The character of Neddy Merrill is initially represented as one of continual youthful exuberance and vitality. He approaches the world around him as an invitation, with a general spirit related to the belief that “his life was not confining.” He views his surroundings as full of potential, and the act of swimming home through the “Lucinda River” is his way of interacting with those possibilities. As Neddy describes, “making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny…”; in this sense, he is understanding himself as having some measure of control over both himself and the world around him, and that his interactions with these spaces will have some positive outcome. In this world, Neddy views himself as on top, which is indicated in his description of his neighbors as “natives,” whose “customs and traditions” had to be “handled with diplomacy.” He sees himself as distinct and superior to these people, who he knows how to play along with to get his way. In the midst of these endless parties and summer afternoons, he avoids the harsh realities, like the financial issues that have caused a family to sell their horses and another to sell their home.
As he has to move away from those welcoming parties and into the “real world,” like the busy road and the public pool, he feels increasingly uncomfortable, possibly because the element of control and superiority he felt previously is no longer as easy to maintain over these new situations. In his talk with Mrs. Halloran about his house being sold and his “poor children,” it becomes increasingly clear that he has entirely created the previous world of wealth and potential as an illusion of control. His former mistress, with whom he enjoyed the “possession of...with an authority unknown to holy matrimony,” rejects him and has moved on to another lover. The facade of security and optimism is increasingly removed, much to Neddy’s anguish. Even his perspective on himself as being so youthful and strong begins to fail, as he becomes more exhausted by his journey, which had been done in the hopes of regaining that positivity and control he desired; “he had done what he wanted, he had swum the country, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague.” By pretending that his situation was fine, by conquering the “country” through his swim, Neddy hoped that he would eventually find or create that world for himself. But as he discovers his uninhabited former home, his quest was unsuccessful.