Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Graham Swift’s works are often rooted in history, but in the private history of individuals rather than the public history of politics and wars. In “Learning to Swim,” it is through the subjective memories of their private histories that the characters must work out their conflicted destinies. On the beach, Mrs. Singleton reflects back on her younger self and her expectations, and the history, as she understands it, of her relationship with Mr. Singleton. For Mr. Singleton, success as a schoolboy swimmer was the defining event in his life. When attempting to swim in the ocean, Paul remembers his past fears when taken to the local pool by his father. For all three characters, history is not something to transcend but to be endured, at least until Paul swims away from both his parents at the end.

Water is a frequent theme in Swift’s writings, and in “Learning to Swim,” the characters respond to water in varying ways. Mr. Singleton was a competitive swimmer in school and spent his Greek holiday in the sea. He dreams about swimming to distant shores and attempts to teach his son to swim. Mrs. Singleton, however, lies on the beach both in Greece and Cornwall and never accompanies her son or her husband in their swimming efforts. She recollects that at the time of Paul’s birth, her husband’s face was clammy. The birth process itself was a watery experience, and she wanted to put Mr. Singleton into her watery womb. Paul fears water, both in the...

(The entire section is 549 words.)