Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” follows the journey of the protagonist Neddy and his goal to reach home through the pools that are located in his neighbourhood. Aptly naming the pools he goes through as the “Lucinda River” after his wife.
In the beginning of John Cheever’s short story we are greeted with a warm and welcoming environment, the sun is out and the weather is perfect for a swim. The water that Neddy swims on is just right, it’s inviting. The people that are surrounding him are good friends who seem to be well off. It’s established that Neddy is part of a richer social class, they have the luxury to lounge in a pool accompanied with drinks and friends. As the story progresses, the reader will come to see that the strategic use of setting in the short story like the changing season along with the transitions of Neddy’s journey starting off from a well-off suburb to the slow appearance of the lower and unfamiliar section of the neighbourhood which he is not welcome ties in the progression of Neddy’s travel back home through the pools which serves as time passing in his life and the crisis he is unaware of as he nears his home.
This depiction of a picture perfect community sets the mood and gives the readers an introductory glance of Neddy’s life and social status as the first setting we see Neddy in is a household that is well-off. This could be comparable to the American classes, to have pools, parties, and bartenders serving drinks is something a citizen who is above average may be able to afford, it’s also stated or implied, the financial capacities of the families like the Hallorans as old money and the Welcher’s and their field for horses. The setting is a landmark of the American middle class, the space is not only the geological scene of the plot or the platform of characters, but also a social communication arena which is intertwined with all kinds of social interaction and conflicts, and the spiritual trauma of the of the middle class, exposing the crisis of existence and identification.
The Westernhazy’s pool’s “pale shade of green”, the heat of the sun, the presence of alcohol, the Bunker’s party, the neighbours he meets along the way who gives him permission to use their pools and seem to be in approval of the journey he has taken up. This approval not only shows the public validation of the pursuit of pleasure but it also shows that Neddy and his goal of swimming in people’s pools is not a deviation from the norms of the suburb. Instead of being shunned, he is welcomed by nearly everyone. It is also important to take into account the lack of children in the landscape along with the multiple parties he finds on his journey which only subtly suggests the general diffusion of Neddy’s brand of hedonism.
As Neddy progresses through his journey to reach home, there is the small inkling that something is off. The environment slowly changes, Neddy sees that the once glamorous neighbours he often sees have gone and so are their pools, covered or dry. The arrival of a storm in the middle of his swim also poses a very perplexing question as Neddy’s journey started off as a very smooth swim during a summer's day.
The slow change of environment, the chill in the air, and the lack of neighbours using their pool during Neddy’s travels is an unusual site for him. He questions where his neighbours have gone, he also finds the “for sale” sign hung on the Welcher’s house and the missing horses in their field as something that is odd. Cheever provides readers with a detailed description of the futility of realising a goal without a clear focus because, when Neddy begins to swim across the pool, there is a storm that succinctly indicates that something is wrong. Neddy questions his love for storms, he doesn’t react in a bad way and revels in the storm. Taking all this into account, the protagonist is showing obvious signs of disregard for the change that is happening around him, the only thing that is constant in his mind right now is his journey through the pools, not the absence of his neighbours, the empty fields, nor the “for sale' sign that is hanging outside a home he has passed by. Cheever unites the images of water and the river in “The Swimmer” to convey not only the passage of time but also its attendant loss which springs from the unconscious mind.
The slow degradation and loss of glamour in the surroundings with the accompaniment of the seemingly changing season as Neddy moves forward with his journey through the swimming pools in his neighbourhood adds more depth to the struggle the main character is facing, coupled with Neddy’s ignorance and inability to comprehend the fact that he is going through a crisis. Taking the public pool he has to cross in for example, to Neddy’s disgust is one of the pools he has to cross in yet he still trudges one with his journey, comforting himself with the idea that he is almost through and can finally reach his home to see his family. The yellowish water of the Hallorans, and the icy waters of the Biswangers are also major red flags along the journey, something has already drastically changed and Neddy still chooses to ignore them.
The protagonist maintains his composure and carries on with his journey, by now the signs his surroundings have given him is enough to make anyone wonder if something strange has happened. Neddy chooses to ignore the signs, he pursues his journey as if he was still the young man he thought he was, it is ever-present in The Swimmer that an old man endeavours to seduce his chagrin of ageing. He tries to regain his lost youth, energy and ambition but fails'. Neddy’s standing in society now that he’s close to home is a disgraced one, it’s undeniable that Neddy was once a typical member of the middle class who led a luxurious life and had an immoral extramarital affair. It’s evident now in the story that Neddy is going through something, whether it be financial or relationship problems, his picture perfect life is not the same as it was before.
At this point, the readers have been made aware that something has been changing, and it’s perfectly depicted in the changing environment throughout the journey. From a seemingly fine summer day with the usual happy and proper neighbourhood is the slow progression to a much darker and unfamiliar environment. Neddy is somewhere completely unrecognisable now, what started off as an innocent journey to get home through the swimming pools around his neighbourhood has ended in a downward spiral of his surroundings and his life. How long has he been swimming?
The setting has changed drastically, Neddy mentions different constellations : Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia. The description of a different season’s constellation and Neddy’s abandoned house even though it only took a day for Neddy to reach his home ties in the message that time has passed and things have changed. The text could be comparable to Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as it involves a confusion of the seasons and the dreams of heroic exploration along with the disarray of events. As the story comes to a close, the reader has now come to realise that Neddy’s journey was not just an innocent challenge he had set out to do in a day, but it was in fact a long journey that spanned several years.
Neddy’s failure to realise his changing environment and his crisis which was reflected through the constant change of setting concludes the story on a sad note, with the ending showing us his dilapidated house and the change of season the readers have come to realise that time itself has passed, what we thought was a day's journey lengthened into a nightmarish trip with the protagonist unaware of what was going on. Throughout the course of his swim Neddy increasingly experiences a sense of loss, youth, vitality, regard of others, fortune, place in the community, and family, yet he seems to be unable to grasp the meaning of all of it. Neddy’s disregard has overall led to the destruction of his home and his life.
Cheever’s use of setting in his short story “The Swimmer” shows the progression of Neddy’s life and downfall through the change in the setting. By using setting as a tool to depict the crisis the protagonist is going through, Cheever has carefully set the crisis Neddy is going through and the slow change of season in the entire duration of the short story perfectly represents the warm comfortable life Neddy once had to the chilly autumn weather that showcases the destruction of his family and himself.
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