Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Year
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,
Brigadier and the Golf Widow.
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.
Wife of Neddy Merrill.
The Four Merrill Daughters
Westerhazy: Friend of Neddy Merrill, who begins his swim at her pool.
Husband of Helen Westerhazy.
Mrs. Graham: Neighbor
who gives Neddy a drink while he swims her pool.
Mrs. Graham's Guests
Mrs. Hammer: Woman
who tends roses while Neddy swims her pool.
The Lears: Husband
and wife who sit in their living room as Neddy swims by.
The Howlands, the Crosscups:
Residents who are away while Neddy swims their pools.
Enid Bunker: Neighbor
who welcomes Neddy to her party. Before he has a drink and swims her pool,
she introduces him to many of her guests.
Rusty Towers: Guest
at the Bunker party who floats in the pool on a rubber raft.
Bartender at Bunker Pool:
Smiling man who gives Neddy a gin and tonic.
The Tomlinsons: Guests
at the Bunker party.
The Levys: Neighbors
whose pool Neddy swims. He takes shelter in their gazebo during a storm.
The Lindleys: Family
that once maintained horses and a riding ring.
The Welchers: Family
whose pool has no water.
Elderly Driver: Man
who allows Neddy to cross in front of his car.
Lifeguards: Two men
who order Neddy out of the public pool in the village of Lancaster.
Mr., Mrs. Halloran:
Elderly couple with the oldest pool in the county.
Eric, Helen Sachs:
Neddy swims their pool but is disappointed that they no longer keep alcoholic
beverages in their home. Helen is Mrs. Halloran's daughter.
The Biswangers: Neighbors
whom Neddy regards as socially inferior. When Neddy enters their property,
a party is in progress. Grace Biswanger calls him a gate-crasher. Nevertheless,
he swims their pool and gets a drink.
Bartender at Biswanger
Pool: Man who treats Neddy with hostility.
Shirley Adams: Onetime
mistress of Neddy Merrill. She treats Neddy rudely and says she won't lend
him any more money.
Young Man With Shirley
The Gilmartins, the Clydes:
Families with pools that Neddy swims before arriving home.
Cook, Maid: People
who once worked in the Merrill household.
author presents the story in third-person point of view with a narrator
who reveals the thoughts of the main character, Neddy Merrill.
John. "The Swimmer." Literature and the Writing Process. 5th ed.
McMahan, Elizabeth; Susan X Day, and Robert Fund, eds. Upper Saddle River,
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.
must have been the wine," says Helen Westerhazy.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
swimming across the county," he tells them.
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."
dumbfounded, says, “My misfortunes?"
we heard that you'd sold the house and that your poor children . . . “
says he did not sell the house and his four daughters are at home.
simply replies, “Yes, yes . . ."
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?"
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
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."
walking toward her pool, he tells her that he is swimming across the county.
says, “Will you ever grow up?"
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.
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
had no dignity or humor to bring to the situation," the narrator says.
could have turned back, but he didn't.
was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his
life in danger?" the narrator asks. “At what point had this prank, this
joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?" When Neddy decides to continue
his swimming feat—which, in this surreal story, is a metaphor for the journey
through life—he commits himself to his self-destruction.
other words, he will continue to live as he has always lived. After this
turning point in his swim—in his allegorical journey through life—everything
begins to go wrong. First, he swims in “the murk" of a public pool, where
he is not welcome because he does not have an identification disk. Then
he becomes unnerved when Mrs. Halloran tells him she is sorry about his
misfortunes. Next, he goes to the home of the Helen and Eric Sachs for
a drink—and, of course, another swim—but learns that they have not kept
alcoholic beverages in the house for three years. He wonders whether he
is losing his memory. As the denouement proceeds—and he grows cold and
weak—and finally arrives at his house, which is locked and empty.
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
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
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.
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
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
of love in Greek mythology. A bronze statue of her sits on a hall table
in the Merrill home.
Athletes who swim the English Channel, between England and France.
Cepheus: Group of
cordite: An explosive.
dogleg: Term for
a bend in a golf fairway. The bend resembles the angle between a dog's
upper and lower hind leg.
de Haviland trainer:
Biplane (de Havilland DH 82 Tiger Moth) used to train pilots. Cheever misspells
writing it with only one l.
gazebo: Small structure
with a roof, open sides, and seating accommodations from which people may
view scenery. It is usually located on high ground in an area with gardens
and greenery. Gazebo combines the Latin suffix ebo (I
shall) and the English word gaze to form a word meaning I
Lantern made of colorful paper.
Kyoto: Japanese city
southwest of Tokyo.
2): Breathing laboriously, like one who snores.
Questions and Writing Topics
Write a psychological profile
of Neddy Merrill. Your sources should include the story, library research,
and Internet research.
Is Neddy dreaming about swimming
home? Is his journey a hallucination? Or is he actually swimming home while
under the influence of alcohol and a mental debility? Write an argumentative
essay that presents your views on this topic. Support your thesis with
information gleaned from research.
Does the public pool symbolize
Neddy's life after he encounters financial problems and suffers a downfall?
Explain your answer.
Explain the following sentence
in paragraph 11: "Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in
the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the
Does the storm represent a phase
in Neddy's life?
Do the pools represent phases
in Neddy's life?
Neddy does not have an identification
disk authorizing him to swim in the public pool. Is Cheever trying to say
that Neddy has become an outcast in society?