Denial and Futile Redemption in “The Swimmer” by Cheever

Cheever, in “The Swimmer” mirrors his own life. Cheever was well-esteemed and affluent throughout his career until his life spiraled down the ugliest road of alcoholism (mixed with sedatives and other medications). His books went out of print and The New Yorker refused to publish his work. In 1975, he checked into a rehabilitation center.

Contrary to the popular belief writers gained no second chances, Cheever made a come back. He published a novel of redemption, honored on the cover of Newsweek, and won’t the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle  award, and for the first time in decades, was the first collection of short stories to dominate the bestseller list.

It seems the swimmer, Ned, is like Cheever. Despite the fatigue, and the confusion, and forgetfulness, and futility, he swam to the very end. He created his own competition in which no one was participating, he named it after a woman who no longer loved him, and though passing through, no one stopped him, no one encouraged him either. He withstood mockery and ridicule. He faced the vast emptiness of failure and even in the end it feels like your home has long since been sold, you’ve sacrificed it all: your home, your wife, your daughters, for….the swim…

The man sets out to swim through across all the pools of his neighbors’ backyards in the county. What strikes me the most odd is that he trespasses through all his neighbors’ backyards and no one seems to mind. He sets out and has an enjoyable swim until half way through when he reaches a house whose pool is completely drained; he becomes full of dread. Drenched, cold, and half-naked, he is ridiculed when he attempts to cross the highway (people laugh and toss beer cans at him). He crosses a forest and reaches the pool of some wealthy nudists who stop him to offer condolences. “We heard that you’d sold the house and that your poor children…” He has no clue what they’re talking about. “I don’t recall having sold the house and the girls are at home.”
Sympathetically, they let it go and let him swim across the pool. He swims one more then another, one with the richness of a party going on. Again he demonstrates another strong sense of denial—he had the attitude that he was blessing them with his presence since previously he constantly rejected invites to these parties—and felt uncomfortable when the hostess naturally treated him bellicosely. “This party has everything, including a gate crasher!” He had a drink anyway and moved along.

He was excited to reach his old mistress’s house but even there he would gain no solace.”What do you want? Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?” There was another man in the bath house and she refused him any drink. He started to cry. By the last pool, he waded more than swam its length, and raised himself out on feeble, trembling arms. Once he reached home, “he shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder and then, looking at the windows, saw the place was empty.”

The story reveals the sad journey of a man desperately unwilling to accept his present. He names his course Lucinda (after his wife) even though she is long gone. All his neighbors seem to think that he’s lost it, but they don’t reject him. He takes a journey that is meaningless.

Cheever believed that that short stories were read by those who’ “seem to feel that narrative fiction can contribute to our understanding of one another and the sometimes bewildering world around us.” It seems he was trying to relate the idea that when we’ve lost everything, we cling onto our strengths and furiously hope that something we do means something. We are alone in our struggle, but not alone in the retelling of it. “We are not a nomadic people, but there is more than a hint of this spirit of our great country—and the short story is the literature of the nomad.” The story is that of a wonderer; he is a person who is so alone, even in the midst of great wealth and old friends.

The drained pool symbolizes the beginning of the end. The old couple enlighten him and foreshadows his confrontation with reality. Arriving at his old lover’s house is the falling action, the tears streaming forth (the imagery of Alice’s giant blobs of tears come to mind) come from somewhere deep inside him. You would think he would understand then, but he doesn’t, not even when he reaches home: he yells into the void. He doesn’t understand the past is long gone. His forgetfulness is mysterious and perplexing. “Is forgetfulness some part of the mysteriousness of life?” Cheever seems to liken this forgetfulness as the sign of some unimaginable horror and pain: the stuff worthy of writing. You can’t write of “the housewife, who apprehending frost, takes in her house plants while from a Frank Lloyd Wright chimney comes the marvelous fragrance of wood smoke.” There is no forgetfulness nor futility. In a sense, the futility comes from the forgetfulness.

What is it that we refuse to look at? What do we forget most often? How do these signs point to an aspect of our lives that are futile?

 

 

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