‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

Middle Age…

He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one…

We meet Ned Merrell – the protagonist of Cheever’s most famous short story – one summer Sunday afternoon at a poolside, amongst friends. And although Ned is never specifically aged, we are not only told that he “seemed to have the special slenderness of youth” but also that he is “far from young.” This discrepancy between appearance and reality lies at the heart of this story (and given what we come to learn about Ned’s situation in life, it is safe to assume that he is deep into middle-age). Indeed, Ned Merrell, with his habit of repressing “unpleasant facts” could be a distant relative to ‘Bliss’s’ Bertha Young. Even the imagery used by Mansfield and Cheever to describe their respective protagonists is strikingly similar: Bertha is described as feeling “as though [she’d] suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in [her] bosom”; while Ned is described “as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.” However, it is important to note that both these descriptions come from the beginnings of their stories, and Ned, like Bertha, is in for a rude awakening as he attempts to swim his way home via the pools of his neighbours. And while one nurtures a vain hope at the end of ‘Bliss’ that the thirty-year-old Bertha might still be able to salvage something from her life and start again, crucially, Ned seems far older than Bertha, and subsequently the stakes seem far higher. And by the time the one has finished reading ‘The Swimmer’ it is quite clear that Ned is finished too. 

First published in The New Yorker, 1964, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper & Row, 1964, and The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

One thought on “‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

  1. Cheever was a master of opening lines, and this one is a prime example: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.'”

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