Lifeguard Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

No action takes place in this short story, only the musings of a divinity student pondering the purpose of life while gazing on swimmers and sun worshipers at the beach. A summer lifeguard, he is proud of his tanned, “edible” body. Transformed from the pallid seminarian who for the past nine months has pored confusedly over “handbooks of liturgy and histories of dogma,” he mounts his white wooden throne (with a red cross painted on the back) as though he were climbing into “a vestment.”

There is no contradiction, the lifeguard asserts, between the desires of the spirit and those of the flesh. To shine in the sun is man’s goal. Love is like the ministry, the lifeguard ruminates, like being rescued. Beauty is personified in the curvature of a nymph’s spine, the “arabesque” between back and buttocks.

Sunday mornings on the beach depress the young lifeguard because so few people are in church. No longer do the masses have a palpable terror of the unknown; people “seek God in flowers and good deeds.” The sea seems more a “misty old gentleman” than an ominous “divine metaphor.” However, it has meaning for the lifeguard. In the water, he believes, “we struggle and thrash and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.”

The day unfolds like a backward cinema. First come the elderly, who “have lost the gift of sleep.” The women smile and search for shells; their mates, whose...

(The entire section is 440 words.)