Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The key stylistic device of “Night Swimming” is the insistent, almost manic, voice of Joe, who is determined to hold on to his belief in his mother’s secret romantic life. Regardless of the fact that he has the flimsiest of evidence on which to hang this hope—a story his mother told him when he was a child and her being found naked and frozen solid in the snow—Joe wants to believe that there was more to his mother than just being his mother.

Either consciously or unconsciously, Pete Fromm makes use of several well-known stories from American literature to create “Night Swimming.” First, the mystery of how his mother had got that far into the mountains is an echo of the opening head note to Ernest Hemingway’s famous story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936), which begins with the mystery of how a leopard, found high on the African mountain, reached such a high altitude. Related to this is the image that concludes Sherwood Anderson’s short story “Death in the Woods” (1926), about a woman who spends her entire life caring for and feeding her family freezing to death in the snow on her way home with food on her back. When a young boy thinks about her body, stripped naked by wolves, lying pure and beautiful in the snow, she becomes a mysterious emblem of aesthetic beauty to him, elevated out of the realm of the merely physical into the realm of mystery and romantic inaccessibility.

Finally, Joe’s realization at the end of the story that Edward is not someone from his mother’s past but rather someone she has been waiting for is an echo of Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (1930) in which the dying Granny recalls being jilted on her wedding day and then looking for a reunion with her lover at the moment of her death. All these literary allusions coalesce around the central metaphor of “night swimming” as an activity that represents leaving everyday reality and entering into a realm of pure desire, a world, that like the world of another famous American short story, Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1932), is “deliciously silent.” Fromm’s “Night Swimming” is a tissue of intertextual motifs and themes from various other stories that focuses on a basic mystery of the hidden life.