Read the swimmer crit text version

Paul Boger February 18, 2010

The Swimmer At first glance John Cheever's `The Swimmer' may appear to be a simple story about a man who swims across the county to his home and encounters obstacles along the way. Of course, there is far more to this story than meets the eye. There are references throughout the story that hint to the reader that much more is going on than what Ned perceives. The use of foreshadowing, the alteration of time, and the ever changing state of Ned's mood are all signs of a discrete transition from the real to the surreal.

In an article, edited by Janet Witalec, it is said that "critics concur that "The Swimmer" transforms realistic details, myths and Cheever's own personal fears of financial and emotional ruin into a masterwork of twentieth-century short fiction" (Witalec). John Cheever grew up during the great depression and watched his father lose his business. The extreme change in economic status in his family and society would have made a huge impact on him. His biography also mentions his distaste for wealth and the upper middle class. This can be seen as an explanation of this story's origin. There is a certain amount of resent directed toward the wealthy families that Ned encounters on his journey. Even Ned considers himself to be one of them. The signs of hard economic times through the story also suggest a financial crisis similar to the Great Depression.

The use of foreshadowing is a major component in this story. There are several instances where things are out of place, or disrupted. These instances are clues to the reader that not all is as it

appears. In fact, things are very wrong. The first major example of this comes with a sudden rain storm in the clear, sunny day. The even noticeably darkened Ned's mood and gave a hint to underlying emotions that he was experiencing. Later in the story Ned encounters when Ned encounters the Halloran residence his discussion reveals what the reader has began to expect. "We've been terribly sorry to hear about your misfortunes, Neddy...Why we've heard that you'd sold your house and that your poor children..." (Cheever). Although Ned shows confusion to this statement, it is a sign of what is to come. Ned simply brushes it off, suggesting that he is in a state of denial regarding his recent troubles. Unlike the beginning of the journey, where he came across friends and parties, this was a sign of isolation and hard times. Even the reference to the smells of Autumn and the falling leaves following the storm hint to a illusion in the passage of time.

Time is severely skewed in this short story. In the perspective of the narrator, Ned, his journey takes place across the span of a day. However when the reader observes the finer details, it becomes clear that this day long journey represents far more than a day. This journey takes place of several months. The changing of seasons and the tiredness that Ned feels are illusions to the tolls of a hard time in his life. "The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water. Since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn" (Cheever). It is also noticeable that the pace of the story slows dramatically by the end. This a complete reversal from the fast paced stat of the day. Each part of his journey slows him down a takes more energy as the story progresses. The heavy consumption of alcohol also plays a part in this transition to a more surreal setting.

The next aspect to take note of is the changing state of Ned's mood. When the reader meets Ned, he his in high spirits and full of energy. As the story progresses Ned goes through a series of mood swings on a gradual downward spiral. With every encounter he makes there is bad news or hints that things have gone wrong all around him. Each encounter makes an impact on his mood and causes him to ponder what he is missing. However, it is important to notice that each time he receives bad news or encounter an obstacle, he overcomes the sensation by having a drink. "He needed a drink. Whiskey would warm him, pick him up, carry him through the last of his journey, refresh his feeling that it was original and valorous to swim across the county" (Cheever). This is a clear reference to alcoholic tendencies. Book Rags featured an essay that presented a similar theory concerning the consumption of alcohol. "Throughout this journey Neddy becomes closer and closer to the realization of what is really happening to him and the reason for this is that the pools he is swimming in are actually representative of the alcohol he is consuming." Although this is an interesting view point, I do not find it to be accurate with my interpretation. The passage of time in the story is not accurate, as discussed previously. The journey he takes is not in one day, and therefore, each pool he swims and each encounter he has represent a different period in his life. Toward the end of the story, Ned breaks into tears at signs of Fall, wondering what happened to the summer months. This is the first sign that he is becoming aware of his surroundings. This also shows a complete breakdown in his emotions. From that point on, the mystery and illusions begin to unravel, revealing more and more of the truth. When he finally reaches his home and finds it completely abandoned it becomes clear that Ned has had a mental break and cannot separate the past from the present. The end of the story

shows a complete reversal. The narrator feels as if he is in a complete state of surrealism, whereas the reader sees the first glimpse of reality since the start.

The Swimmer, by John Cheever, is a complex story involving many hidden aspects. It becomes clear that what the narrator perceives as truth, is a collection of illusions and alterations in his mind. Cheever incorporated personal experiences along with the financial concerns and anxieties of the time period to craft the environment for Ned's great adventure. By observing the foreshadowing, alteration of time, and the shifts in Ned's mood, the transition from the real to the surreal is made very clear.

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