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The Swimmer | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In "The Swimmer" how could Neddy's pleasure seeking be viewed as a weakness?

Neddy exclusively seeks pleasure, ignoring the existence of any problems or difficulties. As a result, he immerses himself in actions he finds pleasurable, such as drinking large amounts of liquor, having an extramarital affair, enjoying admiring friends, and taking long swims. He creates a world in which he is the main heroic figure. But this immersion in pleasure deludes Neddy. In reality he has family and financial problems. His focus on pleasure, though, blocks out these predicaments, preventing him from dealing with them constructively. Because of this, these issues become overwhelming burdens that crash down on him, shattering his delusion and leaving him a defeated man.

In "The Swimmer" how does Neddy relate to his wife, Lucinda?

Neddy relates to his wife mainly in his mind. He idealizes her and, as a result, names his route home after her. Neddy's relationship with Lucinda, however, is an illusion. In reality Neddy barely talks to her. Early in the story, Lucinda converses with the Westerhazys, but Neddy remains separate from them, immersed in his own daydreams. Neddy just briefly tells Lucinda that he is swimming home and then leaves. This lack of communication between Neddy and Lucinda seems to be a recurring problem. Eventually, the reader learns that Neddy is estranged from his wife and children. Neddy, though, is so immersed in his dream of Lucinda that this estrangement comes as a shock. At the end of the story, Neddy expects Lucinda to be waiting for him at home. But she has left with their children, leaving him alone.

In "The Swimmer" how are Grace Biswanger and Shirley Adams similar and different?

Both Grace Biswanger and Shirley Adams are antagonistic toward Neddy, but for different reasons. Grace dislikes Neddy because he has ignored her many party invitations. She probably also knows that he considers the Biswangers to be crass. Now that Neddy is dealing with financial problems, Grace takes advantage of this and treats him rudely. For Grace, therefore, her antagonism toward Neddy is based on social status. Shirley Adams, Neddy's former lover, shows hostility toward him for more personal reasons. He harshly broke off their affair. As a result, she became a devastated woman who approached him "on her knees and showered his trousers with tears." Since Neddy's fortunes have taken a turn for the worse, Shirley wants vengeance and treats him with disgust.

At the end of "The Swimmer," how is Neddy's home similar to a haunted house?

At the end of "The Swimmer," Cheever describes Neddy's house as being dark and in disrepair. These are characteristics often associated with haunted houses. Also, Neddy imagines his family being at home. Neddy wonders, "Was it so late that they had all gone to bed?" In reality the house is empty. For Neddy the house is haunted by his memories of Lucinda and their children. Neddy's situation—confused and locked out of his own home—seems like the kind of nightmare associated with horror stories and haunted houses. Because of his traumatic situation, Neddy tries to explain it away through deluded reasoning, such as the maid locking the place by mistake. These delusions, however, fail to block out the sad reality: his house and family are gone; he has nothing and no one.

How can "The Swimmer" be seen as both a movement from reality to fantasy and a movement from fantasy to reality?

The story starts out being a rather realistic depiction of Neddy's journey home via the series of backyard swimming pools. Considering the wealthy people living in the area, this journey seems plausible. Most people living in such affluent suburbs would have swimming pools. Cheever makes sure to include realistic details, such as having Neddy unable to swim in some pools because the residents are away. The plot becomes more fantastic, however, as Neddy shows signs of aging and learns about major problems in his life that he has somehow forgotten. Neddy also moves from fantasy to reality. At the beginning of the story, Neddy lives in a dream world fed by his own delusions. As the story progresses, Neddy becomes more self-aware and faces the reality about himself and his family.

How is "The Swimmer" similar to the Oscar Wilde novel The Picture of Dorian Gray?

"The Swimmer" and The Picture of Dorian Gray both combine reality and fantasy. In "The Swimmer" Neddy's journey home enters the world of fantasy as he gradually ages. In The Picture of Dorian Gray most of the story is realistic except for the portrait of Dorian, which ages as he remains youthful. In addition both works deal with a protagonist who tries to maintain, or hang on to, his youth. Neddy does so through his delusions. Dorian does so by wishing that his portrait age while he remains young. Dorian's wish is fulfilled. In pursuing their goals, both Neddy and Dorian come to tragic ends. Neddy becomes a lonely, alcoholic old man. In an attempt to destroy his conscience, Dorian stabs his portrait, thereby turning himself into a decrepit old man who dies.

How is "The Swimmer" similar to and different from the short story "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver?

Both "The Swimmer" and "Cathedral" are short stories in which the viewpoint of the main character dominates. "Cathedral" is told in first person. "The Swimmer" is told in third person, but mostly from the perspective of Neddy, who rather "worships" his own image. Both stories deal with self-awareness. Neddy gradually learns more unpleasant facts about himself as he journeys home. The protagonist of "Cathedral" has a limited view of life. At first he sees only the limitations of Robert's being blind. As Robert helps the protagonist draw a cathedral, however, the protagonist becomes aware of a deeper way of seeing. "The Swimmer" combines reality and fantasy, while "Cathedral" is entirely realistic. In "The Swimmer" Neddy undertakes a physical journey. In "Cathedral" the protagonist does not go on a physical trip. "Cathedral" contains extensive interaction between the protagonist and his wife, but in "The Swimmer" Neddy barely interacts with his wife.

How is Neddy Merrill of "The Swimmer" similar to and different from Odysseus?

Neddy and Odysseus each embark on a journey home that has a strong impact on their lives. Along the way each character faces obstacles. For example, Odysseus fights various creatures such as the Cyclops. Neddy deals with hostile public pool lifeguards and antagonistic former friends. During their treks Neddy and Odysseus both age. The timelines of the stories contain a major difference. Neddy grows old in the span of one day, while Odysseus ages in a natural manner over 20 years. In addition Neddy deludes himself about being a legendary figure or pilgrim. Indeed, he deludes himself about many of his positive qualities. Odysseus, though, does not delude himself. He really is a man with many admirable qualities, such as wisdom and shrewdness, and he truly becomes a legendary figure.

How is Cheever's "The Swimmer" similar to a nightmare?

Nightmares are dreams in which people's fears about themselves and their lives come to the surface. Because they are not bound by the restraints of reality, nightmares often contain many elements of fantasy. Neddy is a person who deludes himself. He has many problems in this life, which he pushes aside or ignores. "The Swimmer," therefore, can be seen as a type of nightmare in which Neddy's repressed fears about himself come to the surface through the use of fantasy. Also, nightmares often have frightening endings, in which people become trapped or can't get away from something chasing them. In "The Swimmer" Neddy cannot escape the brokenness of his own life and, in a way, becomes a man entrapped by his own loneliness and emptiness.

Since "The Swimmer" was written during the beginning of the American counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, how does the story reflect that revolution?

During the counter-cultural revolution, many people began to question the establishment and viewed people who supported the status quo as living shallow, empty lives. "The Swimmer" ties in with this revolution by exposing the empty lives of affluent suburbanites. None of the characters in this story do anything really meaningful or significant. They seem to spend their days lounging about and getting drunk. Neddy deludes himself about doing something meaningful by swimming home. Neddy, therefore, glorifies a silly lark as something truly noble, thereby exposing the shallowness of his life. By showing that Neddy truly lives an empty life, Cheever supports the view of suburbanites held by many people involved in the counter-cultural revolution.

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