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20100401-11 Pynchon and Cheever (Group 1)

Page history last edited by Drew Brittain 10 years, 6 months ago



The Swimmer by John Cheever was published in 1964, and in many ways is a mock epic, closely resembling The Odyssey.  In it Ned decides to go on a journey home by swimming through the pools of the people in his county.  Along the way he runs into many distractions including people at the Bunkers' pool party representing the Sirens, Shirley paralleling Circe, and Grace Biswanger acting towards Ned as the Cyclops acted towards Odysseus.  Ned, is of course the Odysseus character of the story, yet only has an 8-mile journey through familiar places and by the end no longer possesses his manly traits of diving into the pool and climbing out without using the ladder.  Ned see's himself as an Odysseus like character in all of these ways yet we see the similarities to another "mock epic" which is "Rape of Lock."  Instead of being praised in the end of the book he is shunned by party throwers, goers, even the bartender. Ned's journey ends with only one certainty: he is alone.


The Swimmer ends with Ned's unexplained return to an empty and locked home. Despite this indeterminacy, the story does hint that Ned's behavior is strange, and this mental instability is therefore a possible explanation. Some conclude that Ned has gone crazy, has memory loss or represses unpleasant memories; another possible reading argues that the story tells it exactly like it is: while on his journey, Ned's family left him.  


The Swimmer fits neither into the country setting, nor the city setting, but introduces the location of suburbia as a melding of the binary.


Word Count:266



"Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would like the banks of the Lucinda River."  (pg 2251)

     This passage gives the reader insight into Ned's high opinion of himself and his reasoning for setting out on such a bold journey.  Similar to what we saw in Turner's Frontier Thesis, Ned views himself as the "pilgrim" and "explorer" that characterizes the American Dream.  There are loopholes in this sentence such as the fact that he says he is taking an "uncommon route" and that he is "an explorer" but goes on to say that he would find his friends along the way.  While he claims the idealized and glorified American Dream for himself, Ned is actually exploring nothing because he is swimming in his friends backyards.  He is not even trespassing, let alone exploring in the way Turner described pilgrims and explorers, and ultimately there is absolutely no risk involved in Ned's actions. If he has actually gone crazy, then his family has already moved and lost their upper-middle-class financial standing thus eliminating risk of that, and contrastingly, if he is sane and his family left him during his "journey" then Ned has already lost life as he knew it. Without risk, an essential part of the American Dream is lost, because nothing is gained in the indeterminate ending.


"He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure." (2250)

     This passage introduces us to the idea that Ned considers himself a hero of sorts, yet consistently contradicts himself.  The conception of himself as both "modest" and "legendary" is oxymoron-ic, and they ultimately cancel each other out. Ned is neither modest/humble nor legendary/heroic, but instead as common and unoriginal as is possible. The binary opposition of these traits canceling each other out and resulting in 'normal' parallels the role of suburbia in the tensions of country and city in American literature.

     This passage also hints at the MOCK aspect of the mock epic despite the description of Ned as "not a practical joker."  By way of mentioning jokes, or more precisely a lack of jokes, the seriousness with which Ned considers himself two contradictory things simultaneously serves to highlight Cheever's mocking of the traditional epic. The self-proclaimed legend (or hero) is so torn over his own identity that he fails to realize the futility and faulty perception of his actions. Cheever is already establishing the indeterminate ending by providing hints at Ned's internal struggle with self-perception, and simultaneously suggesting that this really happened the way we are told and Ned is still not a hero because he has failed to obtain his goal of reaching his family and home.


"Neddy remembered the sapphire water at the Bunkers' with longing and thought that he might contaminate himself--damage his own prosperousness and charm--by swimming in this murk, but he reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River." (2254)

      This passage offers the idea that Ned thinks he is too good to swim in a public pool.  He has a hard time handling it because it puts limits on him such as having to shower before getting in.  He believes this pool and the people in it are out of his social standing.  Together his contempt for rules/limitations/control, and social prejudices are what he fears contaminating, and not his physical body. This is clarified by his negative description of chlorine just prior to this passage: although chlorine is used as a sanitizer in public pools, Ned insists on classifying it as a noxious and menacing smell. Logically then, it is a fear of the PUBLIC aspect of this pool rather than the water and chemicals themselves that are the points of contamination. This attitude of social superiority in spite of his seemingly flawed memory and financial ruin is what ultimately leads to his neighbors rejecting him even though the majority of them possess similar opinions.

     More pointedly though, Ned classifies the public pool as "merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River" meaning that there is little or no motion in the water. This depiction of the water, albeit convenient to his explained fear of contamination, is very misleading since it is the only pool Ned enters that is over-populated with people and chaotic. The reality of the public pool is that where the most rules and restrictions are enacted, the most rebellion and disorder occurs, while the private pools are silent, empty and quite possibly stagnant. Ned's descriptions are confusing the private and public spheres in a manner similar to suburbia's intersection of country and city.



Key Terms:

Canon: a group of approved works that we have decided are the best

mock epic: a satire or parody of an epic poem that mirrors its characteristics, but with activities that could be done on a day to day basis, while treating them as major events

Comments (1)

Brian Croxall said

at 11:50 am on Apr 21, 2010

You've produced an excellent set of notes for our discussion of Cheever's "The Swimmer." Your definitions are spot-on (we didn't have many terms introduced that day), and your passages are excellent. If anything, they're overkill. The explanation for the first passage gets a bit confusing toward its end, and the second and third passages would be just fine without the second paragraph. But I'm glad to see your understanding of how the text is working.

Your summary almost looks like plot summary, but you discuss it in such a way as to incorporate what we covered in class. If anything, I would have liked to see a bit more discussion of the possible ways to understand the text's ending and your linking that to postmodernism's tendency to leave readers without a clear answer to questions that they might have at the end of the text.

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