John Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer,” was first published in 1964, and because of its popularity, a film was produced that told the story on the silver screen. The author, John Cheever, was born on May 27 1912 in Quincy, Massachusetts and began writing at the age of seventeen after being expelled from Thayer Academy. His first story was appropriately titled Expelled. Cheever was eventually made a Guggenheim Fellow, a grant for writers, which gave him money and the free will to write whatever he wanted (“John Cheever Biography”).
Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer,” revolves around a man named Neddy Merrill who sets out on a journey to swim across the county. Neddy sets out on his journey as a young man with great vitality, but as the story progresses, Neddy begins to lose his youthfulness. With this loss of youth, the real truth about Neddy’s life is revealed. He has used this journey to forget and cover up the fact that he has lost his wife, children, and home possibly due to a drinking problem. John Cheever uses Neddy’s epic journey and character in “The Swimmer” to allude to other famous literary works.
The most prominent allusion in “The Swimmer” is the mythical and epic quest for The Holy Grail; the references to the Grail quest are scattered all throughout John Cheever’s story. The opening scene of “The Swimmer” begins with the description of a place filled with many materialistic things, drinks and parties, and with little to no spiritual meaning; for example, a priest was drunk on a Sunday (Blythe and Sweet 347). This scene is much like the scene of The Waste Land in the typical Grail myth, a world “devoid of spiritual meaning and filled with materialism” (Blythe and Sweet 347).
This allusion is constantly shown throughout the journey of Neddy Merrill, for he stumbles upon many other parties that involve heavy drinking (347). Cheever also depicts Neddy Merrill as a Grail hero by the way he describes him. Neddy is described as a ‘legendary figure’ and as a ‘man with a destiny’ (347). In “The Swimmer” Neddy begins his quest young and full of life, and he slowly begins to age which Cheever uses to show the connection to the Fisher King in the Grail myth. In the Grail myth, the whole point of the quest is to restore life to the sick Fisher King, and Cheever uses Neddy’s character to symbolize the Fisher King.
He does this to show that the whole point of Neddy’s journey is to restore himself in some way (348). One more allusion to the Grail myth comes whenever Neddy is standing on the side of the highway, and an old man lets Neddy cross the highway after other people threw things and verbally abused him (349). A similar figure appears in the Grail quest whenever the Grail hero loses all hope; the old man on the highway was Cheever’s salute to this Grail character (349).
The last example of an allusion to The Holy Grail mission, was the very end of “The Swimmer. The typical Grail myth ends with the hero looking into a castle, and if he is worthy, he is allowed to look at The Holy Grail. By doing so, he restores the sick Fisher King and The Waste Land (351). Unlike the Grail myth, Neddy peers into his home, the castle, and sees nothing; his wife and kids had left him. Neddy was unworthy to see The Holy Grail and has failed his quest (351). Another piece of literature Cheever alludes to in his novel “The Swimmer” is The Great Gatsby. Cheever continously alludes to The Great Gatsby throughout his short story.
He begins the allusion early on in the story whenever names of people at a party are listed. This list of names contains animal imagery, puns, and jewish and Irish ethnic references that is similar to one in The Great Gatsby (Allen, “Allusions” 289). The list in The Great Gatsby included names such as the Catlips and Hammerheads; the Swetts and Leeches; and the Cohens and McCartys. The list in “The Swimmer” entailed similar names such as the Gilmartins and Hammer; the Bunkers and the Welchers; and the Levys and Hallorans (290).
Another allusion to the novel, The Great Gatsby, was Neddy’s fall in the social ladder. Neddy used to be a high member in society, but he quickly fell to the lowest rung of the ladder when his alcoholism consumed him and his wife, Lucinda, and kids left him (290). A similar event in The Great Gatsby occurred when Gatsby wanted to be in the upper class, but falls to the lower when his love, Daisy, rejects him (290). Much like Gatsby, Neddy Merrill does not act his age and refuses to change over time (Allen, “Parallels”).
In Cheever’s short story, Neddy’s ex-mistress says, ‘Good Christ, will you ever grow up? ‘ after Neddy tells her of his journey to swim across the county (Allen, “Parallels”). A similar event occurs when Gatsby tries to win back his love, Daisy, but she has moved on from him (Allen, “Parallels”). When faced with this problem Gatsby says, ‘Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can! “, further showing that much like Neddy, Gatsby refuses to change or act his age (Allen, “Parallels”). Another parallel in these two stories is the seasonal time frame in which they took place.
The Great Gatsby begins in spring and by the end of the story the season changes to fall. “The Swimmer”, much like The Great Gatsby, begins on a midsummer day, and it ends with leaves turning bright orange and the season changing to fall (Allen, “Parallels”). Cheever also makes an allusion to Gatsby by connecting the disappointment Neddy experiences when seeing the Welcher’s drained pool to Gatsby’s refusal to let his pool be drained by his gardener, even in Fall. When Neddy sees the pool it is noted that “the breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly” (Cheever 730).
The last allusion to The Great Gatsby came at the very end of the short story when Neddy Merrill peered into his home to see that “the place was empty” and vacant (Cheever 737). This paralleled the closing scene of The Great Gatsby when Nick looked into Gatsby’s house; it was described as ‘that huge incoherent failure of a house’ (Allen, “Parallels”). Along with The Great Gatsby, Dante’s Inferno is another literary piece that Cheever alludes to throughout “The Swimmer. ”
Dante’s Inferno is alluded to repeatedly throughout Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer. The first allusion to Dante’s Inferno is the beginning line, ‘It was one of those midsummer days’ (Kozikowski 368). Dante’s Inferno begins the story by stating that it was ‘midway through life’s journey’ (368). Cheever uses Neddy’s journey through the suburbs as an allusion to Dante’s journey through hell as they encounter many similarities along the way (368). The link of pools in “The Swimmer,” referred to as The Lucinda River, is a reference to the link of waterways on Dante’s journey that form The River of Life (368).
Also the name, The Lucinda River, is a possible allusion to St. Lucia, the name of a saint that keeps Dante safe along his journey (368). Another small detail that Cheever included in his story that alludes to Dante’s Inferno is Neddy’s disappointment when he finds an emptied pool along The Lucinda River (370). Dante has a similar feeling of disappointment when he finds a ‘vile broth’ in the Styx Marsh (370). Another pool that alludes to a body of water in Inferno is the public swimming pool that Neddy passes through (370). This public pool represents the ‘ghastly pool that Dante passes through (370).
These two bodies of water are related because both characters must push through the shoddy water because they are “pilgrims” and “adventurers” (370). Throughout the short story it is shown that Neddy does not have the best memory. This confusion is explained in Dante’s Inferno when Cavalcante de Cavalcanti tells Dante that souls in Hell have trouble understanding the past, present, and future (372). This allusion finally sheds some light on Neddy’s condition and why he has trouble understanding his past. One last possible allusion in “The Swimmer” is the reference to William Shakespeare’s sonnet A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
John Cheever sets up the possible allusion to A Midsummer’s Night Dream right from the start of “The Swimmer. ” The short story begins with the line ‘It was one of those midsummer Sundays,’ which is a direct allusion to the title of Shakespeare’s sonnet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream (Bell 433). Also, Neddy is put into a dream-like state at the beginning of the short story. The story says, ‘the components of that moment… seemed to flow into his chest;’ this was Cheever’s way of internalizing the story and his way of suggesting it was a dream (434).
Another link to the play is Neddy’s confusion of seasons (433). Neddy begins his journey on a midsummer day, but halfway through he encounters a tree that has its autumn leaves. Then even later, Neddy looks up at winter sky and says “What had become of the constellations of midsummer? ” (Cheever 736). One final allusion to A Midsummer’s Night Dream is the way that Cheever uses Neddy’s failures and his love affair to allude to a scene in Shakespeare’s play with the line: ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ (436).
This line is prominently proven when the reader finds that Neddy cheated on his wife, Lucinda, and that his wife had left with his kids. As one can see, John Cheever effectively used his short story “The Swimmer” to allude to many other literary works. Cheever used his story to allude to the quest for The Holy Grail, The Great Gatsby, Dante’s Inferno, and even Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer’s Night Dream. He was able to do so with the help of Neddy Merrill’s character and his journey through the suburbs.