"It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.”
The opening line of "The Swimmer" illustrates the piercing descriptive power of John Cheever's prose. "One of those" is a common refrain throughout his writing; another one of his stories, "The Geometry of Love," also opens with the phrase. It simultaneously invites readers into a shared body of knowledge, assuming readers know what "one of those" Sundays is actually like, and excludes them from feeling like part of the world if they do not recognize that feeling. In some ways, this phrase functions as the social boundaries of the affluent suburb itself, where silent norms and customs dictate who belongs and who does not. This quote also establishes the first important motif of "The Swimmer": alcohol.
"Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River."
This quote develops two central traits of Neddy's character: his inflated sense of self-importance and the value he places on social status and esteem. First, in a suburban world defined by sameness and normativity, the simple act of choosing a different route home is enough for Neddy to assign himself heroic status. The idea that he could be a "man with a destiny" that dictates his swim in a few neighborhood pools is quite obviously farcical. Yet there is no sign in the text that Neddy treats this thought with humor or views himself ironically. Second, he expects with complete certainty that friends will "line the banks of the Lucinda River," presumably to greet him and cheer him on. This is no secondary or arbitrary consequence of his decision. Instead, it is a central motivator. Thus we understand Neddy to be someone for whom validation by his peers matters very much. This, along with his sense of grandiose purpose, are the two main reasons for Neddy's journey.
"Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?"
This is one of the only lines in "The Swimmer" where we hear about Neddy's inner life. This small insight into Neddy's love for storms, for no apparent reason other than the sense of excitement and urgency they bring him, makes an otherwise obtuse and often pathetic character a little bit more relatable. At the same time, it joins a growing chorus of questions posed by Neddy on his journey down the great Lucinda River. His other questions have to do with his failed memory and forgotten misfortunes: why does he not remember his friend's surgery? When did his neighbors travel to Japan? Why were these stars and not others out in the early evening sky? These questions range from the innocuous to the dark, but they collectively reveal a tremor beneath the surface of Neddy's slick bravado.
"Love—sexual roughhouse in fact—was the supreme elixir, the pain killer, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart."
This quote is the only time that Cheever discusses love and sex, though these themes lurk beneath the surface throughout the text. At the time, he is about to pass through the pool of his former mistress, Shirley Adams, and expects to be rejuvenated. Sex and youth are linked here: the concept of sex as the "supreme elixir" evokes the fable of an elixir of life which promises immortality or perpetual youthfulness. Youth is central to Neddy's physicality, his vitality, and his masculinity. Yet his expectations are dashed when Shirley turns him away. This is the beginning of the end for Neddy. As he swims away, he sees the silhouette of a young man in Shirley's bathhouse. He is old now, and he has been replaced by a young man in the arms of his lover.
The Swimmer Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Swimmer is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.