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“The Swimmer” (1964) John Cheever John Cheever (1912-1982) Troubled childhood: expelled from academy in Braintree, Mass.; father left home, lost his money in 1929 stock market crash Published short stories in New Yorker magazine

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John Cheever (1912-1982)

  • Troubled childhood: expelled from academy in Braintree, Mass.; father left home, lost his money in 1929 stock market crash

  • Published short stories in New Yorker magazine

  • Novels: The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1964), Falconer (1978), Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1980)

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John Cheever (1912-1982)

  • Married from 1941 until death; struggled with alcoholism; his journals, published in 1991, reveal his bisexuality—double life

  • Known mostly for his portrayals of comfortable middle class suburban New York; created a fictional suburb called Bullet Park

  • Mixes realism and fantasy: realistic stories often become morality tales or fables; he was influenced by Hawthorne

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Vision vs. Reality (1)

  • “The Swimmer” is on one level a version of “Rip Van Winkle” updated 150 years to the 1960s suburbs of New York

  • Neddy Merrill, like Rip, embarks on a journey away from his family, and cannot return to his former life. Differences:

    • Rip escapes from domestic tyranny, Neddy from seeming domestic happiness

    • “RVW” ends happily, “The Swimmer” tragically

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Vision vs. Reality (2)

  • Vision and reality are completely confused in this narrative. What is real?

    • The leisurely, drunken midsummer Sunday with his wife and friends, and his children safe at home? OR

    • A cold mid-autumn with his wife and children gone, his home empty and abandoned, his social status fallen?

      What is real?

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Vision vs. Reality (3)

  • Neddy has three levels of vision

    • Dream

    • Reality

    • Nightmare

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Neddy’s Dream (1)

  • “Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin”

  • “slenderness of youth”: “Aphrodite” (love & beauty)

  • “He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one” (2043)

  • “His life was not confining” (2044)

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Neddy’s Dream (2)

  • “He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county” (2044).

  • “he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife” (2044)

  • “a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure” (2044)

  • “he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny”; “friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River” (2044)

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Lancaster Public Pool




Shirley Adams



Neddy’s Dream (3)

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Neddy’s Dream (4)

  • Pilgrim/Explorer:

    • “the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives would have to be handled with diplomacy” (2046)

    • “Prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire colored waters” (2045)

    • “this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River” (2047)

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Neddy’s Reality (1)

What his society is really like:

  • Affluence: money, leisure, swimming pools

  • Marriage/Infidelity: Shirley Adams, ex-mistress

  • Alcohol: “I drank too much last night” (2043); his journey is a series of drinks

  • Social Status: “the rigid and undemocratic realities of their society” (2049)

  • Phoniness: “When Lucinda said that you couldn’t come I thought I’d die” (2045); “Lucinda and I want terribly to see you” (2049).

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Neddy’s Reality (2)

  • External View of Neddy as “pitiful”:

    • “Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of route 424, waiting for a chance to cross” (2046-47)

    • His society is an automobile culture; to be on foot is to be a fool

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Neddy’s Nightmare (1)

  • Welchers: pool dry, house for sale

    • “This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly”

    • “had he so disciplined himself in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth” (2046)

  • Hallorans: “Misfortunes”; “sold house”; “poor children” (2048)

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Neddy’s Nightmare (2)

  • Sachses: Eric Sachs’s operation scars: “no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession” (2049)

  • Biswangers: “he had suffered some loss of social esteem”; “they went for broke” (2049)

  • Shirley Adams: “I won’t give you another cent” (2050); Neddy climbs ladder out of pool; cries

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Neddy’s Nightmare (3)

  • Gilmartins: “Here, for the first time in his life, he did not dive but went down the steps” (2050); Contrast (2044): “He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.”

  • Home: “The place was dark. . . . [T]he place was empty” (2050-51).

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  • “a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance” (2043)

  • Maple stripped of read and yellow leaves: “sign of autumn” (2046); at Hallorans, “beech hedge was yellow” (2047)

  • “he smelled woodsmoke on the wind” (2048)

  • Constellations of autumn: “Andromeda, Cepheus, Cassiopeia”

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Conclusion: What happened to Neddy Merrill?

  • Psychological journey:

    • Pilgrim to where? Explorer of what?

    • “In the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible” (2043)

    • Lancaster Public Pool: no identification disk; no identity

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Conclusion: What happened to Neddy Merrill?

  • What is real? The slender, happy, youthful family man, or the “miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered” one who loses everything?

  • Possible answer: Both and neither.

  • Possible symbol: Eric Sachs’s abdomen: “no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession” (2049); compare to Welcher’s empty pool: “breach in his chain of water”

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Conclusion: What happened to Neddy Merrill?

  • Through his journey, Neddy has lost his “link to birth,” and thus has lost:

    • his identity

    • the source of the Lucinda River—the way back to his marriage

    • his place in his family and society, which has depended, to some extent, on dreams and self-deceptions: “repression of unpleasant facts” (2046)

    • his sense of what is real and what is imaginary