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The Swimmer | Study Guide

John Cheever

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The Swimmer | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the first paragraph of "The Swimmer" convey the theme of suburban emptiness?

Cheever conveys the theme of suburban emptiness by focusing on the idleness and alcohol consumption of affluent suburbanites. The line that forms a type of refrain, "I drank too much" shows that "everyone" got drunk on Saturday night. This insight is reinforced by the author's revealing that even the priest and leader of the Audubon group got drunk. In addition the phrase, "It was one of those midsummer Sundays" indicates that these people over indulge on a regular basis. So for Cheever, the affluent people of the suburbs live an empty life because they often just lounge around drinking too much alcohol.

In "The Swimmer," how does Cheever set up Neddy's aging process?

Cheever sets up Neddy's aging process by first showing him to be a vibrant, youthful middle-aged man, who "seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth." The author suggests that Neddy is middle-aged by the phrase "he was far from young" and by comparing him to "a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one." Cheever illustrates Neddy's vigor by having him slide down a banister, swat the backside of an Aphrodite statue, and jog toward breakfast. Also, Neddy embraces life with a young person's enthusiasm. Cheever describes him as breathing in "the components of that moment; the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure." These youthful benchmarks contrast with changes in Neddy's behavior over the course of his swim.

In the opening of "The Swimmer," what does Cheever convey through the description of the cumulus clouds?

Cheever describes the "massive stand of cumulus cloud" as resembling "a city seen from a distance—from the bow of an approaching ship." This image romanticizes the clouds and conveys a fanciful sense of adventure. This Lisbon in the sky contrasts with the impression of Neddy as "clement [sunny or peaceful] weather" and foreshadows the physical and emotional storm he will soon encounter. The airborne city may also represent Neddy's clouded thinking. The description of the cloud bank is also an allusion to Ulysses (Odysseus), who according to myth founded the city of Lisbon. As this peaceful cloud bank transforms into a thunderstorm, sending Neddy to shelter in the Levys' gazebo, it again references The Odyssey. Just as Neddy is delayed by the storm, Odysseus's ocean voyage is waylaid by violent storms.

In "The Swimmer" why does Neddy take delight in his realization that it may be possible to reach his home via a river of swimming pools?

Cheever makes it clear that Neddy's delight is not based on a desire to escape a confining life, which could be the reason for many people. Instead, Neddy believes he has made an important discovery. He confirms this belief by naming the river of swimming pools after his wife, Lucinda. The author goes on to explain that Neddy sees himself as a type of legendary figure. Cheever, therefore, provides an early hint at Neddy's delusion. He has glorified his lifestyle and his role in this life to such a degree that he truly thinks discovering the trail of swimming pools is important. So what for most people would be a silly or amusing idea, becomes, for Neddy, a heroic discovery.

In "The Swimmer," how does Cheever use Neddy's mental map as a symbol?

Cheever uses Neddy's mental map of the route of swimming pools as a symbol that represents his plan for his life. The map consists of swimming pools that belong to people he is friends with. As a result, he knows the name of the family that owns each pool. These are people he often associates with in his daily life and who represent the elevated social class he relishes belonging to. Cheever compares Neddy to a pilgrim, an explorer, and "a man of destiny" who will use his mental map to guide him home. Neddy, therefore, sees his mental map as more than just a way to get home. It is instead his life's journey, in which he plays a heroic role. He believes he's destined for greatness in his world of affluent suburbs. As a result, Neddy foresees that "friends will line the banks of the Lucinda River" to cheer him on.

In the scene with the Grahams in "The Swimmer," how does Cheever use humor?

Cheever uses humor by having Neddy have a secret motive that the Grahams are totally unaware of. Mrs. Graham is pleased to see Neddy, offers him a drink, and probably expects him to stay a while. But seeing himself as an explorer who must use diplomacy to avoid being delayed by "the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives," Neddy swims the length of their pool, grabs a drink, and makes a quick getaway as the Grahams welcome guests. Neddy seems like a boy playing a role in an imaginary world that his parents know nothing about. As a result, the boy might act in unexpected ways, so when Mrs. Graham returns to the pool, she probably will be dumbfounded to find Neddy gone. Then Cheever shows Neddy swimming through the Hammers' and Lears' pools as his friends go about their lives. Cheever's humor is evident in the contrast of Neddy's eccentric behavior with everyday tasks, such as Mrs. Hammer tending her roses.

How does Cheever use the setting of the Bunkers' pool to reinforce Neddy's delusion about himself?

Cheever shows the Bunkers' pool as a type of paradise, thereby reinforcing Neddy's misguided view of his world. First of all the pool is on a rise, giving it an elevated status. The descriptions of the poolside gathering convey a beautiful world filled with happy people. Cheever states, "Oh, how bonny and lush were the banks of the Lucinda River!" The author then describes prosperous people having a party by "sapphire-colored waters." They are served drinks by waiters in white coats. The de Havilland plane, like an eye in the sky, seems to take part in the festivities as it flies around with the "glee of a child in a swing." The way people greet Neddy reinforces his deluded view of himself. They welcome him like a popular celebrity. Women kiss him, and men shake his hand. People gather around just to be close to him. He makes his getaway, again like a celebrity leaving his adoring fans. Neddy relishes this attention because it reaffirms his view of himself. Because of this, he smiles broadly at the Tomlinsons as he makes his exit.

How does Cheever use sounds of thunder and silence to foreshadow events in "The Swimmer"?

Cheever uses sounds of thunder and silence to foreshadow ominous events that Neddy will encounter. During the middle of the author's description of the Bunkers' lovely pool, the narrator states, "In the distance, he heard thunder." Near the end of the paragraph, Neddy makes his way to the Levys' pool but finds that this family has gone out. The silence of the Levys' backyard provides a stunning contrast to the gaiety of the Bunkers' pool party. As a result, the author foreshadows that something different and perhaps ominous might be happening. Neddy, however, takes the opportunity to swim the pool and pour himself a drink. He finds that he "feels pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything."

In "The Swimmer," how does Cheever use the storm at the Levys' home to show Neddy's tendency to ignore unpleasant events?

Neddy becomes trapped at the Levy property by a fierce storm, which interrupts his voyage. Many people would view this storm as a negative occurrence because it causes a delay and could be dangerous. The storm could damage the Levys' home. Rain lashes the Japanese lanterns, and the wind strips a maple tree of its leaves. Neddy totally ignores this negativity, however, and sees the storm only in a positive light. He fondly thinks of closing windows to keep a storm out. In fact for Neddy, storms mean "good news, cheer, glad tidings." Even when lightning strikes nearby, with an explosion of thunder and the smell of cordite, this does not penetrate his armor of delusion. He rationalizes that the leaves of the maple have turned red and yellow because the tree is blighted.

In "The Swimmer" how does Cheever use the scene at the Levys' pool to show a turning point in the story?

The Levys' pool shows a turning point in the story by its difference from the scenes at previous pools. In the prior pool scenes, Cheever establishes a tone of happiness and good cheer with many people enjoying themselves. In contrast the Levys' pool is eerily empty. Apparently, the Levys have quickly left for an unexplained reason. The narrator mentions, "glasses and bottles and dishes of nuts were on a table at the deep end." Also, the weather has changed dramatically. Previously, the day was sunny and pleasant. At the Levys' pool, however, the weather becomes more ominous as a storm hits. Lightning strikes nearby, as Neddy hears an explosion of thunder and smells cordite. The event seems strange and almost surreal, suggesting that the tale is not as straightforward or realistic as it has appeared so far. The thunder's explosion could be seen as a punctuation mark, indicating an abrupt, unpleasant change for Neddy. His worldview will soon be shattered. On his way to the Welchers' pool, Neddy walks through the Lindleys' property. Here this turning point in the story is confirmed. Instead of being pristinely maintained as expected, the Lindleys' riding ring is "overgrown with grass."

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