The characterization of Neddy Merill in "The Swimmer" by John Cheever
"The swimmer" by John Cheever is a story about a person who decides to make the eight mile journey to his home, from a friend’s swimming pool, by swimming across all the various private and public pools in his county. The story was first published in 1964, in the collection of short stories titled The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, and is one of the most anthologized works of Cheever. The story conveys various themes like ills of alcoholism, emptiness of the suburban life, passage of time and vainness of material pursuit. All these themes are conveyed through the use of various literary devices, in particular, through the characterization of the protagonist Neddy Merill.
The swimmer chronicles the experiences Neddy Merill gathers, when he decides to swim across all the pools in his neighborhood. It is a masterful blend of reality and fantasy, which starts as a social story and ends as a surreal parable. The story begins in a midsummer Sunday when Neddy, his wife, and some friends have gathered for a swim in the Westerhazys' pool. All of them are drinking and are chatting about their hangovers from their last night drinks.
However, once he starts swimming, his neighbors, who at first welcomed him and seemed to be happy to have him in their pools, gradually become hostile. As he continues his journey, the story begins to progress through various seasons, and there are signs that much time has elapsed since Neddy embarked on his journey.
He learns that one of his friends is suffering from an ailment, some of his neighbors have sold their property, and some of the properties have changed. He meets his former mistress, who chastises him, and people, whom he considered beneath his social standing, make him feel unwelcome. He drinks heavily during the swim, and as the journey progresses, he becomes more confused.
There are signs that his family and financial situation has deteriorated, and most places he goes, he is scorned or made feel unwanted. He wonders whether the time has passed without his knowledge or had he suppressed certain memories deliberately. At last, when he reaches his home he finds it empty and thus, he realizes he is alone and broke.
The aspect that is more predominant in the characterization of Neddy is his rejection of reality. From the beginning of the story, he appears to be a person living in a shell shunning the reality around him and leading a false life. The narrator says,
“He was a slender man—he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth—and while he was far from young he had slid down his banister that morning.”
He was not young but tried to keep himself youthful and exuberant through his physical activities. He was not faithful to his wife, as witnessed from his affair with Shirley Adam, however projects to the world that he is a happy family man, and even named the water path he took as “Lucinda’ river. He seems to be a person who is in a constant state of denial and is full of pretenses.
There is too much of alcohol in his system all through the story. He drinks at the Westerhazys, at the beginning of the story, and continues to have few more drinks on his way through. He likes drinking, and perhaps enjoys it bit too much. There is strong evidence in the story that may be this drinking habit was the catalyst to the entire mishaps that ensue in his life. Conditions such as delusion, depression, disorientation, hallucinations, and fatigue are part of alcoholism, and since Neddy experiences all of this, it would be safe to say that alcohol had a part in destroying his life.
“They were the sort of people who discussed the price of things at cocktails, exchanged market tips during dinner, and after dinner told dirty stories to mixed company.”
He describes his experience in the Biswangers household to be cold and even the barkeeper was rude to him.
“His was a world in which the caterer's men kept the social score, and to be rebuffed by a part-time barkeep meant that be had suffered some loss of social esteem. “
This clearly elucidates how social standing is everything in suburban life, and once a man loses his home and money, he is given a cold shoulder from the same society, which socialized with him before.
The unhappy ending of the Neddy’s voyage after an incalculable amount of time denotes that despondency is the only consequence of his lifelong egocentrism and frivolity. All the events that appeared to him to have happened in one long afternoon is actually a condensed version of his life. He had been unfaithful to his wife, was pretentious, did not value friendships, was overconfident and abused people based on social status.
He had lived with the illusion that he can stop time and retain his youth, wealth and vigor, without growing up and taking responsibility. Unfortunately for him, time is a great leveler and shows no mercy. As time erodes, other things such as money, health and youth flies away and the only thing left to a man is his family, friends and morals. Neddy, unfortunately, did not accumulate and pay respect to what mattered most when he had the time and thus, when he returned home that night he was alone and desolate.
Cheever, John. The swimmer. 1964. Pdf.