The Swimmer

by

John Cheever

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The Swimmer Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is “one of those midsummer Sundays” when everyone is sitting around saying “I drank too much last night.” Everyone from priests to birdwatchers to golfers moans about their hangovers, and the Westerhazys—sitting around their pool with Lucinda and Neddy Merrill—note that all of them drank too much wine the night before.
Cheever begins the story with a litany of people saying the same thing. The repetition illustrates that the suburbs offer an extremely narrow range of experience, even among such different people as priests and birdwatchers. The focus on alcohol also reveals the most important way in which suburbanites are alike: seeking self-destructive pleasures.
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Neddy, who is lounging by the pool drinking gin, is “far from young” but still youthful and slender. That morning, he had slid down his bannister and slapped the “bronze backside” of a bust of Aphrodite. Neddy gives an impression of “youth, sport, and clement weather.”
Neddy’s morning routine speaks to his self-image as a man who feels younger than he is. Slapping the “bronze backside” of the Greek goddess of love shows Neddy insisting on his own virility, even as a man “far from young.” Further, the impression of “clement weather” suggests an uncomplicated man, someone untroubled by deep doubts or fears.
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Neddy had just been swimming, and right now he’s breathing heavily, savoring the physical sensations of that moment as though “he could gulp [it] into his lungs.” He notes that his own house, where his four “beautiful daughters” are, is eight miles away, and he has an epiphany that he might be able to return home by water.
Neddy experiences a moment of extreme physical pleasure, which he hopes to honor and prolong by swimming home. An eight-mile swim is an enormous task, but Neddy expects every subsequent swim to be just as pleasing as this one. Therefore, he arranges his day around a vain and ridiculous pursuit.
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Neddy’s life “was not confining” so his joy in this thought is not about “escape.” He imagines, “with a cartographer’s eye,” a line of pools stretching across the county back to his house.  This line of pools forms a river in his mind, which he decides to call the “Lucinda river,” after his wife. He fancies himself an explorer beating a path into uncharted territory and pledges his quest to the honor of this beautiful day.
Neddy’s desire for masculine virility finds expression in the form of the explorer. Through an effort of imagination, he delusionally turns the suburbs into uncharted territory, which suggests that the masculinity and virility he imagines in himself are also somewhat delusional. Grandiose whims like these are hallmarks of a youthful orientation towards life, which is somewhat troubling in a man his age.
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Neddy dives into the pool, noting his disdain for men who creep down into pools using the steps. His stroke is a crawl, which is not good for long distances, but the crawl is a social convention that he must follow. He feels like the water is more than a pleasure; it’s his natural condition. Then, he tells his wife Lucinda that he’s swimming home and goes off.
Neddy expresses a dominance over other men by diving into pools rather than stepping into them. Furthermore, he explicitly thinks that being in the water is his “natural” condition, suggesting that swimming is putting him in touch with who he really is. This lacks credibility, however, since he’s still so beholden to what the neighbors think, which is evident in his choice of the crawl.
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Neddy plots his course through memory and imagination, listing all the neighbors whose swimming pools he’ll have to cross. He’s ecstatic as he starts out, feeling that a world “so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence.” He savors the beautiful weather and imagines that “friends would line the banks of the Lucinda river” as he swims.
As Neddy lists all the neighbors whose pools he plans to cross, the repetition of last names is both bewildering and monotonous. The complexity and tediousness of managing this network of relationships becomes clear. Nevertheless, Neddy is filled with youthful optimism and a naïve belief that he’ll find help and support along the way. This speaks to Neddy’s self-absorption, in that he believes everyone he meets will share in his childish goal.
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Neddy walks through a hedge and past a shed to cross into the Grahams’ backyard pool. Mrs. Graham welcomes him, claiming that she’s been trying to call him all morning to invite him over, and she offers him a drink. Inhabiting the perspective of an explorer, Neddy sees the Grahams as hospitable “natives” whose customs he must respect while trying to get on with his journey without too much delay. He swims the length of their pool and stays with them for a few minutes, then manages to slip away while they receive other friends for an “uproarious reunion.”
Mrs. Graham welcomes Neddy and notes in an offhanded way that she’s been trying to call him. It’s unclear whether this is sincere or simply a social nicety. Already, Neddy is coming to see his neighbors as a burden or impediment, as Mrs. Graham’s hospitality keeps him from his journey. The lens of “hospitable natives” preserves the fantasy of a suburban wilderness, but it clashes with exactly how comfortable the natives make Neddy as an arriving explorer.
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Back on track, Neddy swims a few other pools regardless of whether the owners are home or not. Reaching the Bunkers’ backyard, he finds they’re having a party. Neddy is buoyed by the sight and rhapsodizes about how “prosperous” the people are on the banks of the Lucinda river. Overhead, a small red airplane is wheeling “with something like the glee of a child on a swing.”
The metaphor of Neddy’s neighbors as “natives” crosses into satire as he observes them lounging in the pool or waited on by caterers. Cheever allows Neddy’s exploration fantasy to appear ridiculous as a way to emphasize how much he’s still a creature of civilization. Neddy also allows his good mood to project onto every situation he encounters, even attributing joy to a distant plane.
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Mrs. Bunker greets him and insists that Neddy’s arrival is a “marvelous surprise” and that she’d “die” if he couldn’t make it to the party. Neddy goes around making small talk and gets a drink from a bartender he’s seen “a hundred times” at similar parties.
Mrs. Bunker greets Neddy in much the same way that Mrs. Graham did, even repeating the words “marvelous surprise.” This echoes the repetition of “I drank too much” at the beginning of the story and reveals how much suburban conversation consists of stock phrases. The italics around “die” suggest a specific mode of upper-middle class insincerity, which people use to express more affection than they feel. Furthermore, the bartender that Neddy has seen “a hundred times” suggests that the party itself is a repeated action, another mundane ritual of suburban life.
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After swimming the Bunkers’ pool, Neddy crosses over to the Levys’ property, where he sees a “private property” sign. The Levys are away (there are “no signs of life), but they seem to have been recently home, since there are glasses and bottles still left out in the backyard. Despite the sign, he enters their backyard and swims their pool, helping himself to a drink afterward. He notes that this is his fourth or fifth drink, and he’s only halfway to the end of the “river.”
The Levys’ absence is haunting, as if they vanished in the middle of entertaining. Neddy is unsettled by the house, but he seeks some relief in the alcohol left out. The mention of his fourth or fifth drink shows just how much artificial support Neddy needs for his journey, and this first instance of him drinking alone makes the reader wonder if drinking is more than just a social pleasure for him.
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Neddy notes the natural signs of a storm’s approach, as “pinheaded birds” warn of it with their songs. A thunderstorm erupts and Neddy takes shelter in the Levys’ gazebo. The rain pours down, and Neddy asks himself why he loves storms so much. He takes pleasure in the approach of a storm as if it were “good news” and remembers the sense of urgency in boarding up his house against one. Rain falls on Mrs. Levy’s Japanese lanterns, but Neddy can’t remember when it was she went to Japan.
Several natural elements clash with artificial ones as Neddy anticipates the storm. The birds have an instinctual knowledge of the change in the weather, but Neddy thinks of them in derogatory terms: as “pinheaded.” Furthermore, instead of being out the in the weather as might suit someone in touch with primitive human nature, Neddy takes refuge under a gazebo, an example of shelter that’s especially civilized and sophisticated. While there, the Japanese lanterns give Neddy the sense that his memory is unreliable and that he may not know the Levys’ as well as he thinks he does.
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After the storm, the air has cooled significantly. A blighted tree in the Levys’ yard spills red and yellow leaves, which disquiets Neddy and he “brace[s] his shoulders [and] emptie[s] his glass.” An autumnal chill replaces the heat of the summer day.
After the storm, the mood of the day changes completely, becoming more subdued and eerie just as signs of fall (changing leaves, a chill) begin to appear. It’s notable that, to fortify himself against these new challenges, Neddy turns to drinking.
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Neddy crosses the Lindleys’ yard and is confused to see that their horses are gone. He remembers something about it but can’t quite pinpoint what happened. He reaches the Welchers’ yard and is shocked to see a “for sale” sign out front, with the house boarded and the pool drained. He’s especially confused because “no one ever drains their pool,” and the interruption in the “Lucinda river” distresses him.
The changes in his neighbors’ lives upsets Neddy for several reasons, the most important being the gaps that have clearly opened in his memory. But there’s a purely practical reason that Neddy is upset: the Welchers drained their pool, which means he can’t swim through it to get home. This interrupts his imagined river, so it threatens to jolt him out of his comfortable delusions.
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Neddy can’t remember when or why the Welchers moved, but he does mention that he tends to repress unpleasant thoughts. He’s crestfallen, but the noise of a distant tennis game cheers him and he continues his journey with a renewed sense of elation.
Neddy openly admits to his skill for repressing unpleasant thoughts, and it almost leads him to confront his problems. However, he’s immediately distracted by the sound of a tennis game, which is a prime example of how shallow Neddy’s emotional world is and how childlike his thoughts are.
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Neddy has to cross Route 424, a busy road lined with trash. He’d known he’d have to do so but was unprepared for drivers mocking and throwing cans at him, presumably for trying to cross a major road in a bathing suit. The road is filled with “beer cans, rags, and blowout patches.”
Here, Neddy’s imagined uncharted wilderness faces a reality check. Route 424 is full of all the unpleasantness of modern life. While Neddy could sustain his fantasy when the natives were friendly people milling near the pool, he can’t when they’re obnoxious drivers throwing cans and insults. 
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His unpleasant experience crossing the road makes Neddy question his plan to swim home. He tries to recapture the pleasure he experienced at the Westerhazys’ pool, which initially sparked the journey. He wonders whether he lacks “common sense” for continuing, but he has no choice, as he’s already covered too much ground to return. Neddy asks himself, “At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?”
Neddy has a full-blown crisis, one that might even be understood as a mid-life crisis. He observes how far he is from the initial pleasures that set him out on this quest. The first few pools stand in for youth, where life seems less complex and there are fewer obstacles. Now, facing resistance, Neddy questions the choices that led him to this point, just as everyone approaching the middle of their lives might.
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He comes to a public pool where he’s greeted with a sign requiring him to wash his feet before entering. The pool is filled with loud and rowdy swimmers, and Neddy recoils at the chlorine used to clean it and the smell of suntan oil. He tries to convince himself it’s just a “stagnant stretch” of the Lucinda river and he struggles across, jostled by swimmers and yelled at by lifeguards.
Neddy’s vision of a wilderness in the suburbs finally snaps at the public pool. The mention of chemicals (the chlorine and suntan oil) marks the distance between a pool and a pristine river. He also faces artificial intrusions into his desire to swim according to his nature: he’s forced to clean himself before entering and the lifeguards harass him for not following the rules. Previously, any rules he followed were self-imposed.
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After emerging from the public pool, Neddy crosses into a quieter wooded area owned by the Hallorans. Neddy describes them as a very wealthy older couple who have left-wing politics and enjoy the implication that they might be Communists, although they’re only “reformers.” They also have a sort of house rule where nudity is allowed in their backyard, so Neddy removes his swim trunks before entering.
After a traumatic experience at the public pool, the wooded area of the Hallorans’ property, as well as their tendency to swim naked (which Neddy had longed for), seems to offer some relief. But woven into these natural tendencies are more suburban concerns. The Hallorans, by breaking the conventions of their neighborhood, are actually providing the kind of tame disobedience that’s acceptable in the suburbs. The Hallorans show off these light eccentricities for the benefit of their neighbors, rather than out of an authentic political commitment.
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As Neddy passes into the Hallorans’ backyard, he notices a yellow beech hedge and Mrs. Halloran fishing beech leaves out of the pool. Neddy focuses on the pool, which is the oldest in the county. It’s a natural pool fed by a brook with “no filter or pump.”
Neddy sees a yellow beech hedge and assumes it’s another blighted plant (rather than a sign of advancing seasons and, correspondingly, his advancing age). Despite these disquieting signs, the Hallorans’ pool is roughly cut out of fieldstone and fed by a natural source, which should help Neddy return to his wilderness fantasy.
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Neddy swims the Halloran’s pool, after which Mrs. Halloran tries to express condolences for Neddy’s “misfortunes.” Neddy denies any misfortune, and in response Mrs. Halloran prods him about losing his house and trails off while mentioning his daughters. Neddy issues another denial and Mrs. Halloran falls quiet.
Mrs. Halloran sympathizes with Neddy in distinctly cliched suburban language, noting that she’s “terribly” sorry in a way that sounds insincere. But the outreach reveals a troubling detail that neither the reader nor Neddy is prepared for: Neddy has lost his house. It’s a suggestion that he flatly denies, but Neddy’s previous mention of his gift for repressing unpleasant memories suggests that Mrs. Halloran is close to the truth.
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As Neddy leaves the Hallorans’ pool, he feels depressed and weak. The swim is starting to exhaust him, but he claims there’s no way he could have known it would when starting out, as he woke up feeling so strong and virile. Leaves are falling and the cold in the air enters his bones. Neddy is confused to smell woodsmoke on the air, since it’s supposed to be summer.
Even the Halloran’s “natural” pool hasn’t helped Neddy recover his strength and determination. The scent of woodsmoke implies that the seasons have turned even further, approaching winter. Mirroring the season, Neddy feels tired and begins to regret his swimming quest. The way Neddy refers to this morning as if it were long ago emphasizes how much time seems to have passed for Neddy.
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Neddy decides he needs a drink to restore his strength and also to restore his original vision of his quest to swim across the country. He compares himself to a “channel swimmer” who would drink brandy to give himself strength for the crossing.
Here, Neddy tries to return to his former self-image as an explorer or trailblazing athlete. A “channel swimmer” calls to mind a previous era of masculine achievement when swimmers would pit themselves against nature. But what Neddy needs to achieve that image is a convenience of civilization: whiskey. Neddy’s delusion is such that he thinks all it would take to return to his youthful state is a drink.
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Neddy looks in on the Hallorans’ daughter Helen and her husband Eric and notes that their pool is “small.” He asks them for a drink, but Helen tells him that they don’t keep alcohol in the house since Eric’s operation three years ago. Neddy’s is bewildered to have forgotten that Eric was sick, and he questions whether his repression of unpleasantness had caused him to forget losing his house and putting his children in jeopardy as well.
Helen’s small, confining pool symbolizes how meager and unpleasant Neddy’s ambitions now seem. His effort to get back on track with a drink is further frustrated when Helen mentions Eric’s operation. Since it happened three years ago, Neddy surely should have know about that already, but he’s shocked all the same. The repressed memory further chips away at his delusion, and Neddy’s denial about his family leaving almost falls away.
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After this reminder of Eric’s operation, Neddy examines in vivid detail Eric’s surgery scars. He’s unsettled by the disappearance of Eric’s navel, noting that it had severed his “link to birth.”
Eric’s operation seems to Neddy an unnatural intrusion into the natural process of birth. The operation removed his navel, or belly button, and with it the reminder of the umbilical cord that once attached him to his mother. This disturbs Neddy because of his investment in fantasies about a connection to primal human nature. The scars also represent the bodily markers of age and a reminder of human frailty. As Neddy still believes himself a young man, he turns away from Eric because of what it might say about himself.
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Helen points Neddy towards the Biswangers for a drink, as they’re having a party. Neddy reluctantly decides to “get wet,” swimming Helen’s pool. On his way to the Biswangers, he claims that he and Lucinda want “terribly” to have Helen over again and promises to plan something “very soon.”
Neddy says to Helen that he will “get wet,” which seems like an admission that his romantic return home has been completely shorn of any illusions. What was once a heroic swim along a river is now just an obligation to get in the pool so he can say he did. Leaving their house, Neddy repays Helen’s kindness with the same sort of insincere invitation that Mrs. Graham and Mrs. Bunker used. The emphasis in his speech shows that the words aren’t believable on their own. He has to insist this is the truth, even though everyone knows it’s a throwaway gesture.
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Neddy describes his history with the Biswangers, whom he describes as boring, unpleasant people who talk endlessly about the “price of things.” Mrs. Biswanger routinely invited Neddy and Lucinda to dinner, but they always refused even though they were given plenty of notice. Neddy notes that the Biswangers were “unwilling to comprehend the rigid and undemocratic realities of their society.”
The Biswangers are people who haven’t learned (whether out of ignorance or stubbornness) the subtle signaling involved in suburban  life. Neddy and Lucinda had rejected Mrs. Biswanger’s careful invitation as a way of barring her from their social circle without any actual insult or confrontation. The mention of “undemocratic realities” highlights a basic cruelty and inequality of this social environment. Additionally, discussion of the “price of things” seems boring to Neddy, but it may also activate Neddy’s repressed memories of losing his house. The discussion of money triggers a deep-seated anxiety.
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Neddy approaches the house, expecting to be welcomed, but Mrs. Biswanger is clearly hurt and insulted by his presence. She calls him a “gate crasher” and allows him in, but she’s unhappy about it. Neddy is unfazed by her rudeness because he’s convinced that she “could not deal him a social blow.”
Neddy’s naivete on his approach to the Biswangers’ house is total. Despite the severe insult he dealt to her by refusing her invitations, Neddy still expects to be welcomed. It’s a clear sign that the pain of others isn’t intelligible to Neddy because his repression is so complete. Neddy is also insulated from Mrs. Biswanger’s insults by a sense of social superiority, believing she’s not respected enough for her insults to carry social weight.
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As Neddy enters the party, he hears others talk behind his back, describing a Sunday when he showed up drunk and begged for money. Neddy gets a drink, but the bartender is rude to him, as he senses that Neddy has been ostracized.
The gossip around the party creates a fuller picture of Neddy’s downfall. His discomfort with “the price of things” becomes clearer as the guests around him tell stories about him showing up drunk and begging for money. His financial problems are undoubtedly a deep source of shame and pain for Neddy, a prime target for his repression. His description as “drunk” also puts his drinking in perspective. What seemed before a harmless supplement to his swim now seems like an addiction born of the need to escape.
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Neddy moves on to his third-to-last pool, which belongs to his old mistress Shirley Adams. He’s momentarily excited by the prospect of “love—sexual roughhouse in fact,” and he goes on to compare sexual pleasure to an “elixir,” “pain killer,” and a “brightly colored pill.”
The casualness with which Neddy thinks of his mistress provides more context for the collapse of his marriage. Neddy haughtily thinks of an affair as something due to him, just another harmless whim, rather than a reason for his family’s departure. Neddy’s shift from the word “love” to “sexual roughhouse” further illustrates his emotional immaturity. He thinks of Shirley not as a real person, but as an object, one of several that can provide a momentary relief from pain.
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Previously, Neddy had broken it off with Shirley and she seemed crushed, while Neddy had thought it was just a lighthearted fling. He observed that she had “wept.” When Neddy approaches her, Shirley is confused and hurt, and he worries that she will “weep” again.
Neddy’s studious avoidance of emotional life makes him unable to process or even notice pain in others. The tension between Neddy’s blitheness and Shirley’s sorrow shows that they had not been approaching the relationship with the same expectations. Neddy had thought of Shirley as a disposable pleasure, another “painkiller,” while she might have truly loved him.
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Shirley tells Neddy to “grow up” when he talks about his quest to swim across the county. He swims her pool, but he feels so weak and tired that he uses the ladder to jump out at the end, which he prided himself on never doing. Looking out at Shirley’s bathhouse, he sees a young man.
When Neddy describes his quest to swim across the country, it sounds ridiculous, even childish. Shirley pushes back in a way that shows the depths of Neddy’s delusion and immaturity, telling him to “grow up.” The appearance of the young man in the bathhouse puts this delusion into greater relief. The young man appears to Neddy as if to highlight Neddy’s identity as an old man.
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Leaving Shirley’s backyard, Neddy feels miserable. He looks up at the summer night sky only to see winter constellations and he starts crying in confusion. It occurs to him that “He had swum too long, he had been immersed too long.”
Looking for summer constellations and finding winter ones, Neddy is nearly broken by the asymmetry between his delusions and reality. The approaching winter of age has replaced the summer of youth, but Neddy is so disassociated that he just weeps. The metaphor of “immersion” speaks to the fact that he lives inside a delusion. Neddy’s admission that “he had swum too long” seems to say that he had been distracted by pleasant fantasy while his life was falling apart.
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Faced with the next pool, Neddy is so weak that he has to gingerly descend the steps instead of diving in “for the first time in his life.” At the Gilmartins’ pool, Neddy reaches the end of his vigor and athletic ability. The youthful feeling of this morning is now so distant that it passes out of his memory. He “swam a hobbled sidestroke that he might have learned as a youth.”
The final pools complete Neddy’s transformation into an old man. Neddy is now the man he once mocked: someone too weak to dive into the pool. He is also too weak to abide by social convention, as he abandons the crawl as his stroke of choice, preferring an easier one. The virility of the man who slapped the bust of Aphrodite in the morning is gone, which shows the painful absurdity of an old man completing a young man’s challenge.
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Neddy stops periodically by the curb of the pool to rest, and when he reaches the end, he uses the ladder to get out instead of leaping up from the edge. Afterward, he feels exhausted rather than vindicated with only a “vague” sense of triumph. He turns up the driveway to his house “stooped, holding on to the gateposts for support.”
Neddy has completed a significant physical challenge, which should provide him with a feeling of achievement, but instead he’s old and broken. The fact that the triumph is “vague” just shows that Neddy now barely understands what he wanted out of his quest when he set out that morning. His total exhaustion seems to say that there’s no valor in completing a foolish vow out of stubbornness or emotional avoidance.
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Reaching his house, Neddy sees that it’s dark. He speculates about whether Lucinda and the girls are still at the neighbor’s. The garage doors are locked and covered with rust, and the gutters have been mangled by the storm. Neddy thinks his maid or cook has mistakenly locked the doors, but then he remembers that he had been forced to let them both go a while ago. Shouting and pounding on the doors, Neddy looks in the house and sees that it’s completely empty.
Neddy keeps deluding himself until the very last sentence of the story. He frantically searches for alternate explanations for his empty house, anything to avoid confronting his own immaturity, infidelity, and shortsightedness. The realization that he hadn’t been able to employ a maid or cook for a while confirms what the gossip at the Biswangers’ hinted at: Neddy’s financial collapse. But Cheever suggests that Neddy’s financial ruin was preceded by years of emotional unavailability and selfishness. His return home by water stands in for these long years where he sought momentary pleasure—and “swam” in the alcohol he was always drinking—instead of permanent love and happiness.
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