Damned in a Fair Life: Cheever's "The Swimmer." (John Cheever)

Article excerpt

Cheever's ever-popular, many-faceted short story, "The Swimmer," accommodates various readings, particular and universal. Within its range of appeal, for instance, it has been read as suggestive autobiography,(1) contemporary American Odyssey (Hunt 280-83), dazzling literary structure (Kruse 221), as a "midsummer's nightmare" (Bell 433), sacramental parody (Blythe and Sweet 393), realism yielding to fantasy (Blythe and Sweet 415) and Neddy Merrill dead in Hades (Cervo 49-50). I propose that the story, along with its literal and figural resonances, has the suggestive depth of a spiritual allegory in the fashion of Dante, whom Cheever admired, and whose influence he acknowledged affectionately.(2) As a terse and grim Commedia, "The Swimmer" evinces a pattern of meaning that enlarges the story's autobiographical and epic mythoi to include an account of how Neddy Merrill's sad swim in his superbly affluent neighborhood reveals itself as an uneasy pilgrimage in hell, owing much in subject and structure to Dante's Inferno, which Cheever early in his career began reading quite routinely.(3)

Cheever, very possibly, was mindful of how his story's central metaphor reiterates a dramatic image pivotally located at the outset of the Inferno. The lost poet, trying to escape from the dark woods of sin, struggles to free himself from the worldly realm of evil to which he must ultimately return, and at a deeper level, pass through:

And as a swimmer, panting, from the main

Heaves safe to shore, then turns to face the drive

Of perilous seas, and looks, and looks again,

So, while my soul yet fled, did I contrive

To turn and gaze on that dread pass once more

Whence no man yet came ever out alive. (Dante 72)

The spiritual exhaustion of Dante's spent swimmer, in the throes of earth-bound affliction, represents the condition to which Neddy Merrill arrives at the close of "The Swimmer." What brings Neddy to that state is what Dante the pilgrim witnesses in his mystical journey through hell: subjection to secular infirmity in its repulsive, final formulation as deadly sin but parading, in Cheever's gloss, as bourgeois banality. Neddy, unlike Dante the pilgrim, is not exempted from such banality and proves ignorant of what lies behind it - as is also the case with his neighbors - a point that Cheever makes skillfully throughout his entire story and most poignantly, in Neddy's case, at its ending.

At the outset of his spiritual allegory, Cheever represents a world entirely given over to surfeit: "everyone ... the parishioners leaving church ... the priest himself ... the leader of the Audubon group ..." (603) are all afflicted with excess, symbolized by drinking too much. Since Judeo-Christian man by definition is a sinner, his only recourse is to shed his infirmities as he moves forth on the way to salvation, the ars moriendi revivified in homiletic literature since Everyman. But Neddy's soul trek will be far less sobering. Accordingly, and with the prospect of enjoying his day, Neddy, as he sets about planning his swim "home" by means of the "river" formed by a succession of neighborhood pools, high-heartedly has "the feeling that he was a pilgrim" in addition to being an "explorer" (604).

The day chosen for the swim, "one of those mid Summer Sundays" (603), clearly evokes Dante's pilgrimage, opening "midway in life's journey" (I.1) the starting point of the Inferno. In fact, this, Cheever's opening sentence, echoes Dante's opening line. The ingenious image of interconnecting pools that constitute a "quasi-subterranean stream" (603) certainly recalls the continuum of waterways and lakes that form the great "river" of life (II.107) that Vergil and Dante follow in hell. Possibly, we might add, Neddy's "Lucinda River" (604), named after his wife, harkens back to St. Lucia, Dante's patron saint, who prompts Beatrice in the Inferno to keep Dante safe on this "river" of fife (II. …

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