A train is heading toward a small, rural station in Southern Africa. The area around the station is impoverished, as are the people who live there. In the station, the station-master, the vendors, and the children prepare for the train’s arrival.
The train, from the white, considerably more wealthy area of Rhodesia, approaches the station. A young white woman stretches out of the train’s window to look at a carved lion that an old African man has to sell. The poor villagers flock to the windows of the train, selling items or begging for handouts from the other passengers. Children ask for pennies. Dogs and hens surround the dining car waiting for scraps. One girl throws out chocolates— “the hard kind, that no one liked”—but the hens get them before the dogs do.
The young woman decides the lion is too expensive: three shillings and sixpence. Her husband thinks the price is preposterous also, but his wife urges him to stop . . . Read More
On a literal level, “The Swimmer” is the story of one man’s initially fanciful, ultimately quite serious adventure swimming through every pool in the county on his way home. On a deeper level, though, the story alludes to some of Western literature’s most enduring themes. Neddy Merrill, Cheever’s hero, is Odysseus, Dante, the Fisher King, a knight of King Arthur. Through his story of a man’s exhausting journey home, Cheever examines themes of dissociation, alienation, and the loss of purpose.
“The Swimmer” examines the plight of a character familiar to readers of Cheever’s fiction. Along with John Updike and J. D. Salinger, Cheever is one of the famous trio of “New Yorker authors” of the 1940s through the 1960s (Cheever published a total of 121 stories in the New Yorker magazine), and he quickly became well-known for chronicling the lives of New York professionals and surburbanites. ‘ The . . . Read More
“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 . . . Read More
“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 . . . Read More
John 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’ . . . Read More
Shirley Adams is Neddy’s former mistress. When Neddy arrives at her home, she is shocked by his presence and warns him that she will not lend him any money. She is with a younger man.
Grace Biswanger is hosting a party when Neddy arrives and is angered by his presence, calling him a gate-crasher. Grace regularly invites Neddy and his wife to her parties, but they consistently decline. Neddy and his wife consider the Biswangers socially inferior. Grace reveals that Neddy is broke and has attempted to borrow money from her and her husband.
Enid Bunker is an acquaintance of Neddy’s and Lucinda’s. She and her husband are hosting a pool party that Neddy interrupts on his swim home. Neddy and his wife were invited to the party but decided not to attend it. Enid is subsequently surprised and . . . Read More
“The Swimmer” opens on a humorous note: it “was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night,'” the narrator says. It is a beautiful summer day, and a large white cloud “like a city seen from a distance” is on the horizon. Neddy Merrill, a slender and young-looking man, sits beside the pool with a glass of gin. He decides that he could “reach his home… eight miles to the south .. . by water.” He can swim home via the pools of the inhabitants of the suburbs where he lives. He names the string of pools the “Lucinda River” after his wife Lucinda.
This is not such a strange idea for him to have, the narrator reveals, because “he was … determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.” Beginning at the Westerhazys’ pool, he embarks upon his journey. The next pool he reaches is the . . . Read More
In Donald F. Larsson’s entry on Kate Chopin in Critical Survey of Short Fiction, we learn that “consistently … strong-willed, independent heroines … [who] cast a skeptical eye on the institution of marriage” are very characteristic of her stories. In “The Story of an Hour,” we do not so much see as intuit Mrs. Mallard’s skeptical eye. Certainly, we are told of the joy she feels with the freedom she finds in her husband’s death, but we are not specifically told that she is skeptical of marriage in general. Indeed, if we take the last line of the story literally, we would understand that Mrs. Mallard was so enamored of her marriage to her husband that she died from the excitement of knowing he was still alive. Yet, obviously, Chopin is engaging in some heavy handed irony. Mrs. Mallard, the young “repressed” woman who began to look at her widowhood as a rebirth, similar to the “new spring” outside her window, . . . Read More
Social, Cultural Setting
“The Story of an Hour” was published in 1894, an era in which many social and cultural questions occupied Americans’ minds. One of these, referred to as the “Woman Question,” involved which roles were acceptable for women to assume in society. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1892) had further incited this controversy. Darwin’s theory of evolution was used by both sides of the issue; some argued the theory supported female self-assertion and independence, others felt the theory proved that motherhood should be the primary role of a woman in society. Although women were not granted the right to vote until 1920, the struggle for their enfranchisement began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention in New York state. The passage of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting enfranchisement to black men, was passed in 1869. Several prominent feminists, including . . . Read More
The action of “The Story of an Hour” is simple: Mrs. Mallard, who suffers from “a heart trouble,” is informed about her husband’s demise in a train accident. At first she is beset by grief, but then she begins to feel a sense of freedom. When she leaves her room and descends the stairs, her husband appears at the front door. Upon seeing her husband alive, Louise Mallard’s heart gives out and she dies.
The story is set during spring, and Louise’s “awakening” is symbolized by the rebirth of nature. Through her bedroom window, Louise sees nature, like herself, “all acquiver with the new spring life.” The internal changes taking place within Louise are mirrored by what she views— when she is distraught with grief, rain falls, and when she realizes her freedom, the skies clear up. What occurs outside the window parallels what is occurring to . . . Read More