Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Swimmer” has as its primary theme the power of the mind to deny unpleasant truths, or, to put it more positively, the determination of the ego to preserve itself in the face of events that might erode or obliterate one’s self-confidence. In order to grasp this theme, the reader must figure out roughly what has happened to Ned and how he has responded to those events.
The recent events of Ned Merrill’s life can be tentatively reconstructed once the story has been read. Evidently a few years past he had been living a comfortable suburban life with his wife, Lucinda, his four daughters, and a house boasting not only a cook and a maid but also a tennis court. When the story opens, the reader accepts Ned’s description of such a life as reflecting his present condition. However, clues quickly begin to mount that something has happened to Ned—a financial ruin that led to social ostracization and eventually to a psychological breakdown. Even while his journey is going well, he shows signs of dislocation. He cannot remember whether a neighbor had been in Japan last year or the year before. Another family, the Lindleys, has dismantled their riding ring, but he has only a vague memory of having known this. He asks another friend for a drink only to be told that “there hasn’t been anything in this house to drink since Eric’s operation. That was three years ago.” When he arrives at the house of his former mistress, he cannot remember how long ago their affair ended, and he has apparently lost all memory of having sold his house. In the last paragraph of the story, he still clings to the idea that his wife and daughters are due to return home at any moment.
Ned is determined to hold on to his past despite the many signs that his former life has disappeared. This determination underscores the theme of the mind’s willfulness in the face of disaster. Ultimately, however, this strength of mind is impressive without being admirable because Ned’s conviction cannot restore to him his former happy life.