The Swimmer


John Cheever

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Suburban Alienation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Natural vs. The Artificial Theme Icon
Delusion and Repression Theme Icon
Suburban Alienation Theme Icon
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Suburban Alienation Theme Icon

When Cheever wrote “The Swimmer,” suburban life—which promised blissful and affordable living after the horrors of the Second World War—was booming. The suburbs of “The Swimmer,” however, do not enable the characters to live an ideal life. Neddy Merrill views his suburban neighbors almost uniformly as obstacles and inconveniences. Indeed, as the story progresses, readers begin to see suburban life as nothing more than an exhausting progression of façades and obligations: invitations are extended and rejected, drinks are drunk, small talk is made, and appearances are maintained. The pettiness and despair of the suburban neighborhood Cheever depicts suggests that the things people expect to make them happy—such as money, friendly relationships, and social cohesion—are often what causes the deepest despair.

Cheever uses repetition to emphasize the monotony and homogeneity of the suburbs and its residents. As the story opens, everyone speaks versions of the same phrase: “I drank too much.” This repetition extends to nearly every aspect of life in Cheever’s suburbs—the sequence of pools, the identical conversations, the bartender Neddy has seen “a hundred” times at other parties—and it numbs both residents and the reader. Furthermore, the bewildering catalogue of neighbors (Westerhazy, Halloran, Levy, Biswanger) come too fast for the reader to make much distinction between them, suggesting that residents of the suburbs themselves are basically clones of one another without significant distinguishing features. In fact, even the neighbors who differ from the norm seem to do so superficially and for entertainment, rather than out of authentic eccentricity. For example, the Hallorans “seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists,” although Cheever suggests that they aren’t communists—they’re typical suburban residents who are titillated by the air of subversion that communism gives their lives.

Neddy seems to know everyone, which appears to be a benefit of life in the suburbs, but these relationships are shallow and they fail to make him happy. For example, most of the conversations Cheever depicts aren’t attempts to communicate honestly. The neighbors who receive Neddy with variations of the same phrase (“what a marvelous surprise”) seem to be saying the pleasantries expected of them, but these statements seem neither specific to Neddy nor genuinely felt. Furthermore, Cheever uses italics to call attention to the hyperbole and insincerity of suburban speech, as when Enid Bunker tells Neddy, “When Lucinda said that you couldn’t come I thought I’d die.” Neddy himself speaks this way: he tells Helen (obviously insincerely) that “Lucinda and I want terribly to see you…We’re sorry it’s been so long and we’ll call you very soon.” The shallow insincerity of these friendships becomes most apparent in the fact that only one neighbor—Mrs. Halloran, the least traditionally suburban of all—seems to offer genuine sympathy for Neddy’s plight. Clearly, this is a community that is not caring for one another, a trend Neddy himself embodies, as he cannot even remember the misfortunes of his neighbors.

Finally, Cheever suggests that wealth is a defining feature of the suburbs that alienates suburbanites instead of making them happy. While all the characters are clearly wealthy (everyone, for example, has a pool and a lawn), suburbanites are clearly supposed to display their wealth but never speak of it. Those who violate this social code (such as the Biswangers, who talk about “the prices of things”) are considered crass and worthy of contempt. This shows that, while wealth can buy a house in the suburbs, it cannot buy entry into suburban social life, which also requires fluency with upper-class cultural norms. Furthermore, wealth is an unstable condition, and when people’s fortunes fall (as Neddy’s do), they quickly lose membership in suburban society, no matter how respected they once were. This becomes clear at the Biswanger’s party, where Neddy is ridiculed for having violated the behavioral norms of suburban life by showing up drunk and begging for money. Instead of having compassion for Neddy’s clear desperation, his neighbors are disgusted that he would speak of money outright, particularly in the context of needing it.

Cheever therefore suggests that conformity, wealth, and social obligation give rise to relationships that are more performative than caring. The suburbs are a place with lots of talk, but little dialogue; lots of wealth, but not enough security; and many neighbors, but few friends. Perversely, the things that were supposed to alleviate alienation (wealth, social relationships, and homogeneity) give rise to monotony, personal disconnection, and insincerity, an alienating—and peculiarly suburban—combination.

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Suburban Alienation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Suburban Alienation appears in each chapter of The Swimmer. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Suburban Alienation Quotes in The Swimmer

Below you will find the important quotes in The Swimmer related to the theme of Suburban Alienation.
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:

As soon as Enid Bunker saw him she began to scream: “Oh, look who’s here! What a marvelous surprise! When Lucinda said that you couldn’t come I thought I’d die.” She made her way to him through the crowd, and when they had finished kissing she led him to the bar, a progress that was slowed by the fact that he stopped to kiss eight or ten other women and shake the hands of as many men.

Related Characters: Neddy Merrill (speaker), Mrs. Bunker
Page Number: 605
Explanation and Analysis:

The Hallorans were friends, an elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists. They were zealous reformers but they were not Communists, and yet when they were accused, as they sometimes were, of subversion, it seemed to gratify and excite them.

Related Characters: Neddy Merrill (speaker), Mrs. Halloran
Page Number: 608
Explanation and Analysis: