Themes and Meanings
As in many of Joyce Carol Oates’s works, violence is an underlying theme of “The Swimmers.” The violence that took place in the past is an ominous presence, and fear of more violence is at the core of the story. Joan Lunt is a wounded person, struggling to build a new life for herself, still held captive by the fears of her past. Just as her relationship with Clyde is strengthening, an act of violence breaks them apart. When Clyde hits Joan’s former husband, he is reacting as many men would in the same situation. It may be said that he is actually acting as her protector. Joan, however, sees only the act of violence and runs away.
Another characteristic of Oates’s characters is their fear of commitment. Joan is fighting to overcome her past, to survive on her own, unencumbered by possessions or people. Her suitcases remain packed so that she can flee quickly if necessary. The contradiction in her personality is shown in the contrast between her clean, strong, self-confident strokes as a swimmer and the frightened woman who drinks alone at the bar, always watching for trouble. She is suspended between her love for Clyde and her fear of involvement. Her previous experience has left her unable fully to commit to a new relationship. Although Clyde has a number of friends, he has never made a serious commitment to anyone either. A powerful attraction draws them together, and their feelings for each other are intense. The tension in their relationship charges the atmosphere. The failure of the relationship is a result of a lack of understanding and an inability to make a commitment.
Isolation is another theme that pervades “The Swimmers.” Joan is an outsider, different, an object of curiosity. The townspeople regard Joan with suspicion, and she does not want to become involved with the community. Joan guards her privacy, and Clyde leads a solitary life. These people who swim so expertly in the safety of the YMCA pool seem unable to deal with the forces of life on the outside.