Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
So the title of my Cultures of Suburbia essay was: “The American Dream: tension between authenticity and artificiality in the post-war American suburb.” Yes — it is a very long title.
As part of a formative assessment type of thing at the end of last semester, I wrote a quick linear analysis of “The Swimmer,” by John Cheever — one of the texts I talked about in the essay. The essay also includes Bullet Park and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” (also by Cheever) and some episodes from the TV series Mad Men. You can read about my essay here if you’re interested. I decided to write an analysis of this short story because I’d just read it and found it fascinating. Also, it fits perfectly with my essay ideas and all the themes I wanted to focus on. Some of these parts but included or re-used my the actual project.
Hopefully you find it interesting! It’s a very short story that I strongly recommend (it’s interesting and also hilarious) and there’s also a film about it that I want to watch at some point. Enjoy 🙂
“Happiness – or unhappiness – and the desire to escape are pervasive themes in John Cheever’s suburban stories. A striking example of these themes and of the other questions explored in this essay, such as the tension between authenticity and artificially, can be found in his 1964 short story ‘The Swimmer.’ The story tells the journey of Neddy Merrill who sets out to go back home by water, going from one pool to another in his suburb, Bullet Park. I will demonstrate that ‘The Swimmer’ resists and rejects the representation of suburbia as ideal. Rather, Bullet Park is pathologized and portrayed as a place from which one must escape.
The description of his suburb, as Ned goes from one pool to another, indicates the inhabitants’ social level: they are all middle-class or upper-middle-class. Many of the elements of pleasant suburban lifestyle are included in the first paragraph: ‘church,’ golf links,’ ‘tennis courts.’ Parties and social life are a fundamental part of this life. The opening line offers a picture of what their lives consist in and suggests repetition: ‘It was one of those midsummer Sundays, when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.”’ By way of generalising ‘those midsummer Sundays,’ the author implies that suburban life is regulated by norms and habits. The first paragraph generates linguistic and also behavioural echoes. They reflect and responds to the popular idea that suburbia creates a homogenous conformist community which blurs individuality. The neighbours repeat the same things one after the other: the narrator, Donald, Lucinda and Helen all say ‘I drank too much.’
While the other characters are taking part in social life and respect conventions, Ned stands out from the indistinguishable block of suburbanites. Both inside and outside this gathering, the process of resistance and self-exclusion has already started: he sits ‘by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin’ and ‘had been swimming.’ While he partakes in social drinking, he is mentally absent and focuses on what can be seen as more authentic preoccupations as opposed to the material. Indeed, the narrator focuses on Ned’s senses, nature, and his living in the present: it is ‘as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.’ Although this instance of intense feelings is supported by the thought of his ‘four beautiful daughters,’ it suddenly occurs to him that ‘he could reach his home by water.’ Although humorous, the joviality of the previous line contrasts sharply what his desire to leave the party: ‘his life was not confining and the delight he took in this observation could not be explained by its suggestion of escape.’ This realisation – combined with the imagery of water as ‘transforming and liberating potential’ (Bruce Fogelman) – nonetheless hint at Ned’s dissatisfaction with this mundane life. He sees his quest as an opportunity to further celebrate nature and give meaning to his life: ‘the day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.’ Once fully immersed in water, Ned begins his transformation – starting with his rejection of social conventions: swimming was less a pleasure ‘than the resumption of a natural condition.’ Full return to nature and emancipation from social norms is, however, impossible: ‘he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible.’ He unable to fully recognise how restraining social conventions are.
However, he sees his project as one that will free and enlighten him: ‘Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, and explorer, a man with a destiny.’ Although his project is an unusual one, his comparing it to a pilgrimage is ironic and underlines his misery. He is desperate for something to happen in his life, so desperate to escape this rigid and empty lifestyle, that he compares his eccentric idea to an epic quest. Ned, the new ‘explorer,’ questions and challenges suburbia but the readers do not know what he seeks from this exploration. Despite leaving the gathering and finding content in his solitude (‘he felt […] pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything’) he is not truly seeking freedom: he is going back home. Is there really anything to escape from? What is he trying to achieve?
As the coming storm disrupts his journey and the vision of Bullet Park as pastoral (‘It would storm. […] It was suddenly growing dark.’), the narrator is brought back to consciousness. Facing the Welchers’ house, he is puzzled to see the house empty and begins to question ‘his sense of truth.’ Although it seems he still has not reached epiphany or truth, he compares himself to a messianic figure: ‘this was the day that Neddy Merrill swam across the county. That was the day!’ He has reached a point of no return but does not understand ‘Why […] was he unable to turn back?’ His transformation has gone too far: he had covered a distance that made his return impossible. He thus seems trapped between the party he escaped and home. The sense of disruption is emphasised by images of disintegration which highlight his deep malaise and growing realisation that he is trapped – stuck between the party and home. Disintegration works on three levels. Firstly, in the setting: the storm is coming and summer will soon end (‘leaves were falling down’). Secondly, disintegration is physical: ‘he could have lost some weight,’ the swim was too much for his strength,’ ‘his arms were lame.’ All these elements mirror his mental state and growing sense of despair: ‘their dark water had depressed him.’ Despair takes the form of a pervasive feeling of inescapability of his own feelings – not merely suburban lifestyle: ‘the worst of it was the cold in his bones and the feeling that he might never be warm again.’ These elements foreshadow the return of truth at the end of the story.
As he gets closer to home, the contentment he felt at the beginning of his journey has entirely disappeared – perhaps because of the repressed realisation that home will not bring the serenity he longs for. As Ned starts to cry, he realises that it was ‘certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable.’ He even longs for the things he initially rejected: ‘what he needed then was a drink, some company, and some clean, dry clothes.’ This reversal is the true realisation and epiphany of his journey. His journey is a journey from light to darkness and, eventually, to illumination. As he finally arrives at home, Ned is hit by the memories he repressed and although the ending of the short story is unclear, the place he thought would provide safety and escapism is in fact ‘empty.’ Bruce Fogelman thus writes that ‘Neddy escapes nothing but is brought, rather, face to face with the unsavoury realities of his life and his community.’ Ned does no escape: rather, he is forced to see the truth – the failures of social and personal life, rather than failure of suburbia as a whole.
Cheever complicates the idea of suburbia as a place of deep misery and artificiality: during his transformative journey to his house, Ned meets obstacles and gradually realises his own failures. Instead of bringing him closer to a pastoral ideal as expected, his transformative journey brings him closer to a harsh truth and despair.”