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John Cheever's The Swimmer Essay

1629 words - 7 pages

Set in 1960's suburbia, “The Swimmer” follows a man's nightmarish journey home as the very aspects of life blend, fusing realism and surrealism to create an “imaginative and vital myth of time and modern man” (Auser 292). The story opens with Ned Merrill deciding to swim across the county only using the pools of his neighbors in an attempt to celebrate the day's beauty. As the story progresses, it begins to take on a more dark and surrealistic tone as Ned loses his will to continue. Finally, he stumbles home, only to find his house desolate, grim, and vacant. John Cheever, author of “The Swimmer,” could intend to create Ned in the image of a modern tragic hero following the archetypal themes of journey, discovery, and initiation or use the story to satirize the lives of the privileged in the middle of the American century; however, the greatest purpose of Neddy's surreal journey home is to create an allegorical tale of Ned's dive through the effects of alcoholism.
Many of Ned's characteristics follow the archetypal hero pattern, including his fatal flaw and the journey he embarks on. Cheever makes Ned's conceited image of himself apparent almost from the beginning of the story as the narrator comments that “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” (Cheever 2). Cheever utilizes the oxymoron to reveal Ned's narcissistic nature of thought. A common theme in Greek tragedies is the prevalence of hubris within the protagonist. Ned exhibits this flaw repeatedly throughout the story, in some instances he rejects invitations because he believes the hosts “did not belong to Neddy's set” (Cheever 10). This display of hubris supports Cheever's intent to make Ned into a tragic hero, but “Neddy's vision of himself as a 'legendary figure' could also result from his drinking” (Barnhisel 288). Perhaps the most tragic aspect of his journey is that Ned gains nothing from his tribulations and he concludes with a sense that “he had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague” (Cheever 12). This further supports the image of Ned as the modern tragic hero; his expedition through calamity on his route home seems to mean little now and “All of the unidentified troubles now confront the traveler, and he can no longer escape them” (Barnhisel 288). Ned does not truly realize how much harm he has caused until he has completed his journey. Reminiscent of the Greek king Creon in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex trilogy, both are arrogant to the admonitions surrounding them and continue with their actions until they are left alone and decrepit. Ned's journey through the unknown concludes and leaves him feeling etiolated and miserable, showing the tragedy of his situation through the loss of all his family and friends. His hubris and arrogance prove to be his fatal flaws as he exemplifies a Greek tragic...

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