Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central theme of “Night Swimming” centers on the “magical life” that the protagonist/narrator Joe imagines for his mother. His belief or hope that his mother had a secret life, that she was more than just his mother, derives in part from the story she told him when he was small about swimming at night down in deep, black water that is “deliciously silent” and having something touch her beneath the surface, only to discover that it was the boy with whom she was swimming. As with most stories, this one has a lesson—that fear results when you encounter something you have not understood right. However, it is the magic of the mother’s story, the metaphor of a secret hidden life under the surface of reality, not the story’s moral lesson, that fascinates Joe and makes him urge his mother to tell it over and over again.

Based on this story, as well as his generalized Oedipal fascination for the mysterious mother, Joe develops fantasies about his mother’s secret life, complete with packets of love letters he searches for but never finds and a mysterious man named Edward who leaves her for an exotic woman named Natasha. The Oedipal connection is suggested by the fact that the mother once whimsically introduced Joe and his sister Jenny to each other as Edward and Natasha. Thus, Joe is the mysterious man Edward, who competes with his father for his mother’s attentions.

When Joe’s mother develops Alzheimer’s disease and must...

(The entire section is 578 words.)