An Analysis of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” starts off reasonably enough. The protagonist, Neddy Merrill, is lounging about the swimming pool at the home of his friends, the Westerhazys, when a peculiar thought occurs to him: there are so many swimming pools between his current location and his own home eight miles away that he can literally swim home—with a few jogs across back yards and intervening parkways. However, what begins as a whimsical exercise soon turns into the Twilight Zone.


At his first stop, the Grahams’, Mrs. Graham welcomes him graciously and notes that she’s been trying to get him on the phone all morning; she’s delighted he’s stopped by. Mrs. Hammer, owner of pool #2, sees him in the water but “wasn’t quite sure who it was.” The Lears saw him in their pool as well, the omniscient narrator reports; the Howlands and the Crosscups did not, because they were not home.


It is only at the Bunkers’, pool #5, that we begin to get the sense that something is definitely amiss. There is a party in full swing, to which Neddy has apparently been invited, but his wife has called in his regrets, telling them he could not come. Why would she have done that without asking him? Otherwise, all seems normal; Neddy recognizes everyone at the Bunkers’ party, including the “smiling bartender he had seen at a hundred parties.” Neddy, however, assiduously avoids getting entangled in talk “that would delay his voyage,” and proceeds overland to his next stop.


This was the Levys’, and there something really odd does happen. A sudden storm breaks through with its full fury, and Neddy takes cover in the Levys’ gazebo, watching the storm lash the trees. When the rain passes, he observes that “the force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water.” But it’s the middle of the summer—or at least it was when Neddy left the Westerhazys’, only a few hours ago. At the Lindleys’, he is surprised to find their riding ring “overgrown with grass and all the jumps dismantled. He wondered if the Lindleys had sold their horses or gone away for the summer. He seemed to remember having heard something about the Lindleys and their horses but the memory was unclear.” And the next pool Neddy reaches is dry; the family’s pool furniture is packed up under a tarp, and the house is for sale.


What has happened? Cheever does not tell us, but it seems that more time is passing than Neddy realizes. Clearly it is no longer the same day, or even the same season; is it the same year? The Halloran’s hedge is yellow like the Levy’s maple. Mrs. Halloran expresses sympathy over the fact that Neddy has sold his house (a detail he does not recall) and over the misfortunes of his daughters, whom he thought were all home playing tennis. Leaves are falling thick and fast now; Neddy has the peculiar sensation he has lost weight between the time he entered the Hallorans’ pool and the time he emerged; and he is getting very old and tired. At the Sachses’ house, he learns that his friend Eric had an operation three years before (another detail Neddy does not remember).


Finally, the mercenary Mrs. Biswanger lets the cat out of the bag. The Biswangers are having a party when Neddy arrives, and he is treated extremely rudely—a switch, since generally the Biswangers courted him because of his superior social status. But he overhears Mrs. Biswanger tell another guest, “They went for broke overnight—nothing but income—and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars.” His next stop is the pool of a woman with whom he has been having an affair; she likewise alludes to the fact that he’s borrowed money from her, and rudely refuses to give him any more. Finally reaching his own house in a state of complete exhaustion, he tries the garage doors, but “rust came off the handles onto his hands.” The house is empty; his family is gone; and at last we learn how long Neddy’s swim has actually been.


This story can be found in The Stories of John Cheever, available from Amazon here.


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