Average Waves in Unprotected Waters

by Anne Tyler

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Arnold Blevins
Arnold Blevins is a nine-year-old boy with developmental disabilities who has been raised by his mother, Bet. The day portrayed in the story marks his transition from his mother’s apartment to his new home at the Parkinsville State Hospital. Arnold is described as small though ‘‘strong, wiry’’ and ‘‘thin-skinned, almost transparent.’’ He has ‘‘great glassy eyes’’ and looks that make him appear elderly, ‘‘pinched, strained, tired.’’ He rarely alters his expression. The reader is told that he has fits, frequently violent tantrums that have become difficult for his mother to manage. He is easily bored, and when he becomes so, he often becomes unruly. He loves gum and sometimes swallows the gum even though he has been told not to. He often looks at familiar things as if they were unfamiliar or brand new. New things also ‘‘have no meaning for him.’’ Though he is described in a way that suggests he forms no attachments, he does form attachments to some material items like his little ‘‘red duffel coat.’’ He appears, however, oblivious to most human attachments, including the long-standing relationship with the Blevins’s neighbor, Mrs. Puckett, who has baby-sat him since his birth.

Avery Blevins
Avery Blevins is Bet Blevins’s absent husband, who left her and their son, Arnold, a few weeks after learning that Arnold was mentally handicapped.

Bet Blevins
Bet Blevins is the struggling single mother of Arnold Blevins, a nine-year-old developmentally disabled boy for whom she can no longer care. Bet’s viewpoint is prevalent throughout the story and shows her as a woman who, first and foremost, takes ‘‘comfort from enduring.’’ Strength of character has facilitated her life with Arnold, without the support of family, for many years. Bet’s choices have required that she endure. She withstood a rash marriage to Avery, who left her and Arnold a few weeks after the boy was diagnosed as mentally disabled, and she has endured the hardship of caring for Arnold by herself. Bet vacillates between believing that Avery was the genetic cause of her son’s defect and placing the culpability on herself. She believes that she ‘‘never could do anything as well as most people,’’ and this feeling of failure translates not only to her guilty belief in her role in her son’s biological condition, but now, in her social role as Arnold’s mother. Bet’s thoughts are fixated on making Arnold appear acceptable, clean, and cherished on this day, when she is to take him to live in the state hospital. Though the place ultimately promises proper and ongoing care for him, many of Bet’s actions during the day suggest her uncertainty about the decision.

Much of Bet’s character is revealed through memory. Through Bet’s memories, the reader becomes aware of the hardship and isolation she has had to endure. In many ways, Bet idealizes her past life, which was ‘‘beautifully free and spacious,’’ though she recognizes how, even then, she was destined to live staunchly and endure, ‘‘as if standing staunch were a virtue.’’ Her strength throughout these years of struggle takes a great toll on her, and ultimately, in order to endure the pain of loss, she chooses to disconnect and become an observer of life rather than a participant.

Mrs. Puckett
Mrs. Puckett is the Blevins’s neighbor who baby-sat Arnold from his birth until he became too big for her to manage. She breaks down as she gives Bet cookies for Arnold and watches him leave his home for the last time.

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