The Swimmer: The Empty Life of a Suburban Odysseus

I almost didn’t make it through The Swimmer (1968, written by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank Perry, with uncredited reshoots by Sydney Pollack) on my initial viewing. I hated it. The concept was contrived and nonsensical. The characters were obnoxious, unrelatable, bourgeois aliens. At one point, a 52-year-old Burt Lancaster races a horse; at another, he frolics in slow motion through an empty horse riding ring with his children’s 20-year-old former babysitter, who admits that she had a crush on him when she was younger. We get lines like “I was just a kid to you, but you were a god to me.” There were points when I shouted at the screen that I thought the movie was dumb. But then something changed, and what I thought was going to be an ego-trip fantasy dripping in unwarranted machismo ended up being a devastating indictment of the hollowness of the bourgeois life and the American Dream.

There were definite clues that should have told me that something different was happening as early as the opening credits: the camera seems to be moving through the woods as if through the point-of-view of someone walking through them. Several animals act as if they are startled by the person’s presence, including an owl that seems to imply that the person whose point-of-view we’re experiencing has been in the woods all night. The dark music under the credits add to the foreboding atmosphere. As the credits end, we see an overhead shot of Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), already clad in his bathing suit, walking out of the forest into a backyard and diving into a pool.

It’s still relatively early in the morning when Ned arrives at this first house—we can tell because the friends of his that own the house and pool, the Westerhazys, are still complaining about their hangovers from the night before. They’re very happy to see Ned, and it appears to have been a very long time since they have last  seen him. Ned’s interactions with the Westerhazys and their guests the Forsburghs are off-putting to the audience—he very awkwardly compliments Mrs. Westerhazy’s feet and flirts with her in front of her husband—but they don’t initially act like they seem to think anything is wrong. Only Mrs. Westerhazy seems to outwardly express any concern. Ned says that his children are at home playing tennis, but the confused and suspicious looks on the faces of his friends strongly imply that this isn’t the case. The Westerhazys invite Ned over to the house of a neighbor that also has a pool, and Ned realizes that there is a string of pools in every lot to his house. He conceives of a plan to metaphorically “swim home” in what he names the Lucinda River, after his wife. His friends’ reaction mirrors that audiences: bewilderment over where he would come up with such an idea. Ned then sets out through the woods to the next house in what ends up being a Odyssean journey back home.

Image from the original poster for The Swimmer 1968. The text says "When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?"

I’m hardly the first person to make the connection between The Swimmer and The Odyssey—many critical and academic reviews of the film refer to the legendary epic [1]. These interpretations are supported by a line in the original short story by John Cheever on which the film is based, which says that Ned “was not a practical joker, nor was he a fool, but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure” (emphasis added). While the notion that someone can “modestly” imagine themselves as a legendary figure is obviously tongue-in-cheek, I think that Cheever is also winking at Homeric influences on the narrative. There are many plot points that parallel The Odyssey: Ned is journeying back to his home to his wife and children, largely traveling in water, and encountering numerous hurdles along the way. He is frequently tempted by promises of youth (the revitalization he feels around Julie the babysitter vs. Calypso’s offer of immortality to Odysseus) and sex (Julie again, Ned’s former mistress Shirley Abbot, and his other old flames vs. Circe and Calypso). However, Ned and Odysseus’ paths diverge at their final destination: Ned arrives home not to find suitors to vanquish and a faithful and patient wife, but that his home is abandoned and his wife and children gone. In his analysis of the short story, literature professor Terence Bowers posits that the comparison is not a flattering one for Ned, stating that “Cheever’s evocation of Odysseus’ world thus constructs a satiric contrast that presents Neddy as a hero of Lilliputian proportions, small in his actions and vision, but ludicrously big in his sense of self-importance” [2].

Along with the Homeric interpretations, I think that parts of the The Swimmer lend themselves to Biblical readings as well. A pool attendant stops Ned as he enters the public pool, the final stop before he reaches his home, and tells him to wash off in the showers. He goes in and quickly comes out, but the pool attendant is not satisfied and tells him to go back in to wash his feet. The attendant makes a really big deal of making sure Ned’s feet are clean, and refuses to show him any sort of pity or leniency until they are. A short scene in the shower of Ned cleaning his own feet follows—he looks visibly upset and disoriented as he does so. The scene is inconsequential in the original short story, essentially occupying the space of only a single sentence: “He took a shower, washed his feet in a cloudy and bitter solution, and made his way to the edge of the water.” In the film, the feet washing scene is expanded, reflecting what I think are key thematic points in the movie. There are numerous references to the washing of feet in the Bible, including the anointing of Jesus—which is related in all four of the Gospels—and at the Last Supper. Unlike these Biblical moments, when washing someone else’s feet signifies love, respect, and forgiveness, Ned is forced to wash his own feet while being treated with disdain and judgement. In this critical moment, there is no one to “wet [his] feet with [their] tears and [wipe] them with [their] hair”—Ned is completely alone and unforgiven.

Ned’s encounters with his friends and neighbors are either pleasant but unbearably hollow or openly hostile, with very little in-between. Conversations with people that are still on good terms with him follow a pattern: they’re surprised to see him, because it’s been so long, they move on to small talk about their pool or something else insignificant, have a troubled look passes over their face when Ned says something—that his wife and children are waiting for him at home, that he still has a job and money, and even the age of his children—that doesn’t seem to click with the gossip they know. These moments of concern are never strong enough for them to actually do anything to help Ned, despite his increasingly erratic behavior. Someone halfheartedly says that they should get together sometime in the near future, Ned leaves, and the friends continue partying or lounging like he was never there. Even these more superficially pleasant conversations are usually marred by snide comments that Ned either doesn’t hear or actively ignores. 

Ned with his former mistress, Shirley Abbott. Ned is seated in the foreground and looks confused. Shirley is standing in the background with a pink robe draped over her shoulders and a drink in her hand.

Ned’s negative interactions are obviously much more challenging and emotional, bringing to the forefront the real damage that he’s caused by his self-centered, blasé, playboy attitude. The first such interaction is on the third stop on his journey, when a friend’s mother chastises him for not visiting her dying son in the hospital. The social standing of people that dislike him doesn’t matter, as Ned is shunned both at a party held by wealthy friends he frequently blew off and at a public pool by people he frequently ripped off. The most disastrous interaction is with Shirley (Janice Rule), which gets physically violent and emotionally traumatized both of them. Shirley eventually reaches the point where she tells him that she hated their affair, utterly shattering Ned’s illusion that he’s a desirable lover, which is so important to his self-image. 

The turning point in Ned’s demeanor is his rejection by Julie. Julie had previously admitted to having a crush on Ned (the “you were a god” line referenced earlier) and stealing a shirt from him that she would wrap herself in, which Ned misinterprets as an admission of ongoing romantic interest. However, Ned doesn’t realize that Julie has matured and moved on from a childhood fantasy to more normal relationships. In the words of Shirley Abbott, while Ned obviously hasn’t “grown up,” Julie has. Julie symbolically grew out of her crush years before, throwing out the shirt that she stole after she realized that it was “just a shirt.” After this final admission, Ned tries to embrace her, causing Julie to run away in terror [3]. She is never mentioned again. Without Julie, the veneer begins to erode from the “glorious day” Ned thought he was going to have—for the first time, we notice mud on his feet, he starts to rub his arms to warm himself up, and his limp becomes increasingly noticeable. 

The most obvious exception to these interactions are the ones that he has with the young boy he “teaches to swim,” Kevin Gilmartin Jr., which comes close to being one of the only truly sincere interaction Ned has in the film. Ned attempts to act paternally, spending time with the neglected boy and encouraging him to overcome his fear of swimming. But despite Ned’s attempts, artificiality and hollowness still pervade their interaction, literalized by the pair “swimming” through an empty pool, pantomiming the moves. During their swim, Ned tells Kevin that “If you make believe hard enough that something’s true, then it is true for you,” which is advice that has been steering Ned wrong the entire movie. Ned even tries to use this advice himself during the same conversation when he says that “Those kids of mine think I have all the answers. Those kids of mine think I’m just about it.” We learn later in the movie that they didn’t love him as much as he thought when Howie tells Ned that his children laughed at him and thought he was a joke. In retrospect, Ned’s interaction with Kevin ends up just being another failed connection. It’s as if Ned is play-acting the role of a paternal mentor instead of actually being one—he is pretending to be someone that is worth looking up to so it is real for himself.

Ned Merrill with his former babysitter Julie. They are standing in front of trees, looking off-camera at someone talking.

When Ned finally reaches his own home, he finds the property overgrown with weeds, the tennis court unusable, and the house all but destroyed. Accompanied by a soaring score by composer Marvin Hamlisch, he desperately shouts and pounds on the door, but the house is abandoned. Ned collapses, cowering in defeat in the doorway as a thunderstorm rages. It’s a harrowing conclusion, and did as much to shift my opinion of the film as any other scene. It is an absolutely devastating ending, but can hardly be considered a twist. The final scene confirmed what countless smaller moments had pointed to: that the scenes that had infuriated me early in the film were never meant to celebrate Ned, his view of masculinity, or the American dream. Once I could see the entire damning portrait that the film painted, the brilliance of its satire exploded into the forefront.

Towards the end of his 1968 review of the The Swimmer, Roger Ebert remarks that “In addition to being a fine actor, [Lancaster] is a plausible hero of the Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas type. And a hero is needed here. We must believe in the swimmer’s greatness if we are to find his fate tragic.” I wonder if this is completely true, especially in an era where Ned’s brand of masculinity is, rightfully, no longer tolerated. In 2020, Ned Merrill is a dinosaur, and not one that I found particularly likeable or sympathetic; however, I still felt devastated while watching him futilely pounding on the door of his empty house at the end of the film. Certainly a lot of the credit goes to Lancaster’s performance, which is phenomenal, but I think it goes beyond that. To me, the tragedy is not that Ned Merrill is a great hero that has fallen on hard times: the tragedy is that Ned was always a flawed man who was never able to recognize that he was living in a society that encouraged empty relationships, infidelity, and materialism until it was much too late. Ned is so unsuccessful at forging and maintaining meaningful relationships that he thinks the measure of a friend is if they’re on his Christmas card list. Ned’s failure to recognize his circumstances and behavior cost him everything that he would only later realize were important to him—his wife, his children, his house, and his job. While it is clearly Ned’s fault that he lost everything, and his actions before and during the film are inexcusable, the tragedy lies in the existence of a society where he never had a chance to keep it.

[1] Roger Ebert references Ulysses (Odysseus’ Latin name) in his review of the film, Travis Woods describes it as “a country club retelling of the Narcissus myth by way of The Odyssey,” and Dr. Terence Bowers published a great in-depth analysis of Homeric connections to the original short story, among others.

[2] Bowers, 20.

[3] It’s not completely clear that Ned’s embrace was meant to be sexual. A transcript of the screenplay online claims that the intent behind the embrace was innocent, stating that “The hug is meant to be the most delicate and tender embrace, but Julie misinterprets it and tries to release herself.” Given what was filmed, I don’t blame her.

Written by Nick Luciano

Nick Luciano received a Master’s in Music Theory from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. He is a football editor for Sports Obsessive, former film writer/editor at 25YL, and cohosts the 25 Yards Later fantasy football podcast for Sports Obsessive and Ruminations Radio Network.

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