Living in a Dream World: Fantasy and Social Hierarchy in Cheever’s “The Swimmer”
John Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer,” describes the epic journey of Neddy Merrill as he attempts to swim his way back home. Throughout the story, readers continually question reality and fantasy while wondering whether Merrill is really experiencing what Cheever portrays or if he is simply stuck in the past. Merrill goes from house to house as he freestyles across each swimming pool along the way. As the story draws to the end, Cheever points out that Merrill’s world is not what it seems and he has really lost everything he loved. An analysis of “The Swimmer” by John Cheever through the liberal humanist and Marxist lenses suggests that the story is really about how our human desire to relive pass successes and the pursuit of materialism will eventually lead to downfall.
Looking at “The Swimmer” through the liberal humanist lens suggests that the story is really about how living in a fantasy world and believing in a false youth will cause ignorance of reality and the loss identity. In the story, Neddy Merrill seems to be living in a fantasy world as he heavily drinks alcohol, socializes at parties, and attempts to swim through the neighborhood. The real world appears to be quite different for Neddy Merrill and the truth is not good for him. After one particular swim through a pool, Neddy Merrill notices something strange; “He dove in and swam the pool, but when he tried to haul himself up onto the curb he found that the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone” (Cheever 2050). Now Merrill is starting to have thoughts about reality and questions what is happening to him. He began his journey youthful and enthusiastic, but now he feels weak and worried. He is unsure of himself and is beginning to lose himself a bit. In a critical essay regarding Cheever’s use of Merrill’s transition, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet say: “Perhaps the second half of the story, in which Ned is an older man, is the reality, and the midsummer beginning of his water odyssey is just a happy reverie of better times.” Merrill has been ignoring reality and he has lied to himself, thinking back to his youth where his live was probably much better. He has denied himself the truth and now he does not know who he truly is. Merrill’s confusion builds up as he spirals down.
Looking at “The Swimmer” through the liberal humanist lens also suggests that the story is about how living in a dream world while avoiding reality will not change your fate and it will ultimately catch up with you. Throughout the story, Neddy Merrill is living life as he dreams, but it is not the real world. He is an old, lonely man who has severely lost his way. At the end of the story, Merrill finally reaches his destination: his house, but he finds his home far different that he once remembered. “He shouted, pounded on the door tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty” (Cheever 2051). Merrill has been living in a dream world for so long that he didn’t even know what had happened to his house and his family. He has tried to avoid his problems by drinking and partying but he cannot run away from it. In Greg Barnhisel’s work overview of “The Swimmer”, he describes Neddy’s fate when he finally makes arrives at his home: “All of the unidentified troubles now confront the traveler [Neddy] and he can no longer escape them.” Neddy Merrill tried to outrun fate, but fate, in the end, won the race. Merrill is left with no home, no family, and no future.
Looking at “The Swimmer” through the liberal humanist lens also suggests that the story is about how time is a force of nature that cannot be controlled and attempts to control it will destroy one’s sense of reality. All his life, Neddy Merrill has been constantly going through the same routine. Merrill has had to attend neighbor’s parties, drink himself into inebriation, and show off...
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