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The Swimmer | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In "The Swimmer" how is Neddy's swim in the Hallorans' pool similar to and different from his swim in the Sachses' pool?

Neddy's swims in the Hallorans' and Sachses' pools both show a progression in age. Earlier, Neddy swam vigorously. At the Hallorans' and Sachses' pools, however, his swims tire him and exhaust him physically. The chilly water in each pool reflects the coldness of his later years. Neddy's progression as he ages causes the main differences between his swims. In the Sachses' pool Neddy becomes so exhausted he almost succumbs to the water and drowns. The narrator states that although Neddy made his way down the pool, he was "gasping, close to drowning." In the Hallorans' pool Neddy did not become nearly so tired.

In "The Swimmer," when Neddy arrives at the Biswangers' pool, how does Cheever convey the theme of suburban emptiness?

Cheever conveys the theme of suburban emptiness through the relationship between Neddy and Grace Biswanger. For each of them the relationship is based entirely on social status instead of on a deep friendship. Neddy has often turned down Grace's invitations to her parties because he views the Biswangers as being socially inferior to him and his family. He sees them as crass people who "discussed the price of things at cocktails." For her part Grace sees Neddy's decline in fortune as an opportunity to get back at him for his snubs. So she announces to her guests how Neddy came to her house drunk and asked for money. Instead of supporting Neddy during his difficulties, Grace humiliates him. Their so-called friendship, therefore, has no substance.

In "The Swimmer" how does Cheever convey the theme of delusion during the scene at the Biswangers' pool?

Neddy expects the Biswangers to be overwhelmed with gratitude about his appearance at their party. Neddy still maintains the delusion of being a legendary figure whom everyone admires, including people he has previously snubbed. The narrator states, "They [Biswangers] would be honored to give him a drink." But reality proves to be very different. Grace Biswanger shows hostility toward Neddy for showing up at her party, calling him a gatecrasher. She no longer fawns over Neddy but instead humiliates him. Even the bartender treats Neddy rudely. Also, Neddy overhears Grace talk about his financial decline. This piece of news is probably another unpleasant fact he has chosen to ignore because of his self-delusion.

In the scene at Shirley Adams's pool in "The Swimmer," how does Cheever create situational irony, and what theme does this irony convey?

At Shirley Adams's pool Neddy expects to be warmly welcomed by his former mistress. In fact, even though he has broken off their relationship, Neddy expects to have sex with Shirley and looks forward to this encounter as a type of pick-me-up. The narrator states, "Love—sexual roughhouse in fact— ... would put the spring back into his step." Neddy's arrival at Shirley's pool, however, has an outcome far different from what Neddy expects. Instead of being happy to see him, Shirley seems annoyed by his presence and wants to get rid of him as quickly as possible. She has another, younger man waiting to be with her. This scene shows situational irony because an action has an unexpected result. This irony conveys the theme of delusion. Neddy still believes he is a desirable male in his social circle, but the opposite is true. Neddy is a broken-down alcoholic who is no longer desired by Shirley and probably not by other women in his society.

In "The Swimmer" how does Cheever convey the theme of suburban emptiness in the scene at Shirley Adams's pool?

At Shirley Adams's pool Cheever reveals that Neddy previously had a casual affair with Shirley. This relationship has no deep meaning for Neddy. Instead, he views the affair as a lighthearted romp, which he easily broke off. Shirley now retaliates against Neddy, treating him as heartlessly as he treated her. Since Neddy has fallen on hard times, she sees him as an annoyance to be gotten rid of. Shirley says, "If you've come here for money ... I won't give you another cent." So for both Neddy and Shirley, their former relationship has taken on an emotional and moral emptiness.

In the third to last paragraph of "The Swimmer," how does Cheever convey the theme of aging?

Cheever conveys the theme of aging through Neddy's swimming, through comparison to Shirley's new lover, and through nature. Neddy becomes so tired swimming in Shirley Adams's pool that he cannot hoist himself out onto the curb, but instead has to use the ladder. The narrator states, "He found that the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone." Neddy, therefore, has gotten weaker and older. After describing Neddy's weakness, the narrator states, "looking over his shoulder he saw, in the lighted bathhouse, a young man." This is Shirley's current lover. By juxtaposing Neddy's struggles in the pool with the youthful lover, Cheever emphasizes Neddy's old age. Finally, Cheever uses descriptions of nature to convey autumn and therefore aging. Neddy smells chrysanthemums and marigolds, flowers that bloom in autumn. Their smell seems as strong as gas, which suggests a negative, suffocating effect. Looking overhead, Neddy sees a strange sight: the constellations are not the ones that should appear in midsummer. Instead, the sky is filled with constellations that appear in autumn.

In the next to last paragraph of "The Swimmer," what themes does the sentence beginning "It was probably" convey, and how does this sentence convey these themes?

This sentence conveys the themes of suburban emptiness, delusion, and aging. The sentence states that Neddy cries for the first time in his adult life. This shows that Neddy must have led a superficial life, during which nothing affected him very deeply. Apparently, he has not shed tears even for family or friends who have passed away. Also, the sentence describes Neddy as being bewildered. He's been shown as a person who tends to ignore unpleasant facts and focuses on youth and vitality. He likes to see himself as a person who is supremely happy and content. But Neddy has been deluding himself about his life. When he realizes this, Neddy cries. In addition the sentence describes Neddy as being cold and tired, characteristics that have been associated with Neddy's aging as he swims home.

In the next to last paragraph of "The Swimmer," what is the metaphorical meaning of the sentence that begins "He had swum too long"?

At the beginning of the story, Neddy views swimming home as a positive adventure. He finds swimming to be a pleasurable activity that shows off his physical prowess. If the swim home is seen as a metaphor for Neddy's life, however, then the act of swimming can be seen as a method for Neddy to delude himself. By immersing himself in pleasurable activities, such as swimming, Neddy ignores the problems of his life. So the phrase "he had immersed himself too long" can be seen as meaning that Neddy has indulged in pleasurable activities [swimming, drinking] too long in an attempt to block out difficulties. As a result of his over-extended swimming, Neddy's throat has become sore. Although chlorine probably has had a role in this, drinking alcohol also causes dehydration and sore throat pain. Part of Neddy's delusion is ignoring his alcoholism, so it is not surprising that the next sentence starts with "What he needed was a drink."

In "The Swimmer" what stage in Neddy's life is represented by the last two pools—those of the Gilmartin and Clyde families?

The last two pools represent Neddy's reaching old age. Neddy feels so tired that he walks into the Gilmartins' pool, instead of diving in. While in the pool, Neddy does a "hobbled sidestroke." He barely has the strength to make it to the Clydes' pool. In this pool he stops often to rest and uses the ladder to get out. These descriptions fit the actions of an old man who is trying to deny his age by exerting himself more than he should. Trying to hang onto the delusion of youth and success, Neddy attempts to swim in the final two pools as he did in earlier ones. His old age robs him of his earlier vigor, however, and he almost collapses.

In "The Swimmer" how does Cheever convey the theme of delusion in the story's last paragraph?

When he sees that his house is dark and unkempt, Neddy considers several different explanations—all based on his remembered successful life. He wonders if his daughters have all gone to bed and if his wife had stayed for supper at the Westerhazys. He is surprised that she is not at home as usual on a Sunday. He sees the gutter hanging loose and assumes the storm had done this. He thinks he can fix the gutter in the morning, as he normally would do. When Neddy finds that the door of his home is locked, he assumes his cook or maid locked it by mistake. So Neddy relies on his coping mechanism of ignoring obvious problems and, as a result, tries to explain away ominous signs. He keeps on trying to delude himself until he is forced to confront the truth. The house is empty; his family has left him; he is alone.

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