Analysis of John Cheever’s The Swimmer

Joh Cheever’s account of Neddy Merrill, a middleaged man who traverses the expanse of an upscale suburban county by swimming a sequence of pools, is a highly ironic inversion of a conventional elegiac theme, the athlete dying young. His journey homeward is at the same time a journey through time (diurnal, seasonal, biographical) inasmuch as Cheever mobilizes oblique classical and biblical allusions to blissful, energetic, sunlit states of childhood and youth toward a meditation on aging, decline, disillusionment, and an ungentle dying of the light. Neddy’s increasingly arduous, and in some ways heroic, physical trek—which he repeatedly identifies, with serious whimsy, as a type of exploration or pilgrimage—also parallels his traversal of unknown, because repressed or otherwise debilitated, psychological, emotional, and social terrain. In the course of the journey the reader’s enchantment with the bright illusion of leisured lives vividly lived shades into recognition of sad, perhaps even tragic, delusions of grandeur.

The opening description evokes an idyllic condition of easy living and placid and beneficent nature as Neddy floats in amniotic midsummer waters. The “youth, sport, and clement weather” (603) that he personifies is almost Arcadian, an unchanging pastoral condition of unchallenged insouciance. He emerges from the water as if newly born, “as if he could gulp into his lungs . . . the intenseness of his pleasure” (603). He emerges possessed by a reverie of omnipotence. Determined to be “original” in keeping with his “idea of himself as a legendary figure” and “a man with a destiny” (604), Neddy conceives a way that his athleticism might produce a paean to the beauty of his world. Like most reveries of omnipotence, his is infantile, a fantasy that unconsciously compensates for unacknowledged impotence (despite his deluded denial of any desire for “escape”). There is more than a suggestion of regression in the fact that Neddy is said to have been “immersed too long” (612). Similarly, his desire to remain “embraced and sustained” by the watery serenity, together with his desire to swim naked, suggest a desire for an “impossible” “resumption of a natural condition” (604) in which he has shed the burdens of adulthood.

John Cheever/Britannica

Neddy seems to be living at the morning of the world, and in that morning he slides down a banister like a child. The fact that he is accustomed, as are all in his milieu, to using a “domesticat[ed]” stroke, the “crawl,” further implies childish tendencies already signified in the diminutive of his first name. This is subsequently corroborated when his former mistress exclaims in exasperation, “Will you ever grow up?” (611). Like the often-childish heroes celebrated by archaic cultures, Neddy is headstrong and impulsive. He has, for example, “an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools” (603). The fact that he appears, at least to himself, “to have the especial slenderness of youth” is both validated and subverted by the narrator’s sly, ambiguous praise, “He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one” (602). The use of the conditional and the afterthought partially subverts with irony the fancifulness of the comparison, while a darker implication is present for the reader familiar with the Shakespeare sonnet that it echoes. Shakespeare’s poem, not unlike Cheever’s story, begins by claiming to be about “eternal summer” but devotes far more time to time’s ravages through images of decline, dispossession, the shaking of “rough winds,” and the dimming of the sun’s overly bright complexion. As Cheever’s story proceeds, illusions are progressively stripped away; Neddy’s muscular aspiration to elevate the everyday into myth, much as the water suffuses mundane voices with “brilliance and suspense” (607), is transformed into the stark tragedy of the athlete in defeat.

Neddy’s destination is south, but he must bend to the west if he wants to stay in water as often as possible. While the southerly might suggest the reasonable expectation of ever more blissful warmth, the west provides darker intimations that are eventually confirmed. West is the location of the dead in many mythologies— most notably the Celtic since Neddy Merrill would seem, like Cheever himself, to be of Irish heritage. The setting (or aging sun) dies in the west. This mythological resonance suggests the inevitable consequences of Neddy’s reentry into time after his departure from the Edenic conditions of the Westerhazy’s pool (note that he walks out “under . . . flowering apple trees” 604). Neddy’s complacent confidence that “he would find friends all along the way” turns out to be naive (though hardly innocent) inasmuch as the conviction that the world is a hospitable place is a presumptuous assumption that can only be held, tenuously it turns out, by those accustomed to being “in the sun” (604).

Neddy’s first encounter with disappointment occurs upon discovering the dried-up pool of the Welchers. The fact that he conceives this as a “breach in his chain of water” (606) could be taken to imply that he feels that some implicit contract with the world has been violated, some implied promise betrayed or proven undependable. It is notable that to welch means “to cheat by failing to pay a debt or fulfill a promise”—an action later attributed to him. That in turn heightens the implications of Neddy’s own disavowal: “He had signed nothing, vowed nothing, pledged nothing, not even to himself” (607). The designation of the pools as a “chain” serves to suggest Neddy’s subliminal awareness of the compulsive character of his undertaking—the fact that he must complete his odyssey by means that he had not freely chosen and for reasons that remain obscure: “Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back?” (607). In retrospect, the earlier description of the expected “torrential headwater” found dried to “a dead stream” (606) serves to objectify the exhaustion of Neddy’s own brash self-assurance, as the question he puts to himself confirms: “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?” (607). Cheever subtly links the vagaries of time caused by a lapsing or traumatized memory with the stripping power of an autumnal storm that scatters leaves across the waters and denudes the trees.

A subsequent query marks a shift in narrative point of view away from identification with Neddy through a detached reference to the reader’s you (“Had you . . . you might have seen him” 607). This shift serves to reduce Neddy’s agency and renders him an object, an incongruous object at that. “Exposed” nearly naked amid “the deposits of the highway,” he seems both a ridiculous “fool” and a “pitiful” victim. Just another bit of the road’s detritus of has-been and used-up, he can muster “no dignity or humor to bring to the situation” (607). But Neddy cannot “go back”; he has “covered a distance” emotionally and psychologically that makes his return “impossible” (607). Time itself is against him. In the words of the novelist Thomas Wolfe, he cannot go home again, or, updating the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, he cannot swim in the same pool twice.

While subsequent encounters with some of the pool owners provide hints that is not right with Neddy’s world, the account of his dive into the “stagnant” waters of the public pool is a more explicit indication that his journey constitutes a social descent into a condition he thinks he has forever transcended. Illusion is dispelled as he discovers that the medium of tranquility has been degraded and threatens to degrade him. He fears “that he might contaminate himself—damage his own prosperousness and charm—by swimming in [the] murk.” Cheever indicates that both the element and the act of cleansing are now “a cloudy and bitter solution” (608). Much to Neddy’s “distaste,” his dignity and self-esteem are repeatedly “jostled” by the crowd. It is significant, given his need to stay immersed in illusions of being special and secure—illusions both personal and classborn—that in order to evade collision he must do something he has failed to do financially: “swim with his head above water” (608). Neddy’s déclassé homelessness, revealed at the story’s conclusion, is prefigured when he is ordered out of the pool for being “without the identification disk” (608). Neddy has no I.D., which is to say, he has no idea of himself any longer. Indeed, Neddy’s need to immerse himself in water might be best understood as an unconscious attempt at self-baptism—a means of retaining or retrieving some vestige of an identity he does not know he has lost. He is expelled by lifeguards, who, blowing their “police whistles” from their “towers” (608), are reminiscent of the angels stationed at the gates of Eden to prohibit reentry.

Cheever’s Eden trope is most clearly, and satirically, articulated when Neddy next arrives at the home of the Hallorans, an aged couple who insist on going naked in a self-conscious pretence of being radical. The manifest signs of aging have a depressing effect on Neddy, who is chilled by a dim sense of dispossession as he tries to recall “sitting in the Westerhazy’s sun,” which is to say, a sun no longer his (609). There is also satire, though directed at Neddy’s anti-Semitic snobbery, in the subsequent portrait of the Biswangers, whom he deems not of his “set” because they display their lack of propriety in constant talk about money (though it is Neddy who has borrowed from them). Suffering another impairing rebuff at the pool of his former mistress, where a “young man” has taken his place, he proceeds to the last pool before home. There, in water icy with twilight, he swims “a hobbled sidestroke that he might have learned as a youth” (612). This regression to a state of incapable immaturity is linked to an old man’s act of folly, and it is perhaps warranted to hear in the undertone of stroke a second, medical meaning of the word. Arriving at the end of his odyssey, Neddy discovers a house as vacated, dark, and shut off from the storms of life as his mind has become.

Short stories have often been the source of films and a film version of “The Swimmer” was released in 1968, directed by Frank Perry and starring Burt Lancaster, but few have also been the basis of an advertising campaign. A popular 1980s TV ad for a blue jean manufacturer featured the basic plot and imagery of Cheever’s story, although it turned his swimmer into a young beefcake to the accompaniment of Dinah Washington’s “Mad about the Boy.”

Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Cheever’s Dark Knight of the Soul: The Failed Quest of Neddy.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 347–352.
Cheever, John. “The Swimmer.” In The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Kozikowski, Stanley J. “Damned in a Fair Life: Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 367–375. David Brottman Southern Indiana University

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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