Neddy Merrill, with his perfect family, high social standing, and pricey suburban home, has few problems in his life and seems to see himself and all his friends as blessed. Neddy has mastered all the rules of the world he inhabits. He accepts and rejects invitations according to a rigid social hierarchy and engages in all the expected trappings and activities: tennis, drinking gin, and sailing. He has many friends, and his position in this privileged world allows him to hop from pool to pool uninvited, confident that he will be welcomed wherever he goes. If there is any unpleasantness in Neddy’s world, Neddy opts not to see it. Although he is no longer young, he prides himself on his youthful strength and vigor and seems to see himself as invincible. He exists in a state of bliss that leaves no room for anything but health and happiness.
As Neddy undertakes his watery journey home, he begins to understand that the discontent he’s always stubbornly ignored is more present in his life than he realized. Neddy has made a habit of rejecting invitations, and as friend after friend remarks on how long it’s been since they’ve seen him, it becomes clear that he has distanced himself from those around him: he hadn’t been aware of his friend’s illness, friends have moved away, and he himself has suffered from some unknown misfortune that has cost him his wealth and family. The robust health and strength that Neddy enjoys leaves him, and he gets weaker as his journey progresses. Rather than being eternally youthful, Neddy is actually aging and moving toward death. Everything he once considered his right—his family, mistress’s affection, youth, and social standing—have disappeared, and at the end of the story he is left entirely alone. Neddy is not an evil man in any way, but his willful ignorance of the unpleasant side of life eventually leads to his downfall.