The Swimmer John Cheever Analysis

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The recent rise of suburbia in mainstream media has promoted the suburban lifestyle to be the most desirable and ideal way of life. However, when understood in depth, suburbia often hides a deceptive façade as a means to achieve a sense of social superiority. The short story, ‘The Swimmer’ (Cheever, 1964), explores the social and psychological repercussions of the constant display of a superficial persona in American suburbia. The story concentrates on the middle-aged man Neddy Merrill’s journey through the ‘Lucinda River’ and his gradual acceptance of the truth that he has avoided facing – his life is in ruins. ‘The Swimmer’ uses imagery, symbolism and characterization to generate the setting of an American suburban community in order to represent the idea that suburbia is a superficial place of social isolation.

Cheever’s use of imagery is prevalent in allowing the short story to generate the setting of an American suburban community used to illustrate the idea that suburbia lacks human depth. At the midpoint of Neddy Merrill’s journey through his suburban neighborhood, he visits Mrs. Levy’s house and shivers from “the rain that had cooled the air”. Additionally, he observes that the “force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves” and “scattered them over the grass and the water”. As a result, the combination of visual and tactile imagery is highly effective in promoting an uncomfortable and desolate environment. Furthermore, the unfriendly weather greatly contrasts with the initial descriptions of Neddy relaxing at the Westerhazy’s pool, which was “fed by an artesian well with high iron content”. Subsequently, the juxtaposition of the imagery establishes opposing feelings of luxury and discomfort to the reader, which in turn supports the idea of loneliness in suburban lifestyle. In addition, auditory imagery is evident when Neddy compares the filthy public pool to have an “effect of the water on voices, the illusion of brilliance and suspense” which was same as it had been at the Bunkers’ party but instead, “the sounds here were louder, harsher, and more shrill”. These sounds having connotation of an inhospitable environment, positions the reader to associate the internal aspects of suburbia, being the shunned public pools, with feelings of isolation. Through imagery, Cheever is able to expose the harsh realities of the typical perfect portrayal of suburbia by depicting the traumatic sounds that were heard by Neddy. Moreover, the use of varying types of imagery is crucial in generating suburban setting in ‘The Swimmer’ and thus allows the representation of superficiality in suburbia.

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The integration of symbolism is critical in generating the American suburban setting in ‘The Swimmer’, which assists in the construction of the idea that suburbia is empty. This concept is demonstrated through alcoholism, symbolizing the suburban residents’ refusal to face hardships and immediate resort to the overindulgence of alcoholic substances as a means of temporary distraction. Similarly, whenever Neddy Merrill feels insecure, he drinks, as he believes that whiskey would “warm him, pick him up, carry him through the last of his journey” and a stimulant would “refresh his feeling that”, he was “original and valorous”. The symbol of alcohol is personified, having connotations of intimate human relationship and dependence on liquor. Moreover, this further symbolizes people replacing human connections with alcohol. Additionally, when the thought of swimming across the county seemed foolish, Neddy swept it aside with alcohol, reflecting how he managed to damage his relationships with his loved ones. The symbol of alcoholism effectively highlights Merrill’s psychological troubles resulting from the attempt to maintain his false identity in desperation to preserve his position at the top of the social hierarchy. Symbolism is also found within swimming pools since Neddy Merrill’s journey through the neighborhood pools also represents periods of time that he travels pass. Originally, Ned’s envision of swimming the eight miles back home was grand, as he “seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi subterranean stream that curved across the county”, reflecting his youthful, strong and grandiose facade. Likewise, the mask presented by the suburban community has similar traits, demonstrated by how suburban residents often behave as if they are superior than others. Additionally, pools are again used as a medium to convey the protagonist’s progress through life, when he was barefoot on the wet grass at the Welchers’, “where he found their pool was dry”. The difference of quality between Neddy’s first and last pool is drastic, which reinforces the idea that although sometimes suburbia may seem perfect at first, its quality also declines as layers are unveiled due to time, parallel to the depressing quality of the pools. Furthermore, the symbols of alcoholism and the swimming pools form a complex but pessimistic suburban setting which convey its cosmetic lifestyle.

Characterization plays a major role in producing the setting of an American suburban community in order to represent the idea that suburbia is a superficial place of social isolation. Neddy Merrill, sees himself as perfect and has an exterior appearance that suggests extreme wealth, however, this is revealed to be a façade. To begin with, his character is portrayed as “not a practical joker” nor a “fool”, characterizing him to be a very stern figure, and ironically has a “vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure”. Along with this, the characterization of Neddy is also supported by the setting, an excessively rich community of suburbia where swimming pools, normally considered a luxury, are so plentiful. Using the swimming pools, Cheever is able to accentuate Merrill’s toxic masculinity, discussing how he has “inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools” and acts almighty since “he never used the ladder” to exit the pool. Despite his arrogancy, Neddy still appears to feel embarrassment, after his incident at the traffic where he was “laughed at, jeered at” and had “no dignity or humor to bring to the situation”. The fact that Neddy instinctively thought of this dignity and humor in this terrifying event, highlights his obsession with maintaining his status, reinforcing the often fake and solitary nature of suburbia. As the story advances, Ned’s high social standing is no longer validated by his masculinity he emanated at the Gilmartins’ pool. Here, for the first time in his life, he did not dive but “went down the steps into the icy water and swam a hobbled sidestroke”. Evidently, Cheever takes advantage of the swimming pool setting to expose Ned’s reality – he was not this image of the perfect man that he painted on the exterior. Consequently, the decay of both Neddy’s character and decay of the setting both represent the idea that suburbia is a dishonest place of social isolation and facade.

In conclusion, one of many ways to represent the idea that suburbia is a desolate and superficial place, is by manipulating the setting. In this case, imagery, symbolism and characterization are three major techniques utilized in ‘The Swimmer’ to construct the setting of American suburbia. John Cheever has created a powerful text which is successful in exploring the social and psychological aftermath of the fake portrayal of perfection. Ultimately, the short story raises the importance of being true to oneself, as this is a key concept to shaping humanity.

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The Swimmer John Cheever Analysis. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“The Swimmer John Cheever Analysis.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
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