By John Cheever (1912-1982)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Year
......."The Swimmer" is a short story centering on a man who swims the length of each private and public pool he encounters on his eight-mile journey home. The story was first published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, and republished in the same year in a collection of John Cheever's short stories, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.
.......The time is a Sunday afternoon in the early 1960s. The action takes place in suburban New York City—probably in Westchester County, where author John Cheever once lived. Westchester, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, is north of New York City and west of Connecticut.
Neddy Merrill: The title character. He is a slender, middle-aged man who lives in a posh New York City suburb. He is a heavy drinker who has an affair with a woman in his neighborhood. The reader discovers at the end of the story that his wife and four daughters have left him.
.......The author presents the story in third-person point of view with a narrator who reveals the thoughts of the main character, Neddy Merrill.
Cheever, John. "The Swimmer." Literature and the Writing Process. 5th ed. McMahan, Elizabeth; Susan X Day, and Robert Fund, eds. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: ..........Prentice Hall, 1999. Pages 369-376........It is a hot Sunday in midsummer. At the pool of Donald and Helen Westerhazy, Lucinda Merrill confirms what all the guests know: that everyone drank too much the previous evening.
.......“It must have been the wine,” says Helen Westerhazy.
.......Neddy Merrill—a thin man with an athletic build—decides to swim home, going from one family pool to the next, until he covers all eight miles to his residence in Bullet Park.
.......“He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool,” the narrator says, “but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.”
.......Neddy removes a sweater draped on his shoulders and swims the Westerhazy pool, then crosses over to the Grahams' pool in the next yard. When greeting him, Mrs. Graham says she had been trying to contact him all morning. She gets him a drink, and it appears he may have to stay awhile. However, a group of the Grahams' friends arrives for a visit, and Neddy is able to sneak off.
.......Next, he swims the pools at the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups, then crosses the street to the Bunkers, where more than two dozen people are attending a party. In the pool floating on a raft is Rusty Towers.
.......“Oh, look who's here!” Enid bunker shouts, noting Neddy's wife had told him that he wouldn't be able to attend the Bunkers' party. They exchange kisses, and she leads him to the bar. Along the way, he greets and kisses many of the women guests and shakes the hands of many of the men. After drinking a gin and tonic, he swims the pool, smiles at the Tomlinsons, and heads over to the Levy's pool. He sees bottles and glasses around the pool but no people. After swimming the pool, he has a drink—his fourth or fifth that afternoon.
.......Storm clouds gather, and he hears thunder. An airplane is circling. A train whistle sounds, and Neddy thinks of the railroad station and waiting passengers. It begins to rain. He likes storms. He likes the way a storm blows open a door and the wind rushes up the stairs. He takes shelter in the Levys' gazebo until the storm moves on. After leaving the gazebo, he notices something strange: the storm had blown down leaves with autumn colors—red and yellow—but it was summer.
.......He then goes to the Welchers' pool. There is no water in it, and there are no signs of life in the house. He walks around to the front and sees a for-sale sign. He wonders, “When had he last heard from the Welchers—when, that is, had he and Lucinda last regretted an invitation to dine with them? It seemed only a week or so ago.”
.......Neddy then hears the sound of people playing tennis and heads off to his next challenge. But he must cross Route 424, busy with lines of traffic. As he stands on the shoulder of the road wearing only his swimming trunks, people mock him. Someone hurls a beer can at him. When an elderly driver slows down for him, he makes it to the grass divider in the middle of the road. There, he suffers more ridicule. After waiting ten or fifteen minutes, he manages to make it to the other side. He then goes to the public pool in the village of Lancaster. Signs indicate that swimmers must take a shower and footbath before entering the pool. They also must display an identification disk. Neddy takes a shower and washes his feet in a solution, then dives into the pool. It is crowded and stinks of chlorine. After he reaches the other end of the pool, two lifeguards cite him for not wearing an identification disk. However, he manages to escape and cross the road to the grounds of a wealthy elderly couple, the Hallorans. A hedge surrounds their pool.
.......“The Hallorans were friends . . . who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists,” the narrator says. “They were zealous reformers but they were not Communists.”
.......He calls out to alert them that he is on their property. When they are at the poolside, they never wear bathing suits. So, before entering the pool area through the hedges, Neddy conforms to their practice by removing his trunks.
.......“I'm swimming across the county,” he tells them.
.......He leaves his trunks at one end of the pool, walks to the other end, and swims the length of the pool. While he is getting out, Mrs. Halloran says, “We've been terribly sorry to hear about your misfortunes, Neddy.”
.......Neddy, dumbfounded, says, “My misfortunes?”
.......“Why we heard that you'd sold the house and that your poor children . . . “
.......Neddy says he did not sell the house and his four daughters are at home.
.......She simply replies, “Yes, yes . . .”
.......He thanks her for the use of her pool and puts on his trunks. They feel loose. Is it possible, he wonders, whether he could have lost weight in a single afternoon? He also feels cold and weary, and his encounter with the Hallorans has depressed him. He goes a short way to the home of the Hallorans' daughter, Helen Sachs, and asks for a drink to warm him. But she tells him that she and her husband, Eric Sachs, have not kept any alcoholic beverages in the house since Eric's operation three years before. Neddy had forgotten about the operation. The narrator says, “Was he losing his memory, had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend had been ill?”
.......He swims the Sachs's pool, barely making it, and crosses over to the Biswangers' house, where a party is in progress. Numerous times, the Biswangers had invited Neddy and Lucinda Merrill to dinner, but the Merrills always snubbed them. They thought themselves above the Biswangers. When Neddy enters the pool area and heads for the bar, Neddy calls him a gate-crasher. Nevertheless, he asks whether he may pour himself a drink. “Suit yourself,” Grace Biswanger says.
.......While at the bar, he hears her talk about him: “They went for broke overnight—nothing but income—and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars.” Neddy swims the pool, then goes to the next pool—that of Shirley Adams. He and she had had an affair, but he could not remember when—“last week, last month, last year.”
.......After walking toward her pool, he tells her that he is swimming across the county.
.......She says, “Will you ever grow up?”
.......Expecting him to ask for money, she says she will not give him any. When he asks for a drink, she refuses to provide one. She has company, a young man in the bathhouse. But Neddy still swims the pool. When he leaves, it is nightfall. He looks up at the stars but does not see any midsummer constellations. He cries. He feels cold, confused, downhearted. He needs a drink and dry clothes. But he swims the last two pools anyway, those of the Gilmartins and the Clydes. When he reaches home, the house is dark. He wonders whether Lucinda is still at the Westerhazy place. Perhaps the girls are there or went somewhere else. When he tries the garage doors, “rust came off the handles onto his hands.” The house is locked. He tries to force the door open, then looks inside. The house is empty.
.......The climax occurs when Neddy finds himself standing on the shoulder of Route 424 amid litter while passersby ridicule him and one throws a beer can at him.
.......Neddy Merrill is or was in conflict with his wife and daughters, for they have left him. Perhaps his affair with Shirley Adams caused the breakup. And perhaps he was hard to live with because of his apparent alcoholism and his focus on material success. He is also in conflict with the Biswangers, whom he regards as below him, and possibly with other neighbors. Finally, he is in conflict with himself, for he cannot control his urge to drink. Moreover, his inflated opinion of himself—“he . . . had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure (paragraph 3)”—and his mental deterioration also indicate he suffers from internal conflicts.
More Is Less
.......The American dream of material and social success came true for Neddy Merrill. He and his family had a fine home and high standing in the exclusive New York City suburb of Bullet Park. The county in which he lived had golf courses and tennis courts. All of his neighbors were well-to-do, and a swimming pool was de rigueur on every property. The Lindleys even had horses and a riding ring. Neddy and his wife frequently socialized with their neighbors. However, they refused to accept dinner invitations from the Biswangers, “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.” Neddy's preoccupation with material success and social standing leaves him feeling empty. The more he has, the less he has. To fill the void inside him, he immerses himself in liquids (alcohol and swimming pools) during his journey through life. He ends an empty man with an empty house and an empty bank account.
The Ravages of Alcoholism
.......Neddy Merrill drinks far too much. His swimming odyssey may be a dream born of a drunken stupor. Or it may be a surreal manifestation of delirium tremens. He has some of the symptoms: disorientation, mental impairment, heightened activity, hallucinations, confusion, fatigue, and trembling. Whatever the case, it is clear that alcohol has abetted his descent into ruination.
.......As he embarks on his swimming journey, Neddy fantasizes that he is “a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny.” He is a regular Odysseus about to brave the seas and their perils. And he does indeed encounter perils: a thorny hedge, gravel that cuts his feet, a highway where passersby ridicule him, a crowded public pool with stinking chlorine and hostile lifeguards, neighbors (the Biswangers) who ridicule him, a rude bartender, and a former mistress who chastises him.
Life Is Short—Don't Waste It
.......The story can stand as a metaphor for life, delivering this message: Your time on earth is short; use this time in worthy, productive endeavors. Neddy, of course, has spent his time pursuing material and social success, alcohol, and a mistress. His swim through the pools of the county is metaphor for the
swiftly passing time he has spent on this earth. He begins his journey on a sunny summer day, feeling youthful, happy, and ready to take on the challenge of "swimming the county." But as he progresses, storm clouds approach and he hears thunder. When he takes shelter from the storm, he notices that its winds have blown red and yellow leaves from the trees—a sign of autumn. At the Halloran
property, he also notices that the beech hedge is yellow, not green. He begins to feel cold, another sign that the seasons are fast-forwarding. When he reaches the Biswanger pool, says the narrator, "No one was swimming and the twilight, reflected on the water of the pool, had a wintry gleam." When Neddy reaches home, the house is empty. His wife and daughters have left him, his bank account is
nil, and his his health is impaired. He has wasted his life.
Andromeda: Group of stars.