Throughout “The Swimmer,” the protagonist, Ned Merrill, grows increasingly detached from the banal, mid-summer reality of his suburban neighborhood. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Ned’s progress is not corresponding to the passage of a single day. Ned begins to question his own grasp of time, which makes the reader realize that the author is implying something other than a literal interpretation of the setting and the plot. Ned’s movement seems to be through years more than hours. An initial hint of this disjuncture is indicated by his observation about changes in his body in relationship to his clothes. As he prepares to leave the backyard of the Hallorans, who swim nude,
he pulled on his trunks and fastened them. They were loose and he wondered if, during the space of an afternoon, he could have lost some weight.
This wondering is followed by other ruminations on time and age. He not only feels lame and achy, but also cold. Whereas the season had been full summer when the story began, Ned now observes signs of autumn. His bones are so cold that he feels
that he might never be warm again. Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind. Who would be burning wood at this time of year?
The signs of memory lapses begin with the Levys’ house, when he cannot remember which year they had gone to Japan. He next wonders at his lack of recollection about the Lindleys’ horses:
He seemed to remember having heard something about the Lindleys and their horses but the memory was unclear.
The idea that these lapses are connected with departure from reality are emphasized by his next stop and discovery, the Welchers’ empty pool. Realizing as well that he cannot recall the last time he and Lucinda had been there, he connects this failure with distance from the truth.
He was disappointed and mystified. It was common enough to go away for the summer but no one ever drained his pool … Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?