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What is the theme of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer”?

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Like the famous saying goes, denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. On the surface, “The Swimmer” may appear to be a tale of the effects of alcohol abuse or maybe even a characterization of a mental disorder like Alzheimer’s. Upon closer scrutiny, however, one discerns that it is denial that allows for the supremacy of the human mind over logic and reason during desperate times. Cheever insinuates that the mind is not only a dangerously powerful tool, but also an instrument that can command authority over the rest of the senses. Not even the most levelheaded person is immune to the haunting repression of unaccepted memories, thoughts, or experiences.

Upon first being introduced to Neddy Merrill, a sense of wariness descends upon the reader. Why would this seemingly invincible man, glowing with the vitality usually accompanying one much younger than he, attempt to journey home through a cluster of neighboring swimming pools? The answer can be found by a slight stretch of the imagination. Cheever has left room for several inferences as far as Ned’s background goes. It’s understood that Ned apparently is basking in the picturesque, 1950’s, New England lifestyle complete with a beautiful wife, four daughters, and a white picket fence. As his journey continues, however, strange details are alluded to. “When Lucinda said that you couldn’t come, I thought I’d die,” exclaims an overzealous Enid Bunker. One might wonder why Neddy’s wife would decline an invitation for her husband without letting him know. This points to marital problems between the couple, an indication that Ned pays little attention to.

A few swimming pools later, time is obviously progressing much faster than Ned is allotting to. “We’ve been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Ned. We heard you sold the house and that your poor children…” Mrs. Halloran sympathizes. “My misfortunes? I don’t know what you mean. I don’t recall having sold the house, and the girls are at home,” Ned interrupts. Neddy Merrill is swimming, indeed, but not so much in the chlorinated pools as he’s adrift in the waters of his stubborn insubordination. Rather than admit that something has gone terribly amiss with his life, he obstinately continues on his journey and persists in his drinking. The next warning that denial is overtaking Ned’s existence occurs when he finds he has no recollection of a friend’s operation nearly three years earlier. He deliberates over the facts. “Had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and that his friend has been ill?” A suggestion that Ned has slipped on the social ladder crops up when someone whom he considers to be a few steps lower, so to speak, treats him very rudely. He overhears the condescending woman say, “They went for broke overnight- nothing but income- and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars.” Ned abandons the notion that she’s talking about him and his financial situation.

The most convincing confirmation that Ned’s mind is refusing to think rationally and logically materializes when he runs into his former mistress. The reader now sees the puzzle pieces fitting together perfectly. Ned has endured problems with his wife, financial problems involving his house, and has somewhere along the course of events turned to drinking and a sordid affair. His mind’s sovereignty has forced him to suppress the specifics, and the end result is that Ned can’t see his life for what it has become. It’s glaringly apparent that Ned is living in a dream world, an imagined existence. The worsened financial situation coupled with his family problems and binge drinking accounts for the lowering of Ned’s social status. Ned witnessed all of these things and yet he was unable to bring himself to admit it, own the feelings and memories, or take any type of responsibility. His stubborn denial of the events that have affected his life proves what the human mind is capable of in dire circumstances.

“The Swimmer”, a complex short story constructed on the backdrop of the vices typically associated with the era, is a representation of the power the human mind possesses. It’s possible to be so deeply in defiance of a situation that it can be buried beneath the reasonable, coherent, and rational thinking of an individual. Ned’s downfall was in his blatant disregard of the events unfolding around him, and his downward spiral was facilitated by his excessive drinking and sloppy morals. He remained a remote observer as his marital, familial, and social life completely disintegrated before his eyes. He obscured his reality by allowing his mind to suppress the warnings almost to the point of extinction. Instead of trying to alleviate the situation by “snapping out of it” and owning up to his mistakes, he threw himself deeper into the fantasy that his modern-day life was no different than the picture-perfect existence he had enjoyed for so long. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt… unless you happen to be swimming in the Lucinda River.

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