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The Swimmer | Themes



John Cheever explores the theme of delusion mainly through Neddy's false image of himself and his lifestyle, which he idealizes as a kind of paradise with "prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire-colored waters." Cheever contrasts Neddy's aging process with Neddy's denial of it as well as his denial of many other unpleasant issues. Early in the story, Neddy sees himself as a "legendary figure"—a brave explorer who navigates new territory. At first Neddy's friends support this self-image. For instance, friends at the Bunkers' party welcome Neddy like a conquering hero. Women kiss him, and men heartily shake his hand. As the story progresses, however, the attitude of his friends cools and then becomes hostile. This process exposes the falseness of Neddy's self-image. For a while he continues to expect friends to warmly welcome him and is stunned when they do not. Neddy has deluded himself about who he actually is as a person. In reality he is not a brave explorer, but rather a troubled, foolish man who views his empty life as something truly meaningful.

As Neddy realizes these unpleasant facts about his life, he also becomes aware of getting older. Finally he can see himself without illusions—a tired, older man in a desperate financial situation who has been abandoned by his wife and children.


Cheever develops the theme of aging through Neddy's physical decline and through images from nature. At the beginning of the story, the author describes Neddy as a youthful, vibrant man, even though he is middle-aged. As the story progresses, however, Neddy ages—until, by the story's end, he has become a tired, older man. Cheever shows this aging process mainly by describing changes in Neddy's swimming. Earlier, Neddy boldly dives into the water and feels an "inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools." By the time Neddy reaches the Hallorans, however, his strength has diminished to such an extent that he has difficulty swimming in their pool. This aging process continues to the end of the story, with Neddy resorting to "a hobbled sidestroke" in one of the last pools. When Neddy reaches his home, the narrator describes him as "stooped, holding on to the gatepost for support."

Changes in Neddy's natural surroundings also reflect an aging process. For example, the stars in the sky indicate a change from summer to fall. Near the end of the story, Neddy notices that autumnal constellations have replaced the constellations of summer. Cheever, therefore, emphasizes that Neddy's aging relates to the progression of nature. His loss of vitality bewilders Neddy, as if he expected to be young forever and can't accept getting older. But even his blind denial of unpleasant things cannot alter the natural aging process.

Suburban Emptiness

Cheever conveys the theme of suburban emptiness through setting, relationships, and Neddy's idea of swimming home. The author shows that many people in affluent suburbs may spend their leisure time by getting drunk, lounging, and giving parties. This behavior applies even to the local priest, who is so hung over that he has difficulty putting on his cassock. So the person who signifies a more meaningful way of life, namely the priest, has also adopted this empty lifestyle. For Cheever, therefore, suburban emptiness extends to all aspects of daily life.

In addition Neddy's relationships with his friends have a superficial, empty quality. These friends are happy to welcome Neddy when he is a financial success. For example, many of them heartily greet Neddy at the Bunkers' pool party. When Neddy falls on hard times, however, his once "close" friends disappear. Rather than hospitality, Neddy faces hostility from Grace Biswanger and Shirley Adams. Apparently, Neddy does not have any truly close friends, who will stand by him no matter what. In a way Neddy deserves nothing better. When he was a success, Neddy based his friendship solely on social status. As a result he made friends with the wealthy Hallorans but rebuffed the socially crass Biswangers.

Even Neddy's idea of swimming home via backyard pools seems like something a person would think of who has nothing better to do. To fill his empty life, Neddy thinks of a new challenge. He then glorifies this frivolous task into something noble, which he believes his friends will admire. Neddy's lightweight idea, therefore, becomes a grand adventure when seen through the eyes of people living an empty life.

At the end of the story, when Neddy understands his house has been abandoned, he perhaps realizes not only the emptiness of his current existence but also that his life has always been empty. His financial decline forces him to face this underlying barrenness. The critic James E. O'Hara claims that Neddy's decline in the story makes the reader understand that he "hadn't much in the way of enlightenment to share in the first place."

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