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An Analysis of "The Swimmer" by John Cheever

Updated on May 11, 2016
Burt Lancaster in "The Swimmer"
Burt Lancaster in "The Swimmer"

Drowing in the Suburbs

The aquatic adventure Neddy Merrill embarks upon in John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” seems at first to be the light-hearted and innocent idea of a middle-aged man in an affluent community.

Neddy, a seemingly energetic and cheerful husband and father, decides one summer afternoon that he will swim his way home from a cocktail party through the array of public and private swimming pools scattered throughout his neighborhood.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Neddy’s journey may represent more than meets the eye. Through increasingly strange encounters with his neighbors and resurfacing ideas of some serious life problems, the once-vibrant Neddy begins to transform into a tired and confused older man. Neddy is slowly forced to acknowledge the fact that his married adult life may actually be one enormous lie.

As the story comes to a close, Neddy arrives at his house only to find that it has been abandoned, his wife and children nowhere to be found. Neddy Merrill’s journey is an excellent representation of the typical mid-life crisis that many middle and upper class suburbanite parents experience. It illustrates how ignorance, apathy, and an inability to recognize and accept reality can so quickly destroy lives and entire families in the blink of an eye.

Neddy’s journey, if examined through a symbolic lens, represents a significant period of passing time in which important events of Neddy’s life are ignored and the overall reality of his life is suppressed. The journey starts off smoothly one summer afternoon, with Neddy being well received by his neighbors. He helps himself to drinks at every stop and chats with the hosts for brief moments before moving on to the neighboring pools.

However, things slowly begin to change. Neddy realizes that the pools are becoming colder and increasingly more difficult to swim through. This transition illustrates that Neddy is changing – he is growing weaker, older, and the journey is no longer as easy as it started out to be. These changes act as a metaphor for a larger portion of Neddy’s life than the literal journey he undertakes on this afternoon. It reveals how things can start out easily in a marriage and then deteriorate both physically and emotionally.

During one part of the journey, Neddy is forced to take cover in a gazebo while a storm passes. This is the first event indicative that all is not well in Neddy’s life. The narrator explains:

"Since it was midsummer the trees must be blighted, and yet he felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn. He braced his shoulders, emptied his glass, and started for the Welcher’s pool. This meant crossing the Lindleys’ riding ring and he was surprised to find it overgrown with grass and all the jumps dismantled. He wondered if the Lindleys had sold their horses or gone away for the summer and put them out to board. He seemed to remember having heard something about the Lindleys and their horses but the memory was unclear. On he went, barefoot through the wet grass, to the Welchers’, where he found their pool was dry."

This passage reflects not only a passing of time, but also that Neddy’s memory is obviously clouded and inaccurate. Neddy’s inability to remember significant details about his neighbors indicates that he has been dangerously unfocused with his everyday life. Depression or some other type of psychological illness could be distracting Neddy, rendering him incapable of separating his memories from the reality which surrounds him.

The fact that the Welcher’s pool has dried up is also important because it represents an interruption in his journey, just as a midlife crisis interrupts the previously smooth lives of men and women in our society. Midlife crises are generally said to be experienced during the ages of 40 and 60, and Neddy is probably somewhere in this age range. It is said to be a time when people are typically emotionally unsatisfied in their lives. They can be depressed and in need of psychotherapy, and experience a variety of feelings including unhappiness, boredom, confusion, uncertainty, anger, doubt, a desire for new relationships, and a need to change.

As Neddy carries on with his voyage, the weather continues its gradual transition from a bright and cheery summer afternoon to a cooler, stormy autumn eve and Neddy quickly loses his gumption and grows tired of the trip. This change suggests that a considerable amount of time has passed in Neddy’s life. His neighbors begin discussing his debt and his broken family, while Neddy is dazed and confused and completely unaware of what they are talking about. At one house, he encounters a woman with which he has apparently had an affair. The woman tells him that if he is there for more money, she will not give him any. Neddy is baffled, and leaves this house to the final chapter of his journey.

The return home is the most climactic event in the story. Upon arrival, Neddy notices that his house is locked and that it appears weathered and damaged. He finds nothing and no one there – his family has somehow abandoned him without him even noticing. Neddy is left as a bewildered and exhausted man with everything he once cared about gone.

Many different factors could have led to the cataclysmic ending of Neddy Merrill’s swimming pool journey. Throughout the trip it was clear that he enjoyed drinking, perhaps a bit too much, and this could have been the catalyst which sparked the beginning of the end for Neddy. He clearly had some sort of financial mishap that quickly ate away at the comfortable lifestyle he and his wife and children were previously accustomed to living.

The extramarital affair also illustrates a disconnect between himself and his wife. Neddy’s inability to cope with his situation caused him to shut down and retreat from reality, ultimately hurting all the people in his life that he ever cared about.

Neddy’s swimming pool journey is an effective parallel of the millions of Americans in our society who lead false lives and of the people who swim through life with their eyes half closed, choosing not to acknowledge behaviors that are significant and detrimental to their families. Extramarital affairs, alcoholism, gambling, and debt, all these activities gradually eat away at relationships every day.

The common midlife crises that people claim to experience have the power to rip families apart. Unfortunately for Neddy, he is too late in recognizing how painful his actions are to his family. Sufferers of midlife crises are seeking to reinvent themselves and find new methods of satisfaction in their lives. Neddy allows his behavior to manifest so greatly that he ends up accomplishing just this - he becomes an entirely different person, albeit a poor, homeless, and abandoned one.

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    • elnavann profile image

      elnavann 5 years ago from South Africa

      What a strange and innovative story - a bit different from the usual.

    • belowhorizon 3 years ago

      A wonderful analysis of this great film, thank you.

    • rick paz 3 years ago

      Thank you for answering allot of questions I had about this great story and film.

    • jackpear 3 years ago

      Thank goodness for the internet and the availability of sites to explain The Swimmer. I have watched Burt in all his movies, but this was a puzzle until I read the synopsis and now I want to read the book.

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 2 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Enjoyed watching the movie. Never read the story. Your Hub does a fine job of summarizing and analyzing the story. Thanks Rebekah Nydam.

    • 18 months ago

      it is great thanks

    • 19 3 months ago

      Never read the book, however I watched the film again last night for the first time in 20 years, it really is a great film! Thanks for the excellent analysis.

    • clair 2 months ago

      This is so much better than my course at school. It really is.

      But I do have some questions, one is that if this journney represents the several years of neddy's life, and so neddy was young at the begging. Why the book says "while he was far from young he had slide down his banister that morning" at the very first time the book describes Neddy? And when he says he might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly "the last hours of one" makes me wonder that may neddy knows what's going on in his life exactly at the very first time while he just try so hard to forget or avoid being told truth? I also don't get the naked old guys part. Why they got to be naked? I have the same curiosity as neddy does, and he said the old couples "were" friends. I know it uses past tense the whole time at this story but I can't help but thinking that if they are still alive, and what about neddy....

    • sweet repose 6 days ago

      Great analysis and enjoyed reading the comments above. I have not read the book, but it is on my reading list but I recently saw the movie circa 1969. This story also reflects the flawed social mores of 1960's Suburbia where at the time an in-ground swimming pool was a sign of wealth and affluence. You get the feeling that many of the men Ned meets may have been employed in the Advertising industry of the day much like Don Draper in Mad Men. On year you are in and the next you're out.

      Superficiality was the prima facie social mechanism in that society. Cocktail parties, pools that no one really swims in, lovely clothing, infidelity. Ned compliments almost everyone he meets at first about their great cloths or swim suits in the movie. Interesting that Neddy doesn't have an in-ground swimming pool of his own, "Never got around to it", but does have a tennis court. John Cheever's story of the time is sheer genius and I can't wait to start reading it. In the meantime, I plan to watch the movie again, Burt Lancaster was wonderful in this before it's time movie that went unappreciated in it's day.

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