At the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Nick Carraway goes over to Gatsby’s dark, empty house then heads down to the beach where he sprawls out on the sand and begins to think about the past, the time before he or Gatsby or Tom and Daisy or anyone else built enormous structures on East Egg and West Egg. He becomes “aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh green breast of the new world.” He transports himself back to the colonial era when Dutch settlers saw the area as a new land, one that they felt needed taming. The trees that the settlers saw have all gone, making way for Gatsby’s mansion. Nick continues to think that, “for a transitory moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent,” thinking about what wonders it contains.

Nick’s reflections counter Gatsby’s assertion that you can repeat the past. While the novel ends with Nick stating that “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” we cannot return and repeat the past. The past is the past, yet it remains in specters and shadows that linger over all of our lives. What is interesting in Nick’s reflections is that he goes back to the moment that Dutch settlers started to explore the area. In this movement, Nick thinks back to a past where anything is possible, where the world opens up in wonder and man comes  “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” This moment of exploration ushers in a history filled with land theft, human rights abuses, and countless other atrocities. The American Dream of equality and acceptance of all, which Nick’s father comments on at the beginning of the novel, dissolves into wealth, greed, and oppression.

Thirty-nine years later, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” uses similar language to describe Neddy Merrill’s travels through his suburban community. We can look at Neddy’s travels in a similar manner to the Dutch settlers that Nick thinks back to. Ostensibly, “The Swimmer” explores Neddy’s deteriorating and repressive psyche as he struggles to come to terms with events in his life. However, consider the countless references to Neddy as an explorer, we can also consider the story in relation to colonialism. It is from this perspective that I want to look at the story.

When Needy decides to swim home (via the backyard pools of his neighbors), he immediately fashions himself as a type of explorer: “He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, the string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the country.” Before diving into the Westerhazy’s pool, he maps out the path, like a cartographer planning a voyage. Exiting the pool, he begins to contemplate where to go next, and he even names the suburban river after his wife, Lucinda. The act of naming it the Lucinda River serves as an act of colonization and “discovery,” and it provides “him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny.”

On his exploration, Neddy encounters various individuals along the river. At the Grahams’ house, he realizes “that the hospitable customs and traditions of the natives would have to be handled with diplomacy if he was ever going to reach his destination.” Neddy’s realization brings to mind the language used by settlers to describe individuals that they encountered and the ways that settlers navigated interactions with people they met. Neddy must ingratiate himself to the Grahams if he wants to continue on his journey down the Lucinda River to his own home.

At the Welchers’ pool, he discovers that the family has moved and that the pool does not contain any water. Neddy becomes disappointed and begins to feel “like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream.” Neddy looks around and finds that the Welchers have packed up and moved on, sort of like a settlement that has determined it cannot sustain itself in the current location and decides to move to another location. This realization saddens Neddy, yet he continues along his journey to his own homestead.

After crossing the dangerous route 424, he comes to the public pool, a space where he must adhere to the rules and customs of the inhabitants in order to cross. He must first shower then wear an identification bracelet in order to even get into the water. He showers, adhering to the “customs and traditions” as he does at the Grahams’ pool. (He does not wear the identification bracelet.)  Even though he adheres to this custom, he espouses dread at entering a pool with so many people because he feels that “he might contaminate himself.” Neddy’s fear recalls Farmer James’ fear in John Hector St John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer when he worries that his children will assimilate into Native American culture when they move to the frontier, thus becoming contaminated. Amongst these fears, Neddy reminds himself that he is “an explorer, a pilgrim.”

Upon exiting the public pool, Neddy makes his way to the Halloran estate. Here, he travels through an uncleared wooded area where “the footing was treacherous and difficult,” an image that brings to mind the wilderness and the ways that settlers described it, especially settlers such as Mary Rowlandson. As he does at other pools, Neddy adheres to the local customs. Here, he removes his swimsuit because the Hallorans always swim naked. Neddy speaks with Mrs. Halloran, and this is the first time we get a clear indication that Neddy has experienced loss and depression. She tells him that she is sorry to hear about his misfortunes, and Neddy doesn’t realize what she is talking about. As such, Mrs. Halloran just plays off the conversation and lets Neddy continue on his journey.

From this point on, we begin to see hints of the misfortunes that Neddy has experienced. He swims through his former mistress’ pool, the Biswangers’ pool, and more. In each instance, we discover the disconnect that exists between Neddy and his neighbors. We discover that he, himself, has become the invader, not an explorer because Grace Biswanger refers to him as “a gate crasher.” Throughout the story, Neddy has entered people’s land, without asking, and partaken of their resources–in this case pools. Even though he has tried to adhere to their customs, he has still forced himself into these spaces under the guise of being an explorer and mapping out the area.

The metaphor of Neddy as explorer brings me back to Nick’s ruminations and the history of colonization in American history. I do not think that Cheever is necessarily making a comment about this; rather, I think his commentary is similar to Nick’s in the fact that the land has been changed and conquered by suburban development. The views are more romanticized than critiqued. However, I do think we can look at “The Swimmer,” and even Nick’s comments, in relation to the history of colonization and the pain and suffering it wrought. We can look at Neddy as an explorer as a form of mythmaking, a construction of himself as someone superior to those he encounters, thus making him the grand focal point. In this manner, his self-construction reads very similar to the construction of America’s colonial past.

These are only rudimentary thoughts at this point, but I think they are important to consider. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

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1 Comment on “Exploration and Colonization in John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

  1. Pingback: Lorraine Hansberry "A Raisin in the Sun" Lecture: Part II | Interminable Rambling

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