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Analysis of “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

The Swimmer tells the tale of Neddy Merrill, a rich socialite who has come upon hard times but has a narcissistic view of his condition and he begins to feel that he is young, athletic, and still good-looking. The real fact of the matter is that he is married with four daughters, has lost heavily in business, his wife and daughters have left him and that he is going around borrowing money and making a fool of himself. However, his delusions are so great that he cannot acknowledge these facts to himself. One afternoon as he us sitting drunk in at a place with his friends, he suddenly has a whim, a fantasy that he may very well swim back to his house that is situated about 8 miles away through the many swimming pools that each house in the community has. There are plenty of pools and houses and he wants to go by water back to his house. The resolve is emboldened by the fact that he is dead stone drunk “Then it occurred to him that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water”. Now, Neddy was not a fool or a stupid person but the combination of having too many drinks had clouded his mind and he felt that he could make it through “He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.” When he starts swimming, he imagines himself as a great explorer on a voyage of discovery. When he jumps into other peoples pool, the owners invite him in for a few drinks and he does oblige, but in a patronizing manner “” He saw then, like any explorer, that the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives would have to be handled with diplomacy if he was ever going to reach his destination”. There are three sources that are used for the analysis and they are Mathews (1992), Allen (1989) and Blythe (1992). These authors have analysed and provided a critique of the story and given their interpretations about the story and the various themes presented.

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Mathews (1992) has written about the archetypal ‘missing man’ that authors liked to present in which the hero was disoriented from realities and lived in his world of self-delusion. Mathews says “..the Swimmer depicts the nightmarish journey of a victim of illusion and social fluidity who is oblivious to the passing years that ravage him and his home“. The author points out that the hero had severe problems of ego, which is symptomatic of American men who believe that they can take on the whole world “Neddy suffers from a self-delusion that is symptomatic of American can-do philosophy, and their pride in their ability to succeed blinds them to the vacuity of their actions”. The problem with Neddy as pointed out by Mathews is that Neddy suffers from an inflated sense of ego and his feeling that he is young and can do anything “..his decision to “swim” home is not to be “explained by its suggestion of escape,” but seems to be motivated initially by the very novelty of the idea of traveling by water and ultimately by his conviction that it can be done“. There are elements of symbolism in the story that seems to spur the intoxicated Neddy. There is a looming thundercloud that should have served him as a warning, but Neddy is not deterred by that and feels this is an obstacle that must be overcome. There is a plane flying in the sky and Neddy equates himself to this plane “When it first comes into view, the plane seems a reflection of Neddy’s insouciance, an aerial ally; when threatened by the storm, it capitulates to reality, which henceforth eludes Neddy more and more“. The ending according to Mathews brings out the irony of the irresponsible situation that Neddy has put himself into as he stares at the empty house in wonder “Neddy has “suffered many years under an illusion” that time will stand still, that he will be forever affluent and vigorous, with the ability to “swim” through all situations“.

Allen (1989), has explored the theme of irony and delusion that Neddy faces in a single afternoon of his life and has compared the story with another story ‘The Great Gatsby’. The author suggests that though Neddy is trying to control the circumstances by creating an alcoholic induced plan, there is nothing concrete or constant in his life and time is running away from him, something that Americans are experiencing in their daily life “..a man whose mythic sense of himself is finally destroyed by the flaws in American culture, by his own mistakes, and by the simple advance of time.” Allen has brought up the subject of a swimming pool in the lawns, a sign of wealth and affluence among Americans and Neddy is indeed a privileged member of this class. However, it is the basic delusion that this urban rich suffer from that has led to his fall “Neddy fails as a result of the flaws in American society, their own mistakes, and their running out of time”. The problem with Americans, as pointed out by Allen is that they have never grown out of the wild west image fostered by the years from the previous centuries and they tend to regard themselves as adventurous people “..By constantly describing Neddy as “a pilgrim, an explorer”, Cheever connects him with the first settlers of America, who had such a singular opportunity to make a new world”. Neddy is quite old and certainly not fit enough to take up the arduous conquest he has set out for himself. However, alcohol and narcissistic attitude have blinded him to this fact “Cheever overtly identifies Neddy with Narcissus by having his muse on his youthful, slender body while reclining by a pool of water“.

Blythe (1984) has explored the perversion of three traditional Christian ceremonies, the Eucharist, baptism, and marriage, and suggests the reason for his emptiness at the story’s conclusion. The perversion of the communal Eucharist occurs on Sunday, a holy day, and the people are drinking wine and making merry without any ablution “Although these celebrants have chosen the Sabbath, it is also midsummer, a favorite time for pagan rites. Instead of a symbolic sip, these devotees are continuing a Bacchanalian revelry begun the night before in which the abundance of claret produces nothing more than guilt and a hangover“. Although they have been to church earlier in the day, the sham of their Christianity is emphasized by their post-worship service litany: “‘I drank too much last night.’ Throughout his journey, Merrill renews his sagging spirits at his personal altar, the bar, where his priest, the bartender, continually provides the needed unction, a drink. The ultimate perversion of the Eucharist occurs at the shrine of his ex-mistress. When he asks for a drink, his thoughts upon arriving there have already defined his view of communion: “If he had suffered any injuries, they would be cured here”. Love–sexual roughhouse was the supreme elixir “the painkiller, the brightly collared pill that would put the spring back in his step, the joy of life in his heart“. In his distortion of the sacrament, Merrill has replaced the principle of agape, the selfless and spiritual love demonstrated by Christ, with that of eros, the selfish and physical gratification derived from sexuality. Appropriately, Eros is personified in mythology as the offspring of Merrill’s pagan deity, Aphrodite. The spiritual distance between Merrill’s celebration and the focus of the true holy sacrament is magnified by this pagan. Blythe argues that in an inane attempt to baptize himself, Neddy is symbolically immersing himself in water and successively divesting himself of dress till he is almost nude “This eight-mile journey from the Westerhazys’ to his house involves an immersion into his neighbors’ pools, the sacred worship sites for suburban hedonism”.

The paper has examined the analysis of three themes as given by the three authors. Allen (1989) has analyzed the story from the theme of irony and delusion that Nedy faces when he takes up the futile task of swimming across to his home. The author argues that this is symptomatic of the Americans who suffer from delusions and feelings that they can conquer anything in this world. Mathews (1992) has explored the theme of the ‘missing man’ and has argued that Neddy was disoriented from the realities of the world and lived in his world of self-delusions and the self-denial that the hero faces as he takes up alcohol-induced ill-conceived conquest that is fuelled by his ego and feelings that he is an explorer who must have the cooperation of the natives if he is to succeed. To a certain extent, the arguments provided by these two authors follow the theme of self-delusions but their explanations and rationale are different. Blythe (1984) has explored the perversion of three traditional Christian ceremonies, the Eucharist, baptism, and marriage, and suggests the reason for his emptiness at the story’s conclusion. He has argued that the activities of drinking wine on Sunday are a violation of Eucharist beliefs, the act of swimming that is associated with baptism, and the violation of marriage and embracing of a mistress is a violation of the sacred institution of marriage. The three works have adequately explored three important themes and concepts from the work.


  1. Allen William Rodney. 1989. Allusions to The Great Gatsby in John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer.’ Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 57. Detroit: Gale, 2003. From Literature Resource Center.
  2. Blythe Hal. 1984. Perverted Sacraments in John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer.’ Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 57. Detroit: Gale, 2003. From Literature Resource Center.
  3. Mathews James W. 1992. Peter Rugg and Cheever’s Swimmer: Archetypal Missing Men. (Eds) Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 57. Detroit: Gale, 2003. From Literature Resource Center. Studies in Short Fiction. 29(1).

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StudyCorgi. "Analysis of “The Swimmer” by John Cheever." October 27, 2021.


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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Analysis of “The Swimmer” by John Cheever'. 27 October.

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