By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Swimmer’ is a 1964 short story by the American writer John Cheever (1912-82), published in his collection The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. Cheever’s best-known story, ‘The Swimmer’ is about a middle-aged married man who decides to travel home from his friends’ house one summer afternoon, swimming in the various swimming pools he encounters on his route.
Notable themes of Cheever’s story include memory, relationships, American suburban life, affluence, and middle age, and the story’s narrative elements can be read variously as allegorical, symbolic, and literal. Before we offer an analysis of this fascinating story, here’s a summary of its plot.
‘The Swimmer’: plot summary
The story is set in one of the suburbs of Westchester County in the state of New York, and begins with married couple Neddy and Lucinda Merrill at the house of their friends, the Westerhazys, one midsummer Sunday afternoon. Neddy, who is a keen swimmer, works out that he can leave the Westerhazys’ cocktail party and travel the eight miles back to his home by working his way through a series of his friends’ back gardens, swimming the length of their swimming pools as he goes. He thinks about his four daughters who are waiting at home.
When Lucinda asks him where he is going, he tells her he is going to swim home. He begins to do so, visiting the various gardens and swimming pools of his friends and swimming across each pool before continuing on his journey. As he does so, we begin to get a sense that Neddy and his wife are used to declining invitations from these various friends and never socialising with them.
He is feeling happy when he reaches the halfway point of his journey, and helps himself to a drink from the Levys, who have recently vacated their garden.
He hears several peals of thunder and decides to shelter in the Levys’ gazebo until the storm has passed. At the next two gardens, he discovers that the Lindleys appear to have gone away, and the Welchers’ pool is empty and they have put their house up for sale.
Continuing on his journey, Neddy makes his way through the traffic to the public pool, where the water is less clear and salubrious than at the earlier pools he’d swum in; he also finds the various rules at the pool off-putting. Nevertheless, he braves the waters and continues to the house of an elderly couple known as the Hallorans.
They are political reformers who are suspected of being Communists (although in fact they are not), and Neddy recalls that they swim naked in their pool. So as a mark of respect, when he reaches their pool and explains what he is doing, he removes his trunks and swims the length of their pool, naked.
Before he leaves, Mrs Halloran tells him she was sorry to hear about his misfortunes, and the fact that he’d had to sell his house and something had happened to his ‘poor children’. This is news to Neddy, who is sure that his children are at home. As he leaves their garden, he starts to feel lame and worn out. What had seemed a good idea at the outset now seemed less so.
Deciding he needs a strong drink as a stimulant, he crosses to the house where the Hallorans’ daughter, Helen, lives with her husband, Eric. There he is shocked to learn that Eric, a friend of his, had a serious operation three years earlier, and he had completely forgotten all about it.
Now he starts to wonder whether the Hallorans are correct and he has somehow managed to repress the knowledge that he has sold his own house. He learns that Helen and Eric have no drink in the house and Helen directs him to the Biswangers, who are having a loud party nearby. Making vague promises about calling Helen and Eric soon to arrange a get-together with them, he leaves them.
As he approaches the Biswangers, Neddy recalls that he and Lucinda always turn down regular invitations to parties at their house because they belong to a different social set and they have nothing in common: the Biswangers are obsessed with money. It is now starting to get dark and Neddy feels uncomfortable. When he tries to get a drink, he is approached by an argumentative Grace Biswanger, who reproves him for gate-crashing this party and ignoring the invitations she and her husband send out to him and Lucinda.
Once he has drunk a whiskey, Neddy swims the length of their pool and continues on his way. The next pool on his route belongs to Shirley Adams, Neddy’s former mistress, although he cannot remember when they had an affair. He remembered being the one who had ended the affair, however, and how this had made Shirley upset.
Shirley is frosty when she sees him, and refuses to give him a drink. She also suspects he is after money, and tells Neddy that she has company. He swims her pool, struggling to climb out because he is now so exhausted. He sees a young man inside Shirley’s bathhouse. Suddenly, as he feels the summer turning to autumn, Neddy feels overwhelmed by sadness and cries for probably the first time in his adult life.
Fatigued, he swims two more pools belonging to the Gilmartins and the Clydes, paddling the latter because he is so tired. He realises he has finished the final swim but his triumph is of a vague kind.
When he arrives home, he finds the house plunged in darkness and rust on the handles of the garage doors. He wonders if the cook or maid had accidentally locked up the house, but then recalls that they have not employed either a cook or a maid for some time.
The story ends with Neddy pounding on the door and looking in at the windows, realising that the house is completely empty.
‘The Swimmer’: analysis
Perhaps the most significant key to understanding ‘The Swimmer’ can be found in a comment John Cheever himself made. He noted that he initially planned to write a story about a kind of latter-day Narcissus, that figure from Greek mythology who shunned those who loved him only to be destroyed when he caught sight of his reflection in the water and fell in love with his own beauty.
As we have remarked in our discussion of the Narcissus myth, the key part of the story is Narcissus’ behaviour before he fell in love with his own reflection: namely, his self-absorption and his callous disregard for those around him, including those who fell in love with his beauty. And although Cheever later discarded the idea of narrowly retelling the Narcissus myth, ‘The Swimmer’ bears more than a passing resemblance to that tale, and so Cheever’s tale takes on the force of a modern American myth: Narcissus meets the Great Gatsby set.
For Neddy Merrill, like Narcissus, is clearly self-absorbed and spurns his and his wife’s friends, always ignoring or turning down their invitations to parties (something that makes us question the reality of that opening scene: what made Neddy and Lucinda attend the Westerhazys’ cocktail party – or are they not, in fact, at the party together after all?).
His curse is to realise that his life has in fact already been destroyed, his marriage is over, his children have disappeared, and he has lost his house: the modern American suburban equivalent of drowning and having your body turned into flowers (which is what happened to Narcissus).
Time does extraordinary things in ‘The Swimmer’, although we are left in some doubt whether this is some kind of magical or supernatural effect (touching upon what we almost classify as surrealism) or whether, because the story’s action is focalised so narrowly from Neddy’s perspective, this is merely a result of his hazy memory and his unconscious repression of certain recent, traumatic developments in his life.
Viewed this way, we might summarise the back-story to ‘The Swimmer’ as follows: Neddy Merrill, who was married to Lucinda and lived in a house with them and their children, had an affair with Shirley Adams and this, coupled perhaps with some financial problems he was in (note how it isn’t just as the Biswangers’ party that the talk turns to money: Shirley assumes he’s turned up to borrow some, suggesting he has done this in the past), led to the breakdown of their marriage.
This explains why the house is empty: for instance, if it was being sold following their divorce.
But such an explanation or interpretation of the story’s events may strike us as too literal an analysis of what is intended to be an allegorical narrative. Here, the waning of summer and onset of autumn is suggestive of a host of other things: the passing of youth and arrival of middle age, or the decline of a marriage, to offer just two possibilities.
The fact that the story begins (or appears to begin?) one midsummer day at a party that’s in full swing and with Neddy’s marriage intact, and that it ends (or appears to end?) at the beginning of autumn with the party over, and Neddy’s marriage finished, is meant to be read as symbolic of life more generally, and the natural decline to which love, youth, and even financial success are often prone.
Even the name of their friends, Westerhazy, is itself a suggestion of the sun westering or heading towards sunset, as well as the ‘hazy’ recollections Neddy will experience throughout Cheever’s story.
This doubt about how young and fresh and vigorous things really are is present throughout ‘The Swimmer’, but when John Cheever first introduces us to Neddy Merrill – sitting with one hand in the water he loves to swim in, and the other around the alcoholic drink he seems overly fond of, that other liquid he seems almost to drown in – he is described as having the ‘slenderness of youth’ despite being, in reality, ‘far from young’.
Indeed, he is cocksure when we first meet him: we learn that only that very morning he had spanked the backside of the statue of Aphrodite standing in the hallway of his home. This act of sacrilege towards the Greek goddess of love is then confirmed by his callous attitude towards Shirley Adams, his mistress, whose feelings he clearly thought little of when he used her and then cast her aside.
This ungallant attitude towards women and love is, however, countered by the fact that he names his route home Lucinda, recasting the sequence of swimming pools as a kind of late-capitalist version of the natural river.
Is this because he is, or at least believes he is, swimming home to her? Or is he attempting to exorcise her from his memory, because – somewhere in his unconscious – he knows things are over between them, that ‘Lucinda’ is something (or someone) he must negotiate and come to terms with, if he is ever to find his way back ‘home’ and come to terms with the end of his marriage?
As these questions suggest – and there can be no definitive answer to them when John Cheever’s text characteristically withholds some of the key information from us – the symbolic and the actual details of ‘The Swimmer’ work somewhat in tandem throughout the story, so that we need to interpret and analyse everything as somehow both metaphorical and literal as we read it.