The Swimmer

by: John Cheever

Symbols

Swimming Pools

The pools that Neddy swims through as he makes his way home represent periods of time that Neddy passes through. At the beginning of the story, Neddy is strong and active, feels deep contentment with his life, and is admired by his friends. Warm in the sun, he feels like a “legendary figure,” as though there is nothing he can’t accomplish. As he progresses from pool to pool, however, Neddy changes. Physically, he grows weaker, unable to pull himself out of pools without a ladder and unwilling to dive in as he once did. Instead of being warm, he eventually feels chilled to the bone. Around him, the sunny summer day grows increasingly cooler, and a storm passes. The trees, meanwhile, lose their leaves, and the constellations change to those of autumn. His standing in his social circle has changed as well. Once respected and given to snubbing those who aren’t part of his group, he is now snubbed by Grace Biswanger and the bartender at her party. Other acquaintances pity him for his “misfortunes,” which Neddy isn’t aware that he has suffered. A lot has happened as he’s been moving from pool to pool, and Neddy has undergone these changes unwittingly.

Neddy has named the chain of pools the “Lucinda River,” invoking the security and longevity of his marriage and family, but his choice of name becomes sad and ironic when he winds up at his dark, deserted home. Neddy has taken Lucinda, just as he took his comfortable life, for granted. We don’t know much about their marriage, but we know of Neddy’s affair with Shirley, an affair he treated lightly and to which he attached no meaning. Treating adultery so casually implies that Neddy assumed that Lucinda would always be there, supportive and secure. When the Lucinda River deposits him at a lonely, unfamiliar place, he faces the consequences of his actions and harsh reality of the passing years for the first time.

Changes in Weather and Season

The changes in weather and season that occur throughout “The Swimmer” mirror Neddy’s changing life circumstances, particularly the deterioration of his comfort and security. At the beginning of the story, Neddy is warm in the sunshine, conscious of nothing but his own happiness and the pleasures of the day. As he begins his swim, the water and air are of comfortable temperature, and he can walk easily from pool to pool in his swim trunks. Shortly into his journey, a storm passes, marking a turning point in Neddy’s plans. He is alone for the first time, waiting out the storm in a deserted gazebo; and when the storm ends, the warmth is gone. He is chilly, and the red and yellow leaves on the ground suggest fall—Neddy feels a “peculiar sadness,” the first time he feels anything other than happiness. Weather and season are not kind to Neddy from this moment on. He gets colder, sees more signs of fall, and changes from a robust traveler into a pathetic figure by the highway. Autumn arrives in full as Neddy finishes his journey, and the final pool he swims in has freezing-cold water. Just as Neddy’s happy life has come to a close, the cycle of seasons has been completed as well, and it is clear by the end of the story that Neddy is entering the winter of his life.