (the name Lucinda is derived from the Latin for ''light''): ''the place was dark." All of the unidentified troubles now confront the traveller, and he can no longer escape them. The Dantean equivalence also is complicated by Neddy's inward-directed focus during the story. Where Dante eagerly questions the inhabitants of the various levels of Hell, Neddy is either unaware of or uninterested in the people he meets along the way.

Another appealing parallel for Neddy is the Homeric hero Odysseus. Like Odysseus, Neddy takes a leisurely, roundabout trip home, stopping his journey in places. Many of the characters in "The Swimmer" then fall into the Homeric structure: Lucinda is Penelope, Shirley is Circe, Mrs. Bunker represents the Sirens, her party symbolizes the Lotus-eaters, and the Biswangers stand for the Cyclops. And like Odysseus, Neddy also faces another trial once he actually returns home before he can be reunited with Lucinda.

Critics have also compared Neddy to Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle and Neddy's journey to that of the knights of the round table. Rip's twenty-year sleep is a counterpart to Neddy's journey, and Neddy's repression of his problems during his swim reminds us of Rip's status, upon waking, as a ''man out of time." Both men confront their final fates uncomprehendingly. Neddy can also be seen as Jesus, the pools as his Stations of the Cross. Shirley's comment to him reinforces this interpretation: "Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?" However, perhaps the most apt parallel for "The Swimmer" is the King Arthur Holy Grail myth. Enduring numerous perils, the knights (and Neddy) are questing for something they don't fully understand. Even the name of one of the pools Neddy traverses, the Crosscups, alludes to the holy chalice of Jesus.

The image of the drinking-cup refers back, in turn, to the constant drinking in which Neddy and his friends engage. Although critics seem most eager to trace out the story's mythical allusions, it would be irresponsible not to grant that Neddy's confusion at the end of the book could simply be the result of an alcoholic's denial and memory loss. Neddy's vision of himself as "a legendary figure" could also result from his drinking, as could the strange pattern of time-passage in Neddy's mind. In his book John Cheever Revisited, Patrick Meanor holds that "Cheever's time warp in 'The Swimmer' is explainable as a symptom of the serious physical, mental, and spiritual disintegration caused by prolonged alcoholic drinking."

Whether Neddy is our century's equivalent of a hero, trying to carve out a mythical legacy in a banal environment, or whether he is simply a delusional alcoholic trying to make his life seem more exciting, conclusions can only be drawn ultimately from Neddy's own perceptions. The narration is strict third-person limited—the narrator is not Neddy himself, but refers to Neddy as "he" and does not have access to all of Neddy's thoughts and feelings. Some critics have seen this limitation as a problem. Ultimately, the reader does not get to know Neddy very thoroughly and since the precise nature of Neddy's "misfortunes" is unclear, it is difficult for us to judge his actions.

However, Cheever achieves a greater complexity in his story by this self-imposed limitation. When Neddy arrives home and the house is not only empty but in disrepair, the reader is confused: is Lucinda just late? Do the Merrills still live there? Are the Merrills even still married? If we see Neddy's quest as a drunken one, then perhaps he only imagined Lucinda's presence at the Westerhazy's party. In this view, his "troubles" could be with his marriage—it is known that Neddy had a mistress. Drunk, he thinks he is still married, and only when he arrives home does cold, dark, wet, sober reality confront him. By not revealing the actuality of the situation, Cheever creates in his readers the confusion of the alcoholic. Read on a mythical or a literal level, "The Swimmer" is a powerful evocation of the loss of a sense of purpose among America's privileged class in particular and among twentieth-century people in general.

Source: Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Greg Bamhisel is an assistant instructor and assistant director of the Undergraduate Writing Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

John Cheever's Myth of Man and Time - "The Swimmer"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1373

Many critics and reviewers have long praised John Cheever as one of the most devoted craftsmen of the short story. Others have also noted his artful employment of myth, or mythic elements, to develop structure, character, or theme within his stories. In his anthology The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, the group of short short stories entitled "Metamorphoses" offers a good illustration of his use of mythic elements. It is in a separate story, "The Swimmer," however, that he has created an imaginative and vital myth of time and modern man.

If a reader employs the criteria of Professor Henry A. Murray in identifying modern myth creation, Cheever has been successful on all counts. His work is mythic for it is a ''sensible symbolic representation of an imagined series of events." Cheever has not only used a contemporary suburban environment as a "mythic referent," but the story in its "emotive" and "convictional functions" creates indelible impressions on a reader and leaves him a ''parable of wisdom.''

Cheever uses the age-old themes of quest, journey, initiation, and discovery as he makes the story a commentary upon the times. Professor Frederick Bracher has perceptively noted how the tale combines the patterns of the Odyssey and ''Rip Van Winkle." Ned Merrill, the central character, is a modern Ulysses of sorts, but he is a man who does not accept (by his refusal to confront) the harsh truth of time's passage. The story's concentrated and subdued drama and its significant theme inevitably recall Irving's narrative. It is peculiarly appropriate that this modern myth has its locale in the general Westchester area associated with Irving. And the apt epithet of ''Ovid in Ossining'' for Cheever in a Time cover story is justified as we read the story, for Ned undergoes a severe metamorphosis.

At one level, the story begins significantly on a midsummer Sunday when bibulous suburbanites are shaking off the effects of the previous night's drinking. It is a fuzzy world of hangover in which many utter regrets about having drunk too much. Ned Merrill, although not young, prides himself on both his youthful appearance and exuberance; he sits hugging a glass of gin by the poolside of a friend. Seeing himself in his illusions as something of a legendary figure, Ned decides to do something devotional to celebrate the beauty of the day and his own youthfulness. He reflects that his own home lies only eight miles distant and imagines that by stringing together a series of swimming pools of his neighbors and acquaintances, he might swim home by such a "river." In his whimsy he christens this stream "Lucinda" after his wife. Having committed himself to the test, he hurls himself into this suburban Alpheus to begin the journey home.

Cheever's description of the Westchester setting is distinctly credible, for he has an eye for selective details in just the right amount to maintain the "reality" and suggest the "fantasy." Simultaneously, Cheever unobtrusively interweaves his pattern of myth. We feel the waters of the Lucinda River becoming symbolic of time's passage.

As Ned proceeds, he feels there is no greater reward than to accomplish the goal he has set for himself. In his intense quest, he feels like "a pilgrim, an explorer a man with a destiny." He feels too, that he moves in a beneficent world one made for his pleasure. But Ned does not proceed directly to his goal without interruption. Hospitality is offered by "friends" along the route; he rationalizes the temporary delays. As he continues to indulge his fancy, he buoys himself up by a recurring sense of conviviality—a drink at the Grahams and more drinks at the Bunkers, and so on. He still feels affection for the scenes through which he passes, even as thunder ominously sounds in the distance.

Reality sounds sharply when Ned hears the whistle of a train bringing him back at one point to ponder about what time it is. The autumnal coloring of the leaves against the darkness of a storm attracts his attention, but only momentarily. By such means Cheever adroitly expands and compresses time credibly.

With the progression of the journey from one pool to another, Ned finds his memory is obviously unclear; he merely "seems" to remember events. As he meets acquaintances along his route of travel and converses with them, he begins questioning his sense of truth—whether he has been unable to face unpleasantnesses along the "way."

The crossing of a main highway forces him to sense how ludicrous his position is. It is at this juncture in time that he reflects about returning. His early jauntiness has worn off; there is no feeling of the "legendary" any more, for the journey has become deadly serious. He still nurtures the picture of himself as explorer. His passage through the property of the Hallorans and his meeting them deshabilles symbolically reveal to him the unadorned truth, for they allude sympathetically to misfortunes which he cannot recall experiencing. His sense of time and his recollections are completely confused.

Ned physically now feels the concomitants of age—the heaviness of fatigue, a loss of weight and a coldness within the bones. He assures himself that whiskey will see him through the journey; but the way he is now treated by people at the last pools he has to swim makes him feel that he has undergone somehow a loss of social esteem. He is only tolerated. There is no longer any feeling of conviviality. As he passes through the property of his one-time mistress, she chides him scornfully about his inability to grow up.

When he finally emerges from the last pool, he is miserable and exhausted. Literally and figuratively, Ned knows he has been "in the swim'' too long. His own home is dark; the locks on the doors are rusty. As he peers through the windows of the house, he discovers that it is empty.

As mythopoeist, Cheever has employed the river and water to represent the flowing of time, the passage through phases of life. The sun's setting and the seasonal changes bring Ned the wayfarer closer to age and death. His final initiation brings self-knowledge too late. The autumn of life, as it were, has brought no emancipation, no release, no renewal, only what we might identify as bitter isolation.

Cheever's commentary through his imaginative merger of fantasy and reality in this myth, I think, is clear enough. Ned as a typical modern man has indulged himself and his whims; he has immersed himself in the pleasures of drink and sex to the degree that he is not aware of what is happening to him. Immaturity and irresponsibility prevent him from seeing what he has done with his life. Repeatedly, he has fallen back upon the illusion that he is controlling his life and its direction. He has rationalized and accepted any bypaths of pleasure. He has the gift for the concealment of pain; it cannot happen to him. At times, he finally glimpses the absurdity of continuing the direction he has chosen, but at such points he "creates" his own "reality," Because he refuses to face the actualities of time's passage, his illusion of his own youthfulness makes him appear increasingly pathetic and pitiful at the end of the journey. His compulsion to go on and his blindness have continued even after the pleasures have been lost. Ned's final peering through the windows of his house is symbolic of his "seeing" the emptiness within himself.

"The Swimmer," then, is a myth of time and man as it is also a modern myth of metamorphosis. Coincidentally, Cheever as storyteller recalls the figure of the philosopher in Ovid's masterpiece, one who has the faculty of seeing "with clarity of mind and heart," of telling the story of "men who seem born to die and chilled by death." Two lines from the fifteenth book of The Metamorphoses adequately sum up the author's story, for Cheever has imaginatively created a significant myth about

... sky, wind, earth and time forever changing. Time like a river in its ceaseless motion.

Source: Cortland P. Auser, "John Cheever's Myth of Man and Time 'The Swimmer'," in CEA Critic, Vol. XXIX, No. 6, March, 1967, p. 18-9.


Critical Overview


The Swimmer, John Cheever