"The Swimmer" opens on a midsummer Sunday afternoon when everyone is hungover from the night before. The parishioners, the priest himself, the golf and tennis players, the leader of the Audubon group, and various other characters all drank too much. Many of them are gathered around the Westerhazys' pool. The weather is fine—except for a large, dark cloud in the distance—and the sun is hot. Neddy Merrill sits by the edge of the pool with gin in his hand. He is a slender man with youthful energy, though he is no longer actually young. He evokes the idea of youth, sports, and good weather. Sitting by the edge of the pool after a swim, he takes great pleasure in the day. It occurs to him that he might swim back to his house eight miles south, where his daughters might be playing tennis, through his neighbor's swimming pools. This idea of a great voyage appeals to him. Envisioning himself as the hero of the adventure, he names the water route "Lucinda," after his wife, and dives into the pool.
Ned's swimming stroke is a choppy crawl, customary for the society to which he belongs, though not particularly practical for long distances. He has no map, but he knows the pools of his neighbors by heart. As he begins his journey, he is filled with a sense of grandiose purpose. He knows he will pass through the company of many friends on the way home. He is happy.
The first pool he passes through is the Grahams'. Mrs. Graham is pleased to see him, saying she has been trying to get in touch with him all morning, and she offers a drink. He wants to keep going on his voyage, but he does not want to appear rude. At the first distraction, he splashes into her pool and passes through the water of the next few neighbors' backyards, eventually coming to the Bunkers' where a party is happening. The party scene is lush with men and women being served gin by the side of a pool. Mrs. Bunker is equally excited to see him, and she leads him through the kisses of many more women to the bar, where he is served another gin and tonic. The first chance he gets, Ned escapes, jogging around the side of the house and entering the Levys' property. The doors and windows of the Levys' house are open, drinks and nuts still on the table by the pool, but everyone has left. After swimming the pool, Ned pours himself a drink; it is his fourth or fifth. He has swum half of the Lucinda River already.
The large cloud in the sky has grown darker. Ned realizes that he does not know how late it is—four? five? The rain begins and Ned takes shelter in the Levys' gazebo, reflecting on how much he loves storms. When it passes, the air is chillier. The wind has scattered the red and yellow leaves of a maple tree into the water, which is strange because it is midsummer, not autumn. Ned finishes his drink and crosses through the Lindleys' property. Their riding ring, once filled with horses, is overgrown and empty. Ned is surprised at this, and he is even more shocked when he comes across the Welchers' dry and empty pool. It is not at all common for a family to drain their pool. The Welchers, Ned concludes, must have gone away. Indeed, the pool furniture was stacked, the windows shut, and, going around to the front of the house, Ned sees a "FOR SALE" sign nailed to a tree. Ned wonders when the last dinner invitation came from the Welchers, which he and Lucinda always decline. Wasn't it only a week ago, or was he simply repressing an unpleasant memory?
The sound of a tennis game in the distance cheers him up, and he sets off again.
With the opening words of "The Swimmer," John Cheever invites readers into a world of shared understanding and common values. The opening scene is "one of those" Sunday afternoons where everyone is drunk; whether or not the reader actually knows what such a Sunday afternoon is like is less important than the narrator's assumption that he or she does. And with just a few further deft words, Cheever evokes the vivid scenery of the suburbs of Westchester County outside New York City, the setting of most of his work.
The first and perhaps the predominant motif of Cheever's work is the focus of his first paragraph: alcohol. Everyone in town that Sunday is reeling from the previous night's drinking. Thus readers learn that alcohol is an important part of the characters' lives and that it plays a central role in the community. Already this hints at a level of superficiality or leisure-seeking, themes that develop throughout the text. In addition, Cheever lays out the demographics of the town through this account of its drunkenness. First are the parishioners and the priest, suggesting a community that values social and religious order but perhaps is not particularly pious. Next are the golf links and the tennis courts, which evoke a sense of a community that values its leisure and is affluent enough to engage in these pastimes regularly. Finally, even the Audubon group, a national non-profit dedicated to environmental conservation, out on the wildlife preserve, is hungover. This group signals the value placed on the community's beautiful surroundings and the pristine quality of the landscape, qualities traditionally associated with affluence. These demographics come together to paint a picture of a community flush with leisure.
Framed by this vivid introduction, protagonist Neddy Merrill seems to be a model citizen of this affluent, alcohol-soaked community. Reclining by the side of his neighbors' pool, Neddy Merrill is full of youthful energy, even meriting a comparison to "a summer's day." The picture of contentment brought on by wealth, good weather, and gin, Neddy is overcome by the "intenseness of his pleasure." Next, as he decides to map a new route home through his neighbors' pools, the story morphs from a tranquil picture of suburbia into a hero's journey of Odyssean proportions. Neddy is transformed into a "man with a destiny" by his idea to swim home.
Yet there is something vacuous about his quest. He does not travel for some great purpose, nor to seek some crucial treasure. Instead, his motivation seems both artificial and superficial. First, he decides to take on this adventure without any real purpose—to him, it is simply a diversion, a further act of leisure. As he begins, he notes that the ability to swim through his neighbors' pools is a "clemency, a beneficence." To not take advantage of his ability to do so is incomprehensible. Second, Neddy has high expectations of his neighbors' participation in his quest, imagining that "friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River." The visibility of Neddy's adventure to his neighbors is a crucial aspect of the undertaking. He believes it will earn him respect and boost his social status. These two themes, superficiality and social expectations, become even more prominent as the story develops.
Despite Neddy's excitement and happiness, the opening scenes also contain significant elements of foreshadowing that hint at the sour turn his journey takes later on. First of all, Neddy is not as young as he may feel; he may even be in his "last hours." In this way, right from the start of the story, Cheever foreshadows its dark underbelly. Second of all, although it is a fine day, even beautiful, a large cloud stands by in the distance, suggesting stormy weather to come. When the storm arrives, it brings with it a sense of melancholy and nostalgia. Just before it begins to pour, Neddy imagines somber, wistful scenes, such as a "woman who had been crying" and a "dwarf with some flowers wrapped in newspaper," both waiting for the train. The storm also ushers in the first hint of Neddy's memory loss, a problem that develops beyond the simple forgetfulness of someone who drinks too much and into a more sinister trait. As it rains, Neddy wonders when his neighbor, Mrs. Levy, bought the Japanese lanterns that adorn his shelter. This simple question, innocuous enough in its content, is a harbinger of much darker confusion as the story continues.