Despite the many realistic details included in the story, from the detailed descriptions of the various pools (specifying, for example, whether they are fed by a well or a brook) to the nuances of suburban social climbing, the story contains an element of fantasy. Although the action of the story covers at most several hours, Ned seems to age appreciably. Midway through the journey, he notices that his swim trunks are loose, and wonders if he could have lost weight in the space of the afternoon. The youthful vigor he exhibits in the early pages of the story gives way to a fatigue that leaves him unable to swim even one length of his last pool.
In addition to his own sense of aging, the summer itself gives way with inappropriate suddenness to autumn. After he is caught in the rainstorm (an event that exhilarates rather than depresses him), he notices a maple bare of leaves and feels sad at this sign of autumn, even while rationalizing that the tree must be blighted to have lost its foliage in midsummer. However, the signs of autumn persist. He smells wood smoke and wonders who would be burning wood at this time of year. Toward the end of his trip, the water of one pool has a “wintry gleam,” he smells the autumn flower chrysanthemum, and the constellations of the oncoming night are those of the winter sky.
In “The Swimmer,” then, Cheever veers from conventional realism to experiment with a style that emphasizes psychological veracity. Although the structure of the narrative is unconventional, the story manages both to convey a conventional plot line (Ned’s loss of money and status) and to reveal the complexity of a man’s interior reaction to personal disaster. Cheever’s juxtaposition of realistic detail and fantastic plot elements enables him to explore the workings of a mind out of touch with reality in a broad sense, yet acutely aware of the minor details and realities that compose the social fabric of life in Bullet Park.
“THE SWIMMER” begins as a comic fiction written in the realist mode. As Cheever’s well-to-do suburbanites sit around the Westerhazy’s pool, complaining that they drank too much the night before, one of their number, Neddy Merrill, decides to swim to his home, eight miles away across affluent Westchester County, New York, via his neighbors’ pools. As Neddy begins his odyssey along what he calls the Lucinda River (named for his wife), the reader is struck by Neddy’s strength, determination, and youthful exuberance. No longer one of the story’s comically hungover, exurbanites, he becomes an explorer and mythic hero.
In the first few pages of Cheever’s story, Neddy covers four miles in one hour swimming in eight of the fifteen pools. Gradually, however, the pace of the story and of the swim slows, and the pools grow farther apart as Neddy’s energy and optimism drain away. Motion turns into contemplation, joyous adventure into painful ordeal. Appropriately, the light comedy gives way to a darker, more somber mood as the realism turns imperceptibly into mythic nightmare. The brightness and freedom of the first pages turns into the darkness and confinement of the last.
At the journey’s and the story’s end, Neddy finally and wearily arrives at his house, only to find it empty and boarded up. His mythic swim across the county and ahead in time has actually been a journey back into Neddy’s past and down through his unconscious mind. His attempt to regain all he has lost--his youth, money, wife, and family--ends in failure, leaving the reader to ponder whether...
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the attempt has been mythically noble or childishly ridiculous.
Neddy is clearly a latter-day Rip Van Winkle, one who longs to escape from the painful facts of his actual existence and to return to an earlier, more hopeful, more innocent period. Having lost his world, Neddy, however, gains a certain measure of tragic dignity, standing as naked and dispossessed in Westchester as Shakespeare’s Lear howling on the storm-ravaged heath.
"The Swimmer" was published in 1964, at a time of great prosperity for middle- and upper-class Americans. Having survived World War II, which ended in 1945, and the Korean War, which took place in the 1950s, many Americans—at least white Americans—were enjoying the wealth and affluence of the postwar era. It was during this time that the American suburbs, the setting of "The Swimmer," grew at a rapid pace. This world of the upper classes is the world of Neddy Merrill as he appears at the beginning of "The Swimmer."
Neddy Merrill's world was in no way, however, one to which most Americans had access. The Civil Rights Movement was active, and basic liberties were still an issue of great concern for many Americans. Although slaves had been freed as outlined in the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and slavery was abolished in 1865 with the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, many African Americans continued to be denied their civil rights. The Civil Rights Act issued in June 1964 was intended to end this discrimination. Despite the progress that the passage of this bill symbolized, the problems faced by women and many minorities were not immediately resolved. Various other "rights" movements were also active in the early 1960s. The environmental movement gained much momentum in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) shed much light on the problems faced by American women.
Allegory "The Swimmer'' is often considered an allegory about decline, the aging process, and the life cycle. An allegory is a symbolic representation through characters or events of truths or generalizations about human existence. In allegories, people, places, and events often have more than one meaning—that is, they can stand for more than one thing. As such, allegories relate a surface story and a "hidden" story that focuses on other issues. The surface story of "The Swimmer" concerns the protagonist's swim home. The hidden, allegorical meaning of "The Swimmer" has to do with aging, physical decline, the life cycle, and the hypocrisy of the upper classes. Parables and fables are often considered types of allegories.
Point of View The point of view of "The Swimmer'' is one of the most intriguing aspects of story. Because it is told completely in the third person ("I" constructions are not used), the reader is never able to get inside Neddy Merrill's mind. This adds to the confusion of the story. For example, when friends try to console Neddy about his recent misfortunes, he denies that anything bad has happened. As a result of this narrative strategy, the reader is unable to decide whether Neddy is telling the truth, lying, deluding himself, or if he is simply disoriented.
Hero/Heroine The concept of the hero is another important aspect of "The Swimmer." In a certain sense, Neddy, as the protagonist of the story, is the hero of the story. He even views himself as something of a hero or a legendary figure. This view of himself as larger than life accounts, in part, for his desire to find a new way home. Swimming home is something that has not been done before, and his success will only add to his worth as a hero. "The Swimmer" also draws parallels between Neddy and characters appearing in other works of fiction. Many critics note that Neddy's journey shares many similarities with the journey of the hero as depicted in classical mythology, particularly with Odysseus in Homer's The Odyssey.
Irony Irony is another important aspect of the "The Swimmer." Irony is a literary technique that attempts to highlight the opposite meaning of a situation. Cheever's portrait of the hero, for example, is ironic. Instead of being vibrant, successful, and young—qualities often associated with heroes— Neddy is eventually portrayed as old, fatigued, weak, miserable, confused, lonely, and disoriented. He has been snubbed by acquaintances and seems to have forgotten various details about his life. Swimming through a series of pools is also not the great undertaking Neddy assumes it is. His homecoming is also considered ironic; homecomings for heroes are typically joyous occasions. Neddy's return to his home, which is empty, dark, and locked, is disheartening.
Dream Vision Neddy's tale is often considered a modification of the dream vision, or a story in which the main character falls asleep and dreams the events in the story. Dream visions are often filled with surreal, fantastic, and illogical events that make it difficult for the reader to discern what really is happening. Washington Irving's tale about Rip Van Winkle is an example of a dream vision. In Irving's story, Rip falls asleep for several years and, upon waking, learns that things have changed drastically. In Cheever's version of the dream vision, Neddy is not said to have fallen asleep, but he similarly ages considerably during his surreal journey. Within the span of an afternoon, Neddy grows older, can no longer trust his memory, and finds that the seasons have changed. As in dreams, time does not have meaning and events seem illogical for Neddy.
Names The meanings of the names mentioned in "The Swimmer" are considered significant. The name of Levy, for example, brings to mind the word levee, a word associated with water. Likewise, the Welchers' pool is empty; as welshers, they have disappointed Neddy by not having water in their pool and living up to their "word." Neddy's desire to get home to his wife and warm home is reflected in his wife's name, Lucinda, which means light. Several other names given in the story are related to water. For example, Merrill means "seabright"; Lear means "dweller by the sea"; the Clyde is a river in Scotland; and Halloran means "stranger from beyond the sea." The name Lear also brings to mind the Shakespearean king who lapsed into madness and lost his belongings and family. Critics have noted that names like Hammers, Bunkers, and Crosscups foreshadow violence, and that the owners of the pools that Neddy encounters in the first half of the tale are largely of Anglo-Saxon descent, much like Neddy. The names that are mentioned in the second half of the story, during which Neddy becomes more and more alienated, are more ethnically diverse.
1960s: Affluent Americans have more money than ever before. The gross national product, the value of goods produced by the national workforce, increases almost 36 percent during the first half of the decade. Salaries increase about 20 percent during this same period.
Today: The United States uses about one-third of the world's raw materials consumed each year. This is five times the average consumption for 1/15th of the earth's population.
1960s: Many cities continue to experience a rise in suburban development which began in the 1950s. Many middle-class whites flee from cities to the suburbs, resulting in an increasing disparity between the quality of life in the city versus the surrounding area.
Today: The federal government institutes a number of programs designed to rejuvenate America's cities, among which is the designation of "empowerment zones." The program is designed to spark growth in these areas by offering incentives to businesses located within the zone.
1960: Some 400,000 marriages are dissolved by the courts.
Today: In 1994, 1.2 million marriages were dissolved by the courts. Experts estimate that 50 percent of all marriages will end in divorce.
A film version of "The Swimmer'' was released in 1968 by Columbia Pictures. It was directed by Frank Perry (and Sydney Pollack, uncredited), adapted by Eleanor Perry, and starred Burt Lancaster.
Sources Meanor, Patrick John Cheever Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Further Reading Cheever, John, The Journals of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Contains journal excerpts covering a period from the late 1940s until 1982 in which Cheever comments on his homosexuality, his alcoholism, and his processes of composition.
Riley, Kathryn, ''John Cheever and the Limitations of Fantasy," in CEA Critic, Vol. 45, nos 34, March-May, 1983, pp. 21-26. Riley provides a brief thematic overview of "The Swimmer" and other stories by Cheever.
Slabey, Robert M., "John Cheever: The 'Swimming' of America," in Critical Essays on John Cheever, edited by R. G. Collins, G. K. Hall, 1982. A close reading of the story, concentrating on mythological parallels and sources for Cheever's character.
Bloom, Harold, ed. John Cheever. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Bosha, Francis J., ed. The Critical Response to John Cheever. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Byrne, Michael D. Dragons and Martinis: The Skewed Realism of John Cheever. Edited by Dale Salwak and Paul David Seldis. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1993.
Cheever, Susan. Home Before Dark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Coale, Samuel. John Cheever. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977.
Collins, Robert G., ed. Critical Essays on John Cheever. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1988.
Donaldson, Scott, ed. Conversations with John Cheever. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
Meanor, Patrick. John Cheever Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1995.
O’Hara, James E. John Cheever: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Waldeland, Lynne. John Cheever. Boston: Twayne, 1979.