A troubled family relationship and a vast generation gap form the themes of the title story of Swift's collected short works. This is fitting, as the same concepts recur in the tales that follow as well as in Swift's novels. The story has three central characters, Mr. & Mrs. Singleton and their son Paul. It is significant that the narrator refers to the couple only as "Mr. & Mrs." since they become not people but types throughout Swift's writing. "Singleton" is representative of their nature as individuals. Although their marriage works it does not work well and each ends up using Paul to hurt the other. Paul, like St. Paul, is being martyred for a cause.
Another common element in Swift's writing is water and its presence is no surprise in a story entitled "Learning to Swim." In "The Watch," Swift writes that the sea embodies "risk, fortune, fame -- or oblivion," (p.166) and this is the case for the Singletons. Water represents fame for Mr. Singleton. He achieved his strong sense of self through religious dedication to competition swimming in secondary school. He is so close to the water that he seems to loathe the land -- on vacation in Greece he stayed in the ocean almost all the time, "as if afraid of foreign soil." (p.9) Mrs. Singleton is at one point described as "part of the beach," (p.20) diametrically opposed to her husband. This elemental opposition is apparent even in the delivery room, when Mrs. Singleton gives birth to Paul. Mrs. Singleton feels like a "warm, splitting rock," and she sees her husband looking down at her from the "big, watery lights." (p.21)
"Learning to Swim" is broken up into three sections, one told primarily by Mrs. Singleton, one by Mr. Singleton, and the last by Paul. Both of the parents dwell on the several times they each considered leaving the other. The entire story is one of breaking up that reaches its conclusion in the water with Mr. Singleton trying to teach Paul to swim. This is the central and most pressing conflict in the tale. If Paul swims the father wins; if he resists the mother retains control over him and is able to continue to protect him. In this way the central struggle of water vs. land/wife vs. husband is set up for the reader. Paul has the final say in the present battle, as he struggles with water wings, feeling both humiliated and terrified by the experience. After many failed attempts Paul finally learns to swim. He heads not for the beach, not towards his father who "stood like a man waiting to clasp a lover," (p.28) but away from both, "in this strange new element that seemed all his own." Through water Paul has found freedom on his own terms.