John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” was a short story published 1964 depicting the strange journey of a man across an American suburbia. Ned Merrill, the main character, sets off to swim home via a chain of pools with almost no motivation other than the thrill of exploration. As Ned travels on, the world around him begins to change and his view of reality becomes distorted. John Cheever makes good use of time and the seasons to show that all is not well in this quaint suburb. Several other motifs seen in “The Swimmer” include exploration, Ned’s memory loss, and, most importantly, the constant consumption of alcohol by not only Ned but everyone else around him. In a negative way, alcohol can be used to get away from the problems of the real world and to feel pleasant in one’s own mind while reality falls apart around them.
With nothing but a youthful thirst for adventure, Ned Merrill sets off to swim his way home. Early on in the story, the reader can see that Ned thinks highly of himself. He has a sense that he can do anything he sets his mind to. Within the second paragraph he describes himself as a legendary figure. It isn’t until the fifth paragraph where the idea of exploration comes into play. Ned got the feeling that he was “a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River.” (Pg 269) The first half of that enforces that notion that Ned has the feeling that he can do anything that he puts his mind to and nothing can stop him. After reading the entirety of “The Swimmer” the second half of the quote leads to some interesting conclusions. It sounds like a cry for help from a man with no one left to support him. In reality, Ned is going through some very hard times and the idea of having the Lucinda River, which can be seen as a metaphor for his life, surrounded by friends is all he wants.
One important concept Cheever uses to show the audience that all is not right in Ned’s mind is time. At the start of Ned’s journey, time is not a factor at all. Ned never even considers how long he has been traveling or how long it would take him to complete the Lucinda River. It is not until the middle of the story when he is caught in a storm that Ned is brought back into reality for a few moments. Ned hears the whistle blow from the train and begins to question how long has he been on this journey. Cheever also makes use of the seasons and the environment to tell the audience how long this journey really is. After waiting out the storm, Ned begins to notice the leaves changing color and other characteristics of autumn. Ned is obviously unaware of reality as he tries to hide in this fictitious world. Time passes by and he doesn’t even realize it.
Memory loss seems to plague Ned as he tries to remember the route to take and the people along that route. It is when Ned reaches the empty pool that leaves him completely baffled. It is at this point where the narrator of the story brings up whether or not “his memory was failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?” (Pg 272) Troubles in his real life led Ned to repress any piece of knowledge that wasn’t part of this perfect suburbia that he had created in his mind. Having come to this conclusion, Ned was on the brink of coming back to reality. However, the sounds of a tennis game “let him regard the overcast sky and cold air with indifference” and kept him from realizing the truth. (Pg 272)
The reoccurrence of alcohol plays a key role in understanding the real life of Ned hidden under the story that is being told. When Ned and the others living in his neighborhood drink, they can forget about all their troubles and continue to have fun. The story told in “The Swimmer” is essentially Ned’s idea of having fun without having to care about any of his problems. In other words, alcohol leaves Ned in a constant state of denial. He is completely ignorant of the family problems he is having and ends up repressing any knowledge of the subject. A very strong quote can be found when Ned is trying to cross the freeway to move onto his next destination. The narrator says “At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become so serious?” (Pg 272) The idea that was going through Ned’s mind at this point was: when did life become so serious? Ned was living his carefree life in a good neighborhood with his wife and daughters until something unknown came and ruined it. Ned could not come to terms with the truth of what happened and tried to continue living his carefree life when in reality his life was falling apart. Ned was able to make this happen with the constant consumption of alcohol.
Taking a look at all of the stops Ned takes along his journey could lead the audience to make a correlation between the atmosphere of his stops and the quality of his life at that time. Ned begins his journey at a party with his wife having a wonderful time. This feeling continues up until the storm approaches and keeps him trapped under a gazebo. This storm is a metaphor for some problem that Ned faces in real life. The storm eventually passes but the effects are not forgotten. The next top in Ned’s journey leaves him faced with an empty pool and a house for sale. This portion of his travels symbolizes the notion that many of his friends and the people around him are beginning to leave him. The next stage forces Ned onto the side of a freeway exposed to all the elements. He is standing there in his swim trunks as he is subjected to the ridicule from those that drive by. One word Cheever uses to describe him is “pitiful”. It is at this point in Ned’s life where he was most likely looked down upon by his neighbors. Nearing the end of his journey, Ned begins to struggle physically to swim and climb out of the pools. Unlike his very youthful start, Ned is now beginning to feel the effects of his age. Upon arriving at his home, he comes to the shocking realization that there is no one there waiting for him and that he is all alone with nowhere else to go.
Ned struggles to come to an understanding of the truth as he makes his swim down the Lucinda River. He fights away the pains of real life by suppressing those feelings with alcohol. He wants to forever live in those carefree days with his wife, but the truth of the matter is that those days are long gone. Ned refuses to take responsibility his actions throughout his life and tries to run away from them as long as he can. He is faced with truth when he arrives home to a dark and empty house. Like his former mistress Shirley Adams says, Ned Merrill needs to grow up and face reality rather than try to hide from it. (Pg 276)