The Swimmer by John Cheever
Oct 06, 2011
The Swimmer by John Cheever
Neddy’s journey home through the pools of his neighborhood turns into a journey
through many years of his life, showing that passage of time is inevitable, no matter how
much one might ignore it. Neddy has mastered the art of denial. At the beginning of the
story, the narrator tells us that Neddy is far from young, but he does his best to act
young by sliding down a banister and dividing headlong into a pool. The long afternoon
at the Westerhazy’s pool seems timeless, no different, we can assume, from many
others afternoons spent exactly the same way.
As Neddy’s journey progresses, we see that time is actually passing much more
quickly than Neddy realizes. Leaves and hedges turn yellow and red, the constellations
in the sky change, and the air gets colder. Friends not at home when he expects them
to be, he faces scorn from the people he would once scorned, his mistress wants
nothing to do with him, and he learns that a friend has been very ill. All these changes
have happened without Neddy’s knowledge. Neddy question his memory, but he also
wonders whether he has simply denied reality to a dangerous degree. His peers have
acted their age and faced adult problems, whereas he has raised.
The pervasive consumption of alcohol throughout the story sharpens the distortion
of time and Neddy’s sense of unhappiness. The drinking, serving, and desire for alcohol
become significant motivators for Neddy as well as a way to measure his social
standing. At the beginning of the story, everyone is complaining of having drunk too
much the night before, but they have gathered companionably at the Westerhazys’ pool
to drink again. Neddy drinks gin before he decides to swim from pool to pool, and his
swim home is marked as much by fresh drinks as by new swimming pool. At the
Bunkers’ party, Neddy feels comforted and happy when he is given a drink, whereas at
the Biswangers’ party, he feels slighted by the way his drink is served.
As his journey grows more difficult, Neddy wishes deeply for a drink but is often
turned down, once at the Sachses’ and once at Shirley Adam’s. His desire for a drink
grows strongly as he grows weaker, and the amount of alcohol he has consumed during
his journey could explain clearly the harsh bewildering emotional place in which Neddy
finds himself at the end of the story.
The pools that Neddy swims through as he makes his way home represent periods
of time that Neddy passes through. At the beginning of the story, Neddy is strong and
active, feels deep contentment with his life, and is admired by his friends. Warm is the
sun, he feels like a legendary figure, as though there is nothing he can’t accomplish.
As he progresses from pool to pool, however, Neddy changes. Physically, he grows
weaker, unable to pull himself out of pool without a ladder and unwilling to drive in as he
once did. Instead of being warm, he eventually feels chilled to the bone. Around him, the
sunny summer day grows increasingly cooler, and a storm passes. The trees,
meanwhile, lose their leaves, and the constellations change to those of autumn. His
standing in his social circle has changed as well. Once respected and given to snubbing
those who are not part of his group, he is now snubbed by Grace Biswanger and the
bartender at the party, Which Neddy is not aware that he has suffered. A lot has
happened as he has been moving from pool to pool.
Neddy has named the chain of pools the “Lucinda River”, invoking the security and
longevity of his marriage and family, but his choice of name becomes sad and ironic
when he winds up at his dark, deserted home. Neddy has taken Lucinda, just as he took
his comfortable life, for granted. We...