“The Swimmer” depicts the passage of time at three superimposed levels. One is the course of a single Sunday—the “real” timeline on which the story plays out. Another is the accelerated passage of seasons, as the story begins in high summer and then descends into fall and winter. The third (and most important) timeline is the course of Neddy’s adult life. Cheever uses these superimposed timelines to emphasize how subjective the feeling of time passing can be, and how quickly an entire life can pass by, especially when it’s spent in pursuit of shallow pleasure.
Despite being a middle-aged man, Neddy begins his journey with the “slenderness of youth.” During his first few laps in the pool, he showcases his virility and strength, jumping headlong into the water and vaulting out on the other side. This vitality gives the sense that the story opens near the beginning of Neddy’s life, when possibilities are still open to him and he can still seize his own destiny. However, by playing on the association of summer with youth and winter with old age, Cheever troubles Neddy’s apparent youth. As Neddy performs his morning routine, Cheever observes ominously that “he might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one.” This line echoes the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Despite summer’s association with youth and beauty, Shakespeare’s poem engages themes of impermanence and decay, since the defining characteristic of summer is that its beauty is fleeting. Even at the outset, Cheever plants the seeds of Neddy’s old age and frailty—readers shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Neddy begins to feel his age (his limbs becoming rubbery and weak until his swimming becomes a desperate struggle) just as “Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind.”
Even as Neddy’s body ages swiftly, however, Cheever maintains that, emotionally speaking, Neddy is still a child. This mismatch between his physical and emotional age is the source of his suffering. Like a child, Neddy bounces from delight to delight and seems to lack emotional maturity or the capacity for self-reflection. After noticing that the Welchers have moved away, for instance, Neddy has the opportunity to reflect on the fact that his life is passing and his neighbors are experiencing misfortune, but instead he gets distracted: “in the distance he heard the sound of a tennis game. This cheered him, cleared away all his apprehensions.” Furthermore, even as his body ages, Neddy continues to rely on his boyish optimism and naiveté, which is off-putting and even unacceptable in a middle-aged man. By clinging to his youthful emotions, he confuses and frustrates those close to him by behaving without empathy (towards the Biswangers, for instance), neglecting his responsibilities to his family, and engaging in ridiculous pleasures, such as swimming across the county. Indeed, when he tells his spurned mistress Shirley that he has come to her house unannounced in order to swim home, she says, “Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?” It’s perfectly reasonable that she would be frustrated that a childish and pointless game is more important to him than protecting her emotional wellbeing by avoiding her yard after breaking up with her.
More broadly, Neddy’s swim home—with its invented constraints and dubious achievements—is a way of avoiding the pressing concerns of adulthood. While Neddy is immersed in swimming home, the home that is ostensibly his destination is disintegrating without his knowledge: his wife and daughters leave him, he goes broke, and he loses his house. Neddy’s aging body might have been a clue that, in the course of his swim, he should have reconsidered whether his youthful quest was still worthwhile—whether “this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay” should fill all his time—but he never seriously engages the question. As a result, by the time he reaches home, he’s an elderly man, “stooped, holding on to the gateposts for support,” and left with only a “vague” sense of triumph and an empty house. In this light, Cheever’s superimposed timelines—the seasons changing and an adult life passing, all in the course of a summer afternoon—show how quickly a person’s problems can get the best of them if they fail to grapple with those problems as they arise. Neddy’s own mismatched personal timeline (his emotional immaturity coupled with his aging body) leaves him unable to seize the important parts of his life, focusing instead on youthful pleasures that leave him with no lasting sense of meaning or adult accomplishment.
Time 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.
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?