“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.
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.
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.