David Segel (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: Segel, David. “Change is Always for the Worse.” In The Critical Response to John Cheever, edited by Francis J. Bosha, pp. 83-4. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in Commonweal in 1964, Segel provides an overview of “The Swimmer,” asserting that “Cheever is working with an attitude toward life, acutely observed and full of variation.”]

When I was a boy I read a story that terrified me. It was about a child who declared that he needed the help of no living creature. That night the sheep came and took from him everything woolen, the tree came and took everything wooden, and so on until he was naked and cold under the sky. I remembered this fairy tale while reading The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, a collection of the short stories John Cheever has written over the last ten years. My children's story contains both Cheever's most successful technique and his obsessive theme. The technique is the use of magic progressing logically; the theme is the chanciness of possessions.

If Louis Auchincloss writes the best fiction about the rich these days, Cheever writes the best fiction about people living like the rich. Auchincloss' characters are at home with what they own, and are free to worry about moral questions; Cheever's live in constant terror that the paraphernalia of their lives will suddenly vanish. And they are right. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and the swimming pool goes down the drain.

Cheever's people tend to live in Connecticut. They are investment bankers, and the acquaintances they don't much like, but keep meeting at cocktail parties, manufacture tongue depressers. They are filled with unearned snobberies which are used as a bulwark against change, because in Cheever's world change is always for the worse. In “The Swimmer,” Donald Westerhazy, at a pool-side party, realizes that he could swim home, by way of all the pools between the party and his house. As he goes from pool to pool his greeting from friends becomes less friendly, until it is downright hostile, and when he reaches his home he finds that no one has lived in it for a long, long time.

There are two notable things about this story, besides the tale itself, that make it memorable. The reader hardly notices that the seasons change from mid-Summer to Winter; the hero's reception from pool to pool charts his decline from bad manners to bad morals. Because of Cheever's technical mastery the ending is both unbelievable and prepared for; the logic within the magic makes it inevitable.

The implication is that Donald Westerhazy loses the world because of some flaw in himself; Larry Acteon (see “Bulfinch”) is destroyed by a series of tiny erosions. His story is in another typical Cheever mode: the comfortable man living the comfortable life, whose comforts are suddenly removed after his sense of reality and sense of self are given a series of small but damaging blows. He is a partner in a conservative investment firm who enters the office of his senior partner without knocking. He finds the man nakedly entertaining a naked lady. Later that day, in a bar, he is barked at by a dog who never barks at strangers; still later he is mistaken for a deliveryman by an elevator operator. When he arrives home that night he is killed by his own dogs, who fail to recognize him.

Since Cheever's characters find their reality in their status and possession, and since these are tightly held in a slippery grip, his people have a weak...

(This entire section contains 841 words.)

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hold on their own reality. “I have this terrible feeling that I'm a character in a television situation comedy, I mean I'm nice looking, I'm well dressed, I have humorous and attractive children, but I have this terrible feeling … that I can be turned off by anybody” says a Cheever wife. And then the narrator says about her, “My wife is often sad because her sadness is not a sad sadness, sorry because her sorrow is not a crushing sorrow,” which applies to all of Cheever's characters, and is true and damning about Cheever's work.

I have described these stories by their structure, these character by their types, because his characters run to types and brilliant structure is his mainstay. Cheever is working with an attitude toward life, acutely observed and full of variation. But his people not only think they can be turned off, they can be. They are not fleshed out, their sadness is not a sad sadness. His stories belong where they are usually found, in a thin column in the New Yorker; they comment on the advertisements on either side for solid gold taxi whistles and for the sports jacket that will really make you feel casual. One finishes a book of them delighted by Cheever's suave style, dazzled by the necromancy of his invention, and aware that he is touching on the horror beneath the surface. But it is horror recollected in detachment.


First published in Commonweal 81 (4 December 1964): 362-63.


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“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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Nora Calhoun Graves (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: Graves, Nora Calhoun. “The Symptomatic Colors in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” In Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, pp. 191-93. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Graves offers a close reading of the use of color in “The Swimmer.”]

A close reading of John Cheever's “The Swimmer,”1 reveals many angles for study, but an emphasis which proves intriguing is the use of color. Since “The Swimmer” deals primarily and figuratively with water, the chief color is one esthetically and normally associated with water—green with some variants.

The story begins at the Westerhazys' pool. Here the water exhibits “a pale shade of green,” fed as it is “by an artesian well with a high iron content” (603). A few lines later Neddy Merrill, the main character, sits “by the green water” (603) as he attempts to strengthen his body by imbibing gin, a temporary solution which adds dimension to his already nagging drinking problem. When Merrill finally succumbs to the spell of the pool, he enjoys his crawl and the feel of the buoyancy “embraced and sustained by the light green water” (604) far less than normal. For at this time the sheerest joy for him would be a swim au naturel, a delight temporarily postponed but later executed at the Halloran pool.

Merrill plunges on in his desire to complete a “cross country” via the pools of his shallow, and often surface, acquaintances. The Bunkers' pool showed an unusual extravagance and luxury because of its “sapphire-colored waters” (605).

Continuing on his fruitless and humiliating journey, Neddy cannot go back, actually or even in memory; his mind is even hazy concerning the Westerhazys' pool. He cannot “recall with any clearness the green water” or “the friendly and relaxed voices” (607). At the recreation center, Neddy notices that the pool is commercial and chlorinated—a sharp contrast to the Bunkers' “sapphire water.” The commercial taint seems to surface. The Hallorans' pool is quite different. The Hallorans are older and wealthier than most of Neddy's friends. It is appropriate that the waters of their pool are “opaque gold” (608). Neddy's final plunge2 is in the pool owned by his former mistress, Shirley Adams. There he finds “lighted, cerulean water” (611) but no longer any hospitality or satisfaction. He weeps.

It is interesting to note that even though Cheever uses special shades of green and blue in describing Merrill's aquatic journey,3 there is the exception already mentioned: the senior Hallorans' pool is “opaque gold.” This exception in describing water, however appropriate, might suggest that Cheever has used variants of gold kaleidoscopically and naturally as he describes select people and things.

We discover several illustrations. Neddy, youthfully exuberant, smacked the bronze backside of Aphrodite (603). From the goddess to Shirley Adams is a long way but Shirley is described as having brass colored hair (611). One of the guests at the Bunkers' party, not socializing but drifting in the pool, was Rusty Towers (605). The word rusty is repeated at the end of the story in regard to the rusty handles on the garage door (612). Neddy noticed too that the “beech hedge was yellow” (608). Variants of gold are mentioned not only explicitly but also suggestively. As Neddy left Shirley Adams' home, there is perhaps meaning in his smelling chrysanthemums and marigolds.

One may conjure suggestive colors from the reference to “flowering apple trees” which bordered the Westerhazys' and the Grahams' property (604) as well as from the reference to Mrs. Hammer among “her roses.” In addition there are splashes of color which Cheever uses: “a green tube for the New York Times,” a circling, cavorting “red de Haviland trainer” (605) and a naked maple tree divested of its “red and yellow leaves” which are now settled in the grass and in the water (606).

Even though shades of gold, bronze, rust, and yellow figure prominently and other colors are mentioned and suggested, the dominant color Cheever uses is one normally connected with water: the color of green and its variants of sapphire and cerulean, but the array of colors, delicate and soft, daring and flamboyant, garish and somber, have sketched the life of Neddy Merrill as he lived in the past and as he exists in the present.

When Neddy Merrill, showing stages of exuberance then exhaustion, has completed his cross country swim, his triumph was shallow and worthless; he discovered a dark, locked house, a dangling rain gutter and rusty handles on locked garage doors. Home was as empty as he. In effect, the color range from green to gold, with a splash of red, suggests the vigor and enthusiasm of Merrill's untamed extravagancies prior to his contamination and finally illustrates his growing insensitivity and his personal erosion which led to his loss of family and home—a condition which mere “swims” cannot lave or a loss of memory re-create.


  1. John Cheever, “The Swimmer,” in The Stories of John Cheever (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), pp. 603-612. Subsequent references are parenthetically indicated. My first discussion of this work appeared in NCL, IV, No. 2 (March 1974), 4-5. My present revision is contributed by permission.

  2. Although Merrill had two more pools to swim, his debilatory condition necessitated his “hobbled sidestroke” in the Gilmartins' pool and a paddle stroke in the Clydes' pool.

  3. The watery journey included fifteen actual pools; one pool was dry, the Welchers' pool.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Notes on Contemporary Literature, March 1974.

Principal Works

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The Way Some People Live 1943

The Enormous Radio and Other Stories 1953

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories 1958

Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel 1961

The Brigadier and the Golf Widow 1964

The World of Apples 1973

The Stories of John Cheever 1978

Oh What a Paradise it Seems 1982

Thirteen Uncollected Stories of John Cheever 1994

The Wapshot Chronicle (novel) 1957

The Wapshot Scandal (novel) 1964

Bullet Park (novel) 1969

Falconer (novel) 1977

The Letters of John Cheever (letters) 1988

The Journals of John Cheever (journals) 1991

Good Tidings: A Friendship in Letters: The Correspondence of John Cheever and John D. Weaver, 1945-1982 (letters) 1993

Robert M. Slabey (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Slabey, Robert M. “John Cheever: The ‘Swimming’ of America.” In Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, pp. 180-91. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.

[In the following essay, Slabey declares “The Swimmer” to be “an imaginative vision of American reality,” comparing the story with Washington Irving's “Rip Van Winkle,” suggesting that both tales are “re-visions of archetypal Americans and situations which link the destiny of characters with the meaning of American history.”]

… the story of Rip Van Winkle has never been finished, and still awaits a final imaginative recreation.

—Constance Rourke

Indeed, the central fact about America in 1970 is the discrepancy between the realities of our society and our beliefs about them. The gap is even greater in terms of our failure to understand the possibilities and potential of American life.

—Charles A. Reich


More than a century after Washington Irving described the Catskills as “fairy mountains” with “magical hues” produced by seasonal and diurnal atmospheric changes, John Cheever has taken that enchanted vicinity as the setting for some of his best fiction. In this continuation of Hudson River mythology, Cheever's territory, like Irving's, is somewhere between fact and fantasy, the mundane and the marvelous, “modern” life and ancient legend. And while both writers mix comedy and sadness, Irving's vision gravitates towards the first pole, Cheever's towards the second. They are both in the company of American writers who suggest the existence of a level—mysterious and mythic—beyond the middle range of experience and find “reality” at the crossroads of actuality and myth. In addition, Cheever's magical transformations have cultural roots in Ovid and Cotton Mather as well as in American Romanticism. Like Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Faulkner, Cheever has taken a region and a time and, without diminishing their importance, has made them stand for the larger meanings of American experience; he can see the meaning of the country in the way ordinary people live their daily lives.

In a career spanning five decades Cheever has published over one hundred short stories (most of them in the New Yorker), six story collections, and four novels. A conscious craftsman and a brilliant stylist, he has encountered substantial success but only spare attention by academic critics. “The Swimmer,” a fifteen-page tale which will be the focus of the present study, is, according to its author, the product of two months' work and 150 pages of notes.1 He is, I think, the most underestimated—and sometimes misunderstood—of contemporary fictionists: Cheever's mastery of art and theme places his best work in touch with basic forms of existence as well as in the center of our culture. He charts the peregrinations of American life—from town to city to the suburbs to Europe to “America.” His special theatre, however, is suburbia where the metamorphosis is not of Irving's sleepy Dutch into busy Americans but of work-day city businessmen into weekend “country gentlemen.”

On one level, Cheever's fictions are comedies of manners recording the objects and occasions of suburban life: supermarkets, swimming pools, commuter trains, thruways, cocktail parties. Behavioral nuances function as in manners fiction; for example, a “loss of social esteem” can be discerned when a hired bartender gives rude service at a party.2 In spite of satiric possibilities too numerous to be resisted, Cheever's primary impulse is not to ridicule the silly surfaces. He suggests and sometimes depicts loneliness and despair as well as mysterious and sinister realities. Suburbia is built over the abyss from which disaster and darkness occasionally emerge. For example, in Bullet Park a commuter waiting on a station platform is sucked under the wheels of the Chicago express; Cheever's reality here and elsewhere is closer to Kafka than O'Hara. He exposes the nightmare behind Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post “America.” Though Cheever's alma mater is the Romance-tradition, his vision (though not his style) resembles William Dean Howells's depiction of the troubled day-to-day existence of the middle class: people living on the thin surface hiding terror and violence and pain attempting to plug along with honor in a chaotic world.3 Cheever depicts the “more smiling aspects of life,” which (according to Howells) were the more American—and sometimes the more terrifying.

Cheever's people are ordinary, weak, foolish, shallow; for the most part lonely, sad, disappointed, inarticulate, they muddle through after barely avoiding catastrophe. But since they have a capacity for love and goodness, to their creator their lives are finally worth saving. Cheever has sympathy for his people but contempt for their false values. Life, he writes, is “a perilous moral journey”; the freaks along the way are those who have fallen from grace.4 William Peden calls Cheever “a wry observer of manners and mores [who] is more saddened than amused by the foibles he depicts with understanding and grace.”5 Cheever attempts to define “the quality of American life” or “How We Live Now.” His stories, according to Alfred Kazin, are “a demonstration of the amazing sadness, futility, and evanescence of life among the settled, moneyed, seemingly altogether domesticated people in [Suburbia].”6 John Aldridge finds Cheever “extraordinary in his power to infuse the commonplace and often merely dyspeptic metaphysical crises of modern life with something of the generalizing significance of myth.”7 Cheever's people, latter day neighbors of Irving's and Edith Wharton's, in class and consciousness closer to Howells's and Sinclair Lewis's, are revealed in the mode of Hawthorne, with the insight of F. Scott Fitzgerald.


One of Cheever's most famous, striking, and original stories, “The Swimmer,” elucidates his characteristic artistry as well as his version of American existence. The basic situation is well known: Neddy Merrill's impulsive decision to swim eight miles home via a series of pools. But by the time he has finished, years have passed and his house is deserted. Neddy's arrival home is an example of Cheever's suburbanite, here falling through the surface into the abyss over which his life has been precariously structured, while in other stories there are magical transformations. This abyss is the gulf between the fantasies Americans live by and the actualities they live in. Neddy makes the once-in-a-lifetime discovery that he has won the race but lost his “life.” The apparently self-confident conformist whose life-style is identified with his environment, he is a thorough creature of his culture. Neddy is, moreover, athletic in a culture that admires the summer of youth and innocence and suppresses the winter of age and decline. He has “the especial slenderness of youth. … He might have been compared to a summer day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather” (54-55). The purpose of his swim is to enhance the beauty of the summer day, but his experience turns out to be closer to Housman's Athlete Dying Young than to Shakespeare's young man. His newly discovered route home will be named the Lucinda River (to honor his wife), but it is actually to be a celebration of his own fading youth and an expansion of diminished possibilities.

The narrative begins on “one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying: ‘I drank too much last night.’” Sunday, an exception to the weekly routines and rituals, is a day of special peril in Cheever's fiction. It is the day people fall through the cracks in their lives.8 Like Irving in “Rip Van Winkle” Cheever describes “magical hues”: “It was a fine day. In the West there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance—from the bow of an approaching ship—that it might have a name. Lisbon. Hackensack” (54). Cheever's protagonist, along with Rip, is an avatar of the amiable good fellow, the shallow American who drinks too much and “lives” too little. He is first seen with one hand in the water of a pool and the other around a glass of gin. Not the lazy dropout, Neddy is an escapist and a dreamer (and parttime “pool bum”). He has material abundance, but that, he finds, is not enough; he shares with many of Cheever's protagonists a vague discontent. His escape from cares and responsibilities and from time is similar to Rip's, the cocktail party Ned's equivalent for Rip's pub. Rip's dream of a perpetual men's club has its correspondence in Ned's dream of a permanent poolside party. Both go on to have extraordinary experiences in the “enchanted mountains,” in a dream world of the past, the unconscious, and the imagination. There both men meet regional “natives” whose “hospitable customs and traditions … have to be handled with diplomacy” (56). Rip's overnight sleep covers two decades; Ned's long day's journey compresses several years. The Big Sleep becomes the Big Hangover, each signifying the central hollowness of each man's middle years, that American emptiness between Pepsi-Cola and Geritol.

Rip's encounter and sleep and Neddy's suburban swim are mythic experiences that have indexes in both psychology and reality. On one level, Rip's afternoon in the mountains and Neddy's swim saga epitomize their lives, each experience significantly initiated with drinking. While Rip has an aversion to all profitable work, Ned represses all unpleasant facts from his consciousness. Both time-travellers desire escape because of similar psychological inabilities to face adult responsibilities and to commit themselves to dull actuality. They want to leave behind everyday existence, domestic troubles, loneliness, advancing age. Like generations of Americans they have taken to the woods—to hunt, to fish, to camp out, to contemplate the wilderness, and/or to find the “real America.” Neddy's swim is obviously just a more domesticated form of woodcraft. He leaves Technopolis for Arcadia, the suburban for the sylvan, history for pastoral; but now the machine itself has been set up in the garden (in the form of the pool filter).

Irving's storied Hudson is replaced by the fantasied Lucinda, a “river” of swimming pools. Both “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Swimmer” contain mythic thunder storms and cyclic seasonal imagery. For Ned the starting point is a fine midsummer day at the Westerhazy's. Cheever, like Irving, moves from the mimetic to the mythic, managing subtle and skillful shifts from actual time and place to the world of nature and the imagination, time measured by sun and season instead of clocks and commuter trains. But the key to meaning in Nature's rhythms and rituals is lost to Ned as it had been to Rip. At the first pool where the apple trees are in bloom, Ned has already gone back even further than spring—to Eden which had been a “world of apples.” From here he progresses to the Bunkers' party where he is welcomed, to the Levy's where the party is over and the maple leaves are red and yellow, to the Lindley's riding ring overgrown with grass. Then the Welchers' pool is dry, the bathhouse locked, and the house “for sale,” prefiguring the end of his journey. Ned's most difficult portage is the highway where the motorists harass and ridicule him, but by then he has reached the point of no return. His desire for a drink is mocked when he is assailed by an empty beer can. To mobile Americans (as H. L. Mencken prophesied) Nature has become a place to toss beer cans on Sunday afternoons. But all those cars on the Turnpike are—if we believe Paul Simon—looking “for America.”

At the crowded, regimented Recreation Center the pool reeks of chlorine (in contrast with the pure waters of private pools) and Ned is subjected to the lifeguard's rebukes. America's natural resources have become crowded, polluted, and “collectivized,” trout-streams cut up and sold by the yard (as at Richard Brautigan's Cleveland Wrecking Company). Next, at the Hallorans, the beech hedge is yellow; Ned is cold, tired, depressed, and his trunks feel loose. It is definitely autumn with falling leaves and woodsmoke. At the Sachses he barely finished his swim and, desperately needing a drink, he heads for the Binswangers. The Merrills had always refused their invitations, but now Ned finds that he is the one to be snubbed. In addition, the dark water of the pool has a “wintry gleam.” Then after his former mistress refuses his request for a drink, he is exhausted and for the first time he has to use the ladder in getting out of a pool. Moreover, the flowers and constellations are unmistakably those of autumn (66-67). He is unable to dive into the last pools. Miserable, cold, bewildered, he weeps. He has been “immersed too long.” The temporal drift is ever downward, with summer, the time of physicality and material prosperity, giving way to the season of decline and decay. During his odyssey Ned loses a sense of time just as “his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend [Eric Sachs] had been ill” (64). His affair with Shirley Adams had been terminated “last week, last month, last year. He couldn't remember” (66). As he progresses only the journey itself has immediate reality.

During Neddy's swim, he loses everything—wife, children, home, friends, mistress, job, investments, youth, hopes, self. At the end he “had done what he wanted, he has swum the country” (67), but his house is dark, locked, and empty, recalling Rip who discovered his house abandoned and in decay and found himself alone in the world, puzzled by “such enormous lapses of time.” The Lucinda River, like the Hudson, represents time and change; the waterway of “light” and new beginnings becomes the river of darkness and despair. Cheever has carried the identity-loss, which Irving ultimately averted, to its finale. The constituents of actuality have slipped away. All that he thought he had is lost; all relationships have come to naught. He is left with emptiness. “Everything” was never enough: now it is nothing. While Irving's tale ranks not only as a classic but as a national resource for cultural reference, “The Swimmer” is no less rich and includes areas beyond Irving's attention.

Neddy is the depthless dreamer and organization man, but he also acts out the frontier myth of exploration, independence, endurance, and self-reliance. He even sees himself “as a legendary figure” (55). “Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny” (56). Another Columbus, he has only imaginary charts to follow. A pioneer, he confronts the challenge of nature alone. And as a pilgrim, his journey recalls Bunyan's figure who has numerous American facsimiles. His journey takes him westward, that most American and symbolic of directions. Neddy, however, faces not the primitive forces of the wilderness but pools, gardens, and highways. His pool expedition is a Madison Avenue packaging of Emerson's call to “enjoy an original relation to the universe,” his naturism just as ersatz as the nudist Hallorans reading the Times. By the 1960s the Frontier is something not lived but read about, a vision enriched by memory. Ned desires to go back in time and space, to move outward and inward, while an onerous world moves forward and downward.

Cheever omits the final movement of the archetype (Rip's reconciliation with the new life of the town), but he plays out the full, darker implications. The everyday world, re-established at the conclusion of “Rip Van Winkle,” is irretrievably lost at the end of “The Swimmer.” Irving created a legendary past (based on European myths) to enrich the texture of a raw, new present. Cheever imagined a mythic alternate to explode an unreal present. Irving's dream-world is, finally, not believed in, while for Cheever myth, dream, and the unconscious have more “reality” than objective existence. After 140 years, Cheever has replaced history, Irving's primary allegiance, with mystery. According to Richard Poirier the most interesting American writings are an image of the creation of American itself: “They are bathed in the myths of American history; they carry the metaphoric burden of a great dream of freedom—of the expansion of national consciousness into the vast spaces of a continent and the absorption of those spaces into ourselves.”9 By taking his protagonist outside of society and by moving his fiction into myth, Cheever has earned a place in the major tradition of American literature. Through action, image, and allusion he creates a literary, mythic, and cultural context. The Hudson, Concord, Mississippi, Thames, Rhine, Nile, and Ganges mingle in the creative consciousness.


In his fiction Cheever presents the symptoms of contemporary anxiety and ennui but only implies the causes. His men suffer from that American inability to make sense out of life that derives from a failure to recognize the unreality of their lives. They are, however, evidently tired of an existence that does not fulfill, of living without imagination. All of their life-pursuits—success, status, sex—ignore reality and are in fact fantasies. Freedom, happiness, achievement, and popularity are illusions. Substance is frittered away through absorption in detail. The suburbanite, above all, dwells in cultural deprivation, in a synthetic environment, with “neither the beauty and serenity of the countryside, the stimulation of the city, nor the stability and sense of community of the small town.”10 Ned has the civilized man's psychic need to rebel against his plastic surroundings and the organized world of logic, reason, and technology. Wanting to escape the familiar routines that have shaped his life, he seeks adventure, freedom, and peace in nature. Filled with euphoria and wanderlust, a need to expend energy and experience a richer mode of response, he wants to re-establish contact with life. “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition” (55). His attempt at renewal is analogous to mythicized sex, “the supreme elixir, the painkiller, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart” (66). His swim, moreover, expresses an artistic impulse, the attempt to do something unusual, to create an alternate reality. It illustrates the subconscious knowledge Cheever described in “[T]he Seaside Houses”: “… we are, as in our dreams we have always known ourselves to be, migrants and wanderers” (180). Neddy's swimming the “quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county” (55) seems like a movement through the womb-like unconscious, the element of metamorphosis and rebirth.

There is also nostalgia for an old innocence, for the “forest primeval” and the “green breast of the new world.” Ned wants to start again, to make a new beginning and would swim nude if he could. His epic swim, like his morning slide down the bannister, is an attempt to slow down the encroachment of age. Youth is, as Cash Bentley in “O Youth and Beauty” believed, the best time—the brightest and most blessed. With a typically American inability to accept imperfection, Ned wants neither to grow old nor to grow up; he regrets lost youth and fading machismo. His athletic prowess is his last valuable possession. A return to nature (“In the woods is perpetual youth,” according to Emerson, and going to the woods was, to John Muir, “going home”) also betokens a return to the “childhood” of America and to a simpler, more “real” existence. Neddy feels the need to believe in the myth of a Golden Age, a legend accepted as fact, and has the optimist's faith that all problems have solutions. Similarly the Lucinda River, like the Northwest Passage, exists, and all he has to do is swim it to make it real. The American, alone with a continent, invents his own environment, a self-sufficient New World of the mind. Leaving the here and now for the bye and bye, the American looks forward to the past and backward to the future. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visions of coming possibilities are translated into twentieth-century dreams of past actualities, past visions are accepted as real, present facts are rejected as false. In fine, dream and reality are not reconciled but confused.

In “The Swimmer” the American Dream becomes the creation of one's own reality—the dream of living out one's imagination. In the present the only way to start anew is via the imagination. With the closing of the Frontier, the dreamer-explorer is left with nowhere to go except “passage to more than India,” no guide to follow except the Transcendentalist injunction: “Build therefore your own world.” Ned shuts exterior malice out of his personal wonderland—a neighborhood Disneyworld sufficient to satisfy a middle-class “capacity for wonder.” He creates a myth of private satisfaction to counter a public despair. Though Thomas Merton did not have Neddy's plight in mind, his comment is applicable: “An investigation of the wilderness mystique and of the contrary mystique of exploitation and power reveals the tragic depth of the conflict that now exists in the American mind. … Take away the space, the freshness, the rich spontaneity of a wildly flourishing nature, and what will become of the creative pioneer mystique? A pioneer in a suburb is a sick man tormenting himself with projects of virile conquest.”11

Cheever's story, probably the most important use of the swimming pool in American literature, is an imaginative vision of American reality in its interplay of person and object. (To Cheever's people, of course, the pool is an index of affluence and status.) In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby the swimming pool is also connected with the protagonist's character and quest.12 Gatsby and Neddy are the lustrous but naive American fools doomed by time, mortality, and history. Both wish to achieve the transcendent moment when dream and reality are one. But both attempts at transcendence are foiled by transience, water in the pools symbolizing flux and mutability. Neddy's swim, like Gatsby's final plunge, is an encounter with that new world, but one already fallen. The dreamer is betrayed by reality and by his own dream. “The Swimmer,” like Gatsby, ends with a deserted house in a Paradise garden overgrown with weeds. Gatsby's mansion is not only the millionaire's palace with an obscenity scrawled on the steps but also an epitome of Western culture. Neddy's, on the other hand, is the family domicile; it is revelatory, however, to recall that his swim included parties, neighbors, friends, and a mistress, but only casual references to his family, with whom his concern had been as shallow as Rip's with his. Ned suffers a contemporary Angst; having spent too much for recognition and success, he cannot face failure. His intended romantic escape from limiting reality moves from exhilaration to exhaustion to a painful confrontation with an inner void: empty house/empty life.

Neddy's personal dilemma has both psychological and cultural roots. His crisis of consciousness is shared by his culture for “The Swimmer” probes a trauma deep in the national character. The story of the American is, like the many adaptations of “Rip Van Winkle,” an “unfinished” story still awaiting its “final imaginative re-creation.”13 “The Swimmer” is neither rewriting nor updating of “Rip,” any more than “The Enormous Radio” is a modernization of “Young Goodman Brown;” both stories are re-visions of archetypal Americans and situations which link the destiny of characters with the meaning of American history. Like Irving's classic, Cheever's tale endures in the reader's memory with its artistry, its psychological impications, its cultural resonance, and its penetration of the currents of existence. Cheever, moreover, gives the reader many of the rewards of traditional fiction along with the peculiar pleasures of contemporary meta-fiction. There is more in this story about “How We Live Now” than in any other work of comparable length. Swimming has become a new metaphor for the westering impulse, as walking, trekking, floating, running, riding, fishing, and driving had served other writers. The quest for the real America (if one exists) is again an exploration of inward shores. Neddy's westward swim is into the eternal country of the imagination.

Cheever's characteristic stance, a mixture of apocalypse and celebration, despair with much of the contemporary world along with joy in nature and the imagination, may be seen encapsulated in a passage from “The Country Husband”: “The village hangs, morally and economically, from a thread; but it hangs by its thread in the evening light.”14Falconer, Cheever's prison-novel, a seeming deviation from his usual locale, objectifies dramatically his central idea of confinement. As with Dostoevsky, the prison is an epitome of society, but for Cheever the suburban town itself is a metaphoric prison: “spiritually, financially, we were the prisoners of our environment although if we had enough money we could have flown to some other … part of the world.”15 But it is not money that offers escape. As an answer to confinement in suburban artificiality, conformity, and dullness Cheever has offered the imaginative quest for pastoral freedom. His debut-story, “Expelled,” projected a Thoreauvian search for a natural alternative for society. And the first story in his first collection, The Way Some People Live, proposed swimming as an escape from social pressures. Cheever consistently associates the values of nature and the imagination, simple physical pleasures and dreaming because of their connection with primal reality.


Cheever's aesthetic credo requires that he present not the facts but “the truth;” his role is not that of the historian but that of the storyteller recapitulating “the verities.” His novels and stories are, therefore, less a depiction than an expression of his time. The fictions in Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel explicitly concern the writer's problem in rendering modern life in fiction:

Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death but even the mountains seems to shift in the space of a night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely women with a bar of sunshine in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale's cage. Just let me give you an example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can't find a comparable experience. …16

The absurd events which he narrates in “The Death of Justina,” Cheever claims, could “only have happened in America today.” “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow,” the first and titular story in the volume containing “The Swimmer,” begins: “I would not want to be one of those writers who begin each morning by exclaiming, O Gogol, O Chekhov, O Thackeray and Dickens, what would you have made of a bomb shelter ornamented with four plaster-of-Paris ducks, a birdbath, and three composition gnomes with long beards and red mobcaps?” (1).

“A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear” in his next novel includes, as examples, the pretty girl at the Princeton-Dartmouth Rugby game, all parts for Marlon Brando, all homosexuals, and all alcoholics: “Out they go, male and female, all the lushes; they throw so little true light on the way we live” (Some [Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel], 169). The narrator of “A Vision of the World,” who finds that the externals of life have “the quality of a dream” while his reveries have “the literalness of double-entry bookkeeping” (217), wants “to identify … not a chain of facts but an essence … to grant [his] dreams, in so incoherent a world, their legitimacy” (218). He finally accepts the world in which he lives as a dream and the dreams he has as real. In Cheever's view, fiction is that intersection of “reality” and the imagination.

With increasing persistence he has commented on the challenges that the American fictionist faces today, suggesting that the “trumped-up” stories of generations of storytellers can never “hope to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream” (Some, 175). In his later work the discernible progress is into more innovative techniques and a bleaker vision. He has moved deeper into the darkness of the American funhouse. Many of his best later stories are self-conscious, reflexive, metafictional. Prose narrative forms, which date from about the same time as explorations of the New World, have always been journeys of discovery: new worlds and new modes of perception and new forms. Fiction is, as Lionel Trilling has said, “a perpetual quest for reality.”17 And for the postmodernist writer who gives new twists to the perennial conflict between ideal and real and to the “modern” concern with illusion, Reality itself is the primary theme.

The success of Cheever's fiction is dependent on his skill in placing fantastic incidents within a plausible context (or, sometimes, conversely) and in juxtaposing Westchester and Wonderland. His work, if read attentively, can alter the way we think about ourselves. Every incident is set within the history of a culture, a country not yet a nation, not quite completed, like the unfinished pyramid on a dollar-bill. He charts the demise of a life-style in a long day's dying. But Cheever sees the present blighted cityscape not as “the ruins of our civilization” but as a construction site, “the temporary encampments and outposts of the civilization that we—you and I—shall build” (Some, 3). John Cheever follows in the line of fabulist and mythopoeic writers, participating in the chief business of American fiction: the creation of American Reality. America—and Reality—are composed of change, flux, chaos, contradiction; Reality sometimes seems like a comedy of the Absurd.18 The American experience has been an existential encounter with the dark territory of a continent, with history, and with the self.

American itself is an absurd creation. Our writers have asked: Is it a place? a people? a fact? a faith? a disease? a nightmare? an idea? a moral condition? To Fitzgerald, France was a land, England a people, America an idea. Brautigan, who like Cheever, always writes about “America” suggests that it is “often only a place in the mind,” echoing Emerson's America: “a poem in our eyes.” At the conclusion of “Boy in Rome,” Cheever has his young American, whose planned return home has been foiled, remembering an old lady in Naples “so long ago, shouting across the water [to a departing ship], ‘Blessed are you, blessed are you, you will see America, you will see the New World,’ and I knew that large cars and frozen food and hot water were not what she meant. ‘Blessed are you, blessed are you,’ she kept shouting across the water and I knew that she thought of a place where there are no police with swords and no greedy nobility and no dishonesty and no briberies and no delays and no fear of cold and hunger and war and if all that she imagined was not true, it was a noble idea and that was the main thing” (Some, 161-162). From the coast of Europe “across the water” to the unexplored inner shores of America, the cycle begins again: from vision to reality to dream to fiction.


  1. Lewis Nichols, “A Visit with John Cheever,” New York Times, 5 January 1964, p. 28.

  2. “The Swimmer,” The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1965), p. 65. Henceforth all parenthetical page references will be to this volume. After completing the present study I discovered that Frederick Bracher had already suggested the “Rip”-parallel. See Cortland F. Auser's citation in “John Cheever's Myth of Man and Time: ‘The Swimmer,’” CEA Critic, 29 (March 1967), 18-19.

  3. This view of Howells is that of George Carrington in The Immense Complex Drama: The World and Art of the Howells Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966).

  4. Quoted in Time, 27 March 1964, p. 67.

  5. William Peden, The American Short Story: Front Line in the National Defense of Literature (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964), p. 55.

  6. Alfred Kazin, “O'Hara, Cheever & Updike,” The New York Review of Books, 20 (19 April 1973), 16.

  7. John W. Aldridge, The Devil in the Fire: Retrospective Essays on American Literature and Culture 1951-1971 (New York: Harper's Magazine Press, 1972), p. 236.

  8. Lynne Waldeland, John Cheever (Boston: Twayne, 1979), p. 95.

  9. Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 3.

  10. Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), p. 9.

  11. Thomas Merton, “The Wild Places,” The Center Magazine, 1, No. 5 (July 1968), 43.

  12. See Milton Stern, The Golden Moment: The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1970), pp. 166, 169. One of Cheever's “Metamorphoses” narrates the transformation of a “nymphlike” young woman into a swimming pool.

  13. Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931; rpt. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1953), p. 181.

  14. The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (1958; rpt. New York: MacFadden-Bartell, 1961), p. 67.

  15. Falconer (New York: Knopf, 1977), p. 80. See also John Hersey, “Talk with John Cheever,” New York Times Book Review, 6 March 1977, pp. 1, 24.

  16. Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), p. 2. Hereafter cited as Some in parenthetical references.

  17. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1950), p. 206.

  18. See Richard B. Hauck, A Cheerful Nihilism: Confidence and “The Absurd” in American Humorous Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1971).

Further Reading

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Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “‘The Swimmer’: Cheever's Building-Roman.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 26, no. 1 (January 1996): 5-6.

Examines Cheever's use of suburbia in “The Swimmer.”

———. “Neddy Merrill: Cheever's Contemporary Narcissus.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 26, no. 5 (November 1996): 7-9.

Finds parallels between the characters of Ned Merrill and Narcissus.

———. “The Odyssey of Ned Merrill.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 31, no. 4 (September 2001): 3-4.

Compares “The Swimmer” to Homer's Odyssey.

Chaney, Bev Jr. “John Cheever in Ossining.” American Book Collector 7, no. 8 (August 1986): 21.

Offers a personal account of the author's friendship with Cheever.

Meanor, Patrick. John Cheever Revisited. New York: Twayne-Macmillan, 1995, 205 p.

Book-length critical study.

Additional coverage of Cheever's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 106; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 5, 27, 76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 7, 8, 11, 15, 25, 64; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 102, 227; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980, 1982; DISCovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 14; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 38; and World Literature Criticism.

Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet (essay date fall 1984)

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SOURCE: Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Perverted Sacraments in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 4 (fall 1984): 393-94.

[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet probe Cheever's “ironic use of three holy sacraments” in “The Swimmer.”]

John Cheever indicates the distance between the goal of Ned Merrill's quest in “The Swimmer” and what he actually achieves—nothing—by the ironic use of three holy sacraments, the Eucharist, baptism, and marriage. Specifically, Merrill's perversion of these traditional Christian ceremonies suggests the reason for his emptiness at the story's conclusion.

“The Swimmer” begins with a suburban parody of the communal Eucharist. Appropriately it is Sunday and the celebrants are drinking wine. Theirs, however, is no ritual of purification, selfless dedication, and remembrance of the ultimate sacrifice. Although these celebrants have chosen the Sabbath, it is also midsummer, a favorite time for pagan rites. Instead of a symbolic sip, these devotees are continuing a Bacchanalian revelry begun the night before in which the abundance of claret produces nothing more than guilt and a hangover. Although they have been to church earlier in the day, the sham of their Christianity is emphasized by their post-worship service litany: “‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium …”1 That Ned Merrill is a disciple of this pagan creed is emphasized not only by the gin in his hand, but also by the rite with which he opened his day: “he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack” (603). Throughout his journey Merrill renews his sagging spirits at his personal altar, the bar, where his priest, the bartender, continually provides the needed unction, a drink. The ultimate perversion of the Eucharist occurs at the shrine of his ex-mistress. When he asks for a drink, his thoughts upon arriving there have already defined his view of communion: “If he had suffered any injuries, they would be cured here. Love—sexual roughhouse in fact—was the supreme elixir [italics ours], the painkiller, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back in his step, the joy of life in his heart” (611). In his distortion of the sacrament, Merrill has replaced the principle of agape, the selfless and spiritual love demonstrated by Christ, with that of eros, the selfish and physical gratification derived from sexuality. Appropriately, Eros is personified in mythology as the offspring of Merrill's pagan deity, Aphrodite. The spiritual distance between Merrill's celebration and the focus of the true holy sacrament is magnified by this pagan priestess (her “brass” hair clearly identifies her with the bronze Aphrodite) and her plurisignative profanity aimed at Merrill: “Good Christ” (611).

Likewise, Cheever's protagonist perverts the holy sacrament of baptism. This ritual—having its root in the Greek bapto meaning to immerse, dip, or plunge underwater; to wash—has traditionally demonstrated externally an inner spiritual commitment, and is seen as a sign of initiation, regeneration, and purification. In order to be reborn from a life of failure (Merrill has lost his family, his material possessions, and his social standing, all of which he associates with the loss of physical youth), he conceives an elaborate ritual of baptism; to “celebrate” (604) the beauty of the midsummer day, which he likewise associates with his successful younger days, he will swim “the Lucinda River” (604). This eight-mile journey from the Westerhazys' to his house involves an immersion into his neighbors' pools, the sacred worship sites for suburban hedonism. That his ceremony strays far from the Christian is obvious from more than just its selfish, physical purpose. In each successive plunge he—divesting himself of shoes, sweater, and even swim trunks—moves closer to the satyr-like pagan state. Neddy's baptism is futile. Instead of spiritual regeneration, he progressively degenerates; his perception of the physical world grows dimmer (as does the day), he loses his memory, and his physical strength wanes. As with the perverted Eucharist, this distorted sacrament culminates at Shirley Adams'. Physically he is so atrophied that “when he tried to haul himself up onto the curb he found that the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone” (611). And this external weakness reflects his inner degeneration. He cries—not the selfless tears of Christ for others, but the selfish weeping for his personal loss and perhaps out of frustration at his own inability to understand what has happened.

Merrill's most obvious perversion is, of course, that of marriage. Again, the distortion of this sacrament climaxes at the home of his ex-mistress. His contrast of his relationship to her with that of his marital state reveals his conscious violation of the sacrament and his self-centeredness: “It seemed in a way to be his pool as the lover, particularly the illicit lover, enjoys the possessions of his mistress with an authority unknown to holy matrimony” (611). Not only has his affair helped destroy his marriage, but even his perverted marriage fails. Years ago he broke it off, but now he realizes that Shirley Adams has replaced him with a new lover: “he saw, in the lighted bathhouse, a young man” (611).

To stress that Ned Merrill's violation of the sacraments leaves him far from regeneration/salvation, Cheever precedes the culminating scene at Shirley Adams' with his protagonist's visit to the Biswangers. Significantly the wife is the first to tell Ned Merrill the truth about his failure. Throwing him out she “turned her back on him” (610). It is no coincidence that her name is Grace.

Ned Merrill's final emptiness, symbolized by the locked and vacant house he finds at the end of his journey, derives, then, from his perversion of the sacraments. His total devotion to the self, his practice of following the form but not the substance of the holy ceremonies, has left him like his house, hollow—soulless.


  1. The Stories of John Cheever (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1978), p. 603. Subsequent references will be noted by parentheses.

Michael D. Byrne (essay date summer 1986)

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SOURCE: Byrne, Michael D. “The River of Names in ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 3 (summer 1986): 326-27.

[In the following essay, Byrne analyzes Cheever's utilization of a list of names as a narrative device in “The Swimmer,” claiming that the list functions as a symbol “for Neddy's dilemma, writ small.”]

Like modern writers as diverse as Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Barthelme, John Cheever found an artistic delight in lists, specifically a list of names: “It's perfectly beautiful. You can use an invitation list as a lyrical poem. A sort of evocation. I believe I've used it once or twice.”1 One of Cheever's most anthologized stories, “The Swimmer,” includes a list of names representing ports of call on Neddy Merrill's Sunday odyssey: “The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins and the Clydes” (604).2 Like the famous litany of guests at Gatsby's parties, Cheever's list is a carefully crafted narrative device, yet none of the critical commentaries on “The Swimmer” have scrutinized it. We do know that Cheever began the story as a novel and that, at one point, he had accumulated 150 pages of manuscript.3 Obviously, the finished work underwent a radical condensation of material. The list of names was one way Cheever provided concise symbolic resonance to the action. In fact, the list stands for Neddy's dilemma, writ small.

Even the most cursory attention to the names suggests that they were not selected randomly from the Ossining telephone directory. At the Westerhazys, where everyone is trying to shake off the mental fog of a hangover, Neddy decides to travel to his home in Bullet Park “by taking a dogleg to the southwest” (603). But he will confront social and psychological violence and conflict, as “Hammers,” “Crosscups” and “Bunkers” foreshadow. Like Lear, he will wander dispossessed across a landscape once friendly, now hostile, partly because he has been a “Welcher” socially, romantically and financially.

Cheever intensifies the theme of ostracism through his ethnic arrangement of the names. On the first half of the trek, Neddy Merrill (whose ancestry is English) finds full pools and hospitable neighbors (whose ancestry, English, German and one Scot speaks of long-established social position). One of them, Howland, can even claim to be a Mayflower descendant. At the Levys' (the halfway mark of the swim), however, the ethnic note changes, as does Neddy's reception. In this second lap, Neddy calls on two Jewish and two Irish neighbors; of these, the two neighbors who are home genuinely care for and welcome him. Playing on the second string socially, they understand nonconformity and exclusion (the Hallorans, weekend nudists, are thought to be Communists). Of the English or German neighbors in this part of the story, two have no pools and two rebuff Neddy for his casual arrogance in dropping by. The Englishman turns into Wandering Jew.

Cheever slyly links this theme of social ostracism with aquatic nomadism through the meaning of some of these surnames. Merrill is “a descendant of Muriel (‘sea-bright’).” Welch means “the stranger”; Lear, “the dweller by the sea.” Halloran (an Irish name) is “the stranger from beyond the sea.” Neddy's penultimate stop is the Clydes, whose name is shared by a long, winding river in Scotland.

The swim finished, Neddy “climbed up the ladder and wondered if he had the strength to get home. He had done what he wanted, he had swum the country, but he was so stupified with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague” (612). In one of his short masterworks, Cheever's triumph was anything but vague, as his river of names makes clear.


  1. Jacqueline Tavernier and R. G. Collins, “An Interview With John Cheever,” Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor, 1 (Autumn 1978), 7.

  2. John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever (New York: Knopf, 1978). All subsequent references to “The Swimmer” will appear parenthetically within the text.

  3. Lewis Nichols, “A Visit with John Cheever,” New York Times Book Review, 5 Jan. 1964, p. 28.

Loren C. Bell (essay date fall 1987)

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SOURCE: Bell, Loren C. “‘The Swimmer’: A Midsummer's Nightmare.” Studies in Short Fiction 24, no. 4 (fall 1987): 433-36.

[In the following essay, Bell compares “The Swimmer” to Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, focusing on motifs of dreams and nightmares.]

The opening paragraph of John Cheever's “The Swimmer” establishes the common malady lingering poolside at the Westerhazys' that midsummer Sunday. “We all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill. While the others talk about their hangovers, Neddy Merrill sits “by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin.” Apparently instead of talking, Neddy “had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.”1 Debilitated by his hangover and his swim, warmed by the hot sun and cold gin, his deep breathing resonant with heavy snoring sounds, Neddy slips into the most natural condition given the circumstances: he falls asleep. His pleasure invents a dream of heroic exploration which ends with a desolate vision within a midsummer's nightmare.

The invitation to transform A Midsummer Night's Dream into “a midsummer's nightmare” is tempting, first, because Cheever's references to midsummer seem insistent. The story begins, “It was one of those midsummer Sundays …” (603). About the midpoint, after the wind has stripped the Levys' maple tree of its autumnal leaves, Neddy reasons that “since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted …” (606). Near his journey's end, under a winter sky, Neddy wonders, “What had become of the constellations of midsummer?” (611). A further link to the play is the mystifying confusion of the seasons:

                                                                                The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.


The transformation seems more than ironic wordplay when we consider another connection to Shakespeare: Cheever's observation that Neddy “might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one. …” Despite his impression of “youth, sport, and clement weather” (603), Neddy is not a likely subject for a sonnet, at least not for Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Alcoholic, snobbish, adulterous, self-indulgent—Neddy is by no means mild or temperate, yet he is linked to the sonnet. He is the other subject of the poem, the inevitability of decline. Thus, he is compared to the last hours of a summer's day because, like the season, Neddy's “lease hath all too short a date.” As “every fair from fair sometime declines, / By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed,” so Neddy's “eternal summer”—his illusory youthful vigor and, more important, his illusion of success, his share in the tenuous American dream—will also fade. Whether or not he has actually lost his money and status, his house and family, in the context of his dream he seems to have lost “possession of that fair [he] owest.” As his pilgrimage to that realization ends, we sense that Neddy has indeed wandered through the valley of the shadow.

The dream motif (and its direction) having thus been suggested, Neddy snores beside the pool; “the components of that moment … seemed to flow into his chest” (603). Here the narrative becomes internalized in Neddy. The dream itself begins and, with it, the “implied progression from day to night, summer to winter, vigorous manhood to old age.”2

The surrealistic quality of dreams insinuates itself throughout Neddy's journey. With his “discovery” of the Lucinda River, we see that superior point of view of the dreamer, suspended, detached, not quite real: “He seemed to see, with a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county” (603). Removing “a sweater that was hung over his shoulders” (had it been hung there by someone else?), he plunges into the stream of his subconscious. “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water … seemed,” to Neddy, to be “the resumption of a natural condition”; the dreamer floats on waves of sleep like the swimmer buoyed by light green water (604).

When Neddy hears the Bunkers' distant poolside party, “the water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair,” distant, disembodied voices made nearer by the trick of water and physics. It is one of those phenomena of reality that make us recall the dream distortion of sound as well as place and time. When he leaves the Bunkers', “the brilliant, watery sound of voices fade[s],” as if he leaves some bright sanctuary to pursue his darkening journey (605). Near the Lancaster public pool, “the effect of the water on voices, the illusion of brilliance and suspense, was the same … but the sounds here were louder, harsher, and more shrill …” (607-08). The distortion will recur at the Biswangers' with even harsher effects.

Another illustration of the dream motif is Neddy's sense of separation and detachment. As he surveys the scene at the Bunkers' pool, including the red de Haviland trainer “circling around and around and around in the sky with something like the glee of a child in a swing,” he “felt a passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch.” The ambiguity of the word passing is effective. Neddy's “passing affection” may be only transitory; his nightmare will show that what he holds dear is indeed fleeting. But given the tenderness with which he regards his own life and this scene of “prosperous men and women,” passing suggests rather convincingly its archaic sense of “great” or “surpassing” (605). For the moment he is held outside that circle rather like Hawthorne's Robin Molineux when the boy views his family gathered for vespers under the spreading tree in their dooryard.3 But the door will not be shut in Neddy's face—not just yet, for he enters this scene as a welcome guest and greets his fellow players (or playfellows) in a dizzying round of kisses and handshakes, even though the thunder has sounded.

“I had the strangest dream last night. I was standing on the shoulder of Route 424, waiting to cross, and I was naked. …” So Neddy, on some other day, waking from some other dream, might well have recounted that common dream image. But his vulnerability and exposure in this afternoon's dream will probably not be another amusing anecdote told at breakfast. When he reaches the highway, he is “close to naked,” naked enough to be “exposed to all kinds of ridicule,” but perhaps not naked enough to perceive any truths beyond his discomfort and his perplexing inability to turn back (607). He is genuinely naked when he steps out of his trunks and through the Hallorans' yellowed beech hedge to encounter something closer to the naked truth when Mrs. Halloran says,

“We've been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.”

“My misfortunes?” Ned asked. “I don't know what you mean.”

“Why, we heard that you'd sold the house and that your poor children. …”

“I don't recall having sold the house,” Ned said, “and the girls are at home.”


Neddy's first response seems natural enough, yet when Mrs. Halloran begins to tell him precisely what she does mean, he interrupts her. Like unsettling, bright pinpoints of truth abruptly piercing an alcoholic blackout, her explanation hints at sharp truths that must ultimately be faced. Neddy's reply seems more an evasion than an answer, the suppression of a dark truth's glimmering. It also suggests the illogical, if not absurd, utterances of dreams.

To discern truth from within or without a dream is difficult enough, but to discern the dream itself from within is more difficult. For Neddy, it is impossible. Unprepared for the humiliation along Route 424, he is bewildered, but “he could not go back, he could not even recall with any clearness the green water at the Westerhazys', the sense of inhaling the day's components, the friendly and relaxed voices saying that they had drunk too much” (607). Caught powerless and unaware in a nightmare that now controls him, he can only swim with its current. At the Sachses' pool, he still feels obliged to swim, “that he had no freedom of choice about his means of travel” (610). Just two pools from his own house, obligation has become compulsion: “While he could have cut directly across the road to his home he went on to the Gilmartins' pool” and then “staggered with fatigue on his way to the Clydes'” (612).

It is in dreams that apple blossoms and roses are replaced with the “stubborn autumnal fragrance” of chrysanthemums or marigolds (611). It is in dreams that midsummer constellations become the stars of a winter sky, and slender, youngish Neddy Merrill goes “stooped” and “stupified” to whatever truth, whatever self-discovery, his nightmare has led him. “He had been immersed too long, and his nose and throat were sore from the water,” a swimmer's complaint that might be shared by an afternoon sleeper whose snoring has been too long and loud, and whose dream is too frightening (612).

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, we are told that “the course of true love never did run smooth.” Neddy's encounters with love would seem to bear witness. The easy familiarity with which he greeted his bronze Aphrodite that morning is rebuffed by Shirley Adams, his former mistress with “hair the color of brass” (611). Despite Neddy's “passing affection,” the course of his real love—his pursuit of the American dream of success and suburban happiness—runs no more smoothly. Perhaps it too is besieged,

Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
So quick bright things come to confusion.


In the nightmarish ruin of the “quick bright things” in Neddy's life, he has been led to the vision that his dream of wealth, status, and happiness is transitory, illusory, and fraught with perils. If our dreams are empty, what then are we? The use of that discovery, whether for reform or despair, is left to Neddy and to us. Perhaps he will mend his ways, or (as Prufrock fears) Neddy Merrill may awake from his watery dream only to drown—in one way or another.


  1. The Stories of John Cheever (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 603. All other references to this edition appear parenthetically in the paper.

  2. Scott Donaldson, “John Cheever,” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, ed. Leonard Unger (New York: Scribner's, 1979), Supplement I, Part 1, 185.

  3. “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Norman Holmes Pearson (New York: Random, 1937), pp. 1217-18.

William Rodney Allen (essay date summer 1989)

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SOURCE: Allen, William Rodney. “Allusions to The Great Gatsby in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26, no. 3 (summer 1989): 289-93.

[In the following essay, Allen explores allusions to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in Cheever's “The Swimmer.”]

Several literary echoes float through John Cheever's “The Swimmer.” Just as Cheever compresses much of a man's adult life into a single afternoon in this story, he also gives the reader a quick tour of literary history by alluding to works by Homer, Shakespeare, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His protagonist, Neddy Merrill, after hitting on the idea at a cocktail party of swimming home through the pools of his suburban friends, comes to resemble Ulysses wandering the Mediterranean on his return to Ithaca. As in Joyce's Ulysses, specific scenes in “The Swimmer” parallel such Homeric episodes as Ulysses' encounters with Scylla and Charybdis, Nausicaä, and Circe.1 Early in the story, Cheever says of Neddy that “he might be compared to a summer's day,”2 echoing the Shakespeareian sonnet about the constancy of its speaker's lover in contrast to the changes of the weather. Since Neddy will prove to be neither constant nor in the summer of his life, this ironic allusion helps set up Cheever's parallel between his protagonist's aging and the change of the seasons, both of which go into a kind of surreal fast-forward as the story advances. But these two allusive patterns are really only glosses to the central subtext of “The Swimmer”: The Great Gatsby. Cheever consciously made Neddy Merrill a latter-day Jay Gatsby—a man whose mythic sense of himself is finally destroyed by the flaws in American culture, by his own mistakes, and by the simple advance of time.

Cheever's most explicit reference to Gatsby comes early in the story, so as to alert the reader to the more subtle parallels to Fitzgerald's novel that follow. As Michael D. Byrne has noticed, Neddy's list of the friends whose pools he plans to swim is Cheever's nod at Nick Carraway's famous catalogue of people who attended Gatsby's parties.3 Since “The Swimmer”'s controlling structural principle is compression, Cheever's list is shorter than Fitzgerald's, but the many points of similarity between the lists leave no doubt about where Cheever got the idea. Like Fitzgerald's roster, Cheever's includes animal imagery, puns, and ethnic references as a kind of shorthand for describing the protagonist's social milieu. Nick mentions the Catlips and the Hammerheads; Neddy, the Gilmartins and the Hammers. Recalling such crude names as the Swetts and the Leeches in Gatsby, Cheever features the Bunkers and the Welchers. Finally, both lists contrast names suggestive of the established upper class (in Gatsby: Abrams, Voltaire; in “The Swimmer”: Graham, Howland) with Jewish and Irish names of the nouveau riche (in Gatsby: Cohen, McCarty; in “The Swimmer”: Levy, Halloran). As these lists suggest, both works are about America's class system—who is at its peak, and who is on the way up or down.

But “The Swimmer”'s allusions to Gatsby only begin with Cheever's Fitzgeraldesque list of names. Because Gatsby is trying to break into the upper class and Neddy has always been a privileged member of it, Cheever makes his protagonist a mirror image of Fitzgerald's. Gatsby is, or at least believes he is, on the rise—until Daisy rejects him after she learns of his illegal activities and runs over Myrtle; “The Swimmer” opens with Neddy on top, but then records his fall into financial difficulties, social scorn, and middle age.

Appropriately, Cheever has Neddy's story begin where Gatsby's ends: in the swimming pool, one of the American emblems of wealth and ease. Critics have traced the pattern of Gatsby's associations with bodies of water, from his boyhood combing the beaches of Lake Superior to his cruising the high seas on Dan Cody's yacht to his settling in a mansion on Long Island Sound to his death in his pool. The size of these bodies of water reflects the expansion and contraction of his ambitions. Neddy, while confined to the suburban world of swimming pools, dreams of linking them by means of his swim into something grander—the Lucinda River, named for his wife but intended as a monument to himself. But instead of validating his self-image as “a legendary figure” (604), Neddy's swim only demonstrates how at odds with reality that image is. As young as he feels at the beginning of the story, at its end he will be so exhausted as he swims the last pools that he almost ends up like Gatsby. But Cheever brings him out of the water for one last revelation of defeat.

As I have said, Gatsby and Neddy fail as a result of the flaws in American society, their own mistakes, and their running out of time. The first of these reasons initially seems more important in Gatsby than in “The Swimmer.” Fitzgerald's critique of the hypocrisy of an ostensibly democratic society that actually harbors a “secret society” (12) is perhaps the moral center of the book. As Nick learns of the insider deals in the booming market, the endemic corruption brought on by prohibition, and, most shockingly, the fixing of America's ritual of innocence, the World Series, he begins to question not only his own values but the history and ideals of the country. In the famous last passage of the book, Fitzgerald produced some of his most lush prose in contrasting a corrupted contemporary America with the “fresh green breast of the new world” that “flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes” (80). While Fitzgerald blames Gatsby for his fall, he also blames the materialism and moral compromise of America as well.

Although Cheever focuses on Neddy's failure, a passage early in the story suggests that Cheever too aims at a critique of compromised American ideals. As Neddy lounges by the pool, he notices that “in the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance—from the bow of an approaching ship—that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack” (603). By constantly describing Neddy as “a pilgrim, an explorer” (604), Cheever connects him with the first settlers of America, who had such a singular opportunity to make a new world. Cheever here perhaps had in mind not only the end of Gatsby but the conclusion of John Winthrop's essay “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630), which envisions America as the Biblical “city on a hill” that would serve as an example to the world.4 But this hope is quickly deflated in “The Swimmer,” for the city in the clouds as viewed from the sea becomes over time only an ugly city with an ugly name—Hackensack. The “green breast of the new world” has been turned into a golf course, its rivers channeled into a “quasi-subterranean stream” (603) of swimming pools.5 So much for the visions of Winthrop, or the Book of Matthew.

In terms of individual guilt, Neddy initially seems more culpable than Gatsby—more the smug insider, the Tom Buchanan, than the young idealist striving to find his place in the world. Gatsby, for example, is properly dressed, a non-drinker, the one jilted by his lover; Neddy, on the other hand, displays his nearly nude body for the whole town, laments a hangover with a drink in his hand, revels in his sense of ownership of his cast-off mistress. But despite these contrasts, Gatsby is Neddy's spiritual forebear, for both men are guilty of narcissism. Cheever overtly identifies Neddy with Narcissus by having him muse on his youthful, slender body while reclining by a pool of water. In Nick's famous phrase, Gatsby carries in his mind a narcissistic “Platonic conception” (45) of himself, and so views himself as superior to mere mortals as he considers his love for Daisy superior to Tom's. Privately watching the serene constellations wheel overhead as his parties veer out of control, Gatsby appears as removed from the flawed world as Daisy, who seems to him so “safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (67). But of course Gatsby's inflated self-image is as unreal as Cheever's shining city in the clouds: the cloud-city becomes Hackensack; Gatsby, “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (58). Though claiming the high ground of culture, propriety, and transcendent love, Gatsby is finally revealed as an “elegant young roughneck” (24), a bootlegger, an accomplice to hit-and-run manslaughter.

While Neddy, having been a member of the privileged class all his life, does not actually commit crimes as Gatsby does, his sins of overindulgence in drink, adultery, and neglect of his family stalk him as surely as Wilson stalks Gatsby. As he swims from pool to pool, Neddy rapidly descends the social scale from affluent suburbanite to gatecrashing outsider. Although darker elements intrude even in the first part of the story (such as the blighted maple tree Neddy sees in a neighbor's yard), the real change occurs when the swimmer crosses a busy highway, Route 424. Cheever's story presents two worlds: the first half is youth, sexuality, affluence, and hope: the second, middle age, impotence, poverty, and despair. Route 424 separates the two. Possibly thinking of Gatsby dead in his pool, Cheever says of Neddy as he tries to cross the busy road, “you might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play” (607). Two lifeguards at Neddy's next stop, the public pool, take on Tom Buchanan's role of labeling Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” by yelling at Neddy, “Hey, you, you without the identification disk, get outa the water” (608). As Gatsby is snubbed by the Sloanes and Tom, who duck out on him and so renege on a dinner invitation, Neddy is finally reduced to being treated as “a gatecrasher” by the nouveau riche Biswangers, a couple he had formally snubbed for being “unwilling to comprehend the rigid and undemocratic realities of their society” (610). Now the couple who did not know their place have put Neddy in his.

Perhaps the most significant parallel between “The Swimmer” and Gatsby is Neddy's and Gatsby's refusal to acknowledge the limitations on human experience imposed by time. In Ernest Becker's evocative phrase, their lives are built on the denial of death.6 While they see themselves as boys of summer (each mentions baseball), reveling in the youthful pleasures of parties and games, neither man acts his age. As his ex-mistress chides Neddy, “Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?” (611). Similarly, Gatsby's affected English phrase “old sport” ironically applies to himself. Yet Gatsby is so intent on recovering the Daisy he loved in Louisville that he brushes aside any suggestion they both have aged and changed. When Nick offers the commonplace that “You can't repeat the past,” Gatsby pounces on him: “‘Can't repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’” (50). When he finally gets his long-awaited meeting with Daisy at Nick's, Gatsby nervously knocks a clock off the mantle, causing Nick to reflect, “I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor” (40). Neddy carries Gatsby's attempts to stop time to the extreme of actually forgetting he has lost his social standing, his money, and his family. As Cheever's narrative voice wonders, “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined in it the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?” (607).

Cheever, like Fitzgerald, underlines the painful truth of the passage of time through changes in the weather and through the inexorable advance of the seasons. Nick picks up his story when he came east in the spring of 1922, and he ends it late in the fall. Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet have commented on this pattern in “The Swimmer,” noting that Neddy begins his swim on what is apparently a sunny midsummer day but later encounters a rainstorm, trees turning fall colors, and finally sees a “wintry gleam” on the Biswangers' pool.7 Both Gatsby and Neddy are swimmers, but both swim out of season. Encountering the drained pool of the Welchers, Neddy finds that “this breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly … no one ever drained his pool” (606). Denying time to the end, Gatsby refuses to let his gardener drain the pool to protect its pipes from the fall leaves, and so is an easy target for Wilson as he takes his last swim.

Cheever's final nod to Gatsby is unmistakable. When Neddy at last hobbles into his yard, he finds his house dark, in ill repair—in fact, abandoned. He could be looking at Gatsby's house, as Nick sees it on his last night in New York before returning to the midwest. Contemplating “that huge incoherent failure of a house once more,” Nick acts as Gatsby's lone remaining servant, and only true one, by rubbing out an obscene word scraped in brick on the steps. Cheever parallels this futile gesture toward reversing the entropy of time by having Neddy numbly stare at a broken rain gutter on his house and think to himself that “it could be fixed in the morning” (612). But for Neddy, as Fitzgerald says it was for Gatsby, the morning of his life “was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night” (80).


  1. George W. Hunt points out these parallels in John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), pp. 280-83.

  2. “The Swimmer,” in The Stories of John Cheever (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 603. Subsequent references will be noted in the text.

  3. “The River of Names in ‘The Swimmer,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 23, No. 3 (Summer 1986), 326-27. The list in “The Swimmer” is on p. 604 of The Stories of John Cheever. The list of names in Gatsby is on p. 30 of Fitzgerald'sThe Great Gatsby,” ed. Henry Dan Piper (New York: Scribner's, 1970). Subsequent references to The Great Gatsby will be noted in the text.

  4. See the Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Nina Baym et al., 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), I, 41.

  5. Paul C. Edwards, in “Transforming John Cheever,” Literature in Performance, 5, No. 2 (1985), 14-26, notes that “among Cheever's stories, ‘The Swimmer’ is one of a small group centrally concerned with a sense of America as ‘a haunted nation’—a nation aware that it has not yet realized what Cheever has termed ‘a dream of excellence.’ A Fitzgerald-like melancholy pervades this group of stories.”

  6. The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973).

  7. “Ironic Nature Imagery in ‘The Swimmer,’” Notes on Contemporary Literature, 14, No. 4 (1984), 3-4.

James W. Mathews (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Mathews, James W. “Peter Rugg and Cheever's Swimmer: Archetypal Missing Men.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 1 (winter 1992): 95-101.

[In the following essay, Mathews examines the narrative and thematic similarities of “The Swimmer” to William Austin's “Peter Rugg, The Missing Man,” citing both as “mythic American” stories.]

John Cheever's fiction has generally been acclaimed as much for its timeless mythic dimensions as for its topical satire of American suburbia. Among the short stories, “The Swimmer” (1964) has received praise for its fresh treatment of the homeward journey, a traditional motif that Cheever Americanized and modernized. In addition to the obvious classical antecedents, including The Odyssey, critics have noted similarities between “The Swimmer” and earlier American expressions of the dichotomy between dream and reality, such as “Rip Van Winkle” and The Great Gatsby (Auser 18; Slabey 180-83, 187-88; Kruse 226-29). Another mythic American tale that “The Swimmer” resembles in narrative structure as well as theme is William Austin's “Peter Rugg, The Missing Man,” first published in the New England Galaxy in 1824.

Itself derivative of the displaced person motif in folklore, including the stories of the Wandering Jew and the Flying Dutchman, “Peter Rugg” nonetheless makes a definitive statement about a uniquely American tragedy in which the “hero” is defeated by an impervious, rapidly changing society as well as by his own illusion. As interpreted by Harry Levin, the character Peter Rugg is the archetypal peripatetic American who, having left his home behind, is forever searching for home and whose dream of attainment becomes a nightmare (4-5). “The Swimmer” likewise depicts the nightmarish journey of a victim of illusion and social fluidity who is oblivious to the passing years that ravage him and his home. Although Cheever might not have deliberately transmuted Peter Rugg into swimmer Neddy Merrill, he could have done so unconsciously. As a native New Englander, he might well have known the older story, if not directly, at least by reputation. Amy Lowell, a New Englander who adapted the Peter Rugg narrative to poetry, remarked that “a true legend it was to me … long before I knew its origin” (xiii).

The misadventures of Peter Rugg are related in two letters purportedly written by Jonathan Dunwell, an itinerant businessman who first encounters the strange Rugg on the road just outside Hartford in the summer of 1820. Accompanied by his daughter Jenny, Rugg is traveling at great speed in a battered chaise pulled by a large black horse. The driver of Dunwell's stage calls them “the storm breeder” because of the severe thunderstorm that always follows them. He recalls having “met them more than a hundred times, and been so often asked the way to Boston by that man, even when he was travelling directly from that town …” (9). Whenever Rugg is accosted, he always replies that “he cannot stay a moment, for he must reach Boston that night” (9).

Dunwell subsequently meets others who supposedly have seen Rugg. A pedlar claims that he has “met that man and carriage, within a fortnight, in four different states; … at each time he had inquired the way to Boston …” (12). Three years later, Dunwell is again eyewitness to Rugg's passing, whereupon he is told by a bystander who professes first-hand knowledge that Rugg has “been more than twenty years travelling to [Boston]” (13). Rugg is always confused about direction and distance. Commenting on Rugg's appearance, the bystander says that “he looks as though he never ate, drank, or slept; and his child looks older than himself, and he looks like time broke [sic] off from eternity and anxious to gain a resting place” (14). A few days later, Dunwell himself speaks with the rain-soaked Rugg, who admits to being lost, frantically inquires about the best route to Boston, and makes cryptic reference to a “fatal oath” (17).

On his next trip to Boston, Dunwell hears more about Rugg from Mrs. Betsy Croft, a longtime resident of the city. During the previous summer “a stranger, with a child by his side, in an old weather beaten carriage, with a black horse” (17) had appeared at her door inquiring for Mrs. Peter Rugg, who had been dead for more than 20 years. The stranger evidently recognized the house, and the child identified a stone before the door, but, said the stranger, “it seems to be on the wrong side of the street. Indeed, everything here seems to be misplaced” (18). Finally convinced that none of his old neighbors is around and believing that he is in the wrong town, the stranger asked the way to Boston. Mrs. Croft assured him that this was Boston, but he insisted that it was not and hastily took off again. “The generation to which Peter Rugg belonged had passed away,” concludes Dunwell (20). When an elderly acquaintance of Mrs. Croft's estimates that Rugg has been on the road since before the Boston massacre in 1770, Dunwell surmises that “if Peter Rugg … has been traveling since the Boston massacre, there is no reason why he should not travel to the end of time” (22).

The mystery of Rugg's 50-year search for Boston is solved for Dunwell by a fellow hotel guest whose grandfather had known Rugg intimately. At one time Rugg

was a man in comfortable circumstances, had a wife and one daughter, and was generally esteemed for his sober life and manners. But unhappily his temper at times was altogether ungovernable, and then his language was terrible. … While these fits were on him, Rugg had no respect for heaven or earth.


It seems that one day in late autumn, Rugg was returning from Concord with his daughter and proceeded as far as Menotomy when a raging storm overtook him. Urged to stop for the night, Rugg refused, declaring with an oath, “Let the storm increase, … I will see home tonight, in spite of the last tempest! or may I never see home” (25). According to Dunwell's companion, “Peter Rugg did not reach home that night, nor the next; nor, when he became a missing man, could he ever be traced beyond Mr. Cutter's in Menotomy” (25). From that time on, Rugg—or the apparition of Rugg—is seen throughout New England, sometimes even in Boston passing his own house without recognizing it.

“The Swimmer” also relates the undoing of a man who makes a quixotic vow to “see home tonight,” not by traveling the highway but by swimming eight miles of adjacent pools. Neddy Merrill's “cartographer's eye,” which constructs the navigable “Lucinda River” from these swimming pools, proves to be as defective in its way as Rugg's. Rugg and Neddy both suffer from a self-delusion that is symptomatic of American can-do philosophy, and their pride in their ability to succeed blinds them to the vacuity of their actions.

As Peter Rugg is a proletarian representative of a restless, burgeoning America at the end of the eighteenth century, Neddy Merrill typifies the shallowness and self-indulgence of the twentieth-century upper middle class. Neddy himself is “far from young,” but he gives the impression of “youth, sport, and clement weather” (603). Neddy's frivolous world is defined by the mise en scène at the beginning of his quest. It is a midsummer Sunday—“a fine day”—beside the pool of the Westerhazys, whose name suggests the confused values of modern occidental society. Although everyone else is apparently suffering from a hangover, Neddy, having taken a swim, seems refreshed. As he lounges by the pool, “one hand in it, one around a glass of gin,” he inhales deeply the pleasure of the moment. Then he has a vision of home, “where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis” (603). His decision to “swim” home is not to be “explained by its suggestion of escape,” but seems to be motivated initially by the very novelty of the idea of traveling by water and ultimately by his conviction that it can be done. Like Peter Rugg, who seems to have no compelling reason for not stopping in Menotomy except to defy the storm, Neddy sets out because of his feeling of superiority to circumstance.

Vanity launches Neddy on his journey and reinvigorates him whenever his spirit droops. After conceiving his unorthodox mode of transportation, he feels that “he had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography” (603) and has “a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure” (603-04). Neddy's egotism is displayed in his ceremonial diving into the Westerhazys' pool, for he holds “an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.” Furthermore, he “never use[s] the ladder” when leaving the water. His confidence is high. When Lucinda, his wife, asks where he is going, he declares tersely that he is “going to swim home.” As he runs across the grass toward the Grahams', he thinks of himself as “a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny” (604). At the Bunkers' he exults, “Oh, how bonny and lush [are] the banks of the Lucinda River!” (605) After swimming the Levys' deserted pool, Neddy helps himself to his fourth or fifth drink of the afternoon and feels “tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything” (606).

An intense thunderstorm does not discourage Neddy. Like Peter Rugg, Neddy is so full of himself and his mission that he ignores this palpable omen of nature. At the Bunkers' he has seen the cumulus cloud grow darker and has heard the distant peal of thunder. At the Levys' the storm builds, and a de Haviland trainer, which has been circling overhead “with something like the glee of a child in a swing” (605), soars away toward home. When it first comes into view, the plane seems a reflection of Neddy's insouciance, an aerial ally; when threatened by the storm, it capitulates to reality, which henceforth eludes Neddy more and more.

Taking refuge from the lightning and rain in the Levys' gazebo, Neddy is not uneasy because he has always been exhilarated by storms. From this incident on, however, Neddy's surroundings appear bizarre and uncongenial, like Peter Rugg's, and he begins to question the accuracy of his perceptions. Neddy cannot understand why the leaves are turning, why the riding ring at the Lindleys' is overgrown, and why the pool at the Welchers' is dry and a “for sale” sign is on their house. He wonders whether “his memory [is] fading or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?” Then he hears in the distance the sound of a tennis game, a familiar fixture is his play-oriented world, and he is cheered. It “cleared away all his apprehensions and let him regard the overcast sky and the cool air with indifference. This was the day that Neddy Merrill swam across the county. That was the day” (607).

Neddy's fresh euphoria is short-lived. He must now deal with the hazards of a real highway. As he picks his way across Route 424, enduring the taunts and threats of motorists, he wonders why he persists in this folly, why he cannot go back. He cannot even recall the circumstances of his beginning. He has “covered a distance that made his return impossible” (607). In effect, he has taken a vow to see home on his own terms or never see home. As he enters the pool at the Recreation Center, he has the first intimation that he is a “missing man,” a state that is confirmed by subsequent episodes. Although at the Recreation Center he undergoes a kind a purification rite by showering and wading through the antiseptic foot-bath, he still does not seem to belong. The pool is inhospitable—murky and reeking of chlorine, and he is bumped, jostled and splashed by the boisterous swimmers as though he is invisible. The rude shouts of the lifeguards that he must get out of the water because he does not have an identification disk leave no doubt about Neddy's status as an outcast.

That he has lost—somewhere, sometime—his hold on reality becomes clearer when Neddy stops in the yard of the nonconformist Hallarans, who always swim nude. Noting that their beech hedge is yellow and blighted like the Levys' maple, he is astonished by Mrs. Hallaran's commiseration with him in his misfortunes: “we heard that you'd sold the house and that your poor children. …” When Neddy pulls on his trunks after his nude swim, his body seems to have deteriorated. He has lost weight, his arms are “lame,” and his legs feel “rubbery” and ache “at the joints” (609). Leaving to go next door to the Hallorans' daughter's, he once again notes the signs of autumn—falling leaves and the smell of burning wood. Helen Sachs, the Hallorans' daughter, cannot give Neddy a much needed drink because there has been no liquor in the house since her husband's operation three years before. It then occurs to Neddy that he may be losing his memory, that “his gift for concealing painful facts [has] let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend had been ill” (609-10).

Neddy has high expectations of getting a drink at the “democratic” Biswangers' party, even though he and Lucinda have always declined invitations to their dinners. Strangely, Grace Biswanger now treats him as a nobody, calling him a gate crasher, and the bartender grudgingly serves him a whiskey. He hears Grace Biswanger talking vaguely about someone going broke overnight and asking them for a loan of $5,000. Neddy's next stop is the home of his former mistress, Shirley Adams, where he envisions a refreshing sexual interlude and another drink. Again time is confused in his mind, for he cannot remember whether his and Shirley's affair had been “last week, last month, [or] last year” (611). Shirley is hardly cordial, and when he tells her about his cross-county swim, she berates him for never growing up. She will not let him stay for a drink because she is not alone. After Neddy swims Shirley's pool, he is so weak that he must use the ladder to pull himself out, a means of egress he has previously scorned. The scent of autumn flowers is in the air, and in vain he looks into the sky for “the constellations of midsummer.” He is so overcome by misery, cold, and fatigue that he cries—“probably the first time in his adult life” (611-12).

Utterly drained, Neddy perfunctorily navigates the last two pools. The Gilmartins' pool is icy like winter, and again “for the first time in his life” he does not dive in but goes down the steps and swims “a hobbled sidestroke that he might have learned as a youth.” He staggers with fatigue at the Clydes' and, after paddling “the length of their pool,” wonders if he has “the strength to go home.” He has achieved his goal of swimming the county, but he is “so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seem[s] vague” (612). He has to hold to the gateposts as he trudges up the driveway toward his own house.

The unhappy culmination of Neddy's quest after an incalculable period of time has its prototype in Peter Rugg's eventual arrival home—or at least the remnants of home. In “The Further Account of Peter Rugg,” William Austin has Jonathan Dunwell describe Rugg's additional wanderings, even as far as Virginia, and at long last his accidental discovery of Boston. Dunwell, who has heard that the now valuable Rugg estate in Boston is to be sold by the Commonwealth, attends the public auction out of curiosity. “The premises,” he says,

looked as if they had accomplished a sad prophecy. … The old mansion house had become powder-post, and been blown away. One other building, uninhabited, stood ominous courting dilapidation. … The house seemed conscious of its fate, and as though tired of standing there the front was fast retreating from the rear, and waiting the next south wind to project itself into the street.


At the moment the auctioneer is ready to close the sale, his gavel is arrested by a rumbling noise like an earthquake, which turns out to be Rugg's chaise. Rugg demands to know who has destroyed his house and who these strange bystanders are. Out of the crowd Dunwell hears an anonymous voice addressing Rugg:

There is nothing strange here but yourself, Mr. Rugg. Time, which destroys and renews all things, has dilapidated your house, and brought us here. You have suffered many years under an illusion. … You were cut off from the last age, and you can never be fitted to the present. Your home is gone, and you can never have another home in this world.


Neddy, too, discovers that he no longer has a home. From the yard he can see that the house is dark, and he cannot understand where his wife and daughters are. When he tries the locked garage doors, rust comes off on his hands. He observes that one of the rain gutters on the house has fallen loose over the front door. After pounding on the door to no avail, he looks through the windows. There is nothing inside. Desolation is the consequence of Neddy's lifetime of irresponsibility and egocentricity, a lifetime distilled into a sequence of events that has seemed no longer than an afternoon. He has evidently abused friendships, yet wonders why he is persona non grata; he has willfully “swum” away from his family, and when he tries to return, he cannot understand why nobody is home. Like Peter Rugg, Neddy has “suffered many years under an illusion” that time will stand still, that he will be forever affluent and vigorous, with the ability to “swim” through all situations.

Peter Rugg and Neddy Merrill are representative Americans, albeit 150 years apart, having comparable objectives and misfortunes. Notwithstanding differences of time and culture, the two men in their vow to “see home tonight” demonstrate the same unbounded faith in the celebrated American ideal of self-determination and in the concomitant myth of guaranteed success. They both believe that somehow time and circumstance will defer to their will. In their illusion they ignore the dynamics of American life, which in every era undergoes meteoric changes into new and bewildering forms. The tragedy of Rugg and Neddy is thus both personal and cultural—obstinate pride at odds with a society that, like nature, shows no mercy to those who flout its imperatives.

Works Cited

Auser, Cortland P. “John Cheever's Myth of Man and Time: ‘The Swimmer.’” CEA Critic 29 (March 1967): 18-19.

Austin, William. Peter Rugg, the Missing Man. Worcester, MA: Franklin P. Rice, 1882. Rpt. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Literature House-Gregg, 1970.

Cheever, John. “The Swimmer.” The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1979. 603-12.

Kruse, Horst. “Parsing a Complex Structure: Literary Allusion and Mythic Evocation in John Cheever's Short Story ‘The Swimmer.’” Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 20 (1987): 217-31.

Levin, Harry. The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville. New York: Knopf, 1958.

Lowell, Amy. Legends. Boston: Houghton, 1921.

Slabey, Robert M. “John Cheever: The ‘Swimming’ of America.” Critical Essays on John Cheever. Ed. R. G. Collins. Boston: Hall, 1982. 180-91.

Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet (essay date summer 1992)

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SOURCE: Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Cheever's Dark Knight of the Soul: The Failed Quest of Neddy Merrill.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 3 (summer 1992): 347-51.

[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet consider “The Swimmer” to be a representation of the “familiar archetype of the Grail quest.”]

Although critics, including ourselves, have noted many minor patterns throughout “The Swimmer” such as the color imagery (Graves 4-5), the Shakespearian parallels (Bell 433-36), the names (Byrne 326-27), an historical allusion (Blythe and Sweet 557-59), and the autumnal images (Reilly 12), all have overlooked the major pattern that dominates and hence illuminates Cheever's story. In 1967 Cortland Auser suggested that Cheever “created an imaginative and vital myth of time and modern man” that “uses the age-old themes of quest, journey, initiation, and discovery” (18). Auser, however, failed to note the specific myth that undergirds the story as well as the ramifications of Cheever's choice of that myth. A close examination of the characters, events, and settings of “The Swimmer” reveals that Cheever has patterned Neddy Merrill's journey on the familiar archetype of the Grail quest. In fact, Cheever includes so much Grail paraphernalia that he forces his audience to consider the contrast between Neddy Merrill and the traditional Grail hero. Only by recognizing this pattern can readers fully understand the story's final scene, that is, the ultimate failure of Neddy's quest.

Cheever immediately establishes the world of “The Swimmer” as a modern version of what Jessie Weston, author of the definitive study of the Grail myth, From Ritual to Romance, calls the Waste Land (12). Cheever's world is certainly one devoid of spiritual meaning and filled with materialism. Everybody from the suburban socialites to the priest have had too much to drink. Sunday is supposed to be a day of worship, but in Cheever's story a sybaritic, hedonistic lifestyle is what is revered. Throughout the story, in fact, the vast majority of the citizens do only one thing, party, and the main social ritual observed is drinking. Since, according to Weston, the cup is one of the two primary Grail symbols, and in this case it is used only for selfish enjoyment, Cheever is obviously underscoring how far his suburbanites have strayed from the original spiritual values espoused in the Grail myth.

In paragraph two Cheever introduces his protagonist in language that marks him as a potential Grail hero. Neddy Merrill is a “legendary figure” (604) with the feeling he is “a man with a destiny” (604). Cheever emphasizes that Neddy stands out because of his “slenderness of youth” (603) and his general physical prowess; he dives headfirst into the pool, demonstrating his swimming ability and showing “an inexplicable contempt” (604) for those who do not plunge into the pool, or who lie about passively. With four lovely daughters and a wife as well as a mistress, Neddy certainly possesses the characteristic of the Grail hero that Weston calls “virility” (23).

Like other Grail heroes, Neddy decides to set off on a perilous quest: “he could reach his home by water” (603). Here, though, Cheever makes a significant shift in the myth. Whereas most Grail heroes quest to restore the sick Fisher King (and hence regenerate the Waste Land), Cheever makes Neddy himself also the Fisher King. According to Weston, the Fisher King is the leader of society “suffering from infirmity caused by wounds, sickness, or old age” (20). What Neddy does not realize, but what Cheever makes clear, is that Neddy is himself aging: “he was far from young” (603) and “he might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one” (603). Cheever implies, then, the essentially selfish nature of Neddy's quest; he acts not for community, but self. That his ultimate goal is purely egocentric—eros, not agape—is stressed when he visits his ex-mistress to find “Love—sexual roughhouse in fact … the supreme elixir, the pain killer, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart” (611).

Separating from his social group, Neddy begins the initiatory phase of his journey by passing through the boundary of the Westerhazy hedge and setting out “by an uncommon route” (604). He must pass over “a thorny ledge” and cross hazardous streets (604). Along this “road of trials,” he encounters a series of traditional Grail obstacles. The unpleasantries range from “The gravel cut his feet” (605) to bartenders who snub him and hostesses who insult him. Typically, the Grail hero must encounter a dark tower. Appropriately, Cheever has Neddy swim close to the side of a pool to avoid colliding with the rubber raft of Rusty Towers. Later, at a public pool Neddy is threatened and chased by a pair of foreboding lifeguards “in a pair of towers” (608). Hearing a whistle, Neddy, momentarily disoriented as to time, thinks about the train station and the proverbial figures who dwell there, “a dwarf with some flowers … and a woman who had been crying” (606). Weston notes that women usually weep over the bier of a dead knight (49-50), but in Cheever the tears are probably for something no more significant than a male departing on a commuter train. When the archetypal storm with its thunder and lightning attacks him with lashing rain, a powerful wind, and an explosion, Neddy must seek refuge in the suburban equivalent of the Chapel Perilous, the Levys' gazebo. Weston details how Gawain “on his way to the Grail castle … is overtaken by a terrible storm and coming to a chapel standing at a crossways in the middle of the forest enters for shelter” (175). Grail knights usually find lighted candles, but Neddy in a shelter surrounded by the familiar Grail trappings of oak trees and fountains discovers only souvenir Japanese lanterns that Mrs. Levy had bought in Kyoto (606). Even the Chapel Perilous is filled with twentieth-century materialism.

Cheever also employs the Grail myth parallel between the world of nature and the world of man, a correspondence that Weston believes goes back to the ancient fertility rituals (1-11, 52-64). As the Fisher King, Neddy grows older and more feeble; simultaneously the day begins to dwindle and the seasons to turn from summer to autumn. The beautiful sunny skies are darkened by the storm. The temperature drops and Neddy begins to shiver. The maple now has “red and yellow leaves” such that Neddy thinks the tree “blighted” (606). The Lindleys' is “overgrown with grass” (606) and the horses are missing; Weston describes how the questor, after leaving the Chapel Perilous, often encounters a stolen “foal” (177-78). The Welchers' pool is “dry” (606). The Hallorans' shrubbery is also yellow and “blighted” (608).

During his quest Neddy is also aided by the traditional helper whom both Weston (175) and Jung label “the old man.” This figure usually appears, according to Jung, when the hero is in “a hopeless and desperate situation” (217). In the midst of “his most difficult portage,” Neddy, “close to naked,” must cross a hazardous boundary, Route 424. Standing amidst “beer cans, rags, and blowout patches—exposed to all kinds of ridicule” (607), Neddy is attacked with jeers and beer cans. Finally, just as his quest seems doomed to stasis, he is aided when “an old man … let him get to the middle of the road” (607).

Having firmly implanted the notion of Neddy Merrill as modern Grail hero in his audience's mind, Cheever also stresses what Neddy does not do as the Grail hero. According to Weston, one task of the hero is to inquire into the nature of the Grail, the purpose of his quest (14-15). What Cheever emphasizes, however, is that Neddy continually fails to ask the proper questions and to find suitable answers. Throughout his journey, Neddy is, as we have suggested earlier, disoriented as to the passage of time. He does not know what season it is, and in the back of his head he realizes he has a predilection for not thinking: “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth?” (607). As he stands beside Route 424, he wonders, “Why … was he unable to turn back? Why was he so determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger?” (607). Unable to voice these concerns, to ask the proper people, or to answer these questions on his own, he merely reponders them, never pursuing them to final truths. At the end of his journey, he is able to wonder only, “Was he losing his memory, had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget … details of his life?” (609). His constant state, then, is one of being “disappointed and mystified” (606), not enlightened.

To underline Neddy's unworthiness, Cheever continues to provide his protagonist with helpers, mysterious figures who try to get the questor to see the true nature of his quest. The second manifestation of the wise old man in this story is the Hallorans, who appear at the moment Neddy has reached his nadir. Jung stresses that the sagacious and helpful old man provides “knowledge needed to compensate the [hero's] deficiency” (217). Typically, Neddy must brave the perils to reach them: “The woods were not cleared and the footing was treacherous and difficult” (608). The Hallorans are old friends, but mysterious. In this twentieth-century Waste Land, they are thought to be communists, they sit around naked, and they have “an uncompromising zeal for reforms” (608). Unlike the other suburbanites, they are “not surprised or displeased to see him” (608). As their nakedness suggests, they are natural woods creatures who not only dwell in the “forest” but have the only pool fed by a stream. They try to force Neddy to see the truth about his life by bringing up his “misfortunes” with his house and children (609), but, of course, Neddy cannot grasp what they are prodding him toward.

Immediately after the Hallorans, Cheever introduces the disfigured man, still another helper who tries to turn Neddy's quest inward. Importantly, the Sachses are the only suburbanites who do not offer Neddy a drink; Eric Sachs had to stop after an operation. Here Neddy should be alerted to what excessive drinking can lead to, what happens when one is too much in the social swim, but no illumination occurs. His eyes are drawn to Eric Sachs's abdomen, where “Gone was his navel, and what, Neddy thought, would the roving hand, bed-checking one's gifts at 3 a.m., make of a belly with no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession?” (610). Obviously Neddy has been led into asking a probative question by the disfigured man, but he never relates Eric Sachs's obvious distance from birth to his own quest for youth—i.e., he is unable to see that his quest is doomed to failure. In short, as is his pattern, Neddy does not learn sufficiently, a fact confirmed by his jumping in the Sachses' pool, where, unable to recognize his physical attrition, he nearly drowns.

Next Cheever brings in another familiar Grail figure, the temptress. The sensuous woman to whom the hero is physically attracted, she is ultimately unattainable, and, according to Weston, she often reprimands the hero for his failure (169). As this temptress is sometimes called the Dame du Lac (Lady of the Lake), Cheever appropriately places Shirley Adams, Neddy's ex-mistress, by the “cerulean water” (611). Neddy apprehends her only in the physical—her “figure,” her “hair the color of brass,” and the fact that they once engaged in “sexual roughhouse” (611). In her bathhouse Neddy even spots his replacement, “a young man” (611), but he still does not focus on his own advancing age. In a key moment, temptress Shirley chastises him, “Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?” (611), but Neddy still cannot grasp the immature, selfish nature of his quest. On the verge of revelation, of asking the proper questions, Neddy spots an autumnal constellation and wonders why it is there, but all he can do is cry because he is “bewildered” (612).

At the end of the quest, according to Weston, the Grail hero arrives at the Grail castle, and, if worthy (proven by brave deeds and proper questions), he is granted a vision of the Grail; subsequently, the “freeing of the waters” occurs by which the Fisher King is healed and the land restored (Weston 21-33). At the conclusion of “The Swimmer,” however, a “stooped” and “hobbled” (612) Neddy arrives at his goal, his house, but is mystified: “he had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague” (612). Fittingly “the place was dark … the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands” (612). Unable to get in, Neddy peers through the windows for his vision; all he finds is “the place was empty” (612). What Cheever indicates here is that Neddy, caught up in the modern myths of Mammonism and the cult of youth, is an unworthy questor.

Ultimately, then, Cheever uses the Grail myth to reveal the ironic gap between his hero's selfish search for his own youth as well as materialism and the traditional Grail hero's selfless, community-serving quest. Neddy, the modern man, has lost his spiritual bearings and the life-saving waters are used solely for pleasurable swims.

Works Cited

Auser, Cortland. “John Cheever's Myth of Man and Time: ‘The Swimmer.’” CEA Critic 29.6 (1967): 18-19.

Bell, Loren. “‘The Swimmer’: A Midsummer's Nightmare.” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (1987): 433-36.

Blythe, Hal and Charlie Sweet. “An Historical Allusion in Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (1989): 557-59.

Byrne, Michael. “The River of Names in ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 23 (1986): 326-27.

Cheever, John. “The Swimmer.” The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978. 603-12.

Graves, Nora. “The Dominant Color in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 5.2 (1974): 4-5.

Jung, C. G. The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

Reilly, Edward. “Autumnal Images in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 10.1 (1980): 12.

Weston, Jessie. From Ritual to Romance. NY: Doubleday, 1957.

Stanley J. Kozikowski (essay date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Kozikowski, Stanley J. “Damned in a Fair Life: Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993): 367-75.

[In the following essay, Kozikowski views “The Simmer” as a spiritual allegory, akin to the work of Dante Alighieri.]

Cheever's ever-popular, many-faceted short story, “The Swimmer,” accommodates various readings, particular and universal. Within its range of appeal, for instance, it has been read as suggestive autobiography,1 contemporary American Odyssey (Hunt 280-83), dazzling literary structure (Kruse 221), as a “midsummer's nightmare” (Bell 433), sacramental parody (Blythe and Sweet 393), realism yielding to fantasy (Blythe and Sweet 415) and Neddy Merrill dead in Hades (Cervo 49-50). I propose that the story, along with its literal and figural resonances, has the suggestive depth of a spiritual allegory in the fashion of Dante, whom Cheever admired, and whose influence he acknowledged affectionately.2 As a terse and grim Commedia, “The Swimmer” evinces a pattern of meaning that enlarges the story's autobiographical and epic mythoi to include an account of how Neddy Merrill's sad swim in his superbly affluent neighborhood reveals itself as an uneasy pilgrimage in hell, owing much in subject and structure to Dante's Inferno, which Cheever early in his career began reading quite routinely.3

Cheever, very possibly, was mindful of how his story's central metaphor reiterates a dramatic image pivotally located at the outset of the Inferno. The lost poet, trying to escape from the dark woods of sin, struggles to free himself from the worldly realm of evil to which he must ultimately return, and at a deeper level, pass through:

And as a swimmer, panting, from the main
                    Heaves safe to shore, then turns to face the drive
                    Of perilous seas, and looks, and looks again,
So, while my soul yet fled, did I contrive
          To turn and gaze on that dread pass once more
          Whence no man yet came ever out alive.

(Dante 72)

The spiritual exhaustion of Dante's spent swimmer, in the throes of earthbound affliction, represents the condition to which Neddy Merrill arrives at the close of “The Swimmer.” What brings Neddy to that state is what Dante the pilgrim witnesses in his mystical journey through hell: subjection to secular infirmity in its repulsive, final formulation as deadly sin but parading, in Cheever's gloss, as bourgeois banality. Neddy, unlike Dante the pilgrim, is not exempted from such banality and proves ignorant of what lies behind it—as is also the case with his neighbors—a point that Cheever makes skillfully throughout his entire story and most poignantly, in Neddy's case, at its ending.

At the outset of his spiritual allegory, Cheever represents a world entirely given over to surfeit: “everyone … the parishioners leaving church … the priest himself … the leader of the Audubon group …” (603) are all afflicted with excess, symbolized by drinking too much. Since Judeo-Christian man by definition is a sinner, his only recourse is to shed his infirmities as he moves forth on the way to salvation, the ars moriendi revivified in homiletic literature since Everyman. But Neddy's soul trek will be far less sobering. Accordingly, and with the prospect of enjoying his day, Neddy, as he sets about planning his swim “home” by means of the “river” formed by a succession of neighborhood pools, high-heartedly has “the feeling that he was a pilgrim” in addition to being an “explorer” (604).

The day chosen for the swim, “one of those mid Summer Sundays” (603), clearly evokes Dante's pilgrimage, opening “midway in life's journey” (I.1) the starting point of the Inferno. In fact, this, Cheever's opening sentence, echoes Dante's opening line. The ingenious image of interconnecting pools that constitute a “quasi-subterranean stream” (603) certainly recalls the continuum of waterways and lakes that form the great “river” of life (II.107) that Vergil and Dante follow in hell. Possibly, we might add, Neddy's “Lucinda River” (604), named after his wife, harkens back to St. Lucia, Dante's patron saint, who prompts Beatrice in the Inferno to keep Dante safe on this “river” of life (II.103-08). Neddy's “river,” like virtually everything else around him, however, is not what it appears to be. The river is interrupted, painfully for Neddy—by hot pavement, cutting gravel,”treacherous” “footing” (608), among other physical discomforts—reminding the reader of the afflicted earth of well-heeled but deeply hurting Suburbia turned Superbia. The Bunkers' pool, built “on a rise” (605), reflects such presumptuous affluence, as do, earlier, the complaining party people at the Westerhazy pool, and the affluent community at large, who by their tiresome vainglory, reduce their previous night's gluttonous boozings to languid complaints about Sunday hangovers. Given over to such callow pride of life, Neddy, pumped up by his imaginative plan to swim home, envisions himself “a legendary figure,” and thus proudly dives into the “river,” only to experience a feeling of unfocused arrogance, which Cheever, with perfect bathos, renders as “an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools” (604). So much for the irascible passions of pride in the dimsouled digs of Bullet Park.

Soon, at the Bunkers', although he hears ominous, distant “thunder” (606)—perhaps an echo of the “heavy peal of thunder” that heralds Dante's entrance to the pit of hell (IV.1-6)—Neddy, like Dante, as if in dream, becomes, curiously, even more detached from the scene that threatens to engulf him. While at the Bunkers' he surveys many “prosperous men and women gathered … while caterer's men in white coats passed them cold gin” (605). Cheever describes here an envy that Neddy disguises as wistfulness: “Ned felt a passing affection for the scene, a disengaging tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch” (605). But as Neddy becomes recognized by all, and the gathering, although we don't know exactly why as yet, overzealously threatens to “surround” him, he rushes back into his river, anxious to resume “his voyage” (605). Curiously, Cheever has made Neddy—along with his reader—distant observers of the very action that subsumes him, in the fashion of Dante's narrator, who, seemingly engulfed by hell, remains safely disengaged from it. The chief difference, however, lies in that Dante's narrator and reader are instructed, and ironically edified, by the tormented souls in hell. But Cheever's “pilgrim” and afflicted suburbanites must remain in the dark—Neddy to his suffering, they to their own afflictions.

We might, then, wonder where in this world stands Cheever's reader, who knows virtually nothing of the main character, who himself knows little among people who speak negligibly, if at all, of him and themselves. As for Neddy's neighbors, saturated in various solutions of pride and envy, Cheever's vapid bourgeoisie share little more than their over-ready self-indulgence, torpid will, and self-preening respectability. Neddy, in this dismal state, despite his physical vitality, can remain just as “pleased” (606) drinking and swimming in the pool at the vacated Levy premises as he had been before at pools busy with such people, whose fellowship he, like the others, doesn't truly need but whose drinks he customarily relishes. The storm that finally arrives and confines Neddy to the Levys' gazebo brings with it a hint of autumn and death, as “red and yellow leaves” become scattered on the lawn. In the Inferno, storming rains signify gluttony, which, as the nearly prevailing affliction of Bullet Park, represents not merely overindulging in alcohol—Neddy, indeed, does “love storms” (606)—but also embracing such perversions of the tongue as idle, indifferent, or malicious speech. Enid Bunker, for instance, surprised by Neddy's visit, inanely screams to her guests, “Oh look who's here! What a marvelous surprise! When Lucinda said that you couldn't come I thought I'd die!” Neddy, comparably, when he speaks, has little of substance to say to anyone. Neddy, well supplied with either drink or watery words, by others or himself, continues his chlorinated, alcoholic pilgrimage, arriving at the Levys'. From that point on, Neddy will no longer be tendered an offhanded word or drink, although he has yet a good way to go on his “trip.” The Lindleys' overgrown, dismantled riding ring recalls the jousting ring in Dante's fourth circle of avarice where hoarders and spendthrifts bump against each other (VII.28-36).

Such circular movements about, or variations between, avarice and prodigality, what Dante calls “Fortune”—because the riding ring is of no use—now no longer exist for the indigent Neddy, a truly ominous secular note. Fortune's wheel, in effect, has no turns left for Neddy. His worldly decline, further symbolized by the Welchers' drained pool, recalls the movement downward to what eventually becomes the “vile broth” of the Styx marsh in Dante's circle of discontent (VII.118). Cheever represents Dante's “ghastly pool” (VII.127) as the putrid public swimming pool. At the Lancaster Recreation Center no re-creation or redemptive moment awaits Neddy, who finds himself in turbulent “murk” (608), which threatens to engulf him with its human chaos. He gets by, having “reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River” (608). Subsequently, just as Dante's pilgrim eyes “those who gulp the marish foul” and reaches “at length the foot of a tall tower” with twin beacons (VII.129-30), Neddy realizes “that he might contaminate himself” but swims ahead anyway only to find himself, a trespasser, detected by a “pair of lifeguards in a pair of towers” (608).

Neddy, like Dante in being unwelcome, is now entering the outer environs of the city of Dis, the dark and increasingly cold realm of hell (because most removed from the warmth of divine grace found in Heaven). Dante's twin towers, like Cheever's two lifeguards, are sentinels who seek to detect and repel intruders. To say the least, Dis proves disappointing. The unfiltered waters of the Halloran estate, and its “enormous wealth,” are impure (608). A venerable sort of Adam and Eve, now sitting “naked” in their “blighted” paradise, they deeply sadden Neddy (608). The old lady talks of his “sold house” and “poor children” (609) until Neddy, interrupting her, withdraws despondently. The Hallorans, quite like the inhabitants of Dante's fifth circle, are the inwardly mournful—the sullen, who, as Dante describes them, also appear “naked, with looks of savage discontent” (VII.111). Her “voice filled the air with an unseasonable melancholy …” and Neddy “was cold and he was tired and the naked Hallorans and their dark water had depressed him” (609). His impressions intensify at the Halloran daughter's house, where he finds Helen and Eric with no drinks and Eric post-operatively with no navel—seemingly, with “no link to birth, this breach in the succession …” (610), a parody, appropriately, of his wife's, and mankind's, now Dis-connected, saturnine progenitors. Swimming in their “cold water and, gasping, close to drowning,” Neddy perversely promises that Lucinda and he “terribly” (610) want to see them, echoing Mrs. Halloran's being “terribly” sorry for Neddy (609).4 Terror, longing, and sorrow here blend effectively in this grim realm, where Neddy is brought down more, re-experiencing the unfortunate fall with Adam, Eve, and their sad progeny in the modern paradise of Bullet Park.

Continuing further into the dour realm of Dis, Neddy crosses “some fields” (610)—Dante, a valley—where he approaches the Biswanger estate, where an “enormous do” (610) is taking place. The throng gathered there, like the congregation of Dis, is “noisy and large” (IX.64-72). This place is the nether land of the violently wrathful, as symbolized by Grace Biswanger, who approaches him “bellicosely” (610). She refers to Neddy as a “gate crasher” (610), evoking the image of the “gates of Dis,” through which Dante and Vergil are temporarily prevented from entering (VIII.115-17). Presiding at Dante's Gate of Dis is Medusa, whom the poet's eyes scrupulously avoid. On the other hand, when Cheever's ungracious hostess accosts Neddy, he “did not flinch”: “As a gate crasher,” he asked politely, and with pathetic self-irony, “do I rate a drink?” (610) Turning her back to Neddy, she tells him to suit himself but then defames him before her guests: the demythologized contemporary equivalent of being turned into stone, Cheever comically suggests.

At this point in the Inferno Dante has Cavalcante de Cavalcanti—the father of Dante's closest friend, the poet Guido de Cavalcanti, like Dante, also esteemed highly by Cheever5—explain that all souls in hell are oblivious to the present and that they can but barely make out things distant—that is, from either the past or the future:

“We see,” said he, “like men who are dim of sight,
                    Things that are distant from us; just so far
                    We still have gleams of the All-Guider's light.
But when these things draw near, or when they are,
                    Our intellect is void, and your world's state
                    Unknown, save some one bring us news from there.
Hence thou wilt see that all we can await
          Is the stark death of knowledge in us, then
          When time's last hour shall shut the future's gate.”


This passage throws light upon the condition of Neddy, whose amnesia is neither psychological nor provisional, but, in the context of Cheever's Dantesque tale, profoundly spiritual and enduring. Neddy's “pilgrimage,” although ostensibly directed towards “home,” is actually oriented vaguely toward the “west,” where, as he reports, “there was a massive stand of cumulus clouds so like a city seen from a distance” (603). This infirm city, introduced early on in the story, contrasts, of course, with the proverbial city of God that has a “fixed foundation” (Hebrews 11:10). This “city,” which Neddy eventually experiences as a drenching cold storm, is allegorically Dis—his spiritual oblivion—which accentuates all the more his inability to know his past, future, and present. Neddy's ignorance renders him oblivious to the depths of his soul's degradation as much as it helps to explain Cheever's unusual narrative technique, which obscures as much as it reveals. Neither Neddy nor his neighbors are even faintly aware of their constrictions. This habit of artfully enclosing layers of thematic significance well within his narrative scheme was at the core of Cheever's idea of good writing:

I once got a phone call from a student. He said,”I'm having an argument about your short story, ‘The Swimmer,’ with my instructor. I've got him right here, and you can settle it.” I told the kid that it seemed to me that a writer has a story to tell and should be granted a certain amount of innocence. Any story that is told is stratified and has all kinds of profundities if it's any good at all. It's like saying “good morning.” You can imply anything: I love you. You look awful. Drop dead. I can't live without you. And so forth. It's all in a very simple salutation. And this seems to me to be the privilege of the novelist.

(Conversations 40)

Cheever, fully privileged and insightfully so, very cleverly shows us how Neddy's neighbors, in seeming to know more about Neddy's condition than he, are, in fact, like him, unaware of the dire limits of their mortality—and morality. They share with Neddy their impoverished self-knowledge and deprived awareness of what lies about them.

Having little perspective on Grace Biswanger's malevolence—typically underestimating, even slighting, sin, Neddy understands her bitter hatred as being “worse than eating your peas off a knife” (611). Consequently, Neddy seeks consolation, again misguidedly, in “sexual roughhouse” with his “old mistress, Shirley Adams” (611). Remaining unfocused, of course, Neddy cannot recall whether they “had an affair last week, last month, last year” (611). His sense of the future is likewise dim: he believes that their anticipated lovemaking will indeed bring back “the joy of life in his heart” (611). Without any clear idea of past and future, like de Cavalcanti and all sinners, he is oblivious to the present. Although their relationship had ended, at his initiative, he believes that his claim upon her has “an authority unknown to holy matrimony,” and he is surprised to find her “confused to see him” (611). Neddy, however, has none of de Cavalcanti's suffering insight.

Dante reserves nether hell—with its last three circles and two rivers, Phlegethon and Cocytus—for those sinners who have committed various forms of fraud, from simple to complex. Neddy's affinity, unknown to him, of course, lies with those whose breaches of trust are complex: cheats and thieves are included among this group. Relatedly, Neddy's deception has been against his wife and against his mistress, from whom, we learn, he has obtained money injuriously. Cheever provides dialogue that is half stychomythia:

“What do you want?” she said.

“I'm swimming across the country.”

“Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”

“What's the matter?”

“If you've come here for money,” she said, “I won't give you another cent.”

“You could give me a drink.”

“I could but I won't. I'm not alone.”

“Well, I'm on my way.”


The curt give and take here, by its diminished form, suggests all in the way of human connectedness, feebly wrought and worded as it may be, that Neddy can summon with another soul. We now know how truly alone Neddy, so completely from himself, has become.

The final circle of Dante's Inferno holds the souls of the betrayers, great and small. It is a dark, cold, even icy realm, which holds the souls of men, who like all the damned of hell, have no hope of salvation. As such, it represents the perfection of sin—accidia or despair—the sin of spiritual sloth. The condemned souls, locked in the icy waters of the Cocytus—“their teeth chattering like storks”—are filled with convulsions of remorse yielding icy tears and “helpless fury” (XXII.35-36, 51). Neddy, similarly, finds himself now in a state of confused grief: “It was probably the first time in his adult life that he had ever cried, certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered” (611-12). Exhausted from his long immersions, and tortured now by the “icy water” of the Gilmartins' and the Clydes' pools, Neddy can barely make it to his house's driveway. Just as Dante with Vergil enter the final realm of Dis, which Dante, horrified, makes out to be “a shadowy mass,” Vergil stands aside, revealing Satan as not a being, but as “the place where thou must steel thy soul with constancy” (XXIV.7, 21). Dante's final impression is suggestive:

How cold I grew, how faint with fearfulness,
          Ask me not, Reader, I shall not waste breath
          Telling what words are powerless to express;
This was not life, and yet, twas not death;
                    If thou hast wit to think how I might fare
                    Bereft of both, let fancy aid thy faith.


Neddy, cold and faint, finds his wife and his daughters gone, “the place empty”—his world lost. Neither alive nor dead, Neddy leaves us in his suburban void. The region of damnable betrayal in Dante has been transformed into the realm of superbly ignorant self-betrayal, which Cheever portrays as subsuming everyman thrashing about in the oblivion of his nowadays.


  1. Speaking of Cheever's completion of the story and his own powerful reaction to it, Scott Donaldson observes, “Then he started to narrow it down ‘and something began happening. It was growing cold and quiet. It was turning into winter. Involuntarily. It was a terrible experience writing that story.’ He was proud of having written it, but it left him … feeling dark and cold himself. It was the last story he wrote for a long time” (Donaldson 212).

  2. In Conversations with John Cheever, Cheever reflected, “My critical grasp of literature is largely at a practical level. I use what I love, and this can be anything. Cavalcanti, Dante, Frost, anybody” (98).

  3. In The Letters of John Cheever, the author recalls “At night I read the Divine Comedy and the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt” (122). One study draws attention to the Inferno reference in “Summer Theatre”—“you all look like something out of Dante”—suggesting at what imaginative depth Cheever wrote very early in his career (Fogelman 463).

  4. Cheever's italicizing terribly is particularly interesting in view of his account of how he felt after he wrote “The Swimmer” in observing that writing the story “was a terrible experience …” (Conversations 136).

  5. Cavalcanti's name quickly came to mind for Cheever (Conversations 98).

I wish to extend special thanks to my student research assistants—Steven Thomas Anderson and Malisa Lee Linville—for helping me to research the autobiographical aspects of Cheever's story.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Hell. Tr. Dorothy Leigh Sayers. Baltimore: Penguin, 1949.

Bell, Loren C. “‘The Swimmer’: A Midsummer's Nightmare.” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (1987): 433-36.

Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Man-Made vs. Natural Cycles: What Really Happens in ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (1990): 415-18.

———. “Perverted Sacraments in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (1984): 393-94.

Cervo, Nathan. “Cheever's The Swimmer.” The Explicator 50 (1991): 49-50.

Cheever, John. Conversations with John Cheever. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987.

———. The Letters of John Cheever. Ed. Benjamin Cheever. New York: Simon, 1988.

———. “The Swimmer.” The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978. 603-12.

Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton, 1984.

Coale, Samuel. John Cheever. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977.

Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever. New York: Random, 1988.

Fogelman, Bruce. “A Key Pattern of Imagery in Cheever's Short Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (1989): 463-72.

Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1983.

Kruse, Horst. “Parsing a Complex Structure: Literary Allusion and Mythic Evocation in John Cheever's Short Story ‘The Swimmer.’” Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 20 (1987): 217-31.

O'Hara, James E. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Hall, 1989.

Slabey, Robert M. “John Cheever: The ‘Swimming’ of America.” Critical Essays on John Cheever. Ed. Robert G. Collins. Boston: Hall, 1982. 180-90.

David J. Piwinski (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Piwinski, David J. “Lisbon and Hackensack in Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 273-74.

[In the following essay, Piwinski investigates Cheever's reference to the cities of Lisbon and Hackensack in the opening passage of “The Swimmer.”]

The opening of John Cheever's “The Swimmer” contains the following passage describing the atmospheric conditions on the Sunday that Ned Merrill undertakes his quasi-epic swim through the succession of swimming pools he names the “Lucinda River”: “It was a fine day. In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance—from the bow of an approaching ship—that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack” (603). Considering that there are well over two dozen critical analyses explicating nearly every detail of this richly allusive story, it is surprising that only one critic has commented on the possible significance of Cheever's citation of Lisbon and Hackensack, a rather odd coupling of seemingly unrelated cities.

William Rodney Allen, in his reading of “The Swimmer” as “a critique of compromised American ideals” (291), connects Ned Merrill with the Puritan settlers of America whose projected Biblical “city on the hill” was never realized, their vision of a New Jerusalem having been eroded by the gradual corruption of American values. Thus, according to Allen, “the city in the clouds as viewed from the sea becomes over time only an ugly city with an ugly name—Hackensack” (291).

Allen, however, does not attempt to explain Cheever's reference to Lisbon in this same passage, and neither Allen nor any other commentator on “The Swimmer” has considered that Cheever's juxtaposition of these two cities is based on the origins of their names. The conflation of allusions evoked by these two cities' names allows the reader to anticipate the mythic and metaphorical framework of “The Swimmer.” Cheever's citation of Lisbon, a city whose name is associated with Ulysses, foreshadows that Ned Merrill, like his Homeric counterpart, will embark on an epic water voyage, while the name “Hackensack” alludes to “The Swimmer”'s metamorphosis of the Odyssey's mythopoeic Mediterranean Sea into a metaphorical “river” of suburban swimming pools.

In analyzing the correspondences between “The Swimmer” and Homer's epic, George W. Hunt describes Cheever's story as “his Odyssey, a surrealistic epic, deftly shortened, of a man condemned to wandering and eager to return home” (280). Appropriately, the reference to Lisbon in the story's opening complements Cheever's intention of giving Ned's journey an epic resonance, because, according to legend, Lisbon was founded by Ulysses, from whom the city's ancient name Olisipo, a variant of Ulyssipo, was derived (Hubbard 686).1

Although Ned Merrill's eight-mile swim home is loosely modeled on Ulysses's wanderings, the aquatic medium of his itinerary deviates strikingly from that of Homer's hero, and this variation, accordingly, is suggested by Cheever's subsequent citation of Hackensack, a city whose name, derived from the Lenape Indian language, means “confluence of rivers”—in this case, the Hackensack River and Overpeck Creek.2

In a story in which Cheever transforms the Mediterranean of the Odyssey's mythic world into a contemporary stream of swimming pools, it is fitting that “The Swimmer” begins with the juxtaposition of Lisbon, purportedly founded by Ulysses, and Hackensack, a city whose name alludes to the peculiar “river” route Cheever's modern-day Ulysses traverses.


  1. In 1956 Cheever visited Lisbon on his first of several trips to Italy (Donaldson 151). The legend of Ulysses as the founder of Lisbon, information included in most tourist guidebooks for Portugal, would certainly have caught the attention of Cheever, who claims to have read Joyce's Ulysses at age 15 (Conversations 22) and who has acknowledged that his fiction resonates with allusions to Greek mythology (108).

  2. Cheever's interest in Indian place-names may have been stimulated by his moving in 1961 to Ossining, whose name comes from the Indian word for “stones” (Donaldson 183). The derivation of Hackensack's name can be found in most encyclopedias.

Works Cited

Allen, William Rodney. “Allusions to The Great Gatsby in John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer.’” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (1989): 289-93.

Cheever, John. Conversations with John Cheever. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987.

———. “The Swimmer.” The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978. 603-12.

Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random, 1988.

Hubbard, Monica M., and Beverly Baer, eds. Cities of the World. 4th ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1993.

Hunt, George W. John Cheever: The Hobgoblin Company of Love. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983.

Rebecca Hughes and Kieron O'Hara (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Hughes, Rebecca, and Kieron O'Hara. “John Cheever's ‘The Swimmer’ and the Abstract Standpoint of Kantian Moral Philosophy.” In The Ethics in Literature, edited by Andrew Hadfield, Dominic Rainsford, and Tim Wood, pp. 101-15. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc. 1999.

[In the following essay, Hughes and O'Hara consider “The Swimmer” in terms of Kantian philosophy.]


In Kantian philosophy, morality demands that individuals be treated as deserving significant and equal respect. People should be seen as ends of moral behaviour, and not just as means to independently desirable outcomes. Morality is grounded on the categorical imperative, that ‘I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’. In other words, one may be subject to contradictory desires or interests, but these cannot be supported by reason.

In the second place, because any plausible moral maxim must be universal, particular individuals cannot be singled out for special (good or bad) treatment. A law cannot be universal if it only applies selectively. It may be desirable for me (or even for society as a whole) to receive specially good treatment in some way, but this cannot be a moral claim because reason will not support it. If I were morally entitled to reserve some good for myself, then by parity of reasoning, others would also be entitled to do the same. These individual selfish maxims would ultimately contradict each other.

The categorical imperative was Kant's attempt to ground morality in reason. His philosophy is an Enlightenment one, suspicious of earlier views in which patterns of behaviour were to be justified by an appeal to the world, either to entrenched practices or to metaphysical theories. For the sceptical Enlightened thinker, it was not enough to say that a practice was morally correct because it was implied by God's laws; a reason had to be given that was undeniable by any rational thinker. In Kant's analysis of morality and reason, only the categorical imperative could underlie our current moral behaviour in the right way (Kant's moral theory was conservative, and intended to respect the majority of moral judgements actually made). Under Kantian morality, because special treatment cannot be justified by reason, all (rational) individuals are deserving of equal respect, and for that reason should be treated as autonomous (i.e. as responsible for their own moral judgements and actions).

It is not our intention to examine, justify or criticise Kantian moral theory. We merely introduce it by way of providing a context for our discussion of the work of John Cheever and its contribution to moral philosophy. But note that this is not an arcane piece of exegesis. It is part of a live debate in philosophy and politics about the universality of morality. Newspapers are full of stories about the clashes between toleration and fundamentalism, and the preservation of cultural values against apparently malign forces. Moral judgements made from particular points of view tend to lead to intellectual gridlock between opposing groups of people who refuse (or are unable) to see each others' points of view. On the other hand, if one group is or feels entitled to impose its views on others, and is powerful enough so to do (e.g. in the imposition of Muslim law in Iran, say, or the suppression of Muslim elements in Algeria), the result is often an unacceptable restriction on individual liberty. The issue of whether character and culture are relevant to moral judgements is central to politico-moral discourse and one on which there is little consensus.1

Debate also continues in the academy along essentially Kantian lines. For example, in the influential work of John Rawls,2 the contractarian theory of morality has been resurrected. On this theory, moral judgements should be made by examining how a rational agent would decide his or her best interests in the abstract about a moral issue. The abstractness of such a decision is essential to avoid special interest pleading, and to ensure a genuinely disinterested outcome. The moral thinker is to be placed behind what is rather poetically known as the ‘veil of ignorance’.

Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain.3

In other words, behind such a veil of ignorance, moral maxims can be developed in good faith, without covertly working to any particular person's advantage. Behind the veil of ignorance, no individual would think that it was in his interests that, say, slavery was permissible, because there would always be the possibility that he could turn out to be a slave. This abstraction in moral discussions, designed to promote fairness, is a very Kantian strategy; the veil of ignorance performs the same task as the plea for universality did in Kant's original categorical imperative.

Many voices have been raised against this rarefied view of morality. For example Bernard Williams has argued that one's view of the good is often a constitutive part of one's identity and character, and that therefore to abstract from such a view can have the effect of removing all that is distinctively human from an individual:

one reaches the necessity that such things as deep attachments to other persons will express themselves in the world in ways which cannot at the same time embody the impartial view, and that they also run the risk of offending against it.

They run that risk if they exist at all; yet unless such things exist, there will not be enough substance or conviction in a man's life to compel his allegiance to life itself. Life has to have substance if anything is to have sense, including adherence to the impartial system; but if it has substance, then it cannot grant supreme importance to the impartial system, and that system's hold on it will be, at the limit, insecure.4

More recently, Bruce Brower has argued that failing to take account of others' conceptions of the good while making moral judgments is to fail to see them as autonomous individuals worthy of respect, by neglecting to consider the issues that they themselves view as most important in a moral context.5 Bruce Ackerman claims that Rawls himself, in his later work on liberalism, can only preserve distinctively liberal views by jettisoning the veil of ignorance.6

Hence, Kantian moral abstraction is very much a live issue in current debates on morality and politics. As we say, we do not wish to resolve such disputes, even were we so capable. Our aim here is merely to provide the context for our discussion of the work of John Cheever, to which we will now turn.


We focus on ‘The Swimmer,’ as one of Cheever's most famous reflections on identity and character.7 The plot is simple yet horrific. The morning after a party, a group of well-heeled suburbanites assemble by the swimming pool, bemoaning their drinking of the previous night. Neddy Merrill, one of the guests, realises while drinking a gin that he could ‘swim’ the eight miles back to his home in Bullet Park via the swimming pools of his friends. This act assumes some symbolic importance for him.

His life was not confining and the delight he took in this observation could not be explained by its suggestion of escape. He seemed to see, with a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife. He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.

(p. 777)

Initially he is welcomed on his journey by his friends, but gradually they become more sympathetic than friendly, commiserating with him about misfortunes he does not recognise as his own. He is snubbed by a family of social climbers and rejected by an ex-mistress. Finally he reaches his home and discovers that it is locked and empty, and in a state of disrepair.

The revelation of Neddy as a detested bankrupt clearly makes points about the superficiality of human relationships in the suburban society depicted by Cheever. Further, it has been convincingly suggested that the story acts as a parable of Cheever's own artistic position as a chronicler of American life.8 But the story also has a psychological angle, and it is this that is most relevant to the problem of moral abstraction. For Neddy's experience provides, on a straightforward reading, a criticism of the Kantian abstractionism discussed in Part I.

Neddy's view of himself is as a man without a past, an abstract man who is to be judged on his current deeds. He is divested of clothes (he would prefer to swim the Lucinda River naked), and is, in his own mind at least, a heroic figure. His heroism is exemplified by his act of ‘exploration’ through the swimming pools of his friends. At the edge of the county, eight miles from home, they are willing to go along with the charade. But as we get closer to Bullet Park, his past actions—his snubbing of the Biswangers, his ill-treatment of Shirley Adams, his failed financial dealings—are held against him and finally we discover that, rather than being an abstract man, he is merely someone who has lost his place in society, by simultaneously alienating those who might have supported him through his troubles and squandering the money that is a prerequisite for social acceptance.

Hence the trip down the Lucinda River is at the same time a psychological trip into Neddy's heart. Superficially he is a hero, suave and welcome; but as we get deeper into his psyche, we discover the bad faith, selfishness, snobbishness and, ultimately, the emptiness at his core. Neddy's attempt to slough off these accretions, to become abstract, is too late; he only invites contempt.

The point against Kantian rationalism in this straightforward reading is now reasonably clear. A person's character and past are relevant to moral judgements. Pragmatically, it is difficult if not impossible for people's moral judgements not to be coloured by knowledge of a disreputable (or indeed reputable) character or past. But on a more idealistic level, Cheever seems to be challenging the claim that someone like Neddy deserves to be judged in abstraction from his earlier misdemeanours. He has not earned the right to be judged solely on the basis of his current actions; he has not purged his guilt.


The straightforward reading of the story depends on a continuity of events, heavily underlined by Cheever in the temporal and physical structuring of the story as a journey along a chain of swimming pools visited by the protagonist in a geographically plausible linear manner, and by a lack of explicit temporal marking other than from the perspective of the central character who sees the events of the journey as taking place on a single Sunday afternoon in Midsummer.

Nevertheless, the apparent continuity of events as seen through Neddy's eyes is subverted by significant background discontinuities and contradictions in the development of the dramatic journey ‘home’. Not only is there a typical end-of-story ‘twist’ (i.e. the house which has been described as full of affluent family fun is in truth empty and decaying), but the reader is also sent back on a journey of discovery to reconsider the facts of the case in order to iron out, if possible, this final undeniable contradiction.

Therefore, on one level ‘The Swimmer’ has the organisation of a ‘classic’ short story, relying on an apparently tight maintenance of the unities building up to a punchy ending within a single uninterrupted spatiotemporal line. However, since the climax is one of a twist in perspective and a contradiction between the narratorial stance of the central figure and that of the external context, the reader's reconsideration of the story also involves a reassessment of Neddy's status (both social and psychological). Cheever plays a temporal and physical context off against an atemporal and self-absorbed perspective which cannot permit discontinuity and change. Neddy's internal experience of time is severely at odds with events and surroundings he encounters on his journey. As such, the story is close to being a textual version of an optical illusion.

The story opens with an explicit time reference: ‘It was one of those midsummer Sundays …’ (p. 776). This is not presented from the internal perspective of the figure we come to distrust, but as an external statement of fact. Therefore, we feel secure in the knowledge not only of the day of the week, but also of the time of year. Neddy sits by the pool with a gin and conceives the plan to swim home, mentally mapping out the route which takes in 15 pools, including the public baths.

But things are not this simple. A number of dissonances with Neddy's understanding of events cause the reader to doubt the straightforward view. His wife to whom he talks about his project to swim to Bullet Park (p. 777) has disappeared from his life; a maple tree, which Neddy assumes must be blighted, is showing signs of Autumn (p. 780), as is a beech hedge (p. 783); the stars in the sky are the constellations of Autumn (p. 787); Neddy seems to have aged and lost weight during the day (p. 784).

But among the discontinuities, continuities are strung. A pile of cumulus cloud makes a number of appearances (pp. 776, 780), as does an aeroplane (pp. 779, 780). Together, the continuities and discontinuities disorient the reader, as does the closeness of the narrative stance to Neddy's subjective view when Neddy reveals uncertainties of memory (pp. 781, 785, 788), or when there is a bizarre reflection about the passengers of the evening train: ‘He thought of the provincial station at that hour, where a waiter, his tuxedo concealed by a raincoat, a dwarf with some flowers wrapped in newspaper, and a woman who had been crying would be waiting for the local’ (p. 780).

Neddy sets out in Midsummer and completes his swim in Autumn. Robert Slabey suggests the story compresses several years, presumably on the evidence of the conversation with the Sachses (pp. 784-5).9 He sets out prosperous, youthful, if not young, and loved. He arrives bankrupt, weak, and despised. A single character cannot contain these contradictions, and something has to give.


In placing the discontinuous and incompatible elements to the story in the background, and simultaneously emphasising continuity, Cheever colludes in the foregrounding of the straightforward anti-Kantian reading of the story. It is easy to miss the significance of the blighted trees and changed constellations, since the author is at such pains to present a seamless surface. In this reading, Neddy is devalued by the stripping away of the circumstances which make him special: money, vitality, charm, the love and admiration of others. The easiest way out of the final contradiction of the empty house is to say that the man who thought the house was unchanged was deluded all along. That is to say, Neddy is confused from the outset, and since he develops into an unreliable commentator, we cannot judge whether his perceptions of anything were correct. The wintry aspect of the world may or may not be real, and as Cheever is careful to maintain his neutrality on this point we cannot judge. In this reading the contradictions take on symbolic connotations, rather than being pointers to the impossibility of the story's apparent temporal framework. The result is that we remain outside Neddy's crisis, which must, if the story is continuous, pre-date its beginning.

This is certainly a possible reading, and serious commentators have adopted it.10 Furthermore, such a reading is explicitly adopted in the film version by Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack. The action of the film takes place in late Summer, while Neddy seems convinced that it is earlier in the year. There is little or no temporal discontinuity (save for a strange cut in the credits sequence). Most of the new events introduced in the film tend to confirm Neddy's self-deluding nature; for instance he appears to remember or imagine a splendid horse, which in the next shot is present before him. There are no objective witnesses to the horse's existence. Neddy races the horse and finishes level with it.

The chief difference between the film and the story is the initial situation. In the story, Neddy has been at the Westerhazys' party; he is drinking a gin in the morning after. His wife Lucinda is also present. This means that he is a socially successful man at the point at which he dreams up his scheme to swim home. In the film, however, Neddy comes (nearly) naked out of the woods, to surprise the Westerhazys, who greet him as a long-lost friend. Lucinda is not present. In their conversation, as Neddy dreams up the swimming scheme, it is already being hinted that all is not well with the Merrills. At the next pool, Neddy's claims that his daughters are playing tennis at home are met with astonishment and bemusement. This confirms that, on the continuous reading, the story postdates the crisis in Neddy's life, while on the discontinuous reading the crisis happens after the Westerhazys' party but before Neddy arrives home.

Hence, on the continuous reading, what we see is the impossibility of one man's illusion that he can retain his abstract ‘legendary’ status in the face of the fact of the loss of all the incidental factors which have gone to make up this character a project that is patently flawed since it is impossible to square the circle of his self-perception with the harsh facts of his real state.

On the discontinuous reading, however, the ill-fitting temporal framework serves to do more than highlight the delusions. If we take seriously the temporal markers in Cheever's story it cannot take place on the same Midsummer Sunday. The seamless presentation of the events places us in the same epistemological crisis as Neddy: we appear to begin and end a single journey on a single afternoon, but something of which we only have the briefest intimation has happened to shake the very foundations of the world to the point where everything is changed and we cannot trust our perceptions of the world around us or our understanding of the past. On this reading, the story plays out the struggle between abstraction and materialism dramatically before the eyes of the reader, placing us in the heart of the crisis as we waver between Neddy's efforts at abstracting himself from the detritus of his past, and the material facts which contradict and undermine this process. Neddy must build a wall of delusion between himself and the material world to maintain the vision of himself as hero.

Hence the difference in the initial conditions of the two readings entails the following: in the continuous reading (film) the cross-county swim is the conception of a man who has lost his reason; in the discontinuous reading (story) it is the conception of an (outwardly) successful man. In the continuous reading the ‘explorer’ discovers the hollowness of his own heart; in the discontinuous reading he is genuinely exploring a world, Cheever's strange suburban world. As his explorations continue, and as he loses the advantages of his social status, he disappears; the world becomes invisible to him, and he to it. His identity (or at least those aspects of his identity which he values most) is bound up very strongly with the accidents of his social success; when he loses them, he is thrown into crisis.

In the discontinuous reading, Neddy mistakes the accidents of social success for a heroic character. In the continuous reading, he attempts to replace his previous criteria of heroism and nobility (social success) with a more primitive idea of heroism based on physical perfection and an abstraction from history (a process aided by the casting of Burt Lancaster in the movie). He fails to see that heroic deeds involve a moral rectitude that he has never mastered or even understood. On the other hand, the discontinuous reading leaves his heroic status open; Neddy's ultimate failure still leaves it possible that he might have succeeded had he not been evicted from his Eden. The swim combined with his social success seems to underline his exceptional status within his own restricted society. Perhaps Neddy is no saint, but he still has a vision.11

In his private writings, incidentally, Cheever appears to be neutral between these two readings. In his journals for 1963, he seems to endorse the discontinuous reading.

The Swimmer might go through the seasons; I don't know, but I know it is not Narcissus. Might the seasons change? Might the leaves turn and begin to fall? Might it grow cold? Might there be snow? But what is the meaning of this? One does not grow old in the space of an afternoon? Oh, well, kick it around.12

However, in a letter to his Russian translator Tanya Litvinov in 1966, he implies that the film's continuous reading is more or less faithful to his conception of the story.

Eleanor Perry, who wrote the screen play has added a couple of scenes but she's followed the line and sense of the story precisely. There are no flashbacks, no explanations for his mysterious journey and it ends in an empty house in a thunder storm.13

The two readings, it seems, cannot be too far apart. Both readings are critical of the Kantian abstractionism discussed in Part I, the history and culture of an agent cannot simply be ignored when it comes to moral evaluations. But whereas the continuous reading gives us a reasonably straightforward criticism of moral abstractionism, the discontinuous reading is rather more subtle. In the discontinuous version, the abstraction that Neddy wants to perform is seen as part of his character and milieu, as something noble that the suburban hero is compelled to do. Hence abstractionism is not placed alongside and in competition with the other moral judgments that might be made about his snobbishness, promiscuity or (in the film at least) racism. In the discontinuous reading, the abstractionism is part of the suburban value system, an apparently tolerant moral maxim that in reality enforces cultural conformity.

All moral codes are culturally conditioned, hints the discontinuous reading. So, the Rawlsian rational agent hidden behind the veil of ignorance is in reality something like the rational economic man beloved of capitalism and the Chicago school of economics. The abstract man postulated by the Kantian categorical imperatives is compromised by immersion in a set of values.

Consequently, [Kant] saw our moral life through a pair of spectacles ground to fit the eyes of an eighteenth-century, enlightened, Christian, Stoic moral teacher.14

One final point relevant to the decision between the two readings: in so far as the story is to be seen as a criticism of a disengaged moral rationalism, it is not enough simply to revel in its ambiguities. Many readers (maybe even Cheever, to judge from the quote from his journals) will sadistically enjoy the uncertainties of Neddy's plight, and marvel, properly, at Cheever's stylistic skill at bringing the ambiguity about. But taking the work as a piece of moral philosophy—and we naturally accept that it is much more than that—its engagement with Kantian ideas depends on taking one reading or another. This is not to say that either reading is the ‘correct’ one, whatever that may mean; neither is it to say that only one of the readings has philosophical force. It is only to say that, in a philosophical engagement, each reading needs to be precisely delineated, in order that their implications be clear.


Cheever's prose conveys Neddy's subjective world via the discontinuities of the temporal scheme and the ambiguities of the incidents reported. The film, however, denies itself access to these resources. The Swimmer is a relatively conventional Hollywood film, and tacitly accepts the conventions of the Hollywood cinema. We do not argue that the film-makers were wrong to use such a set of stylistic conventions, only that the use of such conventions subtly biases the story's message from an attempt to understand the social structures of the suburbs, to a criticism of their emptiness.

Standardly, such a film reveals events in the order in which they occur; they unfold from an opening. Flashbacks (well-flagged) are permitted as ways of revealing characters' memories gradually, but ‘flashforwards’ are very rarely used. Yet underlying the cohesion that is assumed by such conventions is the psychological process of temporal integration, the process of creating a coherent view from one's memories, current experiences and expectations. The success of this process depends very strongly on there being a coherent account of one's history and future available to the subject, and it is this that Cheever subverts by showing us Neddy's confusion from the inside. As David Bordwell puts it:

The film which challenges this coherence [of the meanings of the past, present and future], a film like Not Reconciled (1964), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), or India Song (1975), must make temporal integration difficult to achieve. In the classical [Hollywood] film, however, character causality provides the basis for temporal coherence. …

Psychological causality thus permits the classical viewer to integrate the present with the past and to form clear-cut hypotheses about future story events.15

This inhibition from undermining psychological causality would seem to rule out blurring the distinction between objective and subjective truth for the protagonists. For this reason, such a film tends to treat us to the objective, and tries to portray the subjective either by the quality of the acting, or in ‘fantasy’ sequences that are clearly marked as such (as in the sequence with the imaginary horse in ‘The Swimmer’). When it comes to the bulk of the imagery, the classical film has to come down on one side or the other of an ambiguity. For example, whereas Cheever can tease us with the revelation that Neddy can't make out the stars of Midsummer (which may or may not entail that they are there), the film has to take a firm decision to show us the foliage of late Summer.

The Hollywood film has often been derided for its lack of subtlety and ideological rigidity.16 This derision is often overstated. For example, in the case of ‘The Swimmer,’ the interpretation of the story, while less rich than the discontinuous reading of the prose, is neither impoverished nor obviously inadequate.17 On the other hand, it is clear that the requirement for relative objectivity can result in the loss of shades of meaning, particularly from a situation where the characters' relationships, beliefs and values are inconsistent or unclear. The classical film often finds itself having to judge, to take a stand on issues which could be left open.

Thus, the classical Hollywood conventions might be said to be rather less sympathetic to the ideas underlying moral abstractionism, generally having to adopt a materialist stance by showing incidental detail. Not only are fantasy/dream sequences typically flagged, but also in both ‘reliable’ and ‘unreliable’ scenes, choices have to be made about, for example, which actor plays which role. In special circumstances, information can be withheld from an audience (e.g. with respect to the figure in the red coat in the Venetian scenes from Don't Look Now), but in general the creative effort is not made. This is not to say that film is necessarily incapable of conveying things that can be conveyed in prose; only that the set of classical Hollywood conventions tends to assume an Archimedean point from which events and actions can be assessed.

Furthermore, the Hollywood star system tends to mean that the actors in a movie carry with them the baggage of their career. This can be exploited subversively, as for instance with Leone's casting of Henry Fonda as the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, but most of an actor's films will support the common view of him as hero, villain, boffin, cantankerous but lovable old man, or whatever. When Burt Lancaster was cast as Neddy, the chief association for audiences of the time was of the swashbuckling hero of The Crimson Pirate and The Flame and the Arrow (although the audience for ‘The Swimmer’ would probably also be aware of his more ambiguous roles in films such as Elmer Gantry). Hence a star's previous career can be used to create expectations that are either confirmed or undermined. Again, this is not a criticism of the star system, merely a statement of one of its properties. But the fact remains that that casting of Lancaster makes it very difficult to approach Neddy Merrill on film without preconceptions.


We have developed two readings of Cheever's story, one where the action takes place continuously over a single day, and another where there are important discontinuities, invisible to the story's leading character. Neither reading is unproblematic, and each has some support from Cheever's private writings. The continuous reading has to deal with a number of inconsistencies, such as the increasingly Autumnal tone of the descriptions (these inconsistencies, of course, were simply written out of the film version, which followed this reading). The discontinuous reading, conversely, has to discount the prominent markers of temporal continuity.

The chief difference between the two readings is that Neddy's crisis must predate the events narrated in the continuous version, while it must be included within the timeframe of the discontinuous version. This creates a large gulf between the conceptions of Neddy's exploration that each reading will support. In the continuous version, the journey down the Lucinda River is the idea of the madman, the failure, and can perhaps most happily be seen as a Quixotic attempt to regain heroic status (on minimal resources). In the discontinuous version, however, the swim home is the scheme of a man at the height of his powers, who then attempts, at some unspecified later point, to retrace his steps or strokes as a straightforward, if doomed, way of recreating his former success.

In each case, the effects of the difference can be seen in the way in which the idea of the heroic quest interacts with and criticises the Kantian idea of abstract moral argument. In neither case does the reading support the abstract view of morality; Neddy's past transgressions are the key indices of his failure. But whereas the continuous reading simply shows that Neddy's attempt to raise himself above his former shallow self will forever be blighted by memories of the shallowness and vindictive superficiality, the discontinuous reading produces a more complex criticism of the Kantian imperative.

In the first place, the heroic quest is an indicator, not of an abstraction over the suburban society that Cheever is studying, but rather of a way of injecting mythic meaning into the more or less banal occupations of drinking, partygoing, golf, tennis, infidelity and so on (this is perhaps analogous to Cash Bentley's furniture-hurdling in ‘O Youth and Beauty!’). But again, the attempt to rise above the sordid or banal is doomed by the immersion in the sordid or banal; a man cannot absolve himself from moral failures in the past by present performance of a ceremony that is judged on its own terms. The ceremony itself is born of the banal, is a product of the banal. Its only function is absolution, and it can only perform that function from the standpoint of its conception (i.e. within the sordid, banal society), and therefore it cannot be used to transcend that society. In the limit, as Bernard Williams claimed, the messy substance of life has a greater hold than the impartial moral system.


  1. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck, 2nd edn (New York: Macmillan, 1990).

  2. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford University Press, 1972); Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

  3. Ibid., 12.

  4. Bernard Williams, ‘Persons, Character and Morality’ in Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, ed., The Identities of Persons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) 197-216; 215.

  5. Bruce W. Brower, ‘The Limits of Public Reason’, Journal of Philosophy, 91 (1994) 5-26.

  6. Bruce Ackerman, ‘Political Liberalisms’, Journal of Philosophy, 91 (1994) 364-86.

  7. John Cheever, ‘The Swimmer,’ in The Stories of John Cheever (London: Vintage, 1979) 776-88. All subsequent references to this edition are given in parentheses in the text.

  8. Eugene Chesnick, ‘The Domesticated Stroke of John Cheever’ in R. G. Collins, ed., Critical Essays on John Cheever (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1971) 124-39; 135.

  9. Robert M. Slabey, ‘John Cheever: The “Swimming” of America’ in R. G. Collins, ed., Critical Essays on John Cheever 180-91; 183.

  10. Chesnick, ‘Domesticated Stroke’, 135-6, and, arguably, Michael D. Byrne, Dragons and Martinis: The Skewed Realism of John Cheever (San Bernardino: Borgo Press, 1993) 72.

  11. Byrne, Skewed Realism, 16-17, 70-2.

  12. John Cheever, The Journals (London: Vintage, 1991) 187-8.

  13. Benjamin Cheever, ed., The Letters of John Cheever (London: Vintage, 1988) 235.

  14. Roger J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Kant's Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1994) 141.

  15. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge, 1985) 43.

  16. See the discussion in Bordwell et al., Classical Hollywood Cinema, 3-11.

  17. We get an analogous result in our analyses of the films Under the Volcano and The Dead; see Rebecca Hughes and Kieron O'Hara, ‘The Filmmaker as Critic: Huston's Under the Volcano and The Dead’ in Patrick A. McCarthy and Paul Tiessen, eds, Joyce/Lowry: Critical Perspectives (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997) 177-96.


Essays and Criticism