The title story in the collection Learning to Swim and Other Stories (1982) was originally published in 1978 and is one of Graham Swift’s bestknown tales. It is representative of this author’s short fiction: The plot focuses on domestic strife, and traditional, realist methods of exposition are combined with nonlinear chronology and symbolism.
The motif of marital unhappiness recurs in the collection as a whole. The husbands in the stories fear intimacy and invite betrayal through their inability to connect: Thus in “Learning to Swim” a lesson in surviving the water given by Mr. Singleton to his six-yearold son exposes a tug-of-war between spouses as well as their inability to restore a troubled relationship. The stories differ only in the degree of antagonism exhibited and the variety of pain-inducing strategies each story describes, since all the couples in Swift’s stories appear to stay together in order to “conceal their feelings,” as the narrator of “Cliffedge” suggests, rather than seek emotional fulfilment.
A third-person, omniscient narrative, “Learning to Swim” exemplifies the cruelty of domestic wars through the portrait of a nuclear family. In this story the human need for emotional dependence and the resentment that emerges from the acknowledgment of such a need are symbolized through a swimming lesson. During a summer vacation in Cornwall, the Singletons, with Paul, their six-year-old son, are spending a day on the beach. While the wife sunbathes and recalls past holidays and important moments in her youth and married life, her reverie is repeatedly interrupted by shouts of “kick!” as her husband impatiently tries to teach Paul how to swim. Her unwillingness to assist with the lesson and the urgency with which the husband commands the boy, refusing to release him before he has acquired the skill, reveal marital unhappiness and chronic resentment between the spouses. Paul’s lesson turns into a battle of wills, and the little boy finds himself caught between his instinct for self-preservation and his desire to satisfy his father while retaining his mother’s love.
Mr. Singleton, an engineer and builder of bridges, is more interested in water than land: Only when he swims does he “feel quite by himself, quite sufficient.” In his daily life he works with solid material, but in his dreams he becomes a water creature: He moves effortlessly “through vast expanses of water,” going “for long distances under water” without having to “bother about breathing.” He constantly reads to his son from Charles Kingsley’s novel The Water Babies, a didactic Victorian fairy tale, believing that it is the one story that might transform Paul into the amphibious child he desires. In his infrequent sexual encounters with his wife, Mr. Singleton desires to “swim through her”; he feels that his wife’s physical being gets “in the way” of another world where he can be alone and whole.
Mr. Singleton, as his name suggests, resents the physical and emotional demands of married life and has considered leaving his wife for a life of “Spartan purity.” His denial of the body sharply contrasts with the pleasure Mrs. Singleton takes in sensual indulgence. She imagines her body to have been carved out of stone; as she lies on the sand in Cornwall, willing herself to become “part of the beach,” she lets “the sun make love” to her. Mrs. Singleton’s sensual, solid form keeps her husband from liberating himself into liquidity. Caught in this elemental struggle between water and land, male and female, the six-year-old Paul must choose between his parents’ conflicting, and to him terrifying, desires: his father’s impotent fight against dependence and his mother’s suffocating demand for allegiance. While Mrs. Singleton entices Paul out of the water with promises of ice cream and kisses, Mr. Singleton keeps him in the sea in the hope that his son will choose to be a water baby, not a land child. Ultimately, Paul makes an instinctive decision: He breaks away from his parents’ self-torturing routine of injury and remorse, and trusting his body to the sea, he swims toward independence in “this strange new element that seemed all his own.”
In all the stories in Learning to Swim, paternity is unwanted or denied to husbands. When they become fathers, these tortured and torturing men seek to establish their authority and force their beliefs on their sons. Like the 11-year-old Roger in “Gabor,” Paul rejects paternal beliefs by swimming “away from his father, away from the shore.” Although children embody a mystical promise of regeneration, after long years of strife between the partners the Singleton marriage has been destroyed beyond repair. The story ends with Paul’s moment of triumph; although the reader celebrates the boy’s courage and unexpected assertiveness, little doubt is left that his parents’ struggle will continue unaffected by their son’s lesson in survival.
Swift, Graham. Learning to Swim and Other Stories. 1982. London: Heinemann, 1985.