The Swimmer

by

John Cheever

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Alcohol Symbol Icon

In “The Swimmer,” alcohol symbolizes Neddy’s short-sighted hedonism, showing that pleasure pursued too hungrily ends in disaster. Cheever announces the significance of alcohol to the social life of the suburbs in the first paragraph of the story, where hungover residents complain that they “drank too much” the night before. Immediately, Cheever links alcohol with excess and regret, but he introduces Neddy as he’s still in the early stages of intoxication, at the pool with a hand around “a glass of gin.” As he swims through his neighbors’ backyards, Neddy finds a drink at nearly every stop, a social courtesy that, at first, he accepts and enjoys: stumbling on the Bunkers’ party, he admires “prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire colored waters while caterer’s men in white coats passed them cold gin.” However, Cheever’s portrayal of alcohol changes as Neddy gets further into his swim (and, presumably, gets drunker). While trespassing in the Levys’ empty backyard, Neddy swims in the pool then helps himself to a drink all alone—here, alcohol becomes less a social pleasure than a compulsion. This becomes explicit after he swims in the Hallorans’ pool and thinks to himself for the first time that he needs a drink to maintain his mood; from here on, finding alcohol is nearly as important to Neddy as his quest to swim home. Indeed, the notion that alcohol might be a problem for Neddy becomes clearest at the Biswangers’ party, where people are gossiping that Neddy had once “showed up drunk” and asked for a loan. Throughout the story, alcohol mirrors Neddy’s foolish quest to swim the county: it’s a light pleasure that turns into an all-consuming compulsion, one that poisons his life and ruins his relationships to others.

Alcohol Quotes in The Swimmer

The The Swimmer quotes below all refer to the symbol of Alcohol. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Natural vs. The Artificial Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Swimmer published in 2000.
The Swimmer Quotes

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.

Related Characters: Neddy Merrill
Related Symbols: Alcohol
Page Number: 603
Explanation and Analysis:

The rain had cooled the air and he shivered. The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water. Since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn. He braced his shoulders, emptied his glass, and started for the Welchers’ pool.

Related Characters: Neddy Merrill (speaker), The Welchers
Related Symbols: Alcohol
Page Number: 606
Explanation and Analysis:

The next pool on his list, the last but two, belonged to his old mistress, Shirley Adams. If he had suffered any injuries at the Biswangers’ they would be cured here. Love—sexual roughhouse in fact—was the supreme elixir, the pain killer, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into his step, the joy of life in his heart. They had had an affair last week, last month, last year. He couldn’t remember.

Related Characters: Neddy Merrill (speaker), Shirley Adams
Related Symbols: Alcohol
Page Number: 611
Explanation and Analysis:
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Alcohol Symbol Timeline in The Swimmer

The timeline below shows where the symbol Alcohol appears in The Swimmer. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Swimmer
Suburban Alienation Theme Icon
...around their pool with Lucinda and Neddy Merrill—note that all of them drank too much wine the night before. (full context)
Delusion and Repression Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Neddy, who is lounging by the pool drinking gin, is “far from young” but still youthful and slender. That... (full context)
The Natural vs. The Artificial Theme Icon
Delusion and Repression Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Natural vs. The Artificial Theme Icon
Delusion and Repression Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Neddy decides he needs a drink to restore his strength and also to restore his original vision of his quest to... (full context)
The Natural vs. The Artificial Theme Icon
Delusion and Repression Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Natural vs. The Artificial Theme Icon
Suburban Alienation Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Delusion and Repression Theme Icon
Suburban Alienation Theme Icon
...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. (full context)