Character Analysis of the Narrator in the Short Story the Lifeguard by Mary Morris Term Paper

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protagonist of Mary Morris' short story "The Lifeguard"

The most notable thing about Mary Morris' short story entitled "The Lifeguard" is the way that the story makes an adolescent and largely undefined character a powerful, first person narrator. This is especially extraordinary in a tale with only one scene of truly wrenching external action. The rest of the narrative is mostly a series of observations, through the watchful but mostly bored eyes of the lifeguard. Morris creates a sense of drama and progression by structuring the short tale along a series of contrasts, first in terms of the lifeguard's place in life against the older inhabitants he watches, then regarding the lifeguard's relative youth and mobility vs. The other character's age and stasis, and finally between the main character's unfulfilled youthful, sexual desires and the other character's unfulfilled adult desires for different and better lives.

Morris, by making the main character's body the focus of the narrative early on, creates an immediate physical juxtaposition between the lifeguard and the summer people whom he watches, guarding over their lives and livelihoods. From the beginning, as the tale is set in summer, and by the bodies of water where human bodies are the main focus of the eye, the physical appearance and life of the characters holds sway. Josh Michael's, the lifeguard's appearance, stands in contrast to all of the other characters, but particularly the older characters of the narrative, most of whom are long past their physical and sexual prime.

The first extended physical character portrait is not of the main lifeguarding character, but of one of the characters he frequently observes over the course of his daily seaside duties. However, by recording the character's observations of another persons' life and body, the ideas that are important to "The Lifeguard" become immediately clear. Ric Spencer comes on weekends with his wife Sally, a woman whose "bikini wearing days" are over, because of a hasty marriage and the arrival of little Becky Spencer. The Spencers illustrate what the narrating lifeguard is attempting to avoid -- old age, responsibility, and physical decrepitude. (425)

Early on, it becomes clear that the lifeguard is attractive and single, while most of the contrasting older couples are no longer attractive. The lifeguard seems to live in a state of endless possibility and desirability, while Ric and his wife are stuck with what fate has dealt them -- responsibility, and a child. And at first, the character of Josh seems to glory in this, and find a certain sense of superiority in his abilities and summer lifestyle, even while his eye is 'turned' by an older woman caught in a marriage and a respectable life.

Critical to his somewhat shaken sense of superiority is Josh's youth. This makes him a figure of projection and longing of the other characters. Mr. Lovenheim initially confirms the character's sense of foolish, youthful superiority when he says, "you've got all this," meaning the beach, girls, and the future ahead of Josh, as opposed to a career selling odds and ends in the cold of New England. (427) The irony of Mr. Lovenheim's statement, however, is that Lovenheim has one thing that Josh desires, the only thing the attractive and free lifeguard cannot have, namely the presence and the body of Mrs. Lovenheim.

Josh tries to find consolation, however, in other things. "I loved by body that summer," says the character, confirming Mr. Lovenheim's suspicions that girls, and the world is a young, attractive male lifeguard's oyster, no pun intended. (427) But again, even though girls flock to him, Josh cannot have what he really desires, the one woman he desires in the form of Mrs. Lovenheim -- he can only watch her from afar, watch her as he does the sea. This means that as much as both Josh and the individuals around him prize youth, attractiveness, and freedom, the lifeguard still has a lingering sense at some level that these apparent glories are not everything. The presence of men who are stuck in unfulfilling relationships also underlines the fact that even when enjoyed to the utmost, being a young and unattached lifeguard cannot last forever, and middle age is always knocking at the door.


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