While reading John Cheever’ much-anthologized short story adapted into a very strange but hypnotically appealing vehicle for Burt Lancaster shortly after its publication, did you ever once make the link between Ned Merrill and King Lear? No? How could you not? The analogy is so clearly defined through metaphor that it is practically impossible to miss. Except for the part where Merrill splits his kingdom between his three offspring. Or for that matter, the part where you get to see Merrill’s kingdom. Ever read one of those analyses of a story where the author turns it into a comparative literature essay in which the connection seems to defy all evidence? Well, those scholars drawing a comparison between Ned and Lear and between American suburbia and an ancient kingdom actually are not just pulling ideas out of…thing air. A connection can be made between “The Swimmer” and King Lear, but not so much in the textual sense as the subtextual. Dive deep into that pool of metaphor described by Cheever and, yes, you can find traces of Shakespearean tragedy.
What you have in Lear is an old guy who was once a legendary figure and gave it all away without thinking things through. What you have in Ned Merrill is a middle-aged guy who seemed to have achieved his own modest version of the American Dream only to give away without thinking things through. Lear concretely hands over the keys to his kingdom. Merrill’s loss is more abstract; wanting to have it all, he instead lost those things that mean the most with his drinking and carousing and, one imagines, his being a rather typical pre-counterculture 1960s sort of businessman. If you are wondering what Ned might look like and you are not familiar with Burt Lancaster, just recast him with any of the guys from Mad Men twenty years down the road.
Boiled down to essentials, King Lear and “The Swimmer” are both stories about old fools who were once really something to look at, but dissolved into, well, a couple of losers. Of course, there is far more going on in both stories than that, but when you examine the stories from that perspective, you can see how some very smart academic types managed to see a connection there that is, well, tenuous at best. Of course, another way to look at Cheever’s story is as a loose adaptation of Shakespeare as it might be filmed by Steven Spielberg. This story is a nightmare about a monster being unloosed in suburbia, after all. By the end of the story, what you have is this guy filled with vague images of himself as a modest legend in the neighborhood. The natural progression there is that any kind who thinks he can accurately use the words “modest” and “legendary” in the same sentence is pretty much self-determining his fate of banging on the door of his empty house like an ogre of the suburbs by the story’s end. You can’t hold a modest expectation for yourself of becoming legendary…not even in suburbia. It doesn’t work. Which is probably the moral that Cheever is attempting to transmit in this bizarre story of a guy seeking to make himself a legendary neighborhood figure by swimming his way home through all those in-ground pools of the upper middle class.
The fact that Ned Merrill’s appeal to legendary status is downright sad because of the diminutive size of its ambition should not be read as a critique of his tale as tragedy. What is tragic in the suburbs is every bit as tragic inside the castle…to the person it is happening to. Ned is a tragic figure. A tragic hero, not so much, but a tragic figure. Which is not to say that “The Swimmer” does not feature a tragic hero. Indeed, the ending of the story in which Ned Merrill is banging on the door of his empty house in tears has been interpreted as symbolic of his own internal emptiness that it would be embarrassing to reiterate one more time. And in the years since, the emptiness of suburbia as removed the possibility that it is that particular evolution in the American landscape that Cheever is symbolizing through the empty house. What has become clearer with the benefit of the passage of time is the tragic hero at the center of “The Swimmer” is America itself. The promise America once held looking poised to crumble entirely in the wake of the white flight to the suburbs where the dream of greatness was replaced by a two-door garage and an in-ground swimming. No, that empty house at the end is not a simple symbol of Ned’s spiritual emptiness or even suburbia’s emptiness. That empty house is America. And we are all Ned Merrill.