The Swimmer

The Swimmer Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Cheever's The Swimmer. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Cheever

John Cheever was born in 1912 to a middle-class family, although his family fell into financial straits during the Great Depression. The young Cheever attended Thayer academy and showed early promise as a short story writer, his first story being published in 1930 at the age of 18. However, his grades were poor and he was expelled before graduation. Afterward, he moved to New York City, where he married Mary Winternitz in 1941. Cheever enlisted in the army in 1942 during World War II, but he never saw combat. After the war, Cheever and his family moved to Ossining, New York, and he became a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were published in the New Yorker. The Ossining suburbs where he lived became the inspiration for much of his work, and he was subsequently known as the “Chekov of the suburbs,” after the 19th century Russian short-story writer Anton Chekov. Despite modest literary success, Cheever suffered from deep depression and alcoholism for most of his life, the full extent of which was only revealed with the publication of his letters after his death in 1982. Also revealed were Cheever’s affairs with both men and women. Despite his disastrous family life, he was deeply invested in maintaining an image of himself as a successful family man, which can be seen in many of his characters.
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Historical Context of The Swimmer

After World War II, an entire generation of veterans returned to the United States and began to start families, leading to a population surge that’s often called the “baby boom.” This contributed to the growth of the suburbs, alongside several other trends, including the interstate highway system and “white flight” (white relocation from cities to suburbs) after a wave of African-American migration to large cities. Mid-century suburbs were areas of medium density populated by middle- and upper-middle class people who drove cars. Many of Cheever’s stories and novels are set in this milieu, and indeed, he himself lived what from the outside must have appeared a classic middle-class suburban life.

Other Books Related to The Swimmer

John Cheever was heavily influenced by American fiction of the 1930s and 40s, especially short fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald’s grandiose, doomed heroes are sometimes echoed in Cheever’s characters, but Fitzgerald’s have a romantic, noble quality, while Cheever’s are often sad and small. Neddy Merrill in “The Swimmer” shares Gatsby’s intense imagination, but his quest is pitiable and foolish. Cheever’s work, and “The Swimmer” in particular, is situated in the context of literary movements like Naturalism and Social Realism, which started in the late 19th century. These movements tried to depict objective reality and social conditions, and Cheever participates in this to the extent that he explores the social conditions of the upper-middle class in the suburbs. However, Cheever introduced fantastical elements and unreliable narration to more fully explore the psyches and relationships of suburban residents. In his story “The Enormous Radio,” for example, a couple find a radio that broadcasts their neighbors’ private thoughts. And in “The Swimmer,” Neddy Merrill’s intense self-delusion causes the reader to question his perception of the story’s events. Additionally, Cheever was frequently compared to the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who pushed the limits of the short story in the late 19th-century. Chekhov’s stories made brilliant use of irony to undercut his characters’ worldviews and lingered somewhere between comedy and tragedy, much like Cheever’s stories some fifty years later.
Key Facts about The Swimmer
  • Full Title: The Swimmer
  • When Written: ca. 1964
  • Where Written: Ossining, New York
  • When Published: 1964
  • Literary Period: Postwar Fiction
  • Genre: Magical Realism, Ironic Comedy
  • Setting: a suburban town in the 1960s
  • Climax: Neddy’s return home
  • Antagonist: None, although Neddy is his own antagonist
  • Point of View: 3rd person limited

Extra Credit for The Swimmer

Dressing For The Job While writing from home in an apartment building in New York, Cheever nevertheless put on a suit and rode the elevator downstairs in the morning with the corporate workers in his building. He took the elevator down to a basement storage room, where he removed the suit and wrote all day.

A Lucky Break Cheever enlisted in the army during World War II and finished basic training, but an officer and movie executive named Leonard Spiegelgass admired his work and transferred him to a position writing scripts for propaganda films in New York. The rest of his unit would later see bloody combat during D-Day in France.