Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Inevitable Passage of Time
Neddy’s journey home through the pools of his neighborhood turns into a journey through many years of his life, showing that the passage of time is inevitable, no matter how much one might ignore it. Neddy has mastered the art of denial. At the beginning of the story, the narrator tells us that Neddy is “far from young,” but he does his best to act young by sliding down a banister and diving headlong into a pool. The long afternoon at the Westerhazys’ pool seems timeless, no different, we can assume, from many other afternoons spent exactly the same way. Neddy’s idea to swim home seems like just one more idea in a series of ideas that have popped up on many similar occasions.
As Neddy’s journey progresses, we see that time is actually passing much more quickly than Neddy realizes. Leaves and hedges turn yellow and red, the constellations in the sky change, and the air gets colder. Friends are not at home when he expects them to be, he faces scorn from the people he’d once scorned, his mistress wants nothing to do with him, and he learns that a friend has been very ill. All of these changes have happened without Neddy’s knowledge. Neddy questions his memory, but he also wonders whether he has simply denied reality to a dangerous degree. His peers have acted their age and faced adult problems, whereas he has resisted. His former mistress even asks him, “Will you ever grow up?” Only at the end of the story when Neddy faces his dark, empty house does he realize that time has passed. He has tried to ignore it, but its passage has proven to be inevitable.
The Emptiness of Suburbia
As Neddy makes his journey across the county, we see that emptiness and despair lie beneath the sunny façade of suburbia. Although Neddy seems to have a full, happy life, he nevertheless remains isolated from others. He makes a habit of rejecting invitations and has been out of touch with many people whom he considers friends. Neddy can’t even seem to remember personal details about many of them, such as when Mrs. Levy bought her Japanese lanterns. He knows the rules of the social world he occupies, but this is a world built primarily on appearances. Along his path, he encounters the comfortable trappings of high society, but no genuine friends. And everywhere he goes, people are drinking heavily, which suggests that there is something from which they are trying to escape or hide.
The emptiness of suburbia also applies to Neddy’s love life. Even though Neddy names his pool path after his wife, Lucinda, he is cut off from her as well by virtue of his affair with Shirley Adams. The affair, however, also lacks genuine love. When Neddy thinks about Shirley, he defines “love” as “sexual roughhouse,” which is what he looks to for comfort and warmth. At the end of the story, when Neddy is actually alone and facing his empty house, the true state of his life is, for the first time, clear. The foundations were flimsy and his relationships weak.
The pervasive consumption of alcohol throughout the story sharpens the distortion of time and Neddy’s sense of unhappiness. The drinking, serving, and desire for alcohol become significant motivators for Neddy as well as a way to measure his social standing. At the beginning of the story, everyone is complaining of having drunk too much the night before, but they have gathered companionably at the Westerhazys’ pool to drink again. Neddy drinks gin before he decides to swim from pool to pool, and his swim home is marked as much by fresh drinks as by new swimming pools. At the Bunkers’ party, Neddy feels comforted and happy when he is given a drink, whereas at the Biswangers’ party, he feels slighted by the way his drink is served. As his journey grows more difficult, Neddy wishes deeply for a drink but is often turned down, once at the Sachses’ and once at Shirley Adams’s. His desire for a drink grows stronger as he grows weaker, and the amount of alcohol he has consumed during his journey could explain the harsh, bewildering emotional place in which Neddy finds himself at the end of the story.
Maps and Exploration
Images of maps and exploration regularly punctuate “The Swimmer,” highlighting the gap between Neddy’s perceived understanding of his happiness and direction in life and the messy confusion that eventually takes over. When Neddy gets the idea to swim home through the pools in his county, he sees himself as a brave explorer, setting off for the unknown from a home base that is stable and secure. Neddy likens himself to a “legendary figure” who is making an important discovery, and as he begins his journey, he calls himself a “pilgrim” and an “explorer.” When Neddy envisions his friends’ pools, he sees them through a mapmaker’s eyes, even though the narrator tells us that Neddy’s maps are imaginary at best—the first hint that Neddy’s sense of direction and place is flimsy. The lighthearted fantasies about exploring eventually disappear as Neddy’s journey grows harder and stranger. By the end of the story, Neddy has literally lost his way. He thought he was moving through familiar territory, but the home where he finds himself, dark and empty, is someplace he’s never been before.
The pools that Neddy swims through as he makes his way home represent periods of time that Neddy passes through. At the beginning of the story, Neddy is strong and active, feels deep contentment with his life, and is admired by his friends. Warm in the sun, he feels like a “legendary figure,” as though there is nothing he can’t accomplish. As he progresses from pool to pool, however, Neddy changes. Physically, he grows weaker, unable to pull himself out of pools without a ladder and unwilling to dive in as he once did. Instead of being warm, he eventually feels chilled to the bone. Around him, the sunny summer day grows increasingly cooler, and a storm passes. The trees, meanwhile, lose their leaves, and the constellations change to those of autumn. His standing in his social circle has changed as well. Once respected and given to snubbing those who aren’t part of his group, he is now snubbed by Grace Biswanger and the bartender at her party. Other acquaintances pity him for his “misfortunes,” which Neddy isn’t aware that he has suffered. A lot has happened as he’s been moving from pool to pool, and Neddy has undergone these changes unwittingly.
Neddy has named the chain of pools the “Lucinda River,” invoking the security and longevity of his marriage and family, but his choice of name becomes sad and ironic when he winds up at his dark, deserted home. Neddy has taken Lucinda, just as he took his comfortable life, for granted. We don’t know much about their marriage, but we know of Neddy’s affair with Shirley, an affair he treated lightly and to which he attached no meaning. Treating adultery so casually implies that Neddy assumed that Lucinda would always be there, supportive and secure. When the Lucinda River deposits him at a lonely, unfamiliar place, he faces the consequences of his actions and harsh reality of the passing years for the first time.
Changes in Weather and Season
The changes in weather and season that occur throughout “The Swimmer” mirror Neddy’s changing life circumstances, particularly the deterioration of his comfort and security. At the beginning of the story, Neddy is warm in the sunshine, conscious of nothing but his own happiness and the pleasures of the day. As he begins his swim, the water and air are of comfortable temperature, and he can walk easily from pool to pool in his swim trunks. Shortly into his journey, a storm passes, marking a turning point in Neddy’s plans. He is alone for the first time, waiting out the storm in a deserted gazebo; and when the storm ends, the warmth is gone. He is chilly, and the red and yellow leaves on the ground suggest fall—Neddy feels a “peculiar sadness,” the first time he feels anything other than happiness. Weather and season are not kind to Neddy from this moment on. He gets colder, sees more signs of fall, and changes from a robust traveler into a pathetic figure by the highway. Autumn arrives in full as Neddy finishes his journey, and the final pool he swims in has freezing-cold water. Just as Neddy’s happy life has come to a close, the cycle of seasons has been completed as well, and it is clear by the end of the story that Neddy is entering the winter of his life.