When analyzing Anne Tyler’s 1977 short story “Average Waves in Unprotected Waters”, it is best to attempt to view the story of Bet Blevins and her contemplations on life as she takes the difficult step of committing her 9-year-old son Arnold to a mental institution from the vantage of the contemporary era when much more is known of emotional and mental conditions adversely affecting children and when one can look back upon a particular era in modern American history and assess it objectively. The 1970s, when Tyler wrote her story, was an age of narcissistic self-fulfillment, when the individual assumed greater importance relative to the society as a whole. Bet is a living embodiment of that phenomenon. Over her now-deceased parents’ objections, she married too young to the wrong man. Her husband, Avery, abandoned the family when their only child, Arnold, was diagnosed with a mental disability (what today would probably be diagnosed as severe autism, evident in the narrator’s descriptions of Arnold’s behavior, characterized by long periods of staring into space interrupted by violent fits of rage when routine is upset). As a single mother, Bet has struggled to care for Arnold while maintaining some semblance of a normal life. Her escape from the realities of her existence involve memories of her childhood, especially family trips to the beach. Bet’s father “couldn’t arrange his day until he’d heard the marine forecast. . .the height of average waves in unprotected waters.” Her father would try in vain to teach Bet how to body surf, but she would instead just stand in the waves “as if standing staunch were a virtue.”
“Standing staunch” would become Bet’s mantra in life. She would make no effort at overcoming obstacles, but would instead survive by simply enduring. In her ability to endure all matter of hardships, she would appear, at least to herself, a beacon of moral fortitude. The waves she failed to conquer, however, represent the obstacles life has placed in her path, and rather than ride those waves, she merely endures. Following Bet’s departure from the Parkinsville State Hospital, she has the taxi driver return her to the train station, where she has exquisitely timed her departure to minimize any delay in returning to her dingy, drab one-bedroom apartment. The train, however, is delayed, and Bet is terrified of the 20 minute gap that lies ahead between now and the train’s newly-scheduled arrival time. She is “saved,” however, by the appearance of the town’s mayor and his decision to give a 20 minute speech to those present. As Tyler’s narrator describes Bet’s reaction to this sudden development, Bet can now resume the theme of her existence – that of just muddling through – but from a more distant perspective. She can now be an observer, rather than the principal actor in a failed play. As Tyler wrote, life became “just something on a stage for her to sit back and watch.”
Tyler’s ending – Bet content to sit back and observe life – does not represent a triumph over adversity; on the contrary, while we cannot condemn Bet for her decision to institutionalize her young son, as we haven’t ‘walked in her shoes,’ as it were, we are troubled by the speed with which she has emotionally divorced herself from her previous life with Arnold. The aforementioned “marine report” of “average waves in unprotected waters” is intended as a public service to announce that it is safe for the average swimmer to enter the ocean. The waves, as was noted, represent life’s obstacles. The notion of “unprotected waters,” similarly, represents the realities of daily existence. It is life itself. Bet hasn’t triumphed over adversity; she has instead, once again, taken the easy path with the fewest obstacles, or waves.