Story Analysis of ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

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It’s Day 19 of the #A2ZChallenge. This year, I invite you to read and discuss short stories with me. Each day, I bring you a ‘Read of the Day,’ a short story in English, so that we can indulge in the joy of reading. You can visit my site daily for a short story with analysis and participate in the discussion in the comments.

Read of the Day 

Today, we will read The Swimmer by John Cheever. You can read the short story online here.

About the Author 

John Cheever was an award-winning American author who wrote about middle-class suburban Americans earning him the “Chekhov of the suburbs” title. His popular writings include short stories like The Enormous Radio, Goodbye, My Brother, The Five-Forty-Eight, The Country Husband, The Swimmer, and novels such as The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, Falconer, and Oh What a Paradise It Seems.

Story Analysis 

The Swimmer by John Cheever is a poignant short story that takes the reader on an adventurous and heart-wrenching journey. 

The story is about Neddy Merril, an American man living in the wealthy suburbs of New York City. It begins at a cocktail party scene at Westerhazys’ residence where the rich folks, including Ned, are consumed by drunk revelry.

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.”

That summer afternoon, Ned acts on an impulse when he goes on an aquatic adventure on his way back home. He names his route after his wife, Lucinda River. 

He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty. 

Ned’s swimming adventure starts on a fun, lighthearted note and with a lot of optimism and ambition. It’s a scenic journey that showcases the affluent suburbs in New York City in all their glory. He makes pit stops at his friends’ residences, first at the Grahams, the Hammers, and the Lears. 

The story starts to take mysterious turns when he stops over at the Howlands and the Crossups who are away, and the Bunkers briefly greet him and let Ned do his own thing. His social interactions are no longer as warm and inviting as they are at the start of his journey.

The premonition is confirmed when he reaches the Levys’ home, and they are not home. Ned notices the grey skies, and the subsequent storm forces Ned to take refuge in the gazebo. It’s when the inkling of lost time dawns upon him the first time in the journey of the lost time. As he visits more friends’ homes and sees their latest updates, he begins to question his memory. 

The journey, which was pleasant at the start, becomes arduous as time goes by. Ned becomes the target of public ridicule as he moves on further with his journey. Ned even stops to wonder why he’s enduring the uncomfortable and humiliating journey when he could head straight home instead. Yet common sense eludes him, and he continues with his aquatic mission. 

Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool. Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway—beer cans, rags, and blowout patches— exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful. He had known when he started that this was a part of his journey—it had been on his maps—but confronted with the lines of traffic, worming through the summery light, he found himself unprepared. He was laughed at, jeered at, a beer can was thrown at him, and he had no dignity or humor to bring to the situation. He could have gone back, back to the Westerhazys’, where Lucinda would still be sitting in the sun. He had signed nothing, vowed nothing, pledged nothing, not even to himself. Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious? He could not go back, he could not even recall with any clearness the green water at the Westerhazys’, the sense of inhaling the day’s components, the friendly and relaxed voices saying that they had drunk too much. In the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible.

Ned is also treated shabbily at the public pools and abused by the guards for not following certain rules. A wealthy man like him wasn’t used to such social restrictions and poor treatment. Yet, he chooses to continue his journey instead of calling it quits and going home. 

The effect of the water on voices, the illusion of brilliance and suspense, was the same here as it had been at the Bunkers’ but the sounds here were louder, harsher, and more shrill, and as soon as he entered the crowded enclosure he was confronted with regimentation.

A pair of lifeguards in a pair of towers blew police whistles at what seemed to be regular intervals and abused the swimmers through a public address system. Neddy remembered the sapphire water at the Bunkers’ with longing and thought that he might contaminate himself—damage his own prosperousness and charm—by swimming in this murk, but he reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River.

When Ned visits the Halloran house, they express their regret over his misfortunes, which comes as a rude shock. Ned is in a state of denial as he continues to the next home for a drink. The Biswangers whose invitations he and Lucinda would spurn.

They were always rebuffed and yet they continued to send out their invitations, unwilling to comprehend the rigid and undemocratic realities of their society. They were the sort of people who discussed the price of things at cocktails, exchanged market tips during dinner, and after dinner told dirty stories to mixed company. They did not belong to Neddy’s set—they were not even on Lucinda’s Christmas-card list. He went toward their pool with feelings of indifference, charity, and some unease, since it seemed to be getting dark and these were the longest days of the year.

Cocksure about being welcomed by the Biswangers, Ned is in for more rude shocks as he’s seen as an unwelcome guest at best and an intruder at the worst. Grace Biswanger didn’t let go of her opportunity to put him down as well. 

She was always talking about money. It was worse than eating your peas off a knife.

Ned decides to head over to Shirley Adam’s home for comfort. Surely, she could provide him with some relief. However, things again don’t go as expected. But Ned continues on his journey with a terrible awakening. 

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? His arms were lame. His legs felt rubbery and ached at the joints. The worst of it was the cold in his bones and the feeling that he might never be warm again.

Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry.

It was probably the first time in his adult life that he had ever cried, certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered.

He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from the water. What he needed then was a drink, some company, and some clean, dry clothes.

Ned swims through the last two pools in agony before reaching home when the story ends on a climactic high.

Sadly, Ned lost sight of what truly mattered in life, being blindsided by its hedonistic pleasures. He possessed an entitled attitude towards wealth and his social standing and fritters away his talent, time, relationships, and life.

The Swimmer by John Cheever is a brilliant satire on the great American dream, the privilege and facade of the upper-middle class and the elite, the crumbling of the family system, and the moral degradation of American society. 

How did you like The Swimmer by John Cheever? 

* I’m participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge.

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Tina Sequeira
Tina Sequeira is a marketer and moonlighting writer. She is passionate about tech, creativity, and social justice—dabbling in and writing about the same.