Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “The Swimmer” by John Cheever that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in the short story and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “The Swimmer” by John Cheever in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Swimmer” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Realism and Surrealism in Cheever’s “The Swimmer"
Part of what makes John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer" so interesting and so persistent is the way it quickly changes from straight realism to complete surrealism, almost without the reader noticing it. In fact, when Ned first begins his swim across the pools (before reaching the empty pool during the storm, which is one of the first indications that something is wrong) this seems like a jolly task and the reader marvels that this man, so healthy and proud of himself, despite his age, has undertaken such a task. However, after the indication that something isn’t right, the pools become harder to swim and are much less inviting until finally, the swimmer has no strength left and is at the abandoned front of his home. In fact, this process of getting slower and slower is a narrative device that reflects the growing surrealism. The very act of slowing down the narrative creates, at least in large part, the sense of unreality, especially because there was such a fast-paced beginning. For this essay on “The Swimmer" trace the evolution of the narrative from reality to the surreal, keeping in mind the use of foreshadowing discussed in #2.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Use & Importance of Foreshadowing in “The Swimmer"
The narrator of “The Swimmer" does not directly tell the reader that this man is experiencing a delusion or that something is wrong. Instead, the narrator uses foreshadowing, by means of his simple description of routine objects and events (the empty pool, the strange approaching storm despite the perfect sun moments before, the smell and signs of autumn) to key the reader in. For this essay, you have a couple of options. On the one hand, you can use elements of this thesis statement for “The Swimmer" with #1 and suggests that it is through foreshadowing that the difference between reality and the surreal happens. On the other hand, perhaps for a shorter essay, you can merely point out the significance of the foreshadowing, namely by discussing how it creates an increasingly hostile world with each new “swim" Ned takes.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Suburbia and Class in “The Swimmer"
Some have suggested that this story has some parallels with the film “The Graduate" in terms of its representation of East Coast upper class suburbia. At the beginning of “The Swimmer" each yard has a gleaming pool, laughter, drinks, and often, caterers and bartenders. This is a world of luxury, ease, and tranquility. In many ways, despite this idyllic description in the story, there is a sense of almost disturbing homogeneity—each house has a pool and everyone is almost exactly the same. They are all quick to entertain, to offer up drinks, and to schmooze. However, as Ned’s swim becomes less of a joy, he sees the darker side of this supposed suburban paradise as some pools are empty, some are murky and filled with chemicals, and the residents at this later point grow increasingly more hostile. For this argumentative essay on “The Swimmer" discuss how Ned’s final leg of the journey is symbolic of him “swimming down" to the murky bottom, past the glittering surface, of suburbia. For a challenge, you can also discuss how although reality begins to slip away near the end, how perhaps this later depiction of suburbia (murkier and less of a veneer) is more realistic that the original picture painted by the narrator.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Role of Drinking and Alcohol in “The Swimmer"
Alcohol in “The Swimmer" is both a motif and a symbol in this story and is important to the overall meaning because of what it represents on several levels. As a motif, alcohol is almost like a handshake or a polite, casual gesture. It is the primary object around which all parties and social action revolve and is even mentioned at the very beginning of the story when the narrator talks about how nearly everyone “drank too much." Symbolically speaking, this “gesture" of alcohol is an invitation to cast aside reality, to join others in a masking of reality. Interestingly, as the reader comes to find out, Ned masked reality completely and drinking was part of the cause. By the end of the story, his constant desire to drink, or to stop and have a drink is tragic as opposed to social and the reader sees how this culture of escapism and the associated constant use of alcohol are main themes about suburbia that Cheever might wish his audience to see.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: The Explorer is Reborn
Ned considers himself to be an explorer or a pilgrim when he sets out and continues to see himself as such, even as the end of the story and its strange conclusion draw near. As he goes into one pool and out of another, he is being reborn each time, finding out that the world is not the cozy womb he once perceived. For this essay, consider in what ways he is a successful explorer—did he find what he was looking for? In what ways do these pilgrim voyages into the water and then out again into cold reality symbolize rebirth?
This list of important quotations from “The Swimmer” by John Cheever will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “The Swimmer” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes from Cheever's “The Swimmer” contain page numbers as well from the Norton Anthology of Modern Literature.
“His life was not confining and the delight he took in this observation could not be explained by its suggestion of escape" (2044).
“The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence" (2044).
“Oh how bonny and lush were the banks of the Lucinda River! Prosperous men and women gathered by the sapphire-colored waters while caterer’s men in white coats passed them cold gin" (2045).
“Then, there was an explosion, a smell of cordite, and rain lashed the Japanese lanterns that Mrs. Levy had bought in Kyoto the year before last, or was it the year before that? (2046).
“The breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly and he felt like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream. He was disappointed and mystified" (2046).
“You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool? Standing barefoot in this deposits of the highway—beer cans, rags, and blowout patches—exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful" (2046).
“Neddy remembered the sapphire water at the Bunkers’ with longing and thought that he might contaminate himself—damage his own prosperousness and charm—by swimming in the murk, but reminded himself that he was an explorer, a pilgrim, and this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River" (2047).
“They [the Biswangers] would be honored to give him a drink, they would be happy to give him a drink, they would in fact be lucky to give him a drink" (2049).
“It was probably the first time in his adult life that he had ever cried, certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable, cold, tired, and bewildered" (2050).