Dissociative Olympics: Swimming with Disorder (‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever)

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‘The Swimmer’, a short story written by American author John Cheever in 1964, is centered on the journey of a middle-aged man, Neddy Merrill, as he attempts to swim across country in various swimming pools he finds along the way. It emerges from a world in which Merill is an affluent member of society, simply reveling in life’s greatest pleasures with friends. However, as the story progresses, it evokes a landscape of instability and denial in which Merrill knows no reality. He is kicked out of a public pool; a bartender refuses to serve him at a neighbor’s home and towards the end; he even struggles to swim. Eventually, he manages to reach his goal of swimming across country and returns to his home wherein he expects to find his wife and children – unfortunately, all he is welcomed by is a vacant, locked home and no trace of anybody living there.

First, the detailed encounters with various neighbors seem unimportant and fruitless – but, as the story changes form, we see Merrill’s various interactions become progressively gloomy. Further encounters with neighbors highlight that Merrill is struggling to remember key aspects of his life: his loss of income, his house, his wife and his children. He describes himself not only as a ‘legendary figure’, but as a ‘pilgrim’, too. It is clear he has a warped sense of self and that allows the reader to question the short story’s narrative. In my essay, I will be arguing how Merrill’s possible dissociative identity disorder and addiction, results in the, perceived, distorted passing of time and how this affects his relationships with not only other characters but also, himself.

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Neddy Merrill is depicted as a happy-go-lucky man at the beginning of ‘The Swimmer’ with no qualms in the world – however, upon further analysis, it could be said that he has a dissociative identity disorder. At first, an innocent challenge of swimming across country in various swimming pools, in a single afternoon, seems like an adventure to the reader as well as Merrill. Leaving his wife and friends poolside, he promises to return by nightfall. However, as his journey advances his interactions cause the reader to question his mental stability. When in conversation with a neighbor, Merrill fails to remember he sold his home and his fervent denial, responded to with sympathy, further indicates a troubling dissociation with reality. Dissociative identity disorder is a complex psychological disorder that could be caused by some sort of trauma. A person with this disorder will show signs of extreme memory loss with regards to personal information so much so that it cannot be explained away by common forgetfulness. It is thought to be a coping mechanism in which the traumatized person can place themselves in denial in order avoid dealing with their problems. Upon seeing that a neighbor had put their home up for sale and not remembering the illness of his friend, he continuously questions his ability to recall key information by posing the question, “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth?” (Cheever; 1964:607). Merrill has essentially created another personality in which he is a strong, confident and content man - but this could be met with a degree of scrutiny. “The only maps or charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough” (Cheever; 1964:609). Emphasis should be placed on Cheever’s use of the word ‘imaginary’ which highlights his disconnection with reality – if he can conjure up a map in his mind and believe it true, to what degree should the reader trust his sanity?

Merrill often abuses alcohol as a way to repress unpleasant memories which further emphasizes his dissociation with reality. “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night’” (Cheever; 1964:1). This is a sign of foreshadowing – an indication of a future event – as it could be interpreted that Neddy has an alcohol abuse problem. “Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one hand around a glass of gin” (Cheever; 1964:1). This sentence perfectly describes Merrill’s relationship with water and alcohol – he cannot live without either of the two. Both are of great importance; he loves to swim, yet every place he stops he has a couple drinks. His neighbors call him a drunk and his ex-lover questions if he has come to visit her for money. It is clear to the reader that Cheever is hinting at an underlying explanation for Merrill’s behavior, which is that of alcoholism. “To be rebuffed by a part-time barkeep meant that he had suffered some loss of social esteem” (Cheever; 1964:611). In the affluent neighborhood to which Merrill associates, it is important to keep with social standing by having a good income, home and family. However, due to his detachment from reality, he is unable to recognize how his alcohol addiction has caused him to lose everything. Understanding that water and alcohol go hand-in-hand, water can be considered a key theme in this short story. Water can be associated with rebirth and life – however, flowing water could constitute change and the passage of time. When divulging further into the symbolism of water, one can see it is of great support to the theory that Neddy’s journey happened over a long period of time rather than a day.

Throughout ‘The Swimmer’, the reader is told that Merrill perceives his journey to take an afternoon, but from an objective viewpoint – we can see that this is just another disconnected belief. “They were loose and he wondered if, in the space of an afternoon he could have lost some weight” (Cheever; 1964:609). This statement is made ironically as the reader, by this point, has become familiar with Merrill’s instability and realizes that his journey seems to have taken much longer than previously understood. Therefore, this is further indication that time has passed and Merrill is growing older as his body is slowly deteriorating. The Lucinda River, the string of swimming pools he names after his wife, could also show the inevitability of the passage of time. The river could represent his relationship with his wife and how, much like his swimming feat, it starts to become rocky and unstable.

Therefore, the various interpretations of ‘The Swimmer’ show the importance of in-depth text analysis in order to understand a writer’s intention. Cheever uses many key symbols and metaphors throughout the short story, such as the swimming pools; water; the passage of time and Merrill’s distorted reality to portray the unstable life of a man who has lost everything to addiction. Supported by relative quotes, I have argued the validity of Merrill’s dissociative behaviors and the consequences that result to his detriment.

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Dissociative Olympics: Swimming with Disorder (‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever). (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/dissociative-olympics-swimming-with-disorder-the-swimmer-by-john-cheever/
“Dissociative Olympics: Swimming with Disorder (‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever).” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/dissociative-olympics-swimming-with-disorder-the-swimmer-by-john-cheever/
Dissociative Olympics: Swimming with Disorder (‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever). [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/dissociative-olympics-swimming-with-disorder-the-swimmer-by-john-cheever/> [Accessed 12 Jun. 2024].
Dissociative Olympics: Swimming with Disorder (‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever) [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Jun 12]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/dissociative-olympics-swimming-with-disorder-the-swimmer-by-john-cheever/
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