Mary Morris’s short story “The Lifeguard” is narrated by Josh Michaels, an arrogant lifeguard whose life is shattered when he is unable to save a drowning child, Billy Mandel. Two key themes are vanity and hubris.
Vanity describes an inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance. Josh describes many of the young women that admire him. He spends a significant amount of time convincing himself and the reader that the older Mrs. Lovenheim only comes to the beach to look at him. Vanity is dangerous because it becomes a form of self-worship. Josh believes he will be young and handsome forever, and this thinking makes him believe he is better than others. Because he is vain with regard to his appearance, he also overlooks other aspects of his life with a false sense of pride and overconfidence, which will eventually cause tragedy.
While vanity typically is more specific to one’s appearance, hubris describes one’s personality quality of extreme and foolish pride and dangerous overconfidence. Josh believes that passing his lifeguard training has fully prepared him for his job. He believes that he has already seen everything that will happen on the job, which allows him to become overly relaxed and more focused on fantasizing about Mrs. Lovenheim checking him out than preparing for the worst. This hubris allows him to become complacent and unprepared for an emergency.
One central theme of Mary Morris’s story “The Lifeguard” is the passage of time and the way time’s passing changes our perceptions of our lives. Evidence of the importance of this theme includes the following:
- The very first sentence of the story calls attention to the passage of time – to the narrator’s movement from one phase of his life to the next.
- The entire story reflects upon the past, as the narrator recalls a crucial summer in his life.
- The first sentence of the second paragraph also calls attention to a change that has occurred with the passage of time – to the ways the white sands have become darker and less clean over the years. This imagery may symbolize the ways all things change and darken with the passage of time.
- The reference to the drowning of Billy Mandel, along with later references to his death, suggests the ways in which one moment in time can alter all subsequent moments for the worse.
- The narrator’s description of the former lifeguard, and of other persons who visit the beach, emphasizes the importance of mutability (or constant change) as a theme of the story:
I had watched the boys who were lifeguards turn flabby. I had seen Ric Spencer, who had ruled this beach before me, for half a decade, lose his hair, and I’d seen the slim bodies of women stretch with childbearing.
- Early in the story, the narrator feels almost omnipotent, but by the end of the story he himself will know how it feels to lose the easy confidence of youth. In a sense, this story is about the maturation of the narrator as he faces the first significant challenge to his sense of power and confidence. A brief confrontation with the possibility of death – with the possibility of a change in time that is irreversible – shakes his view of himself and of the world and helps introduce him to an adult’s sense of time: a sense that time is ever-passing and irrecoverable.
- At the beginning of the story, the narrator feels as if he is immune to the passing of time and to change:
I’d seen it all and it had not impressed me, but rather it flowed through me like a river, not stopping here.
Later, of course, he will not feel so invulnerable to the effects of time, and indeed later we will discover that he has learned the lesson that the passage of time can and does wound almost everyone – that the passage of time brings pain, and that people who have already experienced that kind of passage can provide some solace and wisdom.
- At the beginning of the story, the narrator assumes that Mrs. Lovenheim watches him because she sees him as a symbol of youth, and especially of her own lost youth. He assumes that she sees him as a symbol of youthful attractiveness, strength, and power. Later, of course, he will see Mrs. Lovenheim herself as a symbol of wisdom, of intelligence combined with strength. Far from seeing her as the weak, pitiful, and someone desperate figure he initially imagines her to be, he will see her as a source of comfort when he himself feels weak, pitiful, and somewhat desperate. With the passage of time, the roles of the lifeguard and of Mrs. Lovenheim will change, as he enters into a world of maturity where she already resides. In a sense, it is Mrs. Lovenheim who proves to be the true “lifeguard” in this story.