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“The Swimmer” (1964)

“The Swimmer” (1964)

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“The Swimmer” (1964)

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  1. “The Swimmer” (1964) John Cheever

  2. John Cheever (1912-1982) • Troubled childhood: expelled from academy in Braintree, Mass.; father left home, lost his money in 1929 stock market crash • Published short stories in New Yorker magazine • Novels: The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), The Wapshot Scandal (1964), Bullet Park (1964), Falconer (1978), Oh What a Paradise It Seems (1980)

  3. John Cheever (1912-1982) • Married from 1941 until death; struggled with alcoholism; his journals, published in 1991, reveal his bisexuality—double life • Known mostly for his portrayals of comfortable middle class suburban New York; created a fictional suburb called Bullet Park • Mixes realism and fantasy: realistic stories often become morality tales or fables; he was influenced by Hawthorne

  4. Vision vs. Reality (1) • “The Swimmer” is on one level a version of “Rip Van Winkle” updated 150 years to the 1960s suburbs of New York • Neddy Merrill, like Rip, embarks on a journey away from his family, and cannot return to his former life. Differences: • Rip escapes from domestic tyranny, Neddy from seeming domestic happiness • “RVW” ends happily, “The Swimmer” tragically

  5. Vision vs. Reality (2) • Vision and reality are completely confused in this narrative. What is real? • The leisurely, drunken midsummer Sunday with his wife and friends, and his children safe at home? OR • A cold mid-autumn with his wife and children gone, his home empty and abandoned, his social status fallen? What is real?

  6. Vision vs. Reality (3) • Neddy has three levels of vision • Dream • Reality • Nightmare

  7. Neddy’s Dream (1) • “Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin” • “slenderness of youth”: “Aphrodite” (love & beauty) • “He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one” (2043) • “His life was not confining” (2044)

  8. Neddy’s Dream (2) • “He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county” (2044). • “he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife” (2044) • “a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure” (2044) • “he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny”; “friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River” (2044)

  9. Westerhazys Grahams Hammers Lears Howlands Crosscups Bunkers Levys Welchers Lancaster Public Pool Hallorans Sachses Biswangers Shirley Adams Gilmartins Clydes Neddy’s Dream (3)

  10. Neddy’s Dream (4) • Pilgrim/Explorer: • “the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives would have to be handled with diplomacy” (2046) • “Prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire colored waters” (2045) • “this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River” (2047)

  11. Neddy’s Reality (1) What his society is really like: • Affluence: money, leisure, swimming pools • Marriage/Infidelity: Shirley Adams, ex-mistress • Alcohol: “I drank too much last night” (2043); his journey is a series of drinks • Social Status: “the rigid and undemocratic realities of their society” (2049) • Phoniness: “When Lucinda said that you couldn’t come I thought I’d die” (2045); “Lucinda and I want terribly to see you” (2049).

  12. Neddy’s Reality (2) • External View of Neddy as “pitiful”: • “Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of route 424, waiting for a chance to cross” (2046-47) • His society is an automobile culture; to be on foot is to be a fool

  13. Neddy’s Nightmare (1) • Welchers: pool dry, house for sale • “This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly” • “had he so disciplined himself in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth” (2046) • Hallorans: “Misfortunes”; “sold house”; “poor children” (2048)

  14. Neddy’s Nightmare (2) • Sachses: Eric Sachs’s operation scars: “no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession” (2049) • Biswangers: “he had suffered some loss of social esteem”; “they went for broke” (2049) • Shirley Adams: “I won’t give you another cent” (2050); Neddy climbs ladder out of pool; cries

  15. Neddy’s Nightmare (3) • Gilmartins: “Here, for the first time in his life, he did not dive but went down the steps” (2050); Contrast (2044): “He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.” • Home: “The place was dark. . . . [T]he place was empty” (2050-51).

  16. Weather/Climate • “a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance” (2043) • Maple stripped of read and yellow leaves: “sign of autumn” (2046); at Hallorans, “beech hedge was yellow” (2047) • “he smelled woodsmoke on the wind” (2048) • Constellations of autumn: “Andromeda, Cepheus, Cassiopeia”

  17. Conclusion: What happened to Neddy Merrill? • Psychological journey: • Pilgrim to where? Explorer of what? • “In the space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his return impossible” (2043) • Lancaster Public Pool: no identification disk; no identity

  18. Conclusion: What happened to Neddy Merrill? • What is real? The slender, happy, youthful family man, or the “miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered” one who loses everything? • Possible answer: Both and neither. • Possible symbol: Eric Sachs’s abdomen: “no navel, no link to birth, this breach in the succession” (2049); compare to Welcher’s empty pool: “breach in his chain of water”

  19. Conclusion: What happened to Neddy Merrill? • Through his journey, Neddy has lost his “link to birth,” and thus has lost: • his identity • the source of the Lucinda River—the way back to his marriage • his place in his family and society, which has depended, to some extent, on dreams and self-deceptions: “repression of unpleasant facts” (2046) • his sense of what is real and what is imaginary