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The Swimmer

John Cheever

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Themes

Themes

The Inevitable Passage of Time

Neddy’s journey home through the pools of his neighborhood turns into a journey through many years of his life, showing that the passage of time is inevitable, no matter how much one might ignore it. Neddy has mastered the art of denial. At the beginning of the story, the narrator tells us that Neddy is “far from young,” but he does his best to act young by sliding down a banister and diving headlong into a pool. The long afternoon at the Westerhazys’ pool seems timeless, no different, we can assume, from many other afternoons spent exactly the same way. Neddy’s idea to swim home seems like just one more idea in a series of ideas that have popped up on many similar occasions.

As Neddy’s journey progresses, we see that time is actually passing much more quickly than Neddy realizes. Leaves and hedges turn yellow and red, the constellations in the sky change, and the air gets colder. Friends are not at home when he expects them to be, he faces scorn from the people he’d once scorned, his mistress wants nothing to do with him, and he learns that a friend has been very ill. All of these changes have happened without Neddy’s knowledge. Neddy questions his memory, but he also wonders whether he has simply denied reality to a dangerous degree. His peers have acted their age and faced adult problems, whereas he has resisted. His former mistress even asks him, “Will you ever grow up?” Only at the end of the story when Neddy faces his dark, empty house does he realize that time has passed. He has tried to ignore it, but its passage has proven to be inevitable.

The Emptiness of Suburbia

As Neddy makes his journey across the county, we see that emptiness and despair lie beneath the sunny façade of suburbia. Although Neddy seems to have a full, happy life, he nevertheless remains isolated from others. He makes a habit of rejecting invitations and has been out of touch with many people whom he considers friends. Neddy can’t even seem to remember personal details about many of them, such as when Mrs. Levy bought her Japanese lanterns. He knows the rules of the social world he occupies, but this is a world built primarily on appearances. Along his path, he encounters the comfortable trappings of high society, but no genuine friends. And everywhere he goes, people are drinking heavily, which suggests that there is something from which they are trying to escape or hide.

The emptiness of suburbia also applies to Neddy’s love life. Even though Neddy names his pool path after his wife, Lucinda, he is cut off from her as well by virtue of his affair with Shirley Adams. The affair, however, also lacks genuine love. When Neddy thinks about Shirley, he defines “love” as “sexual roughhouse,” which is what he looks to for comfort and warmth. At the end of the story, when Neddy is actually alone and facing his empty house, the true state of his life is, for the first time, clear. The foundations were flimsy and his relationships weak.

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