“The Swimmer” has as its primary theme the power of the mind to deny unpleasant truths, or, to put it more positively, the determination of the ego to preserve itself in the face of events that might erode or obliterate one’s self-confidence. In order to grasp this theme, the reader must figure out roughly what has happened to Ned and how he has responded to those events.
The recent events of Ned Merrill’s life can be tentatively reconstructed once the story has been read. Evidently a few years past he had been living a comfortable suburban life with his wife, Lucinda, his four daughters, and a house boasting not only a cook and a maid but also a tennis court. When the story opens, the reader accepts Ned’s description of such a life as reflecting his present condition. However, clues quickly begin to mount that something has happened to Ned—a financial ruin that led to social ostracization and eventually to a psychological breakdown. Even while his journey is going well, he shows signs of dislocation. He cannot remember whether a neighbor had been in Japan last year or the year before. Another family, the Lindleys, has dismantled their riding ring, but he has only a vague memory of having known this. He asks another friend for a drink only to be told that “there hasn’t been anything in this house to drink since Eric’s operation. That was three years ago.” When he arrives at the house of his former mistress, he cannot remember how long ago their affair ended, and he has apparently lost all memory of having sold his house. In the last paragraph of the story, he still clings to the idea that his wife and daughters are due to return home at any moment.
Ned is determined to hold on to his past despite the many signs that his former life has disappeared. This determination underscores the theme of the mind’s willfulness in the face of disaster. Ultimately, however, this strength of mind is impressive without being admirable because Ned’s conviction cannot restore to him his former happy life.
Cheever's allegorical story of a man swimming across his town presents several themes common to twentieth-century fiction.
Set in an affluent county in suburban New York, "The Swimmer" comments on the wealth associated with the upper classes of American society. The beginning of the tale opens with Neddy Merrill at a cocktail party on a pleasant midsummer afternoon. He has a drink in one hand and is dangling his other hand in a backyard swimming pool. Although pools are frequently considered a luxury by most people, in this community they are commonplace. In fact, pools are so prevalent in his neighborhood that Neddy can make the eight-mile journey home by swimming. The wealth of Neddy and his neighbors is reinforced by the fact that one of them even has a riding range that Neddy must cross on his journey home. The affluence of the upper class is also reflected in Neddy's and his friends' predilection for—and ability to afford—parties. At the story's beginning, Neddy's wife and friends are complaining about the previous night's party at which they had too much to drink. Furthermore, on his journey home, Neddy attends other parties, all of which are catered. In an ironic reversal, however, by the tale's end it is revealed that Neddy is in financial trouble.
Appearance vs. Reality
Despite the financial well-being of Neddy's circle of friends, their situations are not necessarily happy or hopeful. Critics have noted that their parties represent the emptiness of contemporary American society and the meaningless and hypocrisy of the middle and upper classes. For example, Neddy tries to gain a sense of accomplishment and to recapture his youth by swimming home—an act that he considers meaningful, but one that is bizarre and of no real importance. The happiness supposedly...
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