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The Swimmer is a short story by John Cheever of Massachusetts. He was born in 1912 and lived until 1982. Cheever won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He did not have a formal education, never having graduated from college. Cheever was a notorious alcoholic and a known homosexual, though not out to the public. The Swimmer, like many of Cheever’s stories, takes place in the suburbs. He specialized in tales of middle-class Americas living their version of the American Dream.
There is a haunting spirituality to many of his works.
The Swimmer relates a tale of a protagonist devoid of emotion and virtually empty of values that Americans are supposed to possess in abundance. The story is told in third person with the narrator being omniscient. Neddy, the protagonist, allows the reader into his head and we become privy to his thoughts, impressions and his senses. It is fraught with symbolism and metaphor. Even the setting of the story has meaning as a symbol of the world of middle class Americans and the lives they live of not-so-quiet desperation.
This serene setting is in direct contrast to the seething turmoil experienced by the story’s character, Neddy. The reader is let into a world of parties and social gatherings, well-dressed people who party on a semi-professional level and, naturally, back yard swimming pools. These people are not super-models or rock stars, nor are they movie stars or royalty, but they are as protective of their social status as if they were Boston Brahmins.
Into this olio Cheever introduces alcohol. The pools found in this story are used by the swimmer in much the same way that an alcoholic uses his liquor.
The pools that Neddy chooses in his attempt to swim home from a cocktail party are metaphors for the alcohol in which his life is awash. He is virtually drowning in an alcoholic stupor that is destroying the dream he once held so dear as he wallows through the different pools that delay his trip home. Even the title is symbolic of the man who is drowning in his alcohol addiction, swimming in a sea of booze, so to speak. Cheever begins the story in a traditional way with no expository initial statement to suggest the Kafkaesque twist the story will take.
It is almost as if two authors, with different styles have joined their methods of story telling into one piece of work. The reader is swept up in the rather novel idea that is just might actually be possible to swim the eight miles that lie between Neddy and his home via backyard swimming pools (604). It is in the vein of a man claiming to walk across Texas by stopping his car in each county, stepping out and taking a couple of steps. Symbolically he has accomplished his stated goal. But Neddy’s saga takes a drastic turn as the surreality of his situation becomes more apparent.
Time and space no longer advance as it would in a normal world and the reader begins to sense that there is more going on in the story than what is being told by Cheever. Neddy, symbolically, is a middle-aged man in relatively good health who is concerned with his physical condition at the outset. He was once an athlete, and without being obsessed with the thought, he still toys with the idea that he should do more to get back in the condition he had as a younger man. Neddy’s mental acuity is keen initially as well, but this rapidly changes and we see his loss of cohesive thought as well as the steady decline of his emotional state.
He is becoming depressed, just as the alcoholic becomes depressed by his drug, and drinks more in an attempt to overcome the feeling of unhappiness by using even more of the product that is the cause of his misery. The alcohol depresses, so the alcoholic uses more and more in an attempt to just maintain the status quo. In heroin addiction this process is referred to as ‘chasing the dragon’ and the junky requires more and more opiate just feel normal again. Day and night lose their delineated boundaries and meld into a continual passage of time without Neddy being able to account for its passage.
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