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The Swimmer | Symbols


Swimming Pools

John Cheever uses the symbol of swimming pools to convey stages in Neddy's life. The first pools Neddy encounters represent his life at a high point. These pools are described as a type of paradise. The narrator describes the Bunkers' pool party as follows: "Oh, how bonny and lush were the banks of the Lucinda River!" The pools become gradually less hospitable and even bleak, however, showing later stages in Neddy's life. For example, the dark waters of the Hallorans' pool depress Neddy. He finds the water in the Sachses' pool to be cold. The pool at the Biswangers has a "wintry gleam," reflecting the surreal change in the seasons as well as the distinct cooling of Neddy's social relationships. During the last stage of his journey home, Neddy becomes a tired, older man. Appropriately, one of the last pools he swims in has "icy water." The symbol of swimming pools, therefore, supports the themes of aging and delusion.


Alcohol symbolizes Neddy's desire for a fun-loving lifestyle and high social status. At the first few pools in his journey, Neddy drinks a good deal as he is welcomed into an upper social circle. By the time he serves himself at the Levys' pool, Neddy is on his fourth or fifth drink. As his voyage progresses, however, Neddy has greater difficulty getting a drink. He needs alcohol to keep going on his adventure. After Neddy leaves the Hallorans, the narrator states, "He needed a drink. Whiskey would warm him ... carry him through the last of his journey." So Neddy's desire for alcohol develops into dependence. As this happens, Neddy's friends turn on him. Even friends whom he once viewed as being below his social status reject him. Cheever, therefore, uses alcohol in a symbolic way to reinforce the themes of suburban emptiness and delusion.


Maps—both geographical and spiritual—are significant symbols in "The Swimmer" that support the theme of delusion. Maps represent Neddy's plan for his life, to maintain a high social ranking and associate with the "right" people, which contrasts with the reality of his existence. His mental map of the suburbs shows a series of swimming pools leading to his house, and he names this watery route the Lucinda River. The narrator states, "He seemed to see, with a cartographer's eyes, that string of swimming pools." Not only does Neddy seem to know the path he expects to follow for the rest of his life, but also how he will be viewed by people along the way. He believes that "friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River."

The actual journey, though, proves to be a shocking revelation for Neddy. Both his geographical and spiritual mental maps prove faulty, as he discovers that friends have disappeared or changed and he has no memory of such events. His friends reject him, and he barely has the strength to complete the trip. And at the end of the journey, his wife, Lucinda—the person he honored by naming the river after her—has left him. He realizes the map for the rest of his life did not lead him to a loving home, but rather to the empty shell of a house. The contentment that his younger self enjoyed a few hours ago has evaporated while the pleasant afternoon mysteriously expanded into a bleak months-long trek.

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