Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cheever, "The Swimmer", Behind Closed Doors

I imagined that John Cheever's "The Swimmer" took place in the same neighborhood that is portrayed in the Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes, from the novel written by Richard Yates. I saw this movie last year during the height of Oscar Awards season, and I was surprised that it got overlooked. It was a very subtle and bleak look at the hidden lives of Americans during it's "1950s-early-1960s Golden Age". What's behind the facade? Alcoholism, Abuse, Adultery--by both husband and wife--, Depression, you name it! What I found so tragic about the story is that the lives of these people held so much promise, so much potential--or rather, throughout the film, the characters believed that they had promise and potential. They thought they were chosen for something great, that they had some higher destiny above others. And by the end, all of it is gone.

I think this belief of a destiny is a prime factor of the American Dream. It goes back as far as American revolutionaries creating their country to be a "city on a hill", to set an example for the world to follow. Throughout American history, people have believed themselves to be purposed with a destiny, like the settlers who followed Manifest Destiny, and even the fame-grubbers of today like Spencer and Heidi, and Tyra Banks... they all believe that they have a destiny that needs to be fulfilled and some kind of message to be spread about. The Swimmer is no exception to this American ideal for a purpose: Upon embarking on his journey to swim across the county, he has "the feeling that he was a pilgrim. an explorer, a man with a destiny" (2251).

This is not to say that there IS no such thing as a purpose. I'm saying, What is the price of trying to fulfill your destiny? Does ones success come at the failure or oppression or subjugation of others? The Swimmer's purpose is to childishly swim across town on some subconscious Naturalist compulsion as if he is trying to swim the length of the river Denial! The cost: That all other people in his world, besides himself, are taken for granted and put on the back burner. In his eyes, they are all deemed unimportant. His mistress who refuses to give him any more money tells the Swimmer (and America): "Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?" (2256). Stop being so self-absorbed. Open your eyes, there are other people here too.

It reminds me of another of Kate Winslet's roles, in which she starred as another unhappy, adulterous, and restless housewife, Tom Perrotta's Little Children. It shows that, just behind a small curtain of seemingly perfect and wealthy domesticity, is a whole range of foundational problems. Nowadays, such happenings are commonplace, only because they are broadcasted and aired on television and in movies.

But things were just as bad back then! Probably worse because it was hidden, and thought to be non-existent, and so people had no one to relate to and there was no outlet for frustration. This is one of the main ideas of John Cheever's "The Swimmer". There's some pretty ugly stuff that goes on behind closed doors, and America's willful ignorance of it all is manifested in the title character, who is "so disciplined in the repression of unpleasant facts that he [has] damaged his sense of the truth" (2253). Americans have striven to believe in an ideal America, full of equality and hope without racism and prejudice, but this Belief in the Ideal is allowing us to believe that things are already here, instead of still progressing. We are being blinded by our "repression of unpleasant facts", that it is hurting those caught in our blind spots, and to our "own sense of truth".

**But, like I probably said somewhere earlier, Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man is promising us that one day, we sleepwalkers will be roused from deep slumber and ignorance! Perhaps when it's too late, like O'Connor paints in "Good Country People". Either way, good writers have an obligation to break the myth of America, and to dig in there and find out what it's really like, according to James Baldwin!

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