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"The Swimmer" by John Cheever: Summary and Analysis

"The Swimmer" by John Cheever: Summary and Analysis

Growing older is one of the hardest challenges we face in life, and if that obstacle is dealt with in a rash manner, and without much thought it can lead to feelings of helplessness, denial, confusion, and resentment. John Cheever addresses this issue in one of his most noted works, "The Summer". This article gives you its summary and analysis.
Penlighten Staff
Inspiration
"The Swimmer" was remade into a movie of the same name in 1968, starring Burt Lancaster as Neddy Merrill.
When we possess all the luxuries in the world, we often lose sight of things that are important, like responsibility and relationships. Such ignorance often leads a person to feel helpless, angry, confused, and resentful. And when this happens, we assume that the easiest way to deal with it is through denial or repression. But such measures only go so far to protect us from reality. Eventually, the facts catch up with us and we are thrown into a world of chaos.

John Cheever's "The Swimmer" is a short story based on one such man, who had all the affluence and respect he wanted from society, but instead of valuing it, he squandered it away in a manner that led him to lose his family, his friendships, and eventually - a part of himself. It is the portrait of the lives of people in post World War II suburban America, and the lifestyles and experiences of people during that time. This Penlighten article brings you the literary analysis of "The Swimmer", along with its summary.
"THE SWIMMER": A Summary
Introduction to the Character and the Journey
This short story begins by drawing a picture of suburban America, and the life of one man, Neddy Merrill, who is at the Westerhazys' (a friend) residence. It begins by showing us how life revolved around affluence, drinking, and sports, and how they spent the weekends relaxing and drinking. It is a beautiful summer day with apple trees blooming in the background. Neddy is by a beautiful shimmering pool, and being a man who loved swimming, he goes in to perform the act. He seems to be young, energetic, and lives a life filled with ease and comfort. While in the pool, he comes up with the seemingly bright idea of covering the distance between the Westerhazy residence and back to his home by swimming in the pools of the people who live within that route. These are friends and he takes it for granted that no one will mind, and he imagines that he will have the journey of an explorer, much like those swimming the English Channel. He decides to name this swimming route the Lucinda River after his wife.
The Journey
At first he goes through each of the homes with ease, met with greetings from his friends and invitations for a drink, which he gladly accepts. He takes a swim in their pools, and moves on to the next. This happens with the Grahams, the Hammers, and the Lears. The Howlands and the Crossups are away and he finishes his swim and is on his way, following the route of pools he has worked out in his head. The Bunkers are next and they too greet him and let him have a go at the pool. The shift occurs when he reaches the Levys' home. He notices that they aren't home and looks up to see the skies clouding up. After his swim, the storm takes full force and he stops for shelter at the gazebo. Looking at the Japanese lanterns that were hung there, he cannot recall when the Levys had visited Japan. The storm seems to have stripped away the leaves from the trees and they oddly bear the colors of autumn. He then goes to the Lindley home and finds the pool covered, and the family away. This break in the journey disappoints him, but nonetheless, he carries on to the Welchers' home. This is another climactic turn where he is faced by a dry pool and a "for-sale" sign in the front yard. This comes as a surprise to him, because he doesn't recall remembering his friends moving. This makes him question his memory.

The storm passes, and his moods lift as he moves on to route 424 in the direction of the public pool in Lancaster. Here he is faced with another harsh reality. He is aware that crossing the highway in his minimal clothing will prove to be a problem, but something pushes him to finish his journey. After being mocked at and ridiculed by the passers-by, he eventually crosses over and heads into the public pool. The murky, chlorinated waters, and chaos in the pool seems distasteful to him, but he follows through with his original plan.
Altering Reality and Ensuing Confusion
His next stop is the Halloran house. He is aware that the Hallorans enjoyed naked swims, and to conform with that he follows suit and takes his routine swim. This is a turning point because discrepancies in the facts seem to emerge. The Hallorans tell him that they were sorry to hear about his misfortunes, the selling of his property, and the problems in his family. He seems puzzled, because he has no recollection of these events. His mood shifts to a depressed and confused state, and the smell of burning wood adds to this (in his mind, it is mid-summer). But he keeps going. He meets the Sachses next, and requests for a drink, and is surprised to hear that his friend Eric had an operation three years ago, after which he had avoided alcohol. He swims in the pool and goes to the Biswangers and his confused state reaches a high, when instead of a warm welcome he faces a cold and unwelcoming host. He is even treated badly by the bartender and realizes that his social standing must have fallen because that treatment by a barkeep is a serious offense. He then overhears Grace Biswanger saying that "They went for broke overnight - nothing but income - and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars...". We realize here that this is said in relation to Neddy, but he seems all the more perplexed.
Final Realization
He then heads to Shirley Adams' house, with whom he has an affair previously, but is faced by a rude remark from her saying that if he is there for the money, he isn't going to get another penny. He hasn't expected this reaction. We see a change in him, as the once energetic and warm Ned, slowly starts feeling tired and cold, and climbs out of the pool, instead of hoisting himself up. Looking up at the sky, he sees the autumn constellations and his misery and confusion reaches a painful point and he breaks into tears. He swims through the last two pools in pain, and finally reaches home. He is surprised to find the house locked and in darkness. He tries the garage door which is rusty. When he looks into the house it is empty, and the story ends on a climactic high.
"THE SWIMMER": Analysis
Themes
Swift Passage of Time
Neddy lives in a world of denial and his act of repressing painful events has led him to lose track of time. But as we all know, time eventually catches up with us, and throws reality into our faces when we least expect it. This is seen through the quick changing of the seasons and the seemingly sudden aging you see in Neddy.

Changing Face of Suburbia
The suburbs are marked by an unmentioned hierarchy in the social class and people seem to have a one-track mind. Every home seems to have the same show of affluence, the same participation in socialization and alcohol consumption, and the same masked pretense of closeness. At first he is treated as royalty because he is rich and successful, but slowly we see that the treatment meted out to him is cold and harsh. People who were once friends and lovers have now left his side. Even he has judged people based on wealth, and the very same people now look down upon him. The fact that everyone is boundlessly consuming alcohol seems in a sense an attempt by them all to conceal the facade that they live each day.

Repression of Reality and Hopelessness
Ned seems to live in a world of denial and his need to avoid painful memories, details, and occurrences is reflected in his confused state when he hears certain facts. In his mind he has repressed the truth in order to avoid dealing with the consequences, but they eventually catch up with him in a heart-breaking manner. He is pained by the truth and is hopeless because he doesn't realize up until now that his actions have cost him everything that he loved and that it is too late to do anything about it.
Symbolisms
The Pool
The central symbolism in the short story is the water and the pools themselves. They are reflective of the changes faced by Ned. At first the pool is shimmering and a pale green shade, which is a symbol of youth and experience. He seems to reflect that because he is active and energetic for his age, and always up for adventures. The following pool is just as inviting with its sapphire hue. But as his journey moves along, things take a dark turn. The pools turn murky, and so do his experiences. He is then faced by the opaque gold pool where he faces the first truth, and the cold pool of Biswanger where he faces his second blow. Ned uses the water as a barrier between himself and the world, and the colors represent the changes in his life. The dry pool he faces is a symbol of the mid-life crisis that he is facing, and being in water is his means of avoiding the truth.

Changing Seasons and its Elements
Just like the pool, the changing weather and the "untimely" constellations in the sky reflect the changing reality that Ned has to face. It goes through four seasons, giving us the image of a complete process, and symbolizing the cycle of life. The storm in the story represents the problems that he has faced and forgotten, and the crashing of his mistakes down on his made-up reality. The cumulus clouds can be seen as a symbol for his clouded memory.
Changing Seasons
Changing Seasons
Nudity
The nudity that he partakes in at the Halloran house can be a reflection of the vulnerability that he feels to face the truth.
Motifs
Alcohol
The alcohol can be seen as an escape from reality and an attempt to mask the harsh facts. It could have also be used to explain the changing mental state of Merrill. He seems disoriented, mentally impaired, has heightened energy, is confused, fatigued and shaky. These are all signs of being under the influence and may have been the cause of his loss of memory and confused memory of events.

The Map and Journey
The map he has drawn out in his head to swim the route of pools on his way home can be seen as his journey to realization through a carefully charted path. At first it is all rainbows and roses, but it eventually turns into storms and misery.
Main Character Sketch
Ned Merrill
Ned is a disillusioned man who lives in a twisted reality that was born out of his repression of the truth. His youth slowly seems to face away and show that he is actually much older and facing mid-life crisis, and the life he thought he had, has all slipped away, including his wealth, friends, and family.

Mrs. Biswanger & Mrs. Halloran
They are both characters that hurl the reality back into Ned's face and at the same time reflect two different aspects of suburban society, the need to gossip and the importance placed on social class, and the need to interact socially.

Shirley Adams
She is his former lover and the portrait of all the mistakes that Ned has made attributed to one single human.
Repetition
John Cheever uses clever repetition in the beginning of the story to imprint the picture of the suburbs and its people into our minds.
Imagery
The detailed description of the changing color in the pools, of the seasons, with the leaves, the stars, the clouds, and the storm is a clever tactic used by the author to paint a picture of the changes.
Style
Observational narrative, satire, social parable.
Setting
The story is set in the early 1960s' New York City suburbs on a Sunday afternoon.
Tone
There is a tonal shift from a lazy, relaxed, beautiful Sunday afternoon to a frantic, confusing, painful, stormy, and nightmarish journey towards realization.
Point of View
It is presented from a third person's point of view.
Irony
Ned names his route through the swimming pools Lucinda River, after his wife. Lucinda stands for "light" and what was supposed to be a bright, sunny, and warm journey leaves him in darkness, storms (both outside and in his mind), and a painful end.
Conflict
There is conflict both internally due to his confused reality and memories, and external conflict with his friends, neighbors, and family, which is shown indirectly throughout the story.
Foreshadowing
The constant change in weather and the comments made by the people all built-up to the ominous end.
Allegory
The story is an allegory for aging, mid-life crisis, and the cycle of life.
Historical Context
This story is based on Post World War II affluence experienced by suburban America, and the story is a reflection of the lives and ideals of the people back then. Cheever himself was a part of this time period and it is probably written from experience.
Some Terms Explained
Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia - Autumn Constellations.
Andromeda
Cassiopeia
Cepheus
Aphrodite - Greek Goddess of Love.

Channel Swimmers - Athletes who swim across the English Channel between France and England.

Cordite - An Explosive.

Dogleg - Bend in a golf fairway. It resembles the angle between a dog's upper and lower hind leg.

de Havilland Trainer - A biplane that was used to train pilots.

Gazebo - Small structure with a roof, open sides, and seating accommodations from which people may view scenery.

Kyoto - A city in Southwest Tokyo.

Quasi-subterranean - Partially Underground.

Stertorously - Breathing laboriously, like snoring.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born on May 27, 1912, John Cheever was an American short story writer. Because of his subject matter, which largely focused on suburban life, and the skill with which he executed it, he was known as the "Chekhov of the suburbs". His themes included the duality found in human nature, and the conflict between the characters' social persona and real nature, and his opposing characters represented the light and dark side of nature.

His compilation of short stories, named "The Stories of John Cheever" won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1979, along with a National Book Critics Circle Award. The paperback edition won the National Book Award in 1981. He was also awarded the National Medal for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters on April 27, 1982, and his work has been included in the Library of America. He died of cancer on June 18, 1982.