“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 completely in the third person (“I” constructions are not used), the reader is never able to get inside Neddy Merrill’s mind. This adds to the confusion of the story. For example, when friends try to console Neddy about his recent misfortunes, he denies that anything bad has happened. As a result of this narrative strategy, the reader is unable to decide whether Neddy is telling the truth, lying, deluding himself, or if he is simply disoriented.
The concept of the hero is another important aspect of “The Swimmer.” In a certain sense, Neddy, as the protagonist of the story, is the hero of the story. He even views himself as something of a hero or a legendary figure. This view of himself as larger than life accounts, in part, for his desire to find a new way home. Swimming home is something that has not been done before, and his success will only add to his worth as a hero. “The Swimmer” also draws parallels between Neddy and characters appearing in other works of fiction. Many critics note that Neddy’s journey shares many similarities with the journey of the hero as depicted in classical mythology, particularly with Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey.
Irony is another important aspect of the “The Swimmer.” Irony is a literary technique that attempts to highlight the opposite meaning of a situation. John Cheever’s portrait of the hero, for example, is ironic. Instead of being vibrant, successful, and young—qualities often associated with heroes— Neddy is eventually portrayed as old, fatigued, weak, miserable, confused, lonely, and disoriented. He has been snubbed by acquaintances and seems to have forgotten various details about his life. Swimming through a series of pools is also not the great undertaking Neddy assumes it is. His homecoming is also considered ironic; homecomings for heroes are typically joyous occasions. Neddy’s return to his home, which is empty, dark, and locked, is disheartening.
Neddy’s tale is often considered a modification of the dream vision, or a story in which the main character falls asleep and dreams the events in the story. Dream visions are often filled with surreal, fantastic, and illogical events that make it difficult for the reader to discern what really is happening. Washington Irving’s tale about Rip Van Winkle is an example of a dream vision. In Irving’s story, Rip falls asleep for several years and, upon waking, learns that things have changed drastically. In Cheever’s version of the dream vision, Neddy is not said to have fallen asleep, but he similarly ages considerably during his surreal journey. Within the span of an afternoon, Neddy grows older, can no longer trust his memory, and finds that the seasons have changed. As in dreams, time does not have meaning and events seem illogical for Neddy.
The meanings of the names mentioned in “The Swimmer” are considered significant. The name of Levy, for example, brings to mind the word levee, a word associated with water. Likewise, the Welchers’ pool is empty; as welshers, they have disappointed Neddy by not having water in their pool and living up to their “word.” Neddy’s desire to get home to his wife and warm home is reflected in his wife’s name, Lucinda, which means light. Several other names given in the story are related to water. For example, Merrill means “sea-bright”; Lear means “dweller by the sea”; the Clyde is a river in Scotland; and Halloran means “stranger from beyond the sea.” The name Lear also brings to mind the Shakespearean king who lapsed into madness and lost his belongings and family. Critics have noted that names like Hammers, Bunkers, and Crosscups foreshadow violence, and that the owners of the pools that Neddy encounters in the first half of the tale are largely of Anglo-Saxon descent, much like Neddy. The names that are mentioned in the second half of the story, during which Neddy becomes more and more alienated, are more ethnically diverse.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, John Cheever, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.