All three stories depict the American family by examining devastating yet sadly common life events. Characters in all three stories seem unable to understand the impersonal nature of tragedy and choose to portray themselves as victims rather than taking responsibility for their actions. In John Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer,” Ned Merrill is in denial about the end of his marriage and estrangement from his children. He takes a day to joyfully visit his neighbors, hatching a plan to swim across all of their pools in a pathetic attempt to recapture his youth by swimming home. Through his various interactions with neighbors the reader learns that Ned is in denial about the break-up of his marriage and estrangement from his children. This is due, at least in part, to an affair he carried on with a young woman in town. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions and accepting the consequences of his actions, he reverts to a fantasy in which he attempts to recapture the vitality and adulation he enjoyed in his youth. During the story’s climax Ned begins to cry for “probably the first time in his adult life” and “He could not understand” how he has fallen out of favor with his neighbors and with his mistress—he cannot take responsibility for his previous actions.
In Raymond Carver’s short story, “A Small, Good Thing,” the American family is portrayed by a couple, Howard and Ann, and their son Scotty. Again, we see characters who do not accept an appropriate level of moral responsibility. For example, after the couple’s son dies immediately after coming out of a coma, the doctor says, “Maybe…they could have saved him. But more than likely not. In any case, what would they have been looking for? Nothing had shown up in the tests or in the X-rays.” The story had made clear that something was not right with Scotty’s condition, yet, the doctor does not seem willing to accept that he could have done more to save the boy. Scotty had been hit by a car, the driver of which does not stop and try to help the boy but drives away after Scotty rises shakily to his feet. The driver’s actions clearly illustrate an abdication of moral responsibility. Even Howard and Ann cannot seem to believe that tragedy has befallen them. Anne shouts that Scotty’s death “isn’t fair,” even though she knows another young boy at the hospital has also died just as senselessly and randomly. Howard opines, “No, I don’t understand, doctor. I can’t, I can’t. I just can’t.”
The theme of embracing victimhood is also present in Anne Tyler’s short story, “Average Waves in Unprotected Waters.” The protagonist, Bet, encounters very challenging situations that affect her life profoundly. Her husband leaves her, and her son is born mentally handicapped prompting her to decide that she must institutionalize him. Bet is portrayed as defiant as she navigates life within her assumed role as a victim of circumstances. Although personally tragic, these are average troubles which many adults encounter. Bet is far from alone in experiencing the abandonment of a spouse and the birth of a handicapped child, but she allows these events to define her and her outlook on life. Rather than continuing to care for her son she leaves him in an institution after deciding he is too much for her to bear. She does not attempt to take responsibility in dealing with these challenges.