As Neddy Merrill swims across the county, he tries to make a wilderness out of the well-kept pools of suburbia, reimagining them as a unified body of water. His progress across the county shows him tapping into a more elemental, less civilized part of himself as he soaks in the physical sensations of the day and removes his clothing, but the effort falters badly as he’s diverted across a highway and through a public pool with enforced rules and deadening chemicals. Afterwards, he can’t recapture the feeling of beating a new path through uncharted territory, so he turns in desperation to the modern comforts of a drink, a party, and a mistress. In this way, Cheever suggests that suburban men, in order to consider themselves virile and powerful in an environment tailored to their comfort, must emphasize the natural over the artificial to the point of delusion and vanity.
The journey of the story begins with an inaugural act of imagination: Neddy “seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.” It’s this powerful metaphor—insisting that the pools make up a river winding through the suburbs—that creates a wilderness out of the neighborhood and enables Neddy’s notion of himself as a legendary explorer. Alongside Neddy’s delusions of grandeur, swimming home allows him to delight in embracing a more basic human nature, one seemingly divorced from the rules and responsibilities of suburban life. Neddy thinks of himself as an Edenic, prelapsarian man: at the beginning of the journey, swimming “was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition.” Furthermore, Neddy’s desire to be naked (“He would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible”) emphasizes his need to throw off the confinements of propriety and engage with life on a purely physical plane.
But all too quickly, modern life catches up to Neddy. Like Robinson Crusoe returning to Europe from his life on an island, Neddy re-enters society in a painful way when he encounters a drained pool and must cross a highway. Cheever describes him “standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway—beer cans, rags, and blowout patches—exposed to all kinds of ridicule,” as if the world is determined to tear down the fantasy that he is a pioneer traversing an uncharted landscape. Afterwards, descriptions of chemicals—“chlorine” and the “reek of suntan oil”—follow him as he attempts to cross the public pool. Here, it takes an extra effort of will to persist in his imagined world: “he reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River.”
However, it’s not just a “stagnant bend in the Lucinda River”; even at Neddy’s most ecstatic, the artificial elements of modern life follow him in the form of social dictates. He observes that “his life was not confining,” but even before he starts his journey, he’s hemmed in by the norms of his suburban neighborhood, from his understanding that he must keep his swim trunks on to his acquiescence to using the crawl (a swimming stroke that is considered proper, but which is not good for swimming long distances). From the beginning, then, his attempt to make a wilderness of the suburbs is colored by his awareness of what is “customary.” His language of “domestication” in reference to the crawl provides further evidence that he sees his life as something natural and wild which has been hemmed in by the world around him. This constriction escalates as the story continues and he encounters more and more signs that limit his movement (“PRIVATE PROPERTY” or “FOR SALE”). At the public pool, Neddy meekly agrees to wash his feet just as the sign directs him.
By repeatedly pointing to the ways that the modern world intervenes into the untrammeled landscape of Neddy’s imagination, Cheever casts Neddy’s attempt to “explore” this suburb as a doomed, even pathetic undertaking. Furthermore, Cheever seems to suggest that any effort to reawaken a more primal self in the suburbs will meet the same failure. The pools that Neddy wants to imagine as a rushing river weaving through the uncharted parts of the map are, in the end, just pools. In fact, pools are a sign that the natural world has been completely domesticated, as they enclose water—a powerful element in its natural state—into tidy, privately-owned rectangles. In the suburbs, people have tried to recreate the garden of Eden—a world of untroubled beauty and pleasure—but artifice, especially in the form of rules and norms, is always present.
The Natural vs. The Artificial ThemeTracker
The Natural vs. The Artificial Quotes in The Swimmer
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.
Then there was a fine noise of rushing water from the crown of an oak at his back, as if a spigot there had been turned. Then the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent.
He took a shower, washed his feet in a cloudy and bitter solution, and made his way to the edge of the water. It stank of chlorine and looked to him like a sink. A pair of lifeguards in a pair of towers blew police whistles at what seemed to be regular intervals and abused the swimmers through a public address system. Neddy remembered the sapphire water at the Bunkers’ with longing and thought that he might contaminate himself—damage his own prosperousness and charm —by swimming in this murk, but he reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River.