Finding a balance between acting reasonably and daring to go on dangerous quests, despite a mature age, may be challenging. In his short story “The Swimmer,” Cheever portrays an upper-class man’s unusual night journey home, wherein he decides to swim back instead of walking. From one perspective, the man’s quest reminds an archetypal heroical act, which requires much courage and will. However, a more detailed examination of the character’s actions suggests that the protagonist of “The Swimmer” differs from the archetypal recognizable character in his intentions and values expressed.
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From first sight, the protagonist of the short story, Neddy Merrill, falls under the category of the archetypal character types, in particular, Grail hero. Characterized by Cheever as a legendary figure, Neddy stands out among the rest of the characters, at the beginning of the story, as physically fit and handsome. Blythe and Sweet emphasize the connection between his virility and the Grail hero’s courage when the man decides to go on a dangerous quest.
However, serving as another archetype, Neddy’s quest in “The Swimmer” does not correspond to a usual journey of a Grail hero, suggesting that the archetypes are presented in the story based on contrast rather than comparison. As explained by Blythe and Sweet, such archetypal character typically aims at reinstating the elderly, sick, inferior leader, bringing faith and youth to the community. In “The Swimmer,” Neddy himself is relatively old and disillusioned with the passing time (Mathews), meaning that he does not realize that his young years are now behind.
Reminding a Grail hero’s quest, at first, Neddy’s journey contradicts the values of dignity and integrity carried by Medieval knights. As explained by Blythe and Sweet, his trip home reminds the mythical Waste Land, filled with materialism and self-indulgence, where Sunday is no longer time for God’s worship but partying and drinking. Furthermore, his, so-called, quest relies solely on an egoistic component, bringing no value to the community, as in the archetype.
Mathews claims that the man’s decision to return home by swimming in the adjacent pools demonstrates his superiority over others and unjustified confidence. Unlike humble Grail heroes, Neddy perceives his challenge as an opportunity to show off his manliness in front of his shallow friends.
He purposely jumps into the pool without a ladder and continues swimming despite poor weather. As followed by Mathews, even dark clouds, accompanied by the thunderstorm, a clear symbol of the imminent danger, do not discourage the man from his self-centered mission. Perceived as a Grail hero at first, Neddy fails to balance archetypal bravery with his selfishness and overconfidence.
Ultimately, a brief plot analysis of Cheever’s “The Swimmer” provides a sustainable basis to argue that Neddy Merill’s character does not fulfill the criteria for an archetypal Grail hero. Going on a journey with an egoistic desire to prove his self-worth to a group of superficial upper-class men, he fails to portray critical characteristics of the Medieval knights. Obsessed by his over-confidence, Neddy does not act based on integrity and humbleness.
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Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Cheever’s Dark Knight of the Soul: The Failed Quest of Neddy Merrill.” Short Story Criticism, edited by Janet Witalec, vol. 57, Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Originally published in Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 29, no. 3, 1992, pp. 347-352. Web.
Mathews, James W. “Peter Rugg and Cheever’s Swimmer: Archetypal Missing Men.” Short Story Criticism, edited by Janet Witalec, vol. 57, Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. Originally published in Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 29, no. 1, 1992.