John Cheever is famous for the fictional world within his novels and short stories, a world where wealth and privilege do not protect his characters from despair, heartbreak, and disaster. Cheever generally sets his fiction in the Northeastern United States, usually the affluent suburbs of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. His characters are preppy, wealthy, and white and not above snobbery and elitism. Extramarital affairs, family drama, and family feuds—particular between brothers—are commonplace. Happiness, although seemingly promised by wealth and all its comfortable trappings, always seems just out of reach. And alcohol—primarily gin—plays a prominent role in almost every social interaction.
The world of “The Swimmer” is typical Cheever, full of all the trappings of the upper middle class as well as the persistent malaise that accompanies them. Cheever bombards us with details from Neddy’s world: in the first paragraph of the story, he mentions the church, golf course, tennis court, Audubon group, and adults who have been drinking excessively. Immediately, we understand that this is a wealthy, privileged world, where adults can spend entire afternoons drinking gin by the poolside, secure with their position in society. Beneath this security and bloated comfort, however, lie a strict, punitive social hierarchy; fragile relationships; and unhappiness. Neddy experiences some undefined misfortune that pushes him down in the social ranks, and in his world, the snubbing by a bartender is a significant offense. He loses track of friends and doesn’t even know about their moves or illnesses. He cheats on his wife, abandons his mistress, and consequently ends up alone. Although not all of Cheever’s stories take the surreal, twisting path of “The Swimmer,” many revolve around this theme of fragile happiness and existential meaninglessness.