The Swimmer

The Swimmer Summary and Analysis of "The Swimmer" (II)


The narrator address readers directly, stating that if they had gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day, they would have seen Ned on the edge of the highway trying to cross. Barefoot in his swimming trunks, Neddy appears pitiful. Cars zooming by jeer at him and throw beer cans in his direction. All of a sudden, Neddy regrets this great journey. He is under no obligation to continue, yet somehow he is. He can hardly remember what it was like to be at the Westerhazys'. There is no turning back now for Neddy.

He finally makes it to the grassy bit in the middle of the highway, and after another fifteen or so minutes, he makes it across to the other side. Next, it is only a short walk to the public pool, where Neddy finds a stark contrast to the private pools to which he is accustomed. He is confronted with harsh rules, dictating that swimmers must shower before using the pool; they must use the footpath; they must wear an identification disk. Neddy complies with the first rule and jumps in. The water stinks of chlorine. As Neddy swims, lifeguards blow their whistles rudely and he is jostled by other swimmers. He longs for the Bunkers' clear water, but he reminds himself that he is an explorer of Lucinda River and he must go on. When he reaches the shallow end, lifeguards discover that he is not wearing an identification disk, and they yell at him to get out of the water. He leaves the recreation area entirely and makes his way to the Halloran estate.

The Hallorans, friends of his, are a wealthy, elderly couple who swim naked and whose leftist leanings earn them the false label of Communists, which they seem to like. They are neither surprised nor displeased to see him. Out of politeness, Neddy steps out of his trunks before getting in the water. He explains that he is swimming across the county and has made it about four miles so far. Mrs. Halloran apologizes for his recent misfortunes, but Neddy does not know what she is talking about. She mentions that he has sold his house and something is wrong with his daughters, but Neddy politely refuses her offer of empathy, stating flatly, "I don't recall having sold the house, and the girls are at home." He bids them farewell and, at the end of the pool, refastens his trunks. They are a bit loose; he wonders if it is possible that he has lost weight in the span of one afternoon.

In low spirits after the strange encounter with the Hallorans, Neddy is now tired and cold. He heads to the little house across the lawn where the Hallorans' daughter, Helen, lives with her husband, Erich Sachs. Neddy apologizes and asks them for a drink. Helen apologizes back and says that they haven't had any alcohol in the house since Erich had his operation three years ago. Neddy does not remember an operation, and he wonders if he is losing his memory. He looks at Erich and notices three pale, long scars on his abdomen, along with his missing navel. Helen says that he can likely get a drink at the Biswangers' party. Neddy swims off in their pool, shouting back at them that he and Lucinda will call them to arrange a get-together very soon.

He reaches the Biswangers' expecting a warm welcome and a drink. The Biswangers regularly invite Neddy and Lucinda to dinner—invitations that are always declined. They look down on the Biswangers because they regularly discuss money in polite company and throw parties with an overly inclusive guest list. Yet when Grace Biswanger approaches, it is she who rebuffs him, calling him a gate crasher. Neddy cannot fathom the idea of her slighting him, so he politely responds and goes to the bar for a drink. The bartender serves him rudely, and he overhears a remark from Grace about someone who went broke overnight and turned up drunk asking for a loan of five thousand dollars. Neddy dives into the pool and swims on.

The next pool belongs to a former mistress of Neddy's, Shirley Adams. He has high hopes for Shirley raising his spirits; he can't remember when he broke off their affair, but she cried when he ended it and so he assumed he will still have the upper hand. But she looks confused and displeased to see him, and asks him coldly what he wants. She won't give him another cent of money, she informs him. He asks for a drink but she declines, saying she has company. As Neddy swims off, he sees a young man in the bathhouse.

It is dark at last, and he looks up at the stars. They are all wrong for the season, and he begins to cry. It is the first time in his adult life that he has cried. He does not understand the rudeness he has faced; he is cold and tired. He staggers on to the Gilmartins' pool, and, unable to dive in, he limps down the steps into the water. Next is the Clydes' pool, which he completes just as weakly. He is so exhausted when he reaches his house that he barely feels the triumph of completing his mission.

The house is dark and no one is home. Neddy wonders if Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys' for supper and if the girls joined her, despite their usual attempts to keep Sundays for themselves. All the garage doors are locked and rusty, and the storm has knocked one of the rain gutters loose. The house is locked, too; at first, Neddy blames the help, but then he remembers that it has been a long time since they have employed a cook or a maid. He shouts and tries to force his way in. Looking through the window, he realizes the house is empty.


Neddy's great crossing of the highway is a turning point in "The Swimmer," marking the decisive endpoint of his journey's good fortune. In the first half of the text, Neddy has a largely pleasant journey. He is able to put away any strange reminders of his memory loss, convincing himself that all is well. But upon facing the insurmountable challenge of the highway, Neddy faces the first real test of his journey. For the first time, he is "pitiful" and "unprepared," with "no dignity or humor." Cars zooming by jeer at him, even throwing a beer can in his direction. But Neddy is bound by his promise to the mission, so he soldiers on. His return at this point, so late in the journey, would be "impossible."

This scene and the one following it, in which Neddy traverses the public pool, illuminate the depths of the text's irony. The first half of the story establishes a heroic arc, comparable to classic epics such as The Odyssey. In that tale, however, Odysseus encounters great physical danger and social humiliation, which he must overcome to complete his journey. Courage is an essential trait in that narrative. Cheever's "The Swimmer," in contrast, depicts small and suburban dangers. The most difficult moment Neddy must overcome is crossing a highway—not easy, to be sure, but an act that requires more patience than anything else. Indeed, Neddy manages to survive this humiliating moment simply by waiting: when an old man "tooling down the highway at fifteen miles an hour" passes, Neddy is able to cross. Next, he encounters the public pool, which he regards with great disgust. Neddy experiences the public pool as a harrowing, chaotic experience, filled with jostling swimmers, arbitrary rules, and yelling lifeguards. The reality of the matter is that the public pool poses no grave danger to Neddy. His disgust not only reinforces the class distinctions that allow him to spend his life swimming only in private pools, but also serves to disillusion any readers who might still regard Neddy as a true hero. Standing at the highway and swimming through the public pool, Neddy clearly becomes a mock hero, laughable for his visions of grandeur.

The class distinctions present in the public pool also foreshadow Neddy's realization of his own fall from social and financial grace. First, Neddy regards the pool with great disdain. The water looks "like a sink" to him, and he recalls with longing the "sapphire water" of previous private pools. His opinions set up a clear class distinction between those who can afford a private pool in their backyard and those who are forced to frequent the infinitely less desirable public pool. Neddy's disdain, however, proves to be a great irony. He later realizes that he has in fact fallen into the disgraced company of the public pool-goers. The first clue is Mrs. Halloran, who expresses her sympathy for Neddy's misfortune, offering her condolences for him having to sell his house. Yet Neddy cannot remember having done any such thing. Viewed from this moment, Neddy's disdain of the public pool can be interpreted as a willful denial of the similarity of their circumstances.

The final, gut-wrenching moment of the story is ambiguous enough to accommodate several interpretations. First, Neddy's arrival at a dark, empty home invites a reading of the text as a surreal, dark fantasy in which the journey that Neddy thinks takes only several hours actually passes through years of his social and financial demise. In this reading, Neddy functions as a kind of suburban Rip Van Winkle, asleep and unwilling to listen to his errors until it is too late. This mythical version of the story drives home the dark underbelly of the American suburb. Second, Neddy could simply be suffering from the loss of memory and confusion emblematic of an alcoholic's condition. The story opened with a hangover, and Neddy explicitly details his five or more gins throughout his journey; maybe he will fall asleep in a drunken stupor outside his home and simply wake up on Monday morning with yet another headache. Perhaps it was the alcohol itself that allowed Neddy to reach such grandiose heights of vision as he did when imagining his route down the Lucinda River. These two interpretations exist side-by-side in "The Swimmer" without resolution.