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 Swimmer” appeared during a period in which Cheever’s own alcoholism was bringing a dark tone to his writing.
Neddy Merrill, the story’s hero, is “far from young” but not yet middle-aged—”he might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one.” Incipient darkness and age is everywhere in the story, haunting the apparently idyllic summer day on which the story takes place. The setting is the well-to-do Westchester County suburbs of New York City, where the towns and villages divide themselves up along very strict lines of class, religion and national origin. The weekend parties and barbecues, and their carefully delineated guest lists, are the social milieu in which these divisions play out, and Neddy seems quite at home there.
When the story begins, we see Neddy in the middle of the most desirable party, the Westerhazy’s. He feels comfortable in his surroundings—”his life was not confining,” the narrator tells us—but he has “a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.” To accomplish what he sees as his modest contribution to the tradition of mythical figures, he decides to make the eight-mile journey home from the Westerhazy’s not by car, as would be customary, but by water. He will swim “that stream of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.” He names the stream “Lucinda” after his wife and departs.
The gently humorous irony of Neddy’s quest draws attention to one of Cheever’s enduring concerns: the lack of transcendent meaning, or even of base importance, in the lives of the privileged in the middle of the American century. Cheever’s men are troubled by their lack of purpose, and often channel this frustration into alcohol (and Neddy drinks at least five times during his trip home). On first reading, it seems to the reader that it is a slightly drunken fancy that leads Neddy to embark upon his quest.
Neddy’s project is, though, quite serious. Cheever originally intended Neddy to call to mind the Greek mythological figure of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who saw his reflection in a pool and kills himself trying to unite with his image. “When I began,” Cheever is quoted as explaining in Patrick Meanor’s John Cheever Revisited, “the story was to have been a simple one about Narcissus…. Then swimming every day as I do, I thought, it’s absurd to limit him to the tight mythological plot—being trapped in his own image, in a single pool.”
Perhaps the strongest parallel Cheever’s story has is to Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the poet travels into the depths of Hell in order to learn more about the purpose of human existence. Like Dante, as Neddy journeys on he reaches ever more perilous reaches of the county. The trip begins at the Westerhazys, then continues on through the friendly estates of the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands and the Crosscups. Neddy’s first trial is at the Bunker house, where a party is in full force. Greeted warmly by the hostess and many of the guests, Neddy is forced to delay his voyage. He moves on to the Tomlinson place and then to the eerily deserted Levy house, where rain stops him for a time.
The next house, the Welchers’, presents him with a disappointment: their pool has been drained, and the house is for sale, although Neddy cannot remember hearing any such thing about them. Neddy feels the first pains of his voyage—”was his memory failing?”—but then reaches his next test: the highway, where shivering he withstands insults and a flung beer can from passing motorists. “He seemed pitiful…. Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger?” Finally across the highway, he then reaches the most difficult test: the public pool. The water is foul-smelling and acrid and murky, and the pool is crowded. The lifeguards demand he leave the pool, and he escapes.
Just as Dante survived the horror of the Inferno only to be confronted by the tests of Purgatory, Neddy still has to endure a few more hardships before arriving home. The Halloran pool is welcoming, but for the first time we hear about Neddy’s own problems: “We’ve been terribly sorry to hear about your misfortunes,” Mrs. Halloran sympathizes. He then stops at the Biswanger house, where he is regarded as a gate-crasher because of his own repeated social snubs of them, and finally at the house of Shirley Adams, “his old mistress.” She too, makes reference to Neddy’s recent difficulties. Once Neddy makes it through the Inferno, therefore, the perils become less external and more internal. Not only is he now cold and tired, but the people he encounters allude to his own unspecified troubles.
Unfortunately for Neddy, the end does not bring a glimpse of Beatrice and the sacred rose. His arrival home does not bring him to the light (the name Lucinda is derived from the Latin for “light”): “the place was dark.” All of the unidentified troubles now confront the traveller, and he can no longer escape them. The Dantean equivalence also is complicated by Neddy’s inward-directed focus during the story. Where Dante eagerly questions the inhabitants of the various levels of Hell, Neddy is either unaware of or uninterested in the people he meets along the way.
Another appealing parallel for Neddy is the Homeric hero Odysseus. Like Odysseus, Neddy takes a leisurely, roundabout trip home, stopping his journey in places. Many of the characters in “The Swimmer” then fall into the Homeric structure: Lucinda is Penelope, Shirley is Circe, Mrs. Bunker represents the Sirens, her party symbolizes the Lotus-eaters, and the Biswangers stand for the Cyclops. And like Odysseus, Neddy also faces another trial once he actually returns home before he can be reunited with Lucinda.
Critics have also compared Neddy to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and Neddy’s journey to that of the knights of the round table. Rip’s twenty-year sleep is a counterpart to Neddy’s journey, and Neddy’s repression of his problems during his swim reminds us of Rip’s status, upon waking, as a “man out of time.” Both men confront their final fates uncomprehendingly. Neddy can also be seen as Jesus, the pools as his Stations of the Cross. Shirley’s comment to him reinforces this interpretation: “Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?” However, perhaps the most apt parallel for “The Swimmer” is the King Arthur Holy Grail myth. Enduring numerous perils, the knights (and Neddy) are questing for something they don’t fully understand. Even the name of one of the pools Neddy traverses, the Crosscups, alludes to the holy chalice of Jesus.
The image of the drinking-cup refers back, in turn, to the constant drinking in which Neddy and his friends engage. Although critics seem most eager to trace out the story’s mythical allusions, it would be irresponsible not to grant that Neddy’s confusion at the end of the book could simply be the result of an alcoholic’s denial and memory loss. Neddy’s vision of himself as “a legendary figure” could also result from his drinking, as could the strange pattern of time-passage in Neddy’s mind. In his book John Cheever Revisited, Patrick Meaner holds that “Cheever’s time warp in ‘The Swimmer’ is explainable as a symptom of the serious physical, mental, and spiritual disintegration caused by prolonged alcoholic drinking.”
Whether Neddy is our century’s equivalent of a hero, trying to carve out a mythical legacy in a banal environment, or whether he is simply a delusional alcoholic trying to make his life seem more exciting, conclusions can only be drawn ultimately from Neddy’s own perceptions. The narration is strict third-person limited—the narrator is not Neddy himself, but refers to Neddy as “he” and does not have access to all of Neddy’s thoughts and feelings. Some critics have seen this limitation as a problem. Ultimately, the reader does not get to know Neddy very thoroughly and since the precise nature of Neddy’s “misfortunes” is unclear, it is difficult for us to judge his actions.
However, Cheever achieves a greater complexity in his story by this self-imposed limitation. When Neddy arrives home and the house is not only empty but in disrepair, the reader is confused: is Lucinda just late? Do the Merrills still live there? Are the Merrills even still married? If we see Neddy’s quest as a drunken one, then perhaps he only imagined Lucinda’s presence at the Westerhazys’ party. In this view, his “troubles” could be with his marriage—it is known that Neddy had a mistress. Drunk, he thinks he is still married, and only when he arrives home does cold, dark, wet, sober reality confront him. By not revealing the actuality of the situation, Cheever creates in his readers the confusion of the alcoholic. Read on a mythical or a literal level, “The Swimmer” is a powerful evocation of the loss of a sense of purpose among America’s privileged class in particular and among twentieth-century people in general.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, John Cheever, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Source: Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.