Pools line the route back to Neddy's home in American suburbia. The suburban home with a fence and a lawn is a widespread symbol of the American Dream—a symbol of having made it into economic stability and social respectability. The private pool is a symbol of a more affluent, suburban subset of that dream.
In Neddy's life, the pools also represent periods of time. With each passing pool, Neddy seems to age, as if each swim were bringing him a little bit closer to his demise.
Neddy's route home is the backdrop and the premise of "The Swimmer." As such, the text is peppered with imagery of exploration, adventure, and pilgrimage. His new route, which he absurdly gives a name ("The Lucinda River"), has the "suggestion of escape," and is part of "modern geography." Further imagery of a voyage springs to mind as Neddy begins reflecting on "imaginary... maps and charts" of his route. The simple act of "making his way home by an uncommon route," in Neddy's mind, converts him into a "pilgrim, an explorer."
From the very first sentence of the text, which establishes that everyone is hungover from the night before, alcohol takes on outsized importance in "The Swimmer." Neddy himself has at least four or five gins throughout the text. In the story, alcohol is both an elixir and a drug of dependence; a blessing and a curse. For example, when Neddy becomes cold and weary, he knows that a drink will rejuvenate him, bringing him back to his former vitality and thus allowing him to complete his journey. In this way, alcohol functions much like sex: as an essential ingredient of Neddy's youthfulness. At the same time, however, Neddy's drinking is a quite plausible explanation for his increasing confusion. He suffers from pervasive loss of memory and a lack of awareness of his surroundings—symptoms of alcoholism that Cheever would understand firsthand.
The weather in "The Swimmer" is an important motif that signals both the theme of decay and a shift in mood towards darkness and melancholy. First, it is closely correlated with seasonal changes, which depict the passage of time. When the story opens, it is a hot, sunny, and beautiful midsummer day. Changes are signaled, however, by a "massive stand of cumulus cloud" in the distance. The promise of that cloud is soon fulfilled by thunder and then a pouring rush of rain. This storm seems to usher in a change of season and with it, a sense of loss. Leaves, suddenly the red and yellow of autumn, scatter onto the grass and the pool, and thus begins a period of decay. Neddy passes through dilapidated, overgrown backyards and the former houses of his friends, now marked with a "For Sale" sign. Neddy's class privilege even begins to break down as rumors circulate about his debt and financial woes while he is forced to swim through a public pool. Eventually, the temperature becomes so cold that Neddy can hardly keep swimming. Shivering and exhausted, Neddy arrives home. Beautiful summer has given way to a looming winter, and with the loss of summer's warmth comes Neddy's loss of love, home, and status.
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.