‘The Swimmer’ (1964) is John Cheever’s best-known story. This tale, which fuses realist and surrealist elements, 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. But what are some of the key symbols of ‘The Swimmer’, and how should we interpret them?
‘The Swimmer’ carries the suggestion of a dream, as if Merrill has in fact dreamt all of the illogical events that take place on his swim home. This would explain the condensation of several months into a single afternoon, and the fact that Merrill goes from happily married father of four at the story’s outset to a homeless divorced man by the end. And in dreams, images often contain several different meanings condensed into one symbol: a phenomenon which Sigmund Freud called condensation.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most prominent and important pieces of symbolism in Cheever’s story.
Cheever’s story begins in ‘midsummer’, which takes place around the end of June, when the nights are shortest and the hours of daylight are longest in the year. Although we use the term ‘midsummer’ for this time of year, it’s really near the beginning of the season we tend to call summer, in the northern hemisphere (and in the West).
The fact that ‘The Swimmer’ begins on a Sunday afternoon (itself symbolic of long hours of idleness, days off work, rest and relaxation) in midsummer is laden with significance. It suggests possibility, not least Neddy Merrill’s belief that he can regain his youth, which he now possesses only in an illusory sense (his slender body, the narrator tells us, is like young man’s, but he is ‘far from young’ in fact).
Indeed, early on in the story Cheever’s narrator tells us that Neddy Merrill might have been compared to the summer’s day (an allusion to the famous Shakespeare sonnet), ‘particularly the last hours of one’. The addition of these six qualifying words hints at what is to come later in the story: the decline of the day into night, and summer into autumn.
As ‘The Swimmer’ progresses, we realise that it is not midsummer any more. Towards the end of the story, as he stands in the garden of his mistress Shirley Adams, Merrill can smell flowers, which he thinks are either chrysanthemums or marigolds. These flowers suggest an ‘autumnal fragrance’ to him.
It is as if he is now realising that it is no longer summer, the ‘prime’ of the year, just as he is no longer in the prime of his life (as evinced by his inability to charm his former mistress with whom he played away from home).
The gradual and surreal movement from midsummer to autumn in ‘The Swimmer’ – even though the events clearly happen over the course of one Sunday afternoon – is mirrored by the gradual waning of the sunlight as the night comes on. Note that even the day of the week on which Merrill’s swim home takes place contains mention of this powerful symbol: Sunday. The second paragraph of the story contains two references to the heat of the sun, and later in the story, Merrill will recall sitting in the sun at the Westerhazys’ house.
Of course, these two phenomena – declining summer and declining daylight – are related: Merrill thinks it won’t get dark until late in the evening because he believes, at the outset of the story, that it is still midsummer, around the longest day of the year. He begins the story on this bright day, in the company of his wife, Lucinda (whose name means ‘light’), although his hosts, the Westerhazys, have a name which foreshadows the westering of the sun (i.e., towards the western horizon, where it sets), as well as the hazy recollections of his life which Merrill has.
But the smell of those marigolds or chrysanthemums (the latter, we should not forget, a symbol of death in some countries and cultures) come to him in Shirley Adams’ garden on ‘the night air’: darkness has already arrived. This suggests the decline of Merrill’s youth and the onset of (late?) middle age, and also prefigures the final image of the story: Merrill’s home (which is no longer his home) which is ‘dark’, we are told, as well as ‘empty’.
Water and Swimming.
Water is a potent symbol in John Cheever’s story. Again, this reinforces the idea that the whole story may be nothing more than a dream which Merrill has experienced: hence the illogical developments over the course of a single afternoon and evening. Water is associated with early, primal memories – think of the amniotic fluid in which the unborn baby sits while in the womb.
It is significant that Merrill himself feminises the watery spaces in the story, condensing all of those various pools into one single ‘stream’ (which later is upgraded to a river, the ‘Lucinda River’) which he names after his wife. Is this an act of atonement for his former affair (at some unspecified time in the past) with Shirley Adams? Is this his unconscious pricking his conscience over his infidelity?
Or might we even view his act of swimming home via a Freudian perspective, and see it as his unconscious attempt to swim back to the womb, that space where he was happiest and safest?