Anne Tyler Short Fiction Analysis
Classified by critics as a southern writer, Anne Tyler focuses on modern families and their unique relationships. Her underlying theme is that time inexorably changes the direction of people’s lives. The past determines the present and the present determines the future. Her stories show that life moves in generational cycles and that conflicts inevitably arise as time passes and settings change. Within families, the perspective of love evolves, children grow up and leave home, and death and grief sever connections. When a character’s freedom is restricted by too many demands on energy or resources, the individual must make choices, adapt to changing circumstances, and endure insecurity and hardship before reaching a temporary equilibrium. Tyler says that life is a “web, crisscrossed by strings of love and need and worry.” Her humanistic worldview focuses on individuals, isolated and unable to communicate complex emotions such as love, grief, despair, or guilt. Missed connections, language, social class, age, religious beliefs, ethnicity, and other barriers prevent communication.
Tyler is always aware of the writer/reader connection. What draws a reader are “concrete details, carefully layered to create complexity and depth, like real life.” Characters must be individuals with unique qualities, and their dialogue must flow like conversation. Tyler often uses multiple points of view as a third-person observer. She says she is able to assume a convincing masculine persona in her narrative because most human experience has no particular gender. She makes effective use of flashbacks, in which a character’s memory travels to the past and links it to the present and future.
“Your Place Is Empty”
The idea for this story occurred when Tyler accompanied her husband, Taghi Modarressi, to Iran to meet his large family. Before the journey, Tyler, like the character Elizabeth, taught herself Persian and spoke it well enough to communicate on a surface level, but she soon discovered that mere words could not express complex emotions or overcome her feelings of being an outsider in a foreign culture.
The situation is reversed in “Your Place Is Empty.” Mrs. Ardavi arrives in the United States for a six-month visit with her son Hassan, his American wife Elizabeth, and their small daughter. Hassan has lived in the United States for twelve years and is a successful doctor. Upon arrival at the airport, his mother does not recognize him. She reminds him that his place at home is still empty and urges him to return to Iran. Hassan has not forgotten his heritage, but he has changed, an underlying theme of the story.
Another theme shows how conflicts arise when people from different cultures cannot adapt. At first Elizabeth tries to make Mrs. Ardavi welcome, but soon language and culture become barriers to communication. As Mrs. Ardavi attempts to express her personality and infuse her son’s home with Iranian customs, Elizabeth feels resentful and isolated, as if her freedom within her own home is restricted. Food preparation symbolizes their conflict. Elizabeth serves bacon, a taboo food for Mrs. Ardavi, who clutters Elizabeth’s kitchen with spices and herbs, pots and pans, as she prepares Hassan’s favorite lamb stew. She thinks that Elizabeth’s meals are inadequate and that she is a negligent mother. Like an unsuccessful arbiter, Hassan stands between his mother and Elizabeth.
Tyler uses a narrative point of view that shifts between Mrs. Ardavi and Elizabeth. Insight into both women’s personalities evokes reader sympathy, especially for Mrs. Ardavi. In flashbacks, she recalls her traditional Muslim girlhood; an arranged marriage to a man she never loved; his prolonged illness and death; grief over her oldest son’s unhappy marriage and his untimely death; problems with the spoiled and pregnant wife of her youngest son; and the small comfort of “knowing her place” within the family circle of thirteen sisters who gossip and drink tea each afternoon. Elizabeth expresses resentment at her mother-in-law’s interference with icy silence, zealous housecleaning, and private complaints to Hassan. Realizing that the situation has reached an impasse, Hassan suggests that for the duration of her visit, Mrs. Ardavi move to a nearby apartment, away from the intimacy of his family. Unable to find “her place” in her son’s American home, Mrs. Ardavi returns to Iran.
“Average Waves in Unprotected Waters”
This story shows how...
(The entire section is 1853 words.)