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In “The Swimmer”, John Cheever’s protagonist embarks on an epic journey that challenges readers’ perception of the world around them. As Neddy embarks on his journey down the “Lucinda River”, Cheever paints a strictly realist portrayal of suburban America. Yet as the story progresses, Cheever changes the environment around Neddy to convey a different message. By using multiple parallels between the mythic and the modern, the surreal and the real, and the American Dream and the American reality, John Cheever forces the reader of “The Swimmer” to question the status quo.
Ancient epics normally begin by invoking a muse who aids in the storytelling and remains separate from the normal text. Cheever’s “muse” is no mythic ideal; rather, Cheever begins with an isolated section that emphasizes the consumption of alcohol. Nearly every character believes that he or she “drank too much.” Alcohol, not a religious figure, is what helps the characters along. The contrast is evident when Cheever writes that it was heard from “ the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium…”. In this instance, Cheever is using the contrast between the mythic and modern cultural themes to show the degradation of American culture.
Another contradiction between Neddy’s world and the mythic occurs in the first sentence in which the protagonist is introduced. Neddy Merrill recalls how “he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room”. This contrasts Neddy’s vision of the ideal world with the world that is actually real. Neddy sees himself exclusively as he wants others to see him – the mythic hero in contrast to the suburban American consumer. In the opening paragraph, the narrative can nearly be seen as coming from a first person perspective. Neddy is described as having the “especial slenderness of youth” and is compared to a summer’s day. This is significant, as Neddy specifically points out a cloud in the distance that seems like the “bow of an approaching ship”, which foreshadows the coming storm later in the story, and Neddy’s concurring decline.
Through the remainder of the story, Neddy’s disposition and interactions with the people around him show the transition from the surreal to the real. While still under his mythic guise, Neddy makes the declaration that he will swim back to his home, quite the feat for the self-proclaimed modern hero. He names his planned route the “Lucinda River”, a tribute to his wife. This gesture seems to portray Neddy’s role as a family man, yet the reader discovers that this is not the case. As Neddy travels from pool to pool, the disposition of his peers to his intrusion is nothing if not pleasant. He is systematically greeted and offered a drink by everyone he encounters, and many people mention how he is frequently the life of their many social events. At the party, the narrator makes sure to mention that Neddy “stopped to kiss eight or ten other women and shake the hands of as many men.”The colors of the river itself portray Neddy’s mood, as he describes the “sapphire” hues of the Lucinda River. However, it is important to note that Neddy never accepts an invitation from one of his neighbors. He frequently mentions how his family his dinner together, yet his family seems to “regret all their invitations.”
In the middle of Neddy’s journey, aspects of his eventual downfall are more clearly seen. The first indication of this comes when Neddy notices the same cloud he had seen before had “risen and darkened, and while he sat there he heard the percussiveness of thunder again.” It is during the storm that the world around Neddy begins to wither around him. The once warm air cools and he begins to shiver, a tree is stripped of its leaves, and Neddy “felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.” Shortly thereafter, Neddy notices that the occupants of a home are gone, and that another neighbor’s pool is dry. The dry pool greatly affects Neddy, as the narrator describes that “he felt like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream.” This passage links back to the mythic parallels, as Neddy is now realizing that he is not the modern American hero he believed himself to be.
The realism of “The Swimmer” soon shows itself as Neddy is forced to wait to cross a busy street. Here, Neddy is described as seeming like “a victim of foul play”, as he is exposed to the ridicule of passersby. In this position, Neddy finds himself unable to turn back on his journey, unable to retreat back into his surreal and ideal world. Though superficially it seems as though Neddy chooses not to return to his surreal world, in actuality it is suggested that he is physically unable to do so, as the reader will find out at the end of the story.
The scene in the public pool also represents a harsh contrast to Neddy’s ideal world. As a representation of American society, the pools that Neddy travelled during the first half of his journey were free and open, with friends and hospitality on the way. The public pool is arguably as open, yet the freedom is lost. All swimmers are required to follow a strict set of guidelines and Neddy is reluctant to enter the pool that “stank of chlorine and looked to him like a sink.” Swimmers were regularly “abused” through a public address system, and Neddy himself was berated for not wearing an identification disk. In this new realistic world, the pool is a representation of American society as it truly is. While all are free to use the pool, they must follow the strict rules set by authority figures. True freedom is lost in this system, and swimmers are constantly splashing and jostling each other in the chaos.
Neddy’s next destinations only serve to reinforce the ideals that have been building through the story. As he approaches the Halloran’s pool, he removes his swim trunks in accordance with the Hallorans’ “reformist” ideals. It is here that the reader finally glimpses the reality of Neddy’s situation, when Mrs. Halloran suggests that Neddy has sold his home and that his children are in some kind of danger. Still under the impression that his ideal world has consumed reality, Neddy brushes off her concerns and continues on his way. Shortly after this encounter, the narrator describes how Neddy “was cold and he was tired and the naked Hallorans and their dark water had depressed him. The swim was too much for his strength but how could he have guessed this, sliding down the banister that morning and sitting in the Westerhazys’ sun?” Once again, this contrasts Neddy’s real and surreal worlds, as he is forced to confront the reality of his situation. Later, Neddy himself suggests that he has a “gift for concealing painful facts.”
As Neddy continues, the reality of his situation becomes more apparent. He finds himself unwelcome at a party and overhears conversation about his apparent financial troubles. Once again, Neddy struggles to believe in only his ideal world. Neddy then reaches the pool of his former mistress, who rebukes him after he reflects on the “supreme elixir” of sexual joy. However, in this pool he finds that “the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone, and he paddled to the ladder and climbed out.” Here, Neddy sees constellations of winter and begins to cry. This links back to the mythic quality of “The Swimmer”, but now Neddy realizes that his ideal world no longer exists; the mythic qualities are now directly showing him that the real world is full of pain. Here, Neddy realizes that “He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long” not in the waters of the Lucinda River, but in the surrealism of his ideal world. Though Neddy has accomplished his task, he knows that his achievement means nothing. In the closing of the story, Neddy finally sees the reality of the world around him. His home and all that was familiar to him, including his family, is gone.
As a metaphor, Neddy seems to be a representation of the stereotypical American suburban dweller. On his journey down the Lucinda River, Neddy focuses more on alcohol, sex, and his own ego than anything else in the story, including his family. According to this, he sees the first half of his journey strictly how he wants to, a paradise for the American consumer. Neighbors are nothing but friendly, the world is open to him, and he has youth and strength. However, it is through the contradictions in established parallels that the reader can see through Neddy’s facade. Just as Neddy’s self-proclaimed status as a modern hero embarking on a quest conflicts with the mythic interpretation of a hero, the surrealism of his situation eventually conflicts with the realism of the true world around him. The world is not totally free and open for Neddy to use as he pleases, but is actually a complex world that is unpleasant and difficult to navigate. In this way, Cheever successfully criticizes American society for its ignorant nature. To those within it, it may seem like an ideal world. Yet when one steps outside they can see the true nature of the American suburb.
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