At the beginning of the story, Neddy’s life seems wonderful: he and his wife, Lucinda, are sitting around his neighbor’s pool on a glorious summer day, and he’s so happy that he wants to “gulp into his lungs the components of that moment.” However, over the course of Neddy’s swim across the county, this wonderful life unravels without clear cause: the weather sours and then turns autumnal while Cheever gives clues that Neddy has suffered “misfortunes,” including the dissolution of his family, money troubles, alcohol abuse, and a fall from social grace that makes him unwelcome in his community. Cheever allows for some ambiguity as to what has happened: Neddy’s swim seems to take only a few hours, but the seasons turning and the significant changes in Neddy and his neighbors’ lives suggest that much more time has passed than just a summer afternoon. One interpretation of this ambiguity is that Neddy’s fixation on swimming across the county represents his tendency to live immersed in delusion, pursuing pleasure while refusing to grapple with pain and difficulty. Therefore, his afternoon of swimming stands in for an adult life of repressing pain and chasing pleasure, a vain and immature attitude that causes his life to devolve without him being able to acknowledge it, let alone prevent it from happening.
Throughout the story, Cheever makes clear that Neddy is ruled by the pursuit of pleasure. His swim across the county comes from his desire to prolong a moment of poolside bliss, which shows the lengths to which Neddy will go to maintain a good feeling. Furthermore, Neddy’s sense of self is entirely driven by his feelings in the moment. If the weather is pleasant and the water feels good, he’s happy—but if his thoughts turn to unpleasant memories or if there’s a chill in the air, he falls into despair. Likewise, his appetite for the pleasure of a drink sometimes determines his path and his mood. When “a smiling bartender he had seen at a hundred parties [gives] him a gin and tonic,” he’s happy. But later, when he feels he needs a drink—“a stimulant”—and cannot get one, he almost falls apart. Neddy is perpetually looking for the one pleasure that will end any malaise. In a moment of desperation, as his swimming begins to sour, he concludes that “love—sexual roughhouse in fact—was the supreme elixir, the pain killer, the brightly colored pill,” and he seeks out his former mistress. The way he thinks about her as just another pleasure to relieve his anguish reveals his constant need to escape from the discomfort of his reality, as well as the immature way in which he sees other people as instruments of escape or pleasure, rather than as full people.
Neddy’s inability to empathize with others is related to his pursuit of pleasure, as fully grappling with the desires and hardships of others would undermine Neddy’s selfish quest to experience only delight. For example, when a plane passes overhead while a thunderstorm is brewing, “it seemed to Ned that he could almost hear the pilot laugh with pleasure.” Encountering a situation in which someone would reasonably feel terror—flying through a coming storm—Neddy decides only to see carefree pleasure. His inability to understand the pain of others also extends to the mistress he abandoned: “It had been, he thought, a lighthearted affair, although she had wept when he broke it off.” The tension between those two halves of the sentence is further proof that Neddy is as unwilling to grapple with others’ pain as his own. In this light, when Cheever presents the mysterious reversals of fortune among the neighbors or the deterioration of Neddy’s own family, readers might assume that Neddy was so selfishly unable to empathize with those around him that his relationships fell apart without him acknowledging it.
Over the course of the story, Cheever becomes more explicit that Neddy has sabotaged himself through his repression of any unpleasant knowledge or feeling. At first, his inability to acknowledge unpleasant aspects of reality simply deprives him of the information he needs to make choices: confused that he can’t swim through the empty pool in the house his neighbors have apparently vacated, Neddy asks “Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?” It seems as though the latter is true, and as the story progresses, Neddy’s inability to acknowledge the pain he has caused others begins to put him in situations that are humiliating and unpleasant. For example, despite that Neddy deeply hurt the Biswangers’ feelings by rejecting their invitations, he approaches their house thinking “They would be honored to give him a drink, they would be happy to give him a drink.” And even after they humiliate and rebuff him, he assumes the same implausible goodwill of the mistress he dumped. Neddy also seems immune to redemption. When Mrs. Halloran makes probably the only authentic attempt to console Neddy, he rebuffs her, claiming not to recall having sold his house, because the alternative is engaging with his pain. This insistent refusal to engage with unpleasant realities leads Neddy to return to his house only to find it abandoned and dark. His self-delusion, rather than preserving a façade of contented family life, has caused him to lose it forever.
Neddy has studiously avoided the “unpleasantness” in his life, such that when he’s finally forced to look his life in the face, he finds it a smoking wreck. Neddy Merrill is a perfect creature of the suburbs that Cheever so bitterly criticizes: he chases comfort and pleasure while suppressing any of the difficulties of life, to the ruin of himself and others. Cheever’s conclusion is that people feel pain for a reason: it’s an indicator of issues that need to be addressed and resolved before they wreak destruction on people’s lives.
Delusion and Repression ThemeTracker
Delusion and Repression Quotes in The Swimmer
He was a slender man—he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth—and while he was far from young he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room. He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather.
He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife. 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.
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.
Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth? Then in the distance he heard the sound of a tennis game. This cheered him, cleared away all his apprehensions and let him regard the overcast sky and the cold air with indifference.
The swim was too much for his strength but how could he have guessed this, sliding down the banister that morning and sitting in the Westerhazys’ sun? His arms were lame. His legs felt rubbery and ached at the joints. The worst of it was the cold in his bones and the feeling that he might never be warm again. Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind.
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.
Looking over his shoulder he saw, in the lighted bathhouse, a young man. Going out onto the dark lawn he smelled chrysanthemums or marigolds—some stubborn autumnal fragrance—on the night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia? What had become of the constellations of midsummer?