Social status is a central preoccupation for Neddy and for the text at large. Neddy, for example, expects accolades from his friends: he imagines that they will "line the banks" of the Lucinda River. Further, in his world of the suburb, social norms are gravely important. The first hint of this comes when Neddy arrives at the Grahams' pool and realizes that, continuing with the explorer metaphor, he would have to handle "the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives" without offending them. The "natives" in this case are in fact New York suburbanites, and their customs are as strict as any culture's. Neddy, for example, has great disdain for the Biswangers, who seem "unwilling to comprehend the rigid and undemocratic realities of their society," a statement evidenced by the fact that they frequently discuss money in public. In Neddy's hierarchical world, people such as the Biswangers are lower down on the ladder. This is a sufficiently rigid truth for Neddy that when Grace Biswanger rudely rejects him, he does not even flinch because "there was no question": it would be impossible for her to "deal him a social blow." Yet the fact of the matter is confirmed when even the bartender is rude to him. Neddy, fluent in the language of suburban norms, knows that "caterer's men [keep] the social score," and yet the possibility of his social demise is so unthinkable to him that he continues on in his denial, thinking, "perhaps the man was new and uninformed."
When Neddy decides to swim through his neighbors' pools all the way home, he imagines himself as a heroic explorer. By imagining this river in his mind's eye, he has made a "contribution to modern geography." Motivated as he is by pleasure-seeking and social approval, however, Neddy's actions do not seem very heroic. There is no real contribution to society involved in his journey. The narrator describes his self-perception, commenting that he has "a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure." In context, this description is laughable. Thus for Cheever, Neddy's heroism is soured by his arrogance, superficiality, and frivolousness, and becomes a critique of his suburban culture itself.
Neddy's self-perception is deeply tied up in his sense of masculinity. He is quick to fashion himself as a geographer and explorer as if he were in the colonial era—roles that were always played by men. The role of women was to support and bolster the glory of his adventure: thus he names his route after his wife. Just as his sense of heroism is a false one, however, so too his Neddy's idea of masculinity laughable. As he dives into the Westerhazys' pool, readers learn that he holds "an inexplicable contempt" for men who walk into pools rather than diving into them. The idea that a shallow dive into a man-made luxury pool could function as a test of his virility seems pathetic, especially when contrasted to the physical prowess and virility of heroic figures such as Odysseus. Indeed, as the text progresses, the factors that make up Neddy's masculinity wither one-by-one, revealing the fragility at its center. The social adoration he values so much dries up; his former mistress, who once bolstered his manliness by begging him to stay on her knees, rejects him; and even his sprightly body becomes weak with exhaustion. In this progression, Cheever strips away the bravado of affluent, privileged American masculinity, and thus reveals the precariousness at its center.
Throughout the text, Cheever comments on the decay lurking beneath the surface of idyllic suburban life. For example, Neddy is surprised by the overrun grass and abandoned paddock at the Lindleys', where they used to keep horses for pleasure riding. Second, the Welchers have in fact drained their pool, sold their house, and moved away. Neddy feels a sense of abandonment and confusion at the loss of these familiar households. Later in the text, even Neddy's body itself, once energetic and youthful, seems to undergo a process of decay. After leaving the Hallorans', his legs feel "rubbery and [they ache] at the joints." This process is mirrored in the state of Neddy's house when he finally arrives: a rain gutter has blown loose, and the house is dark and empty.
Passage of Time
As Neddy begins his journey, it is a fine and beautiful midsummer day. The importance of the season is reflected in the narrator's comparison of Neddy to a summer day. The storm that arrives only a few scenes later is nothing out of the ordinary for a summer day. But the first sign of trouble comes when Neddy notices a maple tree at the Levys', which has scattered its red and yellow leaves across the pool. Such coloring does not makes sense for summer; in denial, Neddy assumes the tree is blighted. Even still, he cannot ignore this telltale sign of autumn, and it brings him a "peculiar sadness." The signs of autumn continue at the Hallorans', where, in passing, Neddy notices that their hedge has yellow leaves. He does not think much of it other than to assume it has the same blight as the Levys' tree. At this point, however, the signs of time passing become more difficult to ignore. Upon leaving the Hallorans', his once energetic body begins to feel old. Leaves fall around him and he smells wood smoke in the air—decidedly un-summer-like events. And finally, in the event that shockingly causes Neddy to burst into tears, he looks up at the sky and sees that the stars overhead are not the stars of summer. With an air of finality, the constellations signal that summer is over. Something has happened during Neddy's journey to turn forward the clock.
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.