Is He Swimming or Is he Drowning?
In the short story “The Swimmer”, the author John Cheever uses various symbols and many forms of imagery to describe the changes in life which Neddy, the main character of the story, is going through. Cheever implies in the story that aging is something that can not be avoided and one often denies its coming. Using Neddy’s journey through his neighbors pools, he shows that it is difficult to accept the changing results when one experiences life altering events.
Not only does the author use pools to symbolize the changes in the life which Neddy is going though, he uses different seasons, the way people treat him, and also his current surroundings to describe this change. The changes in Neddy’s life are associated with the changes in Cheever’s imagery. In the beginning of the story the author describes Neddy as “a slender man–he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth” and sets the setting by stating that “The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency” (Cheever).
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This description gives the reader the sense that Neddy is a “legendary figure” as described by Cheever, and that the day was beautiful and filled with joy. Hurling himself from one neighbors pool to another and being greeted by each neighbor with a drink, the neighbors hospitality changes at the Biswangers when he is greeted by being called a “gate crasher” and being told that “You don’t seem to pay much attention to invitations” (Cheever).
Neddy clearly does not accept that he is unwanted and his happiness is quickly replaced when he came across the Welcher’s house. “The pool furniture was folded, stacked, and covered with a tarpaulin. The bathhouse was locked. All the windows of the house were shut, and when he went around to the driveway in front the saw a FOR SALE sign” (Cheever). The imagery quickly changes from a good pleasant day to a more down and depressing scene which also changes the reader’s emotion of the story as Neddy’s emotions change as well.
Cheever uses phrases such as “slenderness of youth” and “he hoisted himself up on the far curb–he never used the ladder” to describe how young and lively Neddy is, but towards the end of the story he describes that Neddy’s “arms were lame. His legs felt rubbery and ached at the joints” and “the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone, he paddled to the ladder and climbed out”. The author uses phrases such as this to show how Neddy is aging but yet he is in denial of this and can not face his problems.
Neddy uses swimming in the different pools and alcohol to distance himself from the life problems which he is facing. Symbolically, the water color of the pool corresponds to the stages of life which he is going through. Starting off at the first pool where it is described as a pale green, symbolizing his youth, then encountering a sapphire blue pool, a public pool with murky water, the Halloran’s pool with water color of opaque gold, and ending with the last description of the Biswanger pool, which has a “wintery gleam” to it, showing Neddys final transition into the troubles of adulthood.
The author mentions different seasons, if noticed, throughout Neddy’s journey. In the beginning he mentions the “flowering apple trees” (Cheever) of summer, and ending with “the force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and water. Since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted and yet he felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn” (Cheever).
Neddy is stuck in the summers past and is in denial about the change in season, just like he is stuck in his youth and is in denial of him aging. He stays in denial until he realizes the change in stars. “Looking over head he saw that the stars had come out…What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry” (Cheever). His response of crying finally shows his realization of change to the time which passed and that he has nothing to do but to accept it.
He starts off having his own house and being happily married with four beautiful daughters, to coming back to his so called home, and when trying to get in notices that “the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands” and “looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty” (Cheever). At the moment Neddy does not realize the changes he is going through in life, but like the storms and the seasons which came and left that made him accept that changes in life, he is left a drunken, cold, lonely, weak and exhausted man, just like he was when he finished swimming all the pools.