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The Swimmer

John Cheever

Important Quotations Explained

Cheever’s Fictional World

How to Cite This SparkNote

1. 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.

This quotation, which appears in the third paragraph of the story, reveals the rosy, self-satisfied view Neddy has of himself and his world. Neddy has achieved all the trappings of success and is surrounded by friends and family. He takes comfort in the privileges that his social standing affords, content to know that he is a respected member of society. In this quotation, he reveals his self-perception: he is “original” and sees himself as a “legendary figure.” This idea is delusional at best, especially because Cheever writes that Neddy has a “modest” view of himself—envisioning oneself to be legendary certainly does not suggest modesty. As “The Swimmer” progresses, we see that Neddy’s worldview is indeed faulty. His friends have become distant acquaintances, his family has disappeared, and he has grown weak. At the end of the story, Neddy is no longer original or legendary. He is simply cold, alone, and confused.

2. Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?

This passage, which appears about halfway through the story, suggests that Neddy’s journey, which had begun as simply a fun exploit, is actually more meaningful than Neddy had anticipated. Neddy began his pool-to-pool journey with a view of himself as an explorer, doing something unexpected on an ordinary afternoon. Neddy just wanted to take a new way home and didn’t conceive of it as a life-changing decision. At this point, however, Neddy is standing in his swim trunks beside a busy highway, and the journey suddenly becomes something more than just a lark. He doesn’t understand why he is persevering or why the journey has become something serious, but he recognizes that the fun is gone.

This quotation points to a larger idea of “The Swimmer” as well. Neddy claims to be satisfied and happy with his life, but he doesn’t seem to realize that this life is all he has and his actions have consequences. All his rejected invitations have gained him enemies and a host of friends kept at arm’s length. He has also ruined his marriage and apparently lost his fortune. His life, as the quotation suggests, is indeed serious, not a prank or joke. Just as he feels unable to stop his strange journey home, he is unable to turn back the clock and make up for past mistakes. There is nowhere to go but forward, across the highway and on into the future.

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