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The Swimmer | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Westerhazys' Cocktail Party and Planning the Adventure

In an affluent suburb Donald and Helen Westerhazy and their guest Lucinda Merrill sit around the Westerhazy's pool and bemoan the fact that they drank too much the night before. Lucinda's husband, Neddy Merrill, sits by the pool with one hand in the water and the other hand clasping a glass of gin. Although middle-aged, Neddy has a youthful appearance with a slim, athletic build. His house is about eight miles away in a community called Bullet Park. As he thinks about his four beautiful daughters at home, Neddy realizes "he could reach his home by water."

Neddy imagines a mental map showing how a series of backyard swimming pools forms a route to his house. Seeing himself as a type of legendary figure, Neddy decides to embark on an adventure and swim home via the backyard pools. He names his route the Lucinda River in honor of his wife. With gusto Neddy dives into the Westerhazys' pool, swims its length, and "hoist[s] himself up on the far curb." He tells his wife he's swimming home and heads for the neighbor's pool. Neddy reviews the 15 pools he will have to swim. All of them are the residential pools of people he knows, except for a public pool about halfway along the journey. He imagines himself as an explorer who will be welcomed by friends throughout his voyage.

The Grahams and Bunkers

The first neighbors, the Grahams, greet Neddy warmly. Mrs. Graham offers him a drink. Neddy doesn't want to stay long—he needs to keep going to complete his plan. He swims the length of the Grahams' pool, takes a drink, and leaves. Next Neddy swims the Hammers' and Lears' pools. Mrs. Hammer is preoccupied with gardening, and the Lears are indoors; they merely glimpse or hear Neddy passing by. Since the Howlands and Crosscups are away, Neddy doesn't encounter them either. Arriving at the Bunkers, he finds they are giving a pool party. There Enid Bunker joyfully welcomes Neddy. He greets numerous friends at the party and drinks a gin and tonic. After swimming through their pool, he heads to the Levys' house.

The Levys and Welchers

The Levys appear to have just left home. The house, though, remains open, and so Neddy swims a lap and serves himself a drink. When a storm hits, Neddy takes shelter in the Levys' gazebo. Lightning strikes nearby, and he hears a mighty crash of thunder and smells the explosive cordite. The fierce wind "stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves." Because it is midsummer, Neddy figures the maple's leaves have turned color early because the tree is blighted. After the storm Neddy heads for the Welchers' pool. He finds this pool has been drained, however, which severely disappoints him. He realizes the house is up for sale, and he cannot remember anything about the Welchers leaving the neighborhood. Neddy worries his memory is failing him. The sound of a tennis game, though, cheers him, so he continues on.

Route 424 and the Lancaster Recreational Center

Now he has to cross a busy highway to reach the public pool. In his swimming trunks Neddy looks like the victim of a practical joke. Passers-by jeer at him, and he considers heading back to the comfort of the Westerhazys' home but feels compelled to complete his task. Then he realizes he cannot go back. The narrator says within "the space of an hour ... he had covered a distance that made his return impossible."

Neddy enters the public recreation center without the required identification tag. He hates the idea of swimming in this pool with its high chlorine content. But he figures that "explorers" like him have to deal with unpleasant circumstances and so strokes his way down the pool, keeping his head above water "to avoid collision." As he gets out of the water, the lifeguards yell at him for not having an identification disk. Neddy hurries out of the recreation center, crosses a road, and enters the Halloran estate.

The Hallorans and the Sachses

The Hallorans are very wealthy people who are friends of Neddy and his wife. They see themselves as nonconformist reformers and relish it when people accuse them of being communists, even though these accusations are false. Neddy reaches their swimming pool and takes off his swimming trunks because he knows the Hallorans like to swim naked. Mr. and Mrs. Halloran casually accept Neddy's arrival. He swims in their pool and, as he pulls himself out, hears Mrs. Halloran say, "We've been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy." This statement stuns him. Mrs. Halloran explains they have heard about Neddy selling his house and refers to his daughters as "poor children." Neddy has no memory of selling his home and believes his children are presently living there. He puts his trunks back on and notices they seem loose. The swim in the Hallorans' pool has unexpectedly taken a lot out of him: "His legs felt rubbery and ached at the joints." He wants a drink to revive his spirits.

Neddy heads to the house of the Hallorans' daughter, Helen Sachs. He asks Helen for a drink. She tells him that she and her husband, Eric, do not drink anymore because of Eric's surgery. As he notices Eric's surgery scars, he can't comprehend how he could have forgotten his friend's operation. Neddy swims in their cold pool and almost drowns in the process.

The Biswangers and Shirley Adams

Approaching the Biswangers' house, Neddy hears a party going on. He expects to be welcomed warmly and given a drink, even though he has often snubbed the Biswangers' invitations. Neddy views the Biswangers as somewhat crass. When he wanders in among the party guests, Grace Biswanger meets him with hostility, calling him a gatecrasher. Neddy grabs a drink from the bartender, who serves him rudely. Neddy overhears Grace telling guests about his financial problems and how he "showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars." Neddy swims the pool and leaves.

The next pool belongs to Neddy's former mistress, Shirley Adams. He fondly remembers making love with her. He can't recall exactly when they had an affair, but he knows he viewed it as a lighthearted diversion and broke it off. Neddy hopes Shirley won't weep again. Shirley, however, seems confused about seeing Neddy. When he explains his fun excursion of swimming home, Shirley says, "Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?" She refuses to give Neddy a drink, telling him she is not alone. Neddy swims in her pool but does not have the strength to hoist himself out. So he climbs out using a ladder. As he leaves Shirley's place, Neddy notices a young man with her in the bathhouse. Feeling miserable and tired, Neddy cries for the first time as an adult.

Arriving Home

Neddy finds he is barely able to swim the last two pools on his list and has to stop often because of fatigue. Finally he reaches his home. Even though he has completed his task, his exhaustion has drained away any happiness he might feel. As Neddy approaches his house, he notices it is dark and the storm has knocked a gutter loose. He tries to open the door, only to find it locked. At first he thinks the cook or maid locked the house by mistake, but then he remembers he no longer employs these servants. Neddy shouts and pounds at the door and tries to force it open. He peers through the window and sees "the place [is] empty."

Analysis

Realism and Surrealism

John Cheever's blending of everyday realism with time-shifting surrealism in "The Swimmer" catches readers off guard and gives the story a powerful punch. As Neddy, Lucinda, and the Westerhazys relax poolside, Cheever uses simple prose to paint a realistic scene of a warm summer day—with the friends largely ignoring their surroundings to concentrate on last night's overindulgence in alcohol: "We all drank too much," moans Lucinda. Although they complain about their hangovers, for Cheever's suburbanites, the use of alcohol represents the desire for a fun-loving lifestyle and high social standing.

Once Neddy decides he is an explorer who must set out on an adventure across the county, Cheever introduces elements of surrealism. He couples the afternoon's deteriorating and illogical weather with a chill in the welcome succeeding hosts offer Neddy upon his arrival. Much of the story's impact is created through Cheever's use of symbolism and allusions to other well-known literary works.

As Neddy navigates the string of swimming pools, it becomes evident that they symbolize stages of his life. Initially moving through them is both easy and enjoyable. Perhaps he completes each swim too quickly, not taking the time to appreciate each of them because he is eager to move on to the next. Additional details signal the passage of time in what is supposedly a midsummer afternoon: autumn leaves and fall flowers appear, along with the smell of wood smoke and the appearance of autumn constellations in a sky that is darkening too soon. It is a sign of Neddy's self-delusion that he dismisses these odd chronological signs rather than seeking to understand them, much as he relies increasingly on alcohol to ease his way through awkward social encounters.

Allusion

Neddy's self-regard—for his physical self and for his position in society—guides the story's progress and Cheever influences the reader's opinion of Neddy by linking him with two well-known mythic protagonists: Narcissus and Odysseus. Although Cheever decided that retelling the Narcissus myth was too narrow a focus for "The Swimmer," the myth nevertheless influences the story. Just as Narcissus constantly gazes at his reflection in the pool, Neddy shows off his youthful fitness by diving into the various pools and meeting his reflection face-to-face. As he ages during the afternoon's journey, he no longer feels or looks youthful, and goes from diving into his reflection to feebly entering the pools by way of the steps.

Neddy's quest to reach his home via the Lucinda River is an extended allusion to the Greek epic poem The Odyssey whose hero, Odysseus, faces many trials on his postwar journey home. When Cheever describes the cloud bank seen above the Westerhazys' pool, "so like a city ... that it might have had a name. Lisbon." he alludes to Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus), who according to a myth founded the city of Lisbon. As this calm cloud bank develops 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 disrupted by violent storms sent by the goddess Athena. The storm also symbolizes the troubles brewing in Neddy's personal life, such as his financial difficulties and the infidelity that damages his marriage.

Cheever leads Neddy and the reader to wonder at times whether his memory is failing or whether, through self-delusion, he no longer can determine illusion from truth. Are the events of the afternoon reality, or has he been dreaming? In questioning his experiences Neddy resembles another Westchester County (affluent suburb of New York) character: Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, whose 20-year sleep drastically alters his life.

Pacing as Allegory

In the earlier, youthful part of Neddy's quest, the tone and pace of the story are upbeat and brisk. Neddy is greeted warmly at the Graham and Bunker pools, as he believes he deserves to be. His self-image as "a man of destiny" leads him to look down on his friends, even though he believes them to be important people. He feels his quest is important and must not be delayed, so he decides "the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives [will] have to be handled with diplomacy if he [is] ever to reach his destination." He quickly completes his task (swimming the length of the Grahams' pool), grabs a quick drink, and, smiling, slips away to continue his quest. Later, as the hosts switch from welcoming to disdainful and surly, Neddy declines physically and spiritually—becoming weak, confused, and sad. Cheever's tone and pace mirror Neddy's decline, becoming slower and emotionally darker. This slide from fast-paced confidence to lethargic uncertainty signals the story's pivot from realism to a type of surrealism.

The effect of these literary devices is to transform Cheever's narrative into an allegory on aging and the inevitable passing of time. Beginning with the thunderstorm at the Levys' home that signals the onset of Neddy's decline, it gradually becomes clear his swim home is taking not just one summer afternoon, but months or years, bringing with it physical and emotional deterioration, as well as financial ruin and the destruction of his social and family life.

The Swimmer Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Well-to-do Neddy decides to swim home via backyard pools.

Rising Action

2 Neddy feels vibrant as he easily swims the Grahams' pool.

3 Neddy hears thunderclap; the weather cools.

4 Neddy feels older as he swims Mrs. Halloran's pool.

5 Grace Biswanger reveals money issues and embarrasses Neddy.

6 Former mistress treats Neddy as a deadbeat, kicks him out.

Climax

7 Neddy cries, feeling tired, cold, and miserable.

Falling Action

8 Exhausted, Neddy struggles through the last two pools.

Resolution

9 Neddy arrives home and finds his family gone.

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