The Swimmer

Author John Cheever (1912–1982)
Classification Psychological realism
Fiction F
First Published 1964
Locale Bullet Park, a fictional suburb of New York
Time of Plot The early 1960’s

Principal character:

NED MERRILL, a youthful-looking man of middle age

The Story

In "The Swimmer," Cheever experiments with narrative structure and chronology. Apparently realistic on the surface, the story is eventually revealed as reflecting the disordered mind of the protagonist. When the story opens, Ned Merrill is youthful, strong, and athletic; by the end, he is a weak and broken man, unable to understand the wreckage of his life. Proud of his wife and his four beautiful daughters, Merrill at first seems the picture of health and contentment. This initial image quickly disintegrates as Merrill weakens and is confronted with his loss. Yet the action of the story takes only a few hours.

One summer day, Ned decides to swim a series of pools between the home of his friends the Westerhazys and his own home eight miles away. He imagines the string of pools as a river, a "quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county," and names it Lucinda, after his wife. He begins his peculiar trip with great gusto, imagining himself "a legendary figure" or "a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny." As Ned begins his journey, Cheever establishes the social context of a typical Sunday in Bullet Park. People go to church, it seems, but once there they commiserate with one another about their hangovers. Once home from church, most of their activities are athletic: golf, swimming, tennis, and perhaps some bird-watching at the wildlife preserve. Ned’s desire to swim across the country is presented as the quintessence of the athletic optimism that characterizes his whole community. Yet the ubiquitous hangovers undercut the otherwise rosy picture of life in this beautiful suburb. Similarly, Ned’s apparent health and vigor mask the reality of his psychological distress.

At first Ned’s trip goes well. He swims unnoticed through people’s backyards, or is welcomed by surprised friends who are enjoying a Sunday swim, or entertaining at poolside. At several houses he accepts drinks. By the time he has swum half the Lucinda, he is tired but satisfied. Yet the second half of the journey goes less well. He is caught in a sudden storm, which turns the weather cooler and creates an autumnal feeling. He is disappointed when a friend’s pool is empty of water, the bathhouse locked, and a "For Sale" sign nailed to a tree. When he has to cross a highway, he is embarrassed to be seen in his swim trunks by passing motorists, some of whom throw beer cans or jeer at him. He considers returning to the Westerhazys, but finds rather to his surprise that he feels unable to return. Somehow it is impossible to go back.

The worst part of the trip is yet to come. First, he must swim with distaste through the crowded, unclean public pool. Then, as he travels from yard to yard, old friends and neighbors make strange remarks to him. One couple, who happen to believe in nude sunbathing, offer sympathy for his recent misfortunes—yet Ned has no sense of what they mean. In two places, rude comments are made about his financial situation. His former mistress, who cried when he broke off their affair, now scorns him. He even perceives rebuff at the hands of a bartender working at one of the parties through which he passes. At the last few pools he can barely swim and must stop repeatedly, holding on to the side. When he reaches his own house, he finds the garage doors rusty, the rain gutters loose, and the door locked. Looking in the windows, he sees that the house is empty.

Themes and Meanings

"The Swimmer" has as its primary theme the power of the mind to deny unpleasant truths, or, to put it more positively, the determination of the ego to preserve itself in the face of events which might erode or obliterate one’s self-confidence. In order to grasp this theme, the reader must figure out roughly what has happened to Ned and how he has responded to those events.

The recent events of Ned Merrill’s life can be tentatively reconstructed once the story has been read. Evidently a few years past he had been living a comfortable suburban life with his wife, Lucinda, his four daughters, and a house boasting not only a cook and a maid but also a tennis court. When the story opens, the reader accepts Ned’s description of such a life as reflecting his present condition. Yet clues quickly begin to mount that something has happened to Ned—a financial ruin which led to social ostracization and eventually to a psychological breakdown. Even while his journey is going well, he shows signs of dislocation. He cannot remember whether a neighbor had been in Japan last year or the year before. Another family, the Lindleys, has dismantled their riding ring, but he has only a vague memory of having known this. He asks another friend for a drink only to be told that "there hasn’t been anything in this house to drink since Eric’s operation. That was three years ago." When he arrives at the house of his former mistress, he cannot remember how long ago their affair ended, and he has apparently lost all memory of having sold his house. In the last paragraph of the story, he still clings to the idea that his wife and daughters are due to return home at any moment.

Ned is determined to hold on to his past despite the many signs that his former life has disappeared. This determination underscores the theme of the mind’s willfulness in the face of disaster. Ultimately, however, this strength of mind is impressive without being admirable, since Ned’s conviction cannot restore to him his former happy life.

Style and Technique

Despite the many realistic details included in the story, from the detailed descriptions of the various pools (specifying, for example, whether they are fed by a well or a brook) to the nuances of suburban social climbing, the story contains an element of fantasy. Although the action of the story covers at most several hours, Ned seems to age appreciably. Midway through the journey, he notices that his swim trunks are loose, and wonders if he could have lost weight in the space of the afternoon. The youthful vigor he exhibits in the early pages of the story gives way to a fatigue that leaves him unable to swim even one length of his last pool.

In addition to his own sense of aging, the summer itself gives way with inappropriate suddenness to autumn. After he is caught in the rainstorm (an event which exhilarates rather than depresses him), he notices a maple bare of leaves and feels sad at this sign of autumn, even while rationalizing that the tree must be blighted to have lost its foliage in midsummer. Yet the signs of autumn persist. He smells wood smoke and wonders who would be burning wood at this time of year. Toward the end of his trip, the water of one pool has a "wintry gleam," he smells the autumn flower chrysanthemum, and the constellations of the oncoming night are those of the winter sky.

In "The Swimmer," then, Cheever veers from conventional realism to experiment with a style that emphasizes psychological veracity. Although the structure of the narrative is unconventional, the story manages both to convey a conventional plot line (Ned’s loss of money and status) and to reveal the complexity of a man’s interior reaction to personal disaster. Cheever’s juxtaposition of realistic detail and fantastic plot elements enables him to explore the workings of a mind out of touch with reality in a broad sense, yet acutely aware of the minor details and realities that comprise the social fabric of life in Bullet Park.


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The Stories of Cheever

Author John Cheever (1912–1982)


John Cheever is an important short-story writer for a number of reasons, not the least of which is sheer staying power, longevity. His first stories appeared in print in the early 1940’s, and they appeared regularly throughout his career. This is a remarkable record of continuous creativity and undiminished quality. Though he has won prizes and widespread popular recognition for his two novels, THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE (1957) and THE WAPSHOT SCANDAL (1964), and high critical acclaim for his next two novels, BULLET PARK (1969) and FALCONER (1977), Cheever has always been primarily a story writer. There are any number of his contemporaries equally well-known and distinguished for their work in the short-story form, but none who has written stories regularly over such a span of time, a time which includes portions of at least three separate literary generations. Part of his success must be considered in terms of his long-standing position as one of the stable of contract writers for THE NEW YORKER, a magazine that has always encouraged the short story, or a certain kind of short story, with high payment and the advantages of a large audience with definite expectations and conventions. This fact alone, however, cannot explain how Cheever managed to keep his gift for the short story alive and breathing while other, perhaps equally gifted writers for that magazine, though remembered and honored in short-story anthologies, became less vigorously productive. It is entirely possible that, weighing everything, Cheever was the finest story writer to have emerged from THE NEW YORKER.

To place his work and to understand its development, it is first of all necessary to understand as clearly as possible what a NEW YORKER story is, for the vintage product has become to a great degree the accepted model for the modern American short story. Briefly, it is the maximum exploitation of a single, dramatically presented incident while more or less strictly observing the conventional unities of time and place, designed in its condensed form to gain by a richness of implication and by depth of characterization. Plot, in the old-fashioned sense, is absent and so are the moral dilemmas, middle-class, of slick fiction. In setting, the stories are usually regional—the East of suburbia and the City, the far and uncorrupted West, an updated version of the magnolia South and, often, foreign, aristocratic, and exotic. The stories have reflected the general moral views of the magazine and its audience. Its moral keystone is a gracious secular humanism coupled with a gentle intellectual skepticism. The virtues celebrated are all civilized virtues, sedentary, sophisticated, and rational, gently draped or camouflaged in veils of irony. The mortal sins are vulgarity without redeeming eccentricity, self-pity, stupidity, hypocrisy, bad manners, complacency, awkward excess of passion, and the absence of good health or physical beauty. In short, THE NEW YORKER fiction has been a fiction of manners. The political orientation has been generally liberal, of the noblesse oblige variety, and as a magazine of manners, the aim has always been progressive. No matter how dark the present, how fraught with peril the future, or how quaint the past, the fiction and verse of THE NEW YORKER have always gone hand in hand with the plentiful advertisements, the fine cartoons, and "The Talk of the Town," advancing toward a vaguely discernible horizon, the glow of which indicates a Jerusalem of "The Good Life" somewhere up there among idyllic Delectable Mountains, just beyond the reach of the clean, trimmed fingernails of the Ideal Reader.

To expect a great deal more than the competently second-rate from such a milieu would be folly, and to imagine that working in it a writer with the creativity of Cheever could emerge would demonstrate the gift of blind and pure prophecy. Readers have had enough fiction over a sufficient period of time to see that his stories, within the context of THE NEW YORKER milieu, are original and independent. From the beginning with THE WAY SOME PEOPLE LIVE, the stories of Cheever in THE NEW YORKER exhibited some independence of form. This may have been inevitable, for even then, the "single event" story was widely anthologized, beginning to be taught in schools, and becoming somewhat less than chic. Cheever’s originality manifested itself in subject and treatment. Though part and parcel of the credible and suburban world, stories from THE WAY SOME PEOPLE LIVE and THE ENORMOUS RADIO occasionally broke that orderly universe with the introduction of what used to be called "fantasy" but, more accurately, might be described as the introduction of some supernatural event or condition into an otherwise perfectly rational and realistic situation. In this sense, his fiction is often analogous to that of Marcel Ayme in France. Technically, the stories range rather freely and widely in time and space and point of view—even in tense, which is sometimes past, sometimes present, occasionally even future and conditional. There is often a cheerfully direct and open use of the narrator-writer of the story. He appears in the open like the chorus in an early Elizabethan play. As a narrator, he does his best to establish an air of intimacy and rapport with the reader, and then from time to time, he reenters, stopping the action, to point out significant aspects or to make intelligent comment. Like a cultivated and slightly condescending museum guide, this narrator is bright, clever, witty, yet always somehow sympathetic to the reader, perhaps because of his slight but pleasing smile, his habit of ironic self-deprecation, and his wry, worldly-wise shrug. The teller of the tale is always exact and up-to-date in his references and allusions, his knowledge of the things and habits of this world; and he can, when it is necessary, but never without a shared wink of misgiving, summon up a soupcon of the latest slang. The language of the stories is always a model of lucidity and decorum, free from the unrefined excess and extravagance of poetic frenzy, yet still able from time to time to climb toward a modest altitude on the slopes of Olympus, far below the sweaty chaos of the laughing and imperious gods and muses, but at least a place with a good view near the timberline, a place where a good gourmet picnic might be laid out and enjoyed.

Clearly, the form goes against the grain of the more typical, "dramatic" pattern of THE NEW YORKER story, for most of these devices work to call attention to the story not as a happening but as artifice. The meaning of this relative freedom of form is equally clear. Cheever wants to say more, not only about persons, places, and things but also about what these may mean and the subtle patterns they make. Even in the earliest stories, for example, Cheever made frequent use of dreams. His characters dream and do so matter-of-factly. He has also permitted them and the narrator to digress, to reminisce, to imagine. Naturally this makes for a much more inclusive kind of fiction, at once deeper and more complex than the conventional dramatic method of telling a tale. It is one of his special gifts and artistic triumphs to be able to lead his characters and his readers with ease from an apparently realistic situation into realms of absurdity, nightmare, and farce. Perhaps this is what one reviewer meant when he tried to describe the singular qualities of Cheever. He was deeply interested in character, and he gave his characters depth and dimension, providing veils and layers of experience and being, and all the loose ends and untied laces of living, breathing human beings. Compared with most of his contemporaries, in or out of THE NEW YORKER, Cheever had, as a result of his interest in and understanding of character, a good deal more sympathy and compassion for the people he created.

It is not easy to be a serious and, in a certain sense, an experimental writer and yet, at the same time, to share without much questioning the standards, rules, laws, and by-laws of a literary club as exclusive and cozy and proud as THE NEW YORKER. It is more than difficult to make meaningful fiction, which was, after all, his aim, in the context of a moral world as bogus as a carnival and as insubstantial as cotton candy. For people do not live like characters in THE NEW YORKER, try as they will, and its moral world is unique. In the world there may well be a system of election and damnation, but the elect are not necessarily immediately identifiable because they are charming, gifted, well-born, intelligent, eccentric, or even innocent. Nor are they children, cripples, blacks, or victims. The God that is predicated by THE NEW YORKER and, so, in part accepted by Cheever, turns out to be a wise, well-to-do, old grandfather with a twinkle in his eye and stylish manners, lovable but a snob and not very likely of much help in times of trouble. Sheep and goats merge together in a glossy, nineteenth century pastoral scene.

Cheever’s short fiction developed not in stages, in trials, and renunciations but in a fairly straight line. The stories of THE BRIGADIER AND THE GOLF WIDOW differ from the earliest stories only in a slightly freer form, a swifter move toward moral allegory, and a shade more impatience with the rules he was breaking; but after many years of considerable success, he was entitled to such liberty. The remarkable thing is how little he had changed over his long career. It appears that very early, he staked a claim, fenced it, and ever since had been exploring and exploiting it. This creates an apparent sameness about his work which might be called a disadvantage except that it must be balanced against the undeniable appeal of reliability. He did not, like some great writers, hit home runs or strike out. He was marvelously consistent and on a high level. Moreover, he did not, and did not need to, offend the reader. He wrote from conviction and certainty and—not the least of his virtues for his time—from a sense of contentment. The effect is at once entertaining and restful. Every sane human being is for courage and honesty, in favor of blue skies, trout streams, butterflies, and fine old houses full of lively and amusing people. Every sane person is against suffering, pain, hypocrisy, ugliness, and sordid behavior. No one speaks out in favor of sin, and no one, no matter how reactionary, is against progress or reform, though definitions may vary widely and deeply and behavior vary even more.

Cheever’s fiction is, then, classical in orientation. (It is no wonder that he so frequently employed the great and timeless classical myths to heighten the implications of his stories.) He was a professional writer with an acceptable and decent point of view. If he had a dream, it was a dream of restoration and innocence, not a revolutionary and romantic vision. He conveyed no desire to run for public office or to be accepted as one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world. This attitude was important, for his long and distinguished career and the undeniable artistry of his short fiction give the lie to the notion that an artist must be a rebel, an outsider, and a boat-rocker to validate his claim to art. After all the qualifications are weighed and sifted, Cheever stands in the front rank, among the best of the short-story writers of the twentieth century. When all is said and done, for better or worse, it seems likely that his humane, graceful, and wistful stories will stand, if not for the best that artists have been able to achieve, then for the best hopes of civilization, its long dream of life and liberty, its aim and pursuit of human happiness.