The Swimmer, John Cheever: Summary & Analysis

‘The Swimmer’ is a remarkable short story penned by the acclaimed American writer John Cheever (1912-82), originally published in his collection "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow" in 1964. Regarded as one of Cheever's most renowned works, ‘The Swimmer’ revolves around the experiences of a middle-aged married man who embarks on an extraordinary journey one summer afternoon. His mission is to swim across the various swimming pools that dot the backyards of his friends' houses on the way back home. The story delves into profound themes such as memory, relationships, American suburban life, affluence, and middle age, presenting a narrative that can be interpreted allegorically, symbolically, and literally. Before delving into a detailed analysis of this fascinating tale, let's begin with a succinct summary of its plot.

Plot Summary

The story unfolds in one of the Westchester County suburbs in New York, where Neddy and Lucinda Merrill, a married couple, find themselves at a midsummer Sunday afternoon gathering hosted by their friends, the Westerhazys. Neddy, an avid swimmer, contemplates the possibility of making his way back home, spanning a distance of eight miles, by swimming through a series of his friends' gardens and their swimming pools. He leaves the Westerhazys' cocktail party, thinking of his four daughters waiting for him at home.

Lucinda inquires about his departure, and he casually informs her that he plans to swim home. Neddy embarks on his aquatic journey, navigating through the gardens and pools of his acquaintances, taking a refreshing dip in each pool before moving on. Along the way, it becomes apparent that Neddy and his wife tend to decline invitations from their various friends, choosing not to socialize with them.

Thunder and Reflection

As Neddy reaches the halfway point of his venture, thunder resonates in the distance, prompting him to seek refuge in the gazebo at the Levys' residence until the storm passes. In the subsequent gardens, he finds that the Lindleys are absent, and the Welchers' pool is empty, with the house up for sale.

Public Pool and Revelation

Neddy proceeds to the public pool, where the water is less clear and inviting than the private pools he previously swam in. Nevertheless, he perseveres and makes his way to the home of the Hallorans, an elderly couple known for their political activism. A surprising revelation awaits him when Mrs. Halloran expresses sympathy over his misfortunes, referring to the fact that he had to sell his house and something has happened to his children. This news perplexes Neddy, as he is convinced that his children are safe at home.

Repressed Memories

Disturbed and fatigued, Neddy seeks solace in a strong drink and visits Helen and Eric, the Hallorans' daughter and her husband. There, he discovers that Eric had a significant operation three years ago, of which he had no recollection. Doubts about his memory and the possibility of repressed knowledge concerning his house's sale start to haunt him.

Uncomfortable Encounters

As night descends, Neddy's journey becomes more uneasy. He encounters Grace Biswanger, who chides him for supposedly gate-crashing their party and ignoring their invitations. Swimming in the pool of Shirley Adams, a former mistress, stirs up memories of their affair's end and the sadness it brought to her.

Fading Triumph

With waning strength, Neddy pushes himself to swim through the pools belonging to the Gilmartins and the Clydes. As he nears his home, a sense of vague triumph accompanies him, but it quickly fades as he finds the house in darkness, the garage doors showing signs of neglect. The shocking realization dawns upon him as he peers through the windows; the house is entirely empty.

In conclusion, ‘The Swimmer’ takes readers on a metaphorical journey, encapsulating themes of nostalgia, disillusionment, and the ephemeral nature of human existence. Through Neddy's enigmatic odyssey, Cheever crafts a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of the complexities of life and the human psyche.

Critical Analysis

‘The Swimmer’ holds a profound key to understanding the story, as noted by John Cheever himself. Originally contemplating a modern-day Narcissus tale, Cheever explores the self-absorption and callousness displayed by the protagonist, Neddy Merrill, towards those around him. Despite deviating from a direct retelling of the Narcissus myth, ‘The Swimmer’ bears striking resemblances to it, becoming a modern American myth where Narcissus meets the Great Gatsby set.

A Tragic Journey

Neddy Merrill's journey mirrors Narcissus' fateful encounter with his reflection. Neddy's self-centeredness causes him to neglect his friends and decline their invitations, raising doubts about the reality of certain events in the story. As his odyssey progresses, Neddy gradually comes to realize that his life has already fallen apart. His marriage has crumbled, his children have vanished, and he has lost his house, a modern suburban equivalent of drowning in a pool.

Time and Memory

The passage of time plays a significant role in ‘The Swimmer,’ blurring the line between reality and surrealism. The story focalizes narrowly from Neddy's perspective, leading to the uncertainty of whether extraordinary events are magically or supernaturally influenced or merely a result of his hazy memory and unconscious repression of recent traumatic experiences.

The Backstory Unveiled

An analysis of the backstory suggests that Neddy's affair with Shirley Adams and financial troubles contributed to the collapse of his marriage, explaining the emptiness of his house due to divorce and the sale of the property. However, such a literal interpretation may undermine the allegorical nature of the narrative.

Symbolism and Decline

The changing of seasons in the story symbolizes various themes, such as the passing of youth and the onset of middle age, or the decline of a marriage. The Westerhazys' name itself hints at the setting sun and fading memories, reflecting Neddy's experiences throughout the tale.

Contradictory Traits

Neddy exhibits a contradictory personality: he appears youthful despite being far from young and displays cocksure arrogance alongside callous treatment of women, such as his former mistress, Shirley Adams. Naming his route home after his wife, Lucinda, suggests a complex relationship with her, either trying to return to her or trying to rid himself of her presence to come to terms with the end of their marriage.

John Cheever's text deliberately withholds crucial information, making it difficult to arrive at definitive answers. The story's symbolic and literal elements work in harmony, prompting readers to interpret and analyze every detail metaphorically and literally as they progress through the narrative.

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