Big Two-Hearted River

The Swamp Symbol Icon

The murky, tangled swamp is a reflection of Nick’s dark memories and unresolved emotions. While nature in the story is mostly a rejuvenating and hopeful force, the swamp, in contrast, comes across as uncontrollable and terrifying. At the end of Part I, when Nick is tired and ready to fall asleep in his comfortable tent, “The swamp [is] perfectly quiet,” suggesting that at that moment his mind is calm and empty of disconcerting thoughts and memories. However, in Part II, the swamp is an ominous presence when Nick is fishing on the river. Its tree trunks are “close together” and seem impenetrable. Nick is constantly aware of the swamp, and repeatedly thinks that he does not want to go inside it, which suggests that he is afraid of it. Throughout the story, Nick attempts to avoid situations that might trigger a strong emotional response in him—he suppresses memories of his friend Hopkins (who is implied to have died in World War I), reigning in his emotions and struggling to control his reactions. It seems like he feels he will lose control if he enters the swamp. In order to control his emotions, he needs to control his environment much like he controls his emotions—whether through making an elaborate camp or dinner, or successfully landing a trout—but at the swamp, he fears he will have no control. There, among the low-growing trees, darkness, and deep water, he thinks that fishing will be a “tragic adventure.” However, toward the end of the story, Nick thinks that there are “plenty of days coming where he could fish the swamp,” suggesting that he is optimistic that the fishing trip by the river will fortify him so he will be resilient enough to face the challenge of the swamp, and thus, to confront his painful memories.

The Swamp Quotes in Big Two-Hearted River

The Big Two-Hearted River quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Swamp. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Simon & Schuster edition of Big Two-Hearted River published in 1987.
Part II Quotes

Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that. The branches grew so low. You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all. You could not crash through the branches. […]

He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He did not feel like going on into the swamp. […]

Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it.

Related Characters: Nick
Related Symbols: The Swamp
Page Number: 179 - 180
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Swamp Symbol Timeline in Big Two-Hearted River

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Swamp appears in Big Two-Hearted River. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part I
Nature and Control Theme Icon
The night is peaceful, and the swamp, too, is “perfectly quiet.” Nick is comfortable on the blanket when a mosquito buzzes in... (full context)
Part II
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...Nick crawls out and looks around him at the meadow, the river, and the green swamp that has birch trees in it. The river is clear and smooth. Nick watches a... (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...“sharply and coldly.” On his left is the meadow, and on his right is the swamp. (full context)
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...smoking and looking out at the river. “Ahead, the river narrow[s] and [goes] into a swamp,” which looks “solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together. […] It would not be... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Physical vs. Emotional Suffering Theme Icon
...wishes he had brought something to read. He does not want to go into the swamp. He would not like to wade in the water “deepening up under his armpits; […]... (full context)
The Inevitability of Change  Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
...the trees. He thinks there are “plenty of days coming when he [can] fish the swamp.” (full context)