Under Water

Under Water
A Critical Analysis of
John Cheever’s Short Story
The Swimmer
( read the story )

by Thomas Jay Rush

It would not surprise me to learn that Neddy Merrill, the lead protagonist in John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer, was recovering from a breakdown in a mental institution, nor that he had been there during the late summer months and early autumn of the year of this story.

As the story opens Neddy is at a party at a friend’s house. He envisions a pathway home that would take him through the backyards of his neighbors in the upscale county in which he lives. Hackensack, NJ perhaps, however the place name is never mentioned. Neddy believes he can swim home from the party by going through back yards and swimming people’s swimming pools. He considers himself to be an explorer wending his way along an undiscovered river that he names after his wife Lucinda. The Lucinda River.

Neddy seems excessively happy at the beginning of the story, the author saying things such as “the intenseness of his pleasure […] seemed to flow into his chest” and that at one point he “felt tired” but was “pleased with everything.” As I was reading this early description of him I was suspicious. The way the author describes Neddy seems almost too good to be true – especially for someone who has taken the somewhat odd choice to swim home from a party by going through people’s backyards.

As Neddy makes his way from one neighbor’s pool to the next he encounters old friends and acquaintances who seem happy to see him, welcoming him into their backyards even as he climbs over their hedges unannounced, wearing nothing but a bathing suit. At some of these stops the neighbor says things like “what a marvelous surprise […] let me get you a drink.” Again – I found this somewhat odd as I read it The believability of the narrator started to wane. I came to disbelieve what the narrator told me. Why would, even friends, be so happy to see someone coming over their hedge and swimming across their pool. Why would they not find this odd? If a friend swam across my yard I would be very upset.

The author leads us to believe that the weather at the start of Neddy’s explorations is very nice. As if its some sort of sunny, summer day. However, as the story progresses images of autumn creep into the narration. When a storm blows through one of the trees loses “red and yellow leaves”. Neddy notices this but believes that the tree must have been blighted. The further into the story we get the more images of autumn appear. Additionally the author uses less buoyant words to describe Neddy’s feelings. By the middle of the story the reader begins to think that something is wrong with Neddy. The closer Neddy gets to home the less nice people are to him. At the house next to his but one, the owner with whom he has apparently had an affair, treats him rudely. By this time the descriptions of the weather have begun to be late autumn, the author using such words as “icy water” and describing Neddy as “miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered.”

When Neddy arrives at his house he finds it shuttered and closed. His daughters, whom we are led to believe are at home taking tennis lessons, are nowhere to be found. His wife is not home – how can this be? Is she still at the party?

Late in the story Neddy starts to notice that it is getting darker earlier than he thought it should be. We come to understand, although not explicitly, that Neddy has somehow lost a few months. Almost as if he’s been blacked out – as if he’s been in a coma for the months of late summer and early autumn. As if he’s been in an asylum.

This is a very good story. I would not say it was a great story but I liked it well enough. The story has moments of great subtly, however some of the things Neddy does in the beginning of the story don’t make sense. The way his neighbors react to him coming into their private spaces is so out of the ordinary it stands out. I believe the author did this to hint at the fact that Neddy was so delusional that he didn’t recognize how people were reacting to him. That Neddy didn’t realize that his neighbor’s reactions were in his own head. I just felt that these episodes could have been a little more subtly. I guess, when I read a short story, I like the under-story to remain a little more under the water.

In this story, swimming, I think, represents Neddy’s decent under the water of self-delusion. Near the end Cheever says “He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long” which can be related to his being delusional. The story in the end has Neddy coming to some realization that his home has fallen apart, that his daughters are gone, that his wife isn’t home and that his house is empty. I think this perhaps represents the fact that he is finally coming up for breath. That he is finally starting to get better. As if he’s waking up from a dream.

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