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The Swimmer | Context

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Mythology

To explain the frequent use of mythology in his fiction, John Cheever once said in an interview that mythology was "very much a part" of his education and that the "easiest way to parse the world is through mythology." To structure "The Swimmer" he used the myths of Narcissus and Odysseus.

The Greek myth of Narcissus is about a handsome young man named Narcissus who falls in love with an image he sees reflected in a pool of water. Unable to gain the love of this wonderful being, he vows to remain by the pool and eventually wastes away and dies for love.

The Greek myth of Odysseus is about the hero Odysseus (known in Latin as Ulysses), architect of the Trojan Horse strategy, who spends 10 years trying to sail home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. Angered by Odysseus's hubris, or pride, the sea god Poseidon delays Odysseus's journey, causing everyone to think him dead. After a series of adventures that span another 10 years, Odysseus eventually makes his way home, only to find it overrun with suitors who hope to marry his wife and inherit his kingdom. Odysseus rids himself of the suitors and is reunited with his family. From this tale the term odyssey has come to mean "a long adventurous journey that yields wisdom."

Cheever found the myth of Narcissus too confining for "The Swimmer," since the Narcissus myth deals with abnormal behavior. Cheever's main character differs from the myth. It is not unusual, after all, for a healthy person such as Neddy to enjoy the sensations of swimming on a beautiful summer day. By exulting in his vigor, enjoying the atmosphere of the party, and relishing the cool splash of the water, Neddy takes pleasure in the day. Cheever went on to envision the story moving through the seasons, even though it seems to take place in one day. At first this idea made no sense to him. Cheever states, "One does not grow old in the space of an afternoon ... Well, kick it around."

When Cheever combined the idea of a natural activity—like swimming—with the process of aging, he saw Neddy as trying to hang on to his youth, and thereby to find hope, in spite of growing older. In this way Neddy can be seen as a deluded person. Cheever saw this as a common delusion for many people, including himself. After writing the story Cheever stated that the "The Swimmer" is about "the irreversibility of human conduct."

The myth of Odysseus, in which the hero faces challenge after challenge on his way home from war, provides a metaphor for life's journey through infancy, youth, old age, and death and the self-realization that may be gained along the way. The myth clearly inspires Cheever's "The Swimmer," in which the main character swims his way toward mortality.

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