Learning to Swim

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title story of the collection, “Learning to Swim,” sets the tone of the book. Two individuals, a man and a woman, are tied to each other by habit and need. They search to free themselves using their child as the vehicle. The child evades them both with a simple decision to strike out for himself, a choice as universal as the situation portrayed.

In contrast, the final story, “The Watch,” turns another search for freedom into a fantasy. Here the narrator, doomed to seemingly eternal youth, seems helpless to thwart his destiny until fate intervenes to free him from his self-imposed prison with a breath of new life.

Each story, from the sensitive “Hoffmeier’s Antelope” to the sorrowful “Cliffedge,” begins with the mundane. In most of the stories, there is a narrator, a participant observer, who sets the scene, documents the action, and eventually, achieves insight and enlightenment. Ordinary lives are the building blocks of the stories. Relationships are the cement.

Through sensitivity, ingenuity, and an eye for the details of everyday life, the author transforms ostensibly colorless settings and ordinary people into situations and characters with which one can easily identify. While the endings of some of the stories are somewhat cryptic, most draw to conclusions that are somehow both anticipated yet surprising. For the reader who appreciates the simplicity of fables and parables, this book is a must.

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Swift wrote “Learning to Swim” in the third person instead of the first person that he uses for most of his short stories and novels. However, he does not use the third person to create distance between the author and the reader or to speak through an omniscient narrator. While using a third-person approach, Swift allows the plight of the three Singletons to be told through sequential interior monologues. In the story, little takes place in present or real time: Mrs. Singleton sits on the beach and Mr. Singleton and Paul swim in the nearby sea. Rather, the reader enters into their present lives through the memories and recollections that make up their private histories and individual pasts. Most of “Learning to Swim” takes place in the past, and the major action is internal.

The author’s decision to refer to his adult characters as merely Mr. and Mrs. Singleton with no first names is appropriate given the relationship—or lack of one—between the characters. Although husband and wife have widely different interests and disparate personalities and desires, both are portrayed by Swift as isolated and alienated figures, “singletons” in reality. The personal alienation and present isolation of his characters is pronounced in many of Swift’s works, but the third-person approach in “Learning to Swim” lets the reader enter the characters from the outside in rather than from the inside out.

Swift’s vocabulary and use of language is undramatic and straightforward, but as in most of his novels and short stories, there is no simple linear narrative for the reader to follow. Past events and historical memories are jumbled together, as they are in real life. “Learning to Swim” is a story of the singularity of ordinary people living outwardly normal lives who are actually plagued by extraordinary internal frustrations and desires. At the end of the story, there is no obvious conclusion to the Singletons’ dilemmas, not even for Paul. He swims away from his parents, but he is only six years old, and there can be no permanent resolution for him, just as there are no permanent resolutions in most lives.