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John Cheever's 'The Swimmers' Portrayal Of Alienation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2084 words Published: 2nd Aug 2021

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Marx defines the workers as the socio-economic class forced to sell their labor for a wage in order to survive. Cheever replaces this familiar image of the industrial laborer with an upper-middle class, white-collar worker as the blue-collar subject of the story and makes full use of Marx’s definition and simply substitutes one laborer for another. With the substitution of a middle class worker, Cheever suggests the working class is not the only class demoralized by capitalism. Even though the middle class has some leisure time and does not spend all of their waking hours attempting to secure food for the family, they are no less free of the economic obligations forced by capitalism.

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Neddy Merrill’s work gained him at least mild financial success; however, work was forced from him by the need to support himself and his family. The first mention of Neddy’s separation from the mode of production, his work, is the unfolding of the story’s events on a Sunday. Sunday, the Sabbath, is a day of no work in the Christian world. However, even on the Sabbath, the city, the world of work, lingers in the distance. Beginning with “a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance,” Cheever suggests the swimmer’s inability to escape the power of the economy (find quote – Cheever ??). Merrill’s inability to escape the alienating world of labor is further evident with the approach of the storm: “the stand of cumulus cloud – that city – had risen and darkened” (find quote – Cheever ??). Casting a shadow usually represents the approach of something ominous or sinister, in this case, the work and working conditions associated with Monday and the city. Also of note is the inclusion, in the same paragraph, of the whistle sounding and Neddy’s wondering about the time: “he wondered what time it had gotten to be. Four? Five?” (find quote – Cheever ??). Five o’clock in the evening is the almost universal time at which work concludes for the day. Had Neddy been so conditioned by a lifetime of laboring that the whistle signaled the time at which he was allowed to return home?

The journey from the Westerhazy’s pool home could parallel Neddy Merrill’s understanding in his chosen profession. The initial description of swimming describes the limitations within which the sport must now exist: “The domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs” (find quote – Cheever ??). The restrictions forced on the sport of swimming are much the same as the regulations governing the business world. In spite of the “customs,” Neddy begins his adventure light hearted and happy, as one might start any new job. The entrepreneurial spirit fills him; his heroism and drive will lead to great things: “He was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure” (find quote – Cheever ??).

The first few pools he swims are of the highest quality, including “the sapphire-colored waters” of the Bunker’s (find quote – Cheever ??). His initial exertions are rewarded by the simple joy he receives from casting his body into the pools. His disdain for those not giving their full effort is evidenced by his “inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools” (find quote – Cheever ??). Neddy Merrill appears as a competitive businessman; he believes that his willingness to go the distance is his greatest advantage. However, the prospects of his continued happiness and success are not so secure; both the storm and the glaring reminder of “PRIVATE PROPERTY” foreshadow the economic condition which causes his fall. Of further note, at the beginning of Neddy’s adventure, he envisions his destiny: the hope of advancement and recognition like a modern pilgrim or explorer. Much like the concept of the American Dream, Neddy believes that hard work bestows success. However, as both time and distance pass, Neddy begins to feel the burden of his toil. He also realizes that nothing in the world of economics and business is guaranteed. The water becomes increasingly colder, the length of a pool becomes harder to swim, and exhaustion sets in. Cheever’s descriptions of Neddy’s condition toward the conclusion of the story resonate with the common perception of how a worker would feel after a career in a dead-end job: “He had [n]ever felt so miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered” (find quote – Cheever ??). The end of the journey leaves Neddy feeling beaten down by life, much the same as the end of an unfulfilling career.

As a worker alienated from his life’s work, he is not only alienated from the form of production but from the product of his labor also. Cheever never directly states what profession Neddy Merrill holds. However, in the brief description of his economic downfall, there is a suggestion of financial risk and the mention of an income: “They went for broke overnight – nothing left but income” (find quote – Cheever ??). Neddy’s failure to acknowledge his work suggests distaste for it: “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?” (find quote – Cheever ??). Had he been so terrorized by the monotony or the drudgery of the products he produced to have had to banish any thought of them from his mind? Cheever suggests that indeed he had. Further, the story suggests the products of Neddy’s labor, while he had work, had taken on a form so entirely independent from him as to have absolutely no connection to him. Cheever writes, “had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble?” (find quote – Cheever ??). In light of modern working conditions, another possibility exists to describe the alienation Neddy experienced. As a white-collar worker in America, little time is spent actually producing a physical object for sale, more time is spent in organization and paperwork. Merrill’s alienation could be a result of not having produced anything tangible.

In the Marxist view of capitalist society, the best worker thinks the least. The lack of thought and dire economic conditions prevent the worker from achieving his or her full potential. Neddy Merrill suffers from an inability to remember events he does not like. He trained himself to suppress the unpleasant in order to live a more carefree life. Yet, by creating an artificial reality, he deludes himself and he removes himself further and further from his ultimate potential. Neddy represents the problem posed by possessing a will to act without similarly effective, guiding ideals or theories. Marx supports revolutionary action in combination with sound theory in order to produce a better life. Neddy, however, lacks the guiding theory to produce the greatest effect from his action in his quest for freedom. Instead of following the guidance of a successful theory, Neddy, on a whim, plunges into the first pool of his odyssey without having a clear goal in mind except to swim home. Ironically, the action forces Neddy to realize the conditions in which he is living, bringing him one step closer to realizing true freedom.

The ultimate physical freedom of nudity is poignantly captured by the elderly Hallorans lounging by their pool. In contrast to the Hallorans, Neddy Merrill appears to be a troubled individual, whom the oppressive powers of society are seeking to smother. The Hallorans are not accidentally suspected of being communists. They are included as the antithesis of Neddy. Their openness, symbolized and exemplified by their preference for a natural condition, represents the communist idea of individuals existing together in harmony and without the coercive effects of labor. The Hallorans appear happy with their state of being, a condition Neddy does not reach. Instead of attempting to hide from the world their suspected political affiliation, they bask in the suspicion. The Halloran’s flout their differences. They are also the only characters of the story to openly speak of Neddy’s problem(s). Furthermore, Mrs. Halloran is the only character to express sympathy for the condition of Neddy’s life. Speaking on her husband’s behalf, “We’ve been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes” (Cheever 288). The Hallorans, the communists, the naked bathers, pull aside the superficial veil through which the rest of Neddy’s social group, capitalist bulwarks, has been considering his plight.

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Finally, the ultimate tragedy of capitalist society is the estrangement of man from man. “The Swimmer” is not a story characterized by dialogue. The closest Neddy gets to a full conversation is with the suspected communist Mrs. Halloran. However, even the interaction with the Hallorans lacks the depth of a true relationship. Neddy’s estrangement from his fellow man is further emphasized by Mrs. Biswanger’s less than pleasant reception at the Biswangers’ party: “Why, this party has everything…including a gate crasher” (Cheever 289). The possibility exists of Mrs. Biswanger’s reception being based on class. The Biswangers and Merrills could have been, at one point, of the same social class (even though Neddy denies this in the story), yet when the Merrills fell, Mrs. Biswanger could finally seize the opportunity to emphasize the difference she had recognized before. Also, Neddy’s reference to the “stupid cook or the stupid maid” suggests his equal disdain for those of different status (Cheever 291). Nowhere does the story portray individuals interacting on an equal social level; all is biased by money and status, including Neddy’s original competitiveness demonstrated by his distaste for those who did not throw themselves into pools. His own biases would immediately color any social interaction in which he participated.

The scene in which Neddy crosses Route 424 further exemplifies the degree to which Neddy, as a representative worker, and humans in general are disconnected from each other. Because of Neddy’s condition, “close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross,” someone would have ideally offered a helping hand or at least stopped their car (Cheever 286). Rather, Neddy encounters nothing but jeering and scorn. Cheever continues: “confronted with lines of traffic…he found himself unprepared. He was laughed at, jeered at, a beer can was thrown at him, and he had no dignity or humor to bring to the situation” (Cheever 286). Through his adventure, his attempt to be different and to do something he wanted to do, Neddy was exposed to the harsh attitudes of society. His originality was punished by a society emphasizing the need to fit in with the crowd. The highway is Cheever’s example of the “herd”, the mass of people who without question conform to society’s standards. The need to conform, to accept the need to work in order to subsist, is beaten into Neddy as he crosses Route 424.

John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is based in suburban America and extols the emotional plight of the working class. Neddy, a recent addition to the worker status, gradually realizes the conditions of his social position in comparison to those he was forced to leave behind. The finest example of alienation and hardship that came with this reduction in class might be Neddy’s experience at the public swimming hole. The scene at the public pool describes the bustle, the noise, the impersonal character, and the stench of a factory. Demonstrating disdain for this new condition, Neddy simply swims from one end of the pool to the other and leaves, curiously like a worker floating through a day of work including the reprimands from the supervisors. Even the identification disks required of the swimmers at the public pool echo the identification tags required of workers at major industrial plants.

“The Swimmer’s” portrayal of alienation as it applies to the modern common man cries out to all those who fear the forty hour work week. Neddy’s return home is no less ominous than many of the difficulties encountered on his journey. Instead of bright lights and welcoming arms, he finds his house deserted, dilapidated, and very dark. Rather than being rewarded for his toil, Neddy must deal with the bleakness of reality; he wasted the summer of his life only to return to an abandoned house, suggesting, perhaps, an alternative ending to the American dream, emptiness.


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