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 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.
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.
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.
The nudity that he partakes in at the Halloran house can be a reflection of the vulnerability that he feels to face the truth.
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.
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.
She is his former lover and the portrait of all the mistakes that Ned has made attributed to one single human.
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.
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.