Average Waves in Unprotected Waters

by Anne Tyler

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In "Average Waves in Unprotected Waters" by Anne Tyler, how does the author use figurative language to achieve her purpose?

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One purpose of Tyler's story is to explain the emotional cost of the mother's decision to institutionalize her son. Part of this involves describing the "otherness" of the son, which Tyler does through figurative language. When she describes the son as "standing inside his clothes," or says that his nails are as smooth as the heads of thumbtacks, the comparisons highlight the ways in which the boy is not like other boys.

But the language also points out the mother's torn emotions about taking her son to the institution. Although the son is different from other children, she still sees him as an individual. She knows his quirks and inner emotional life; although the sounds he makes are described as animalistic, she can tell from them whether he is happy, angry, or sad. Her emphatic discussion with the cab driver about waiting for her while she drops her son off suggests that she wants to make a quick getaway, but when she gets to the train station and finds her train is delayed, she begins to panic at the thought of having to wait.

The description of the men setting up for the event at which the mayor will make a speech about the new rail station crystalizes how the figurative language represents her inner state. She is relieved by the preparations, seeing the men as part of a "play" that will distract her while she waits. This distraction, in fact, is what the rest of her life will be like. Reality will be a "play" to distract her from the events that caused her to give up her son.

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