The Swimmer | Study Guide

John Cheever

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The Swimmer | 10 Things You Didn't Know


John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer" was published in 1964 in the New Yorker magazine. The tale of Neddy Merrill, who decides to swim across his suburban neighborhood through his neighbors' pools, blends realism and surrealism to create a modern myth of the dark underside of suburbia.

Cheever, often called "the Chekhov of the suburbs" or "the Ovid of Ossining"—Cheever lived in Ossining, New York, for many years—was known for his damning tales of suburban life. "The Swimmer" exemplifies his vision of the post–World War II middle class. As writer John Updike put it, "Many people have written about suburbia. Only Cheever was able to make an archetypal place of it."

1. All of the names in "The Swimmer" have symbolic meanings.

"The Swimmer" includes a listing of the names of those whose swimming pools the main character traverses. The names having specific references, according to critics. At the Westerhazys' where Neddy begins his swim, the characters are all hazy with hangovers. At the Hammers' and Bunkers', he experiences psychological violence hinted at by their names. Halfway through the swim, the pool owners' names become Jewish and Irish, and some of the owners are more welcoming to Neddy, also an outsider.

2. "The Swimmer" reflects both Homer's Odyssey and the Greek myth of Narcissus.

Critics have noted allusions to both Homer's Odyssey and the cruel self-absorption of Narcissus in "The Swimmer." Neddy Merrill has his own odyssey, which, like that of Odysseus, takes him over water on an extended journey to his home. And like Narcissus, Neddy's immaturity, self-infatuation, and pride prevent him from returning to his family. Cheever himself, however, considered and then discarded the idea of using the Narcissus myth as a template for his story.

3. Cheever claimed "The Swimmer" was "terribly difficult" to write.

In an interview, Cheever called "The Swimmer" "a terribly difficult story to write." He explained he was writing about "imponderables," ideas that couldn't be defined or explained. He said, "I felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story."

4. Cheever's son wrote a parody of "The Swimmer" for the New York Times.

In 1997 Benjamin Cheever published a parody of "The Swimmer" in the New York Times. Beginning on "one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, 'I drank nothing last night,'" the story goes on to skewer self-help books, excessive plastic surgery, and modern consumerism. The author noted he felt able to create "this parody because I recall ... with what pleasure ... my father [made] fun of himself."

5. "The Swimmer" was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster.

In 1968 Columbia Pictures released the film version of "The Swimmer." Reviewer Roger Ebert said it managed "to reproduce the feeling of a short story in the medium of film" and called it "a strange, stylized work, a brilliant and disturbing one." He felt it was Burt Lancaster's best role. The New York Times disagreed, claiming that Lancaster couldn't play an aging, privileged white man because he had "the dignity of a peasant," but the reviewer liked the film nevertheless.

6. Cheever made a cameo appearance in the film version of "The Swimmer."

Cheever appeared in the film version of "The Swimmer" as a party guest at a pool the main character swims across. Writing about the filming experience in a letter, Cheever said, "So we rehearsed about a dozen times and then we got ready for the first take but when this dish [actress Janet Landgard] came on instead of shaking hands with her I gave her a big kiss." His improvisation apparently offended star Burt Lancaster.

7. Cheever was a major influence on the award-winning TV show Mad Men.

Mad Men, which ran on television from 2007 to 2015, is the story of advertising men and women and their families in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. The show's creator, Matthew Weiner, had copies of Cheever's works in his office, and the show's early episodes took place in Ossining, where Cheever lived. Like the show's main character, Don Draper, Neddy in "The Swimmer" suffers humiliation and despair in the suburbs.

8. Cheever's bisexuality is the subject of an episode of Seinfeld.

In 1991 Cheever's journals were published, revealing the author's bisexuality. A year later, in an episode on the sitcom Seinfeld called "The Cheever Letters," character George Costanza discovers his future father-in-law was Cheever's former lover. George learns there is evidence of the affair: a box of letters from the writer, one of which starts, "Dear Henry, Last night with you was bliss."

9. Cheever originally intended "The Swimmer" to be a novel.

When Cheever started writing what became "The Swimmer," he quickly amassed 150 written pages. However, he soon found the core of the story couldn't be sustained over the length of a novel. He began whittling it down, and the 150 pages became a carefully wrought tale of some 12 pages instead.

10. Cheever purposely got expelled from school so he could write a short story.

Cheever went to the private Thayer Academy for high school and was supposed to attend Harvard University on graduation. However, he deliberately got expelled for smoking and bad grades. He published an account of his expulsion, "Expelled," in the New Republic not long afterward.

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