This was written for my freshman college writing seminar. It is not devoid of valid points, but the words tumble over each other in an awkward, freshman-like fashion, which punctures its impact. There is also the too-noticeable structure carried over from high school English. Notice the terribleness of the first sentence.
The human mind is probably the most literarily significant tool that all humans utilize on a daily basis. The enigma of precisely how the brain works as a biological engine is usually left to scientists, but every once in a great while, a wielder of the writer’s craft will make an appreciable and fruitful voyage into the murky jungle of the mind. John Cheever, long an explorer of the motivations of the human mind, crafted in the mid-1960s an ambiguous and intriguing story about an explorer of another kind: Neddy Merrill in “The Swimmer.” Neddy sets upon a voyage to the truth, a truth that his conscious mind must eventually face or he will no longer be welcome among the society that seems to have been chosen for him, but without whom he is that much less a man. Cheever’s genius and originality is evident in his competent binding of Ned’s fictional and metaphorical quest with Cheever’s own literary journey to the center of the fitful and rationalizing mind. Neddy Merrill’s quest to reach his home by water is actually a journey from his blissful repression of his misfortunes to the bitter truth of his non-idyllic existence.
Ned finally learns the truth of his misfortunes through much interference and manipulation by both his subconscious and his environment. His state at the beginning of the story is one of blissful ignorance. He is troubled but he has repressed his negative temperament to such a degree that he is not even consciously aware of it. Instead, he cheerfully and energetically goes about his life, which happens to include the youthfully spontaneous idea of swimming home. His quest along the Lucinda River (which, in the fashion of most explorers, he names after a woman, thereby thrusting himself into the role from the very start) is a very bold and intense defense mechanism that he erects in the path of the stampeding knowledge of the disasters in his life.
Many suggestions and hints are made to him regarding his true reality, but he refuses to acknowledge their significance. Instead, he rationalizes the experiences in his mind to prevent his having to deal with the truth. His willingness to repress and push aside are due to Neddy’s fatal character flaw, which is his inability to accept and interpret circumstances in his environment as opportunities to improve is own emotional state. He is stubborn to allow his defensive veil of ignorance to be torn away by inference or deduction, so he develops the magnificent skill of “the repression of unpleasant facts.” In this way, he may enjoy for a longer period of time his status quo, his troubled but enduring emotional equilibrium in which he finds joy, love, and youthfulness, traits that he values as synonymous with life.
The storm is the first truth-bearing symbol that Neddy encounters. The cumulus cloud that brings this event follows Neddy from the Westerhazy’s and can be seen as the impending truth of Neddy’s wretched existence. The storm probably intends to shock Neddy into consciousness with its advent of colder air and inconvenient form of his beloved water. Instead of taking this cloudburst as a sign, either to remember his misfortunes or to abandon his quest, he develops an inexplicable love of storms as he builds the walls of his ignorance higher.
Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first water notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?
The answer to these questions lies in the fact that Neddy wishes to see the storm as a positive event, not as the harbinger of his miserable truth.
The empty pool at the Welchers’, the arduous crossing of Route 424, and the contaminating adventure at the Lancaster public pool combine to shout another message of the painful facts of Neddy’s life. This time, instead of trying to twist these events into positive experiences, Neddy incorporates them into the fantasy image of himself as an explorer on a voyage of discovery. This way, he may see these all-too-real and inherently negative events as the necessary trials and hardships of any pilgrimage along an unknown path. He sees them as unfortunate discoveries along his chosen path of transportation, and therefore as tests to his spirit as an explorer. Neddy’s rather bulky pride easily hefts the weight of this challenge and he presses on, undaunted by either roadblock or emotional progress.
The reader hears the most complete story of Neddy’s misfortunes from the Halloran’s, and immediately following this he begins to lose his physical resilience and commitment to boldness, both of which could be considered essential to his quest. He has used up all of his emotional resources in his fight against the truth, so his physicality is tapped for strength. The next three houses showcase Neddy’s obsession with liquid: alcohol and pools, both of which can be considered a symbolic desire to immerse himself in security, or to return to the womb, which is considered to be the safest place for which a person can wish.
When Neddy is refused a drink at the Sachs’, he notices Eric’s loss of his navel. This symbolic breach of connection to birth tells Neddy that he cannot return to the womb, that his haven of security and status quo has been removed as an option. He nevertheless utilizes their pool to immerse himself in a more literal way than his preferred intoxicating manner. The pools that constitute the Lucinda River represent Ned’s happy place, the key replacement for the thought of his misfortunes. The greatest evidence of this occurs on the first page.
His own house stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis. Then it occurred to him that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water.
The thought of his normal life and his daughters leads him immediately to the idea of his aquatic voyage. He cannot come to grips with objective reality, so he is forced to make up his own by conveniently forgetting the more painful details of his life, and where he cannot fill in the gaps he replaces them with his surrogates: pools and alcohol. At Shirley Adams’ house, Ned expects more than just his usual liquid fix; he needs emotional comfort and even physical love, which he claims will “put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart.” For Neddy, Shirley Adams represents “sexual roughhouse,” and she is an object of Ned’s past infatuation. Shirley is Ned’s last resort for solace on his long voyage across the county. He needs to have his calm view of reality seconded by another human soul.
His expectation of a warm reception is not entirely unexpected, for more linear time has passed than Ned is aware, but Shirley has already moved her life along, and does not understand Ned’s need for emotional comfort. In short, Ned is rebuffed by the same Aphrodite with which he felt so backside-slappingly comfortable that morning. Ned’s quest for home is not a crusade for truth, but an escape from it. But truth finds him anyway, because Ned’s subconscious will not let him continue to live without undergoing this fundamental change in his perception of his world.
Ned’s final breakdown after being rebuffed by Shirley Adams signals his final disillusionment. He knows that the end of his happy crusade is coming to an end, and he has no more ammunition with which to fight off the truth of his misfortunes. His physical deterioration at the Gilmartin’s and Clyde’s pools is representative of the deterioration of his carefully constructed false reality. “He had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague.”
At last, Ned is beginning to realize that he is not the man he thought he was that morning. But once Ned realizes the truth, that he has suffered serious misfortune, he becomes so much more human than for which readers initially gave him credit. Ned finally answers his own question, “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?” Ned’s repression of his unfortunate life causes a crucial and painful schism between him and the truth that he must know.
“The Swimmer” breaks bold new ground in the literary quest to explain the human psyche by combining the literal and the symbolic into a final definitive solution to a tortured man’s agonizing dilemma regarding the refusal to face the truth. John Cheever brilliantly displays his skill at using profoundly constructed characters and carefully chosen language to chronicle what happens when repression becomes a way of life, instead of a way of dealing with it. Readers can learn many valuable lessons from Neddy Merrill regarding the proper way to cope with stress and the importance of remaining sensitive to one’s own problems and misfortunes, for only with the utmost respect for the workings of one’s own mind does one eventually learn to clear the crucial obstacles that inevitably present themselves during the course of any life.