The Archetypal Significance of John Cheever's "The Swimmer"
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This thesis presents a new interpretation of “The Swimmer,” a short story by John Cheever, by applying formal principles of archetypal literary criticism to analyze the story. This archetypal analysis is supplemented by relevant material from Cheever’s journals and manuscript archives. Grounded in Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious as a repository of inherited archetypes, archetypal literary criticism, as interpreted by Northrop Frye, is particularly well-suited to Cheever’s fiction because it correlates with Cheever’s own theories of artistic creation. Chapter One explains the critical approach of archetypal literary criticism, including a discussion of its relevance to Cheever’s fiction, and summarizes existing scholarship interpreting “The Swimmer.” Chapter Two discusses the story’s genesis and includes a discussion of Cheever’s theories of short fiction. Chapter Three analyzes “The Swimmer” as an example of Frye’s mythos of autumn, or tragedy. Chapter Three analyzes the story’s main character, Ned Merrill, as an example of the tragic hero using Frye’s theories and also examines the influence of Homer’s Odyssey, observing parallels between the characters of Odysseus and Ned Merrill and suggesting the Odyssey as a possible source of the story’s title. Chapter Five analyzes the story’s archetypal imagery, including color and number symbolism, which expresses the story’s tragic mythos of autumn. Chapter Six explores the tragic character of Ned Merrill as an example of Jung’s archetype of the puer aeternus, the eternal child. Chapter Seven summarizes these various strands of interpretation and analysis to conclude the thesis.