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 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,...
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