The Theme Of Continuity Of Life In The Swimmer
There is a common notion that money cannot buy happiness. This may be true for most, but not for John Cheever’s protagonist, Neddy Merrill, in “The Swimmer”. John Cheever was born May 27, 1912 in Quincy, Massachusetts. He has written many short stories for various publishers such as The Atlantic, The Yale Review and The New Yorker. In 1930, John Cheever published his first story in The New Republic; and in 1941, he married Mary Winternitz, with whom he had two children, Susan and Benjamin. Cheever served in the army during World War II; and after he wrote scripts for television series such as Life with Father. He also taught at a variety of institutions such as the University of Iowa, Boston University, Barnard College, and Sing Sing Prison. He received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. On June 18, 1982, Cheever died of cancer. One of Cheever’s most well known short stories is “The Swimmer”. It was first published in 1964 at a time of great prosperity. This was when most of the middle and upper class Americans were enjoying the wealth and affluence of the post war era after World War II. It was during this time, when the suburbs, the setting of “The Swimmer,” grew in rapid quantity. “The Swimmer” is a short story about a middle-aged man name Neddy Merrill who decides to swim home one day through the pools of all his friends and neighbors. Throughout the journey home, Neddy encounters many friends, and some conflicts, as he makes his way along the ‘Lucinda River’. Half way through the short story, Neddy’s journey becomes rough and the owners of the pools he has been crossing have begun to be rude to him. When he arrives home, he comes to find that his wife is gone along with all his belongings that were formerly in the house. John Cheever develops the theme that life continues on in his short story “The Swimmer” through the use of characterization and allusion.
The first literary element used to develop the theme in the short story is characterization. Neddy, the protagonist, is described in the story as being young, active and having a playful spirit. The short story begins with Cheever describing Neddy as being “a slender man — who seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth — and while he was far from young he had slid down his banister that morning.” When Neddy begins his journey, it is smooth, but then he begins to run into obstacles. Subtle at first being represented by physical challenges such as hedges, gravel paths, and highways, but then they begin to become more forthright when people that he formerly considered to be his friends begin to make his journey home somewhat harder for him by shunning him. As he progresses on his journey, Neddy begins to grow more fatigued and is “struck by the loneliness of his situation”. He even considers giving up his journey. Time seems to move slower as you grow older, but ironically, time moves faster than it should throughout the day in the life of Neddy in “The Swimmer”. He seems to be growing older faster than usual and his memory begins to fade as his journey progresses. At the start of the story, Neddy says, “he never used the ladder”, yet near the end of the story “when he tried to haul himself up onto the curb he found that the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone, and he paddled to the ladder and climbed out”. This goes to show that he has grown to feeble to even do the simplistic of tasks such as hauling himself out of the water and to have to succumb to the use of the ladder. Appearing cold, tired, miserable, and alone at the end of the story, Neddy’s characterization stands in sharp contrast to the vibrant man who began the swim home at the story’s onset.
At the start of the story, Neddy and Lucinda were very active in their neighborhood’s social circle and attend numerous parties. Though they are very active in their neighborhood’s social circle, they have also declined a vast amount of invitations to their neighbor's parties, which has offended most of their acquaintances and resulted in their gaining a snobbish reputation (Byrne). Neddy and his wife, Lucinda, could be considered quite high in their social rankings. They have been invited and have gone to a great deal of social encounters. When Neddy is telling his route home, he lists the name of the owners of the houses that he will pass. Most of the owners of those swimming pools that Neddy will pass through will be those very people that he and Lucinda have declined invitations from. The owners of the pools that Neddy will swim through are “First ... the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. [Then] he would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes”. The list of the names of the neighbors was one way Cheever provided concise symbolic resonance to the story. By listing the names of the owners of the pools, it makes the short story seem vague and “blurred” like Neddy was at the end from the various drinks that he had drunk at the numerous pool owner’s houses.
The next element used in “The Swimmer” is allusion. One of the more obvious allusions in the story is Cheevers comparison of Neddy to “a summers day”. This comparison echoes one of Shakespeare's more famous sonnets, Sonnet 18. This comparison allows further development into allusions. The Odyssey is a timeless epic that is given allusion to in “The Swimmer”. An example of an allusion to The Odyssey in “The Swimmer” is the way that Neddy swims and visits many pools to get home similar to the way that Odysseus stopped at many ports on his journey home. William Rodney Allen says that Cheevers protagonist, Neddy Merrill, begins to resemble Odysseus after he comes up with the idea “of swimming home through the pools of his suburban friends.” In the short story, “Neddy resembles Odysseus in many ways. One way includes the way he remembers maps and locations by people and places that he has to go to. He recalls them in list formation such as how Odysseus does”. In “The Swimmer”, Cheever writes that 'the only maps and charts [Neddy] had to go by were remembered or imagined but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins and the Clydes'. This quote from 'The Swimmer' could also give allusion to The Great Gatsby.
Cheever's first reference to The Great Gatsby comes early in the story, so as to open the reader’s mind to the more subtle parallels to Fitzgerald's novel. Neddy's list of the friends whose pools he plans to swim though are owned by people who attended Gatsby's parties. Allen sheds light to the fact that “the lists in both “The Swimmer” and The Great Gatsby contrast names suggestive of their established upper class. In The Great Gatsby, The Abrams and The Voltaire and in 'The Swimmer' The Graham and The Howland parallel with Jewish and Irish names of the nouveau riche which means people who have recently acquired wealth, typically those perceived as ostentatious or lacking in good taste. Another example of paralleling names in The Great Gatsby and “The Swimmer” are The Cohen and The McCarty in The Great Gatsby and The Levy and The Halloranin in 'The Swimmer'. Allen mentions the fact that 'Gatsby is, or at least believes he is, on the rise until Daisy rejects him after she learns of his illegal activities and runs over Myrtle. Meanwhile 'The Swimmer' opens with Neddy on top, but then records his fall into financial difficulties, social scorn, and middle age”. This makes Gatsby and Neddy polar opposites considering their place in society and the way Gatsby rises to the top while Neddy falls from grace. Neddy's standing in society is finally destroyed by the flaws in American culture, by his own mistakes, and by the simple advance of time.
In conclusion, John Cheever uses characterization and allusion to develop the theme that life continues on in his short story “The Swimmer”. One of the key concepts in “The Swimmer” is Cheever’s use of having Neddy listing the neighbors names when mentioning the path be will be taking to get home. The way the names of the neighbors are listed in the short story helps to characterize the protagonist, Neddy. The list of the neighbors names also supports the element of allusion in “The Swimmer”. The first allusion in “The Swimmer” was distinct to give way to the more ambiguous allusions. Neddy could be considered a mirror image of Gatsby, because Gatsby is trying to break into the upper class while Neddy has always been a privileged member of it; and later, at the end of the Swimmer, Neddy is left with nothing, and is at his lowest point, while Gatsby was at his highest. In the end Neddy went on with his life, even with all the conflicts that he has to face.
- Scholes, Robert, Nancy R Comley, Carl, H, Klause, David, Staines. “The Swimmer by John Cheever.” Elements of Literature, 5th ed., Oxford, 2015, pp. 173–181.
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