The Swimmer

The Swimmer Masculinity and Queerness in John Cheever's Fiction

Especially when considered the context of John Cheever's homosexuality later in life, "The Swimmer" can be read as a cutting portrayal of the failures of American suburban masculinity. First, the suburbs of Neddy's world were highly constrictive social environments. As he says in the context of contempt for his neighbors, the Biswangers, his society has "rigid and undemocratic realities." Talking about money at social gatherings, for example, is "worse than eating your peas off a knife." The stability of these categories is such that when Grace Biswanger is rude to Neddy, he simply cannot accept that someone who does these things could be rude to him. In his world, it is not possible: as a result, "there was no question about this and he did not flinch."

Readers also learn that this highly normative conception of proper and improper extends to gender roles and ideas of masculinity. The narrator tells us that Neddy believes this in no uncertain terms at the start of the text. When Neddy dives into the pool, he reveals an "inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools." Men who simply use the steps or the ladder into a pool are unmanly; Neddy would never do such a thing. Similarly, part of his search for fame, the text implies, is about searching for validation and approval from women. He looks forward to the friends who will "line the banks" of the Lucinda River along his way; it is no simple coincidence that the majority of these "friends" who greet him, ply him with drinks, pierce him with social barbs, and reject him are women.

Historical context confirms that this was not merely fiction. 1960s American suburbs, especially the affluent suburbs outside New York City where this text is situated, were governed by strict conventions of propriety and respectability. Personal and financial problems were best swept under the rug in a small-town environment, where families kept track of each others' business. In this highly normative context of social roles, Neddy's search for individuality through the fabrication of a grand voyage can be read as a search for an escape from these restrictions. Although his life is "not confining" in a material sense, perhaps the sense of social confinement is part of what orients Neddy towards the "suggestion of escape." Indeed, although he states that the purpose of his journey is to reach home, in order to do so, he leaves a party with his wife. It does not make much sense to escape his family in order to return to his family unless the idea of a day spent in the pursuit of escape holds separate appeal for Neddy. In trying to fashion an identity distinct from the suburban man, perhaps as a "cartographer" or "pilgrim," Neddy seeks a new way of being. In so doing, he inadvertently causes his own social death, losing the capacity to inhabit his normative role as before. As Timothy Aubry writes in his article, John Cheever and the Management of Middlebrow Misery, "he who wants to be a nonconformist, who wants to strike out on his own, must search for other contexts, other modes of action, and one hazard is that doing so may convict you of precisely the “queerness” you were trying to evade.'