Living in a Dream World: Fantasy and Social Hierarchy in Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

John Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer,” describes the epic journey of Neddy Merrill as he attempts to swim his way back home. Throughout the story, readers continually question reality and fantasy while wondering whether Merrill is really experiencing what Cheever portrays or if he is simply stuck in the past. Merrill goes from house to house as he freestyles across each swimming pool along the way. As the story draws to the end, Cheever points out that Merrill’s world is not what it seems and he has really lost everything he loved.
An analysis of “The Swimmer” by John Cheever through the liberal humanist and Marxist lenses suggests that the story is really about how our human desire to relive pass successes and the pursuit of materialism will eventually lead to downfall. Looking at “The Swimmer” through the liberal humanist lens suggests that the story is really about how living in a fantasy world and believing in a false youth will cause ignorance of reality and the loss identity. In the story, Neddy Merrill seems to be living in a fantasy world as he heavily drinks alcohol, socializes at parties, and attempts to swim through the neighborhood.
The real world appears to be quite different for Neddy Merrill and the truth is not good for him. After one particular swim through a pool, Neddy Merrill notices something strange; “He dove in and swam the pool, but when he tried to haul himself up onto the curb he found that the strength in his arms and shoulders had gone” (Cheever 2050). Now Merrill is starting to have thoughts about reality and questions what is happening to him. He began his journey youthful and enthusiastic, but now he feels weak and worried.

He is unsure of himself and is beginning to lose himself a bit. In a critical essay regarding Cheever’s use of Merrill’s transition, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet say: “Perhaps the second half of the story, in which Ned is an older man, is the reality, and the midsummer beginning of his water odyssey is just a happy reverie of better times. ” Merrill has been ignoring reality and he has lied to himself, thinking back to his youth where his live was probably much better. He has denied himself the truth and now he does not know who he truly is.
Merrill’s confusion builds up as he spirals down. Looking at “The Swimmer” through the liberal humanist lens also suggests that the story is about how living in a dream world while avoiding reality will not change your fate and it will ultimately catch up with you. Throughout the story, Neddy Merrill is living life as he dreams, but it is not the real world. He is an old, lonely man who has severely lost his way. At the end of the story, Merrill finally reaches his destination: his house, but he finds his home far different that he once remembered. He shouted, pounded on the door tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty” (Cheever 2051). Merrill has been living in a dream world for so long that he didn’t even know what had happened to his house and his family. He has tried to avoid his problems by drinking and partying but he cannot run away from it.
In Greg Barnhisel’s work overview of “The Swimmer”, he describes Neddy’s fate when he finally makes arrives at his home: “All of the unidentified troubles now confront the traveler [Neddy] and he can no longer escape them. Neddy Merrill tried to outrun fate, but fate, in the end, won the race. Merrill is left with no home, no family, and no future. Looking at “The Swimmer” through the liberal humanist lens also suggests that the story is about how time is a force of nature that cannot be controlled and attempts to control it will destroy one’s sense of reality. All his life, Neddy Merrill has been constantly going through the same routine. Merrill has had to attend neighbor’s parties, drink himself into inebriation, and show off his status around town. His life has been a cycle that he himself has tried to shape.
He believes he can continue this pattern forever, but he can’t. Everything eventually changes, yet Neddy Merrill denies himself this fact. During his water journey, however, Merrill begins to see how futile his efforts really were, “The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and water” (Cheever 2046). Merrill, who began his journey on a beautiful summer day, is now faced with the fall season and begins to see time in full force. For Neddy, time represents an enemy, something that he wishes to control. Time, despite Neddy’s attempts through repetition to stop it, has not been standing still. Nature is in constant motion” (Blythe). Merrill’s journey has led him to realize how useless his repetitious lifestyle has been. He now questions his worth and wonders where his life is taking him. Merrill is a broken man and has fallen to his lowest point. Looking at “The Swimmer” through the Marxist lens suggests that the story is really about how easily social statuses can change under different circumstances and how blinding hubris can be.
Neddy Merrill is clearly a man of means in the story. For one thing, it is clear he can afford to spend time during midday to enjoy the afternoon by the poolside. Living in an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood has given Neddy many benefits. But his extravagant lifestyle takes a turn for the worse once he starts his journey home. As Neddy swims home, cold and half-naked, he begins to “crash” neighbors’ parties as he attempts to swim through everyone’s pool and is not very welcome. “The bartender served him but he served him rudely.
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 he had suffered some loss of social esteem” (Cheever 2049). Neddy is obviously offended by being rebuffed by some lowly barkeep. He considers himself of a higher status and power, yet by undertaking such a journey, Neddy has left himself susceptible to the very discrimination he gives to others. By dropping by without invitation, Merrill is now seen by his peers as somewhat of a scavenger, like the unwanted guest at dinner parties.
In a critical essay describing ethnic origins in the story, Michael D. Byrne says: “Of the English or German neighbors in this part of the story, two have no pools and two rebuff Neddy for his casual arrogance in dropping by. ” Because his actions, Neddy has turned himself into a “Wandering Jew” of sorts and his attempts to get free drinks at a party is looked down upon by his English and German neighbors. Neddy has always tried to live life to the fullest but his attempt at something unique has failed and Neddy is cast aside by society.
Looking at “The Swimmer” through the Marxist lens also suggests that the story is about how high social status and wealth will cause relationships to be ruined and, eventually, lead to isolation. Neddy Merrill enjoys his cocktails and fancy dinners and thinks his life is all good. He chooses which parties he wants to go to and which to avoid. He thinks he has it all made. But all that materialism doesn’t end well for him. He ignores those he believes are beneath him, ruining social bonds. When Neddy arrives at a neighbor’s party, he reminds himself of what he thinks of them. They did not belong to Neddy’s set – they were not even on Lucinda’s Christmas card list” (Cheever 2049). Cheever is trying to show how Merrill believes his is so high up the social ladder that he is embarrassed to be at such lower person’s house. Merrill thinks of life as black and white, rich and poor, and him and everyone else, “Neddy, living in the suburban world of the American Dream, dwells upon social position and materialism” (Blythe). All Neddy has focused and lived his life by was what he had in his wallet.
For him, his large houses and luxurious lifestyle placed him above his peers. His attitude has given him many enemies and Merrill is now all alone. In a critical essay, Neddy’s attitude towards his neighbors is analyzed further, “Merrill’s withdrawal into a private vision, therefore, should not be interpreted as a noble ambition; rather, it reflects his refusal to acknowledge some more essential, important connections with others” (Riley). He has thrived on his social status and material wealth, but in the end, that was all he had. Merrill is now left alone with no friends to help him.
Looking at “The Swimmer”, however, through my personal reader-response lens, I see a man who is simply trying to find purpose in his life. Neddy seems to have it all, a nice suburban house, a great neighborhood, and all the pool parties he can attend, yet I feel there is something missing in his life and he feels that void in his life too. In a way, we are all like Neddy Merrill. We all want to answers to our questions, especially “what’s the meaning of life? ” The idea of that question is too big to grasp or understand. I think that is the biggest reason why Neddy lives the way he does.
He tries to avoid thinking about his purpose by filling his life with all these insignificant things that he really does not need or care about. Like many others, I am also trying to find my way through the world and discover what exactly my purpose in life is. I know it will not be something crazy like saving the world from aliens, but a sense of direction is always welcome. I think everybody can relate to Neddy in more ways than we realize. Our biggest gift is our life and I think we have to find some meaning in it, or we will all end up like poor Neddy with no hope for his future.

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