What are the main themes in "We Live in Water" by Jess Walter?

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The central theme of "We Live in Water" is the question of determinism versus free will. The story cuts between 1958 and 1992. The 1958 story focuses on a petty criminal named Oren, targeted by former associates, while the 1992 story focuses on his grown-up son Michael, trying to find...

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The central theme of "We Live in Water" is the question of determinism versus free will. The story cuts between 1958 and 1992. The 1958 story focuses on a petty criminal named Oren, targeted by former associates, while the 1992 story focuses on his grown-up son Michael, trying to find out what became of Oren after he disappeared long ago. Both Oren and the adult Michael struggle with the bad decisions they've made in their lives, and both hope to escape from the self-destructive cycles from which they cannot seem to break away. Oren is unable to escape his bad decisions, despite believing in free will, while the more fatalistic Michael, introduced as fighting a tobacco addiction and dealing with the aftermath of a divorce, is unsure about it.

Water is the main symbol used to communicate this theme. Oren's memory of the wide expanse of ocean during the war reflects his belief in free will and possibility. In contrast, the child Michael is obsessed with a fish tank, where the fish are forced to swim in circles no matter what they do. Michael constantly asks his father if they live in water. He does not mean this literally but rather in an existential sense. He sees the fish trapped in the water of the tank and wonders if human beings similarly are trapped, unable to escape from fate. Oren assures his son, "We ain't like fish, Michael ... You can do whatever you want."

For the adult Michael, discovering his father's fate might be a way of resolving this question of fate versus free will. However, he never finds out for certain: the 1958 story strongly implies Oren is killed, and in the 1992 story, Oren's old friend Flett lies when asked about his fate, saying Oren left town. Michael clearly does not take Flett at his word, and his ultimate uncertainty leaves the thematic inquiry open at the end of the story.

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