Review: “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

The Swimmer

This is more of an academic critique than a review. Not that there’s much to “give away” in this one, but I’ll say it does contain spoilers because I discuss the piece in its entirety. Luckily, if you like, you can read the short story here.

I’m not sure exactly which technique John Cheever was using in his story, “The Swimmer,” but the effect it had on me was one of confusion. It felt as if someone had taken snapshots of a period of time, shuffled them around, left out a few, and handed them back to me as if they were in proper order.

The story begins innocently enough with a pool party and a young man swimming. But, just as the story seems to be getting started, things turn strange. The main character sees a line of swimming pools as a stream and swims home. We find out slowly that the man is going from yard to yard, crashing parties and taking swims, and the neighbors don’t really like him. Cheever chooses to reveal the man’s past in slow chunks—one neighbor mentions, “Why, we heard that you’d sold the house and that your poor children . . .” yet the man does not recall having sold it. Another neighbor says, “They went for broke overnight—nothing but income—and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five thousand dollars” and the man despises her discussing money so much that he thinks, “It was worse than eating your peas off a knife.” The reader discovers later that the neighbor is talking about him, but again, he seems to have no recognition. By the time the man gets home, we have found out that he is now an old man, and when he arrives at home, his house is empty and dark.

I believe Cheever’s intention in writing in this manner was to have the reader feel the man’s confusion by way of experiencing it firsthand. We are just as lost in the story as he is. We learn bits and pieces and only at the end does everything come together and seem to make sense, just as the main character also realizes at the end that things aren’t what they seem. The story may not have been so emotionally powerful if we had been given all the information straight out. By doing it this way, the reader identifies with the character in a more real way, and when the moment of clarity comes at the end, we experience his sorrow with him as we also realize things aren’t what they first appeared to be. We can imagine what that man’s life was once like, and we see how it has fallen apart and left him alone and desolate, similar to the way the abrupt end of the story leaves the reader feeling.

This story can be found in The Stories of John Cheever:

It’s also a movie!

My rating: 3 out of 5 = liked it

4 thoughts on “Review: “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

  1. Hi,
    Hope this is not intrusive in any way. Where are you writing from? NY? Enjoyed stopping by your site. Thank you for your writing, and thoughts.

    Kind regards

  2. I always had mixed feelings about Cheever, but this is my favorite short story by him, and I think the film did a good job capturing the atmosphere of the story. I also like the story because I think it’s such a good example of how the short story works, how in a tight space it turns from one thing into something completely different.

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