The Swimmer

John Cheever

The Swimmer

John Cheever

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The Swimmer Summary

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Originally published in The New Yorker magazine (1964), John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” is the moderately surreal story of a swimmer who decides to take a dip in every pool in his county and a statement about suburban America.

On an ordinary Sunday afternoon in the suburbs, Neddy and Lucinda Merrill and Helen and Donald Westerhazy are sitting around the Westerhazy’s pool drinking and taking in the sun. Neddy feels young and happy. He is so happy as he thinks of all the friends that lay ahead of him, he decides that he will swim across all the pools in the county to get home. He leaves the Westerhazys’ pool and walks to the neighbor’s house.

The neighbors are the Grahams. He swims across their pool and has a drink before continuing to the Hammers’ pool and then several others. He reaches the Bunkers’ pool, and here, Enid tells him she is happy he could come to the party after all. He has another drink and moves on.

When he reaches the Levys’, they are not home, but he swims across their pool and helps himself to a drink. A storm hits, and as he waits it out in the gazebo, he notices that there are red and yellow leaves blowing across the yard.

When he arrives at the Lindley’s pool, he sees that their yard is thick and overgrown. He cannot remember hearing if they were going to be traveling for the summer. The Welchers’ pool has been drained, and there is a for sale sign in front of their house, which he finds strange. He cannot remember when he last heard from them, and he wonders if he has just repressed a memory.

Neddy waits for a long time, trying to cross the highway, and people yell at him while he waits. He knows that he should head back to the Westerhazy’s house, but he cannot bring himself to turn around. He finally crosses and enters a public pool. He is repulsed by the crowd and the over-chlorination.

When he arrives at the Hallorans’, he takes off his trunks because he knows they enjoy being naked. They greet him and tell him that they are sorry for all his misfortunes. He denies that anything has happened and leaves. He feels weak and smells burning wood. He wishes for a whiskey to warm him up.

Next, he reaches Helen and Eric Sachses’ pool, but they inform him that Eric hasnot had a drink since the surgery three years ago. Neddy has no memory of this, but he wishes them well and moves on. At the Biswangers’, he walks into their party. He has always been invited to their parties, but he never attends because they are of a lower social standing than he is. Now, they treat him coldly and hint that something has happened in his social circle. He overhears someone mention something about losing money and asking for a loan.

He reaches the pool of Shirley Adams, a former mistress of his. He cannot remember when the affair ended, but when she sees him, she tells him that she cannot give him any more money, and she cannot give him a drink because someone is there already. He swims across her pool, but he has trouble getting out and has to use the ladder. He smells fall flowers.

He is cold and confused now, and he begins to cry, the first time since childhood. He finally reaches his own house, but he cannot get inside. All the lights are off, and no one is home. He finally looks into the window and sees that the entire house is empty.

The story is a surreal look at the inevitable passage of time. Neddy is in such denial about time passing that he acts young while lounging and diving at the Westerhazys’ pool. As he begins his journey across the pools in his county, we see time speeding up. Neddy has been in complete denial of change.The afternoon at the Westerhazys’ must have seemed as though everything would remain the way it was. Once he leaves, it becomes apparent that he has denied change to his detriment. His social status changes, friends change and experience hardship. He is no longer healthy and young. He has trouble, in the end, reconciling his weakened state with reality, and when he finally arrives, his own house is empty.

Arriving at his dark home forces him to confront the fact that time has passed. Up to this point, he has gone through life behaving as though everything would last forever. His friends have grown up and dealt with this change, but he has refused. By the end, there is no one to greet him when he gets home.

It is also a testament to the emptiness of suburbia. The suburbs were supposed to bring happiness and contentment to whoever moved in, but instead, the houses hide discontent and heartache. There is sickness, status changes, fortunes made and lost. Everyone is looking for meaning, but instead drink and lie around the pool. This shallow existence doesnot allow one to examine the meaning of one’s life, and again, once Neddy is faced with his dark, empty house, he fully realizes how empty his existence has been.

The story has been praised for its use of allegory, and for its subtle surrealism. The exploration of suburban America feels familiar, and Cheever manages to illustrate the shallowness of our existence through the use of a favorite pastime, the backyard pool. It is a subtle look into the trickery of our denial, and the ways we convince ourselves that time will stop for us.
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