A Quest in a Degenerating Cycle: John Cheever's "The Swimmer"

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"The Swimmer" begins in the prosperous suburbs of Westchester County, New York, and centers on the main character Neddy Merrill. Though no longer youthful, Neddy attempts to preserve it, believing he is a vibrant individual and possibly even a hero. In his endeavor to forgo old age, he chooses to embark on a quest of swimming his way home. Water imagery is an important aspect of the quest in "The Swimmer", as it symbolizes the outward quest of swimming the county, and the inward degenerating cycle of relationships in the denial of old age.

Water imagery becomes apparent at the very beginning of the story; Neddy Merrill, a slender and young-looking man, sits near the pool with a glass of gin. Although pools are frequently considered a luxury, in this community they are commonplace. In fact, pools are so prevalent in this neighborhood that Neddy can make the eight-mile quest home by swimming.

He names the chain of pools the "Lucinda River" after his wife Lucinda, and thus water imagery here emphasizes this fantasy of being a romantic hero on a quest who is a great chivalier lover.

The swim through the neighbours' pools is symbolic of his quest through life. At first, Neddy is welcome in his neighbours' backyards and pools, but after finding a dried pool and waiting for a storm to pass in a gazebo, he begins to feel tired and disillusioned with his quest. The day turns darker and colder, and Neddy is portrayed as unprepared and exposed. Although he is determined to continue on, he can hardly remember the excitement he first had about his quest. Neddy is disturbed to find out that the Welchers' pool is dry and their house for sale. He recognizes that his memory must be failing him or is repressing unpleasant memories of the Welchers. At the Halloran residence, Mrs. Halloran tells Neddy she sympathizes to hear of his misfortunes; Neddy also cannot remember. Mrs. Halloran mentions that Neddy is selling his house and something about his children. At the Biswangers' he is unsolicited, even the attendant treats him with disrespect, and he doesn't understand as to the meaning of such ill treatment. Further in his quest, Neddy visits his former mistress Shirley Adams, whom he cannot even remember having an affair with, only to find he has been replaced. His encounters through this quest highlight the decay of his relationships over his life.

Several signs on this quest indicate that time is passing more rapidly than Neddy realizes, symbolically representing his denial of old age. He determines that each successive pool is significantly colder and increasingly difficult to swim. He notices tree leaves have turned yellow, even though Neddy believes it is only midsummer. At one point he smells a wood stove in the distance, wondering who could be burning a fire at that time of the year. At the Sachses', Neddy asks for a drink, but Helen Sachs tells him they no longer keep alcohol in the house after her husband underwent heart surgery three years earlier, which Neddy has no memory of. By the end of the story, Neddy is incapable of recognizing the constellations in the sky, alternatively finding the northern constellations Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Cepheus, indicating the change of season. When Neddy is alienated from the norm, and ejected of his comfortable reality, he arrives home to a dark, empty, and locked house. At some point along his quest, while swimming the "Lucinda River" or River of Light, as Lucinda is Latin for light, he finds himself alone and in darkness; a rather ironic outcome for someone who envisions himself a romantic hero and lover.

"The Swimmer" presents many aspects of water imagery, as it symbolizes the outward quest of swimming the county, to the inward degenerating cycle in the denial of old age. The story follows Neddy's quest from pool to pool, allowing the reader to experience his initial exhilaration and subsequent exhaustion. Throughout "The Swimmer", the reader is left uncertain of time, as an afternoon deceptively turns into months and years. At the quest's conclusion, Neddy is presented with the confrontation of decay in his life. Cheever's purpose in delaying the revelation about Neddy's family and home is designed to show readers the false reality that Neddy has built in his mind.

A Quest in a Degenerating Cycle: John Cheever's "The Swimmer"Written by: OCdt Wotherspoonsm0985ENE 110, section 1For: Dr. M. HurleySubmitted: 2 Oct 2009Works CitedCheever, John, "The Swimmer," in Ann Charters (ed), The Story and Its Writer Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's, 2007, 133-141.

Baby Names World. Parents Connect. 26 Sept 2009 http://babynamesworld.parentsconnect.com/meaning_of_Lucinda.html.