John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

Prior to this evening, I had never read anything by John Cheever, so I was quite unprepared to encounter a story with such a wealth of wit, imagination and insight. “The Swimmer” is impossibly dense, and I’m sure a blog post won’t do it justice. It is, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking, casting an astute satire on suburban ennui while wisely dissecting human nature in broad strokes of the scalpel. The protagonist, Neddy Merrill, begins the story by undertaking a mission to “swim” across his suburban neighborhood, which in his limited scope of perspective means ambling from one gaudy house to the next, eking a drink out of his neighbors’ bars, swimming the length of their respective pools, and moving on. Even from the beginning of the story, I think Cheever’s aim is to examine the pratfalls of self-delusion or willful ignorance. We meet a character whose worldview is completely contained within the artifice of cocktail parties and the ensuing small talk that as far as he’s concerned, an “adventure” is merely a leisurely tour through the places he’s already been and the people he’s already met, all of which resemble one another uncannily. He considers his bizarre, meandering path a “stream” and names it after his wife, but it neither flows like a body of water nor resembles the processes of love. Cheever’s clever wordplay deliberately underplays the fact that a story billed as an epic journey is really just an account of a man getting drunk and systematically bothering his neighbors.

That is, until the story evolves into a surreal, Kafka-esque fantasy, at which point the implications of Cheever’s satire are inflated astronomically and Neddy’s stupid ramblings become allegorical of the universal tragedies of life. As his mission unfolds in a series of independently trite episodes, Neddy becomes apparently unhinged from time and space, a revelation that Cheever lets leak out very carefully, whetting the reader’s appetite with subtle and ambiguous foreshadowing. As an indeterminate amount of time passes, Neddy becomes vaguely aware of several extremely important events in his life that seem to have occurred while he was on his pointless crusade between drinks and swimming pools. He appears to have missed a love affair, a series of financial and familial tragedies, the illness of a close friend, and his own decline from a social dynamo (as far as he was concerned) to a pitiable pariah. The “point,” I think, can be oversimplified thusly: in circumstances bereft of variance or real interpersonal satisfaction, we find ways to distract ourselves from life and wind up blocking its most significant moments from our minds. Neddy gives himself an arbitrary goal, full of repetitive episodes, and follows it brainlessly, drunkenly, hopelessly. And in the process, his life simply moves on without him. I’ve only just read it for the first time, but “The Swimmer” strikes me as a close look at self-deception and cognitive dissonance. It’s about the ways we shield ourselves from painful memories and self-examination, about that moment we’re all doomed to reach when we look back on the events that most boldly marked our decades on this earth and feel as though we never saw them happen. Cheever deserves high marks for finding humor in this topic, and for presenting it in an entirely original manner. Some questions:

1. This story pulls off a balancing act between the fantastically surreal and the bleakly realistic. Can this story succeed simultaneously as an allegory and a character study? Or does one interpretation cheapen the other?

2. This story can be read with varying degrees of literalism. Is Neddy like Rip Van Winkle, a regular man caught up in a bizarre anomaly of time? Or has this story occurred “in his head,” as it were? Are we reading about a regular person plagued by nightmarish circumstances, or is this story a portrait of a broken mind?

3. We never learn much about the events Neddy seems to have “missed” or “forgotten.” Does this lack of exposition service the story or lessen its impact? Why?

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6 Responses to John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

  1. vlevasseur11 says:

    To answer your third question, I think that having an exposition would lessen the impact of this story. The way it is written, the reader must stay attentive and search for small details that reveal information about Neddy’s situation. Once we find out about his past experiences and current state (i.e., house was sold and family is gone, asked neighbors for money, cheated on his wife) we are left to decide whether or not Neddy was aware of this, or if he dissociated from reality completely after it all became overwhelming for him (“was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth (2412)?”).
    Also, without the exposition we are taken into the private lives of an upper middle class neighborhood where people gossip, “drink too much,” judge others based on their financial state (i.e., the Biswangers) and political stances (i.e., the Hallorans). Also, the way the information about Neddy and his family is revealed is in the form of party gossip and backyard conversation with neighbors (pg. 2415). This also serves to represent the suburbian life.

    I was also curious what everyone thought about Neddy’s experience at the public pool. It seemed like the author was describing the scene through Neddy’s eyes and perspectives. Was the author criticizing the aloof attitudes of Neddy and his fellow neighbors (pg. 2413)?

  2. sfeingold12 says:

    First of all, I really enjoyed this story. I find the psychological effect of it very moving. I, like the original poster, could not help connecting this story to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. Neddy is much like Rip in that he seems to have lost massive periods of time. The difference is that in Rip’s story we know how he missed the majority of his life, but in Neddy’s it is left up to the reader. It is left up to the reader to piece together the conclusion of his story. In response to question 2, I feel that we are reading about a story about a man who came on some rough times (bottom of page 2415), and has turned to drinking to deal with it. Because of Neddy’s excessive drinking, he “blacks out” for a good part of his life.

    There are several references to “drinking too much.” In fact the story opens up describing the different people that would comment on how they drank too much. As the story slowly comes to an end we see Shirley Adams flat out refuse to give him a drink: “I could but I won’t. I’m not alone.” This to me seems to give reference to that Neddy may very well be an alcoholic.

    We talked about Rips story we spent a great deal of time talking about how it was a commentary for the time (whether it be with treatment of women, or the lack of change after the revolutionary war,) Do you feel that there are similar commentaries to be found after reading “The Swimmer”? This story was written post Great Depression, do you think this story could be a social commentary about the effects of the depression on people?

  3. elliejo44 says:

    I think the connection to Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” is an interesting one. But while Rip misses an entire piece of his life due to a spell in the woods, the reader is left unsure as to why Neddy misses out on so many important details in his life, as mentioned in previous comments. While I don’t think that Neddy’s possible alcoholism “explains” his missing out on the important details of his life, I think that the partying and drinking is important to the story.
    Despite all the parties and dinners and affairs, Neddy’s life seems devoid of any real human connection. The fact that he and other characters drink so much I think points to the artificiality and dullness of their relationships. The way Neddy also reassures the Sachses’ that “‘Lucinda and I want terribly to see you… We’re sorry it’s been so long and we’ll call you very soon” (2415) seems like a polite way to end a conversation rather than a genuine wish to see them.
    To me, this story speaks to the lack of real humanity and genuine relationships in post-war society- perhaps due to what is seen as a particularly materialistic point in American history. The lack of anything genuine in Neddy’s life forces him to create adventure in swimming “across the country,” but even in this false adventure he encounters dullness and empty, meaningless social obligations. Neddy is so focused on the superficial and obligatory that he misses the genuine, real, and true.

  4. dmsda says:

    I think the water/liquid imagery is an excellent allegory to capitalism. Liquid can be swallowed easily, like alcohol, and conversely can easily swallow you, swimming pool. It touches everything, like the rain, and it appears as a facet of everyday life.

  5. jnikol12 says:

    Yes, this story can absolutely manage to be a broad allegory and a character study at the same time. The bigger, more holistic tale is woven gently into what can be considered a fairly realistic story. Elements of the story that lead the reader toward discovering allegory disguise themselves as every-day occurrences – the change of season is disguised as a brief storm, the central character’s physical and mental deterioration due to age as drunkenness and fatigue from swimming. The inevitable passage of one’s lifetime shows itself through the passing of only one afternoon. The story’s realistic, “day-to-day” layer, while quite noticeably coated with surrealistic and allegorical implications, remains enthralling and fun to read without being bogged down by any overt or distracting symbolism that would “cheapen” its charm…if you could call this story charming anyway.

    As Vicky noted about the public pool scene, the story is told through Neddy’s eyes. For this reason, it’s a good thing that we remain fairly uninformed about the details of Neddy’s misfortunes in life. He himself chooses to ignore them, so our ignorance about them as readers helps us enter Neddy’s world of willful ignorance more deeply.

  6. dmsda says:

    I find it interesting that the moment he is forced to realize his own fate is the moment he must cross the highway- also a man made river in a way. A moment he is totally unprepared for dressed in his swim trunks surrounded by broken beer bottles, trash and hostile drivers but crosses nonetheless. He contemplated turning back. Was turning back even possible? What would have happened to him if he did turn back?

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