Average Waves in Unprotected Waters

by Anne Tyler

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Average Waves in Unprotected Waters

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Contemporary writers arrive on the literary scene with a force of history behind them. They arrive after major literary movements and eras and are sometimes compared to the romantics, the humanists, the southern school, or the Victorians. Sometimes a writer fits neatly into a category or the melding of a few categories. Anne Tyler, in a career that began in the 1960s and continues today, has been compared to all of these seemingly disparate schools and eras of literature. Not only can critics not agree on what category she belongs to, but they also cannot agree on how to read her work. Her prose has been called at once ‘‘brilliantly funny,’’ by Robert McPhilips in his review of Breathing Lessons in The Nation, and ‘‘cute till it cloys . . . schmatlz,’’ by John C. Hawley in his review of Back When We Were Grownups in America. Paul Gray, in his review of A Patchwork Planet in Time, calls Tyler’s fiction ‘‘a fragile place sustained by hope and love,’’ while Carol Iannone, in a review of Tyler’s work in the National Review, calls her stories ‘‘faceless and thin.’’ With so many conflicting adjectives used to describe Tyler’s work, a reader may have a difficult time determining just where she fits. Alice Hall Petry, in her book, Understanding Anne Tyler, notes that critical attention ‘‘has consisted of efforts to fit her work into traditional literary classifications.’’ She suggests that this is a difficult if not impossible task because of what many critics, including Laura Shapiro in her Newsweek review of Ladder of Years, call Tyler’s ‘‘literature of daily life.’’ The widespread acknowledgement of Tyler’s knack for portraying the ordinary is the complicating factor when trying to fit her into a category or even the amalgamation of a few. The ordinary, a focus Tyler shares with one of her major influences, Eudora Welty, can be all of the things mentioned above. It can be deep and it can lack substance. It can be schmaltzy and brilliantly funny.

Ordinary life in ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ is the life of Bet Blevins, a single mother living with her son in a ‘‘rented room in an ancient, crumbling house.’’ Really, there is nothing extraordinary here at all. Bet is simply dealing with a day in her ordinarily difficult life. Frances H. Bachelder, in her article ‘‘Manacles of Fear: Emotional Affliction in Tyler’s Works’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, generalizes the roles of many of Tyler’s characters, including Bet, as people ‘‘perpetually struggling to live decent lives despite the handicaps of a tormented inner world and a troubling outer one.’’ At the beginning of the story, the reader knows only that something is happening on this day that is different than other days. Otherwise, Bet’s concerns are normal, daily concerns. She is concerned that her son, Arnold, look clean. She worries that he not become agitated. She worries that they will miss their bus and frets over giving him gum on the train. All of these are the worries of an ordinary mother.

Most ordinary lives contain a twist, and it is not until Bet is on the train that the reader truly learns, though he or she may have suspected, that Arnold is handicapped. The twist in Bet’s life is this burden, and the reader is meeting this ordinary woman on the day in which she is to institutionalize her son. Through characterization, or the way a character is portrayed, a reader may have guessed that there was something different about Arnold, but not until Bet begins...

(This entire section contains 1954 words.)

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to remember his birth is the full truth about Arnold revealed. Bet questions the ‘‘evil gene’’ that caused Arnold’s disability. She wonders if it came from her or from her husband, Avery, who left when they found out Arnold was handicapped. Ultimately, in questioning the gene, Bet questions the beginning of life and identity. Throughout the story, Arnold’s identity is vague. His jeans are too blue. Bet worries that he does not ‘‘look real.’’ It is his lack of identity and the origin of this lack that concerns Bet. Is it her fault? Did this handicap and vacancy come from her? As she recalls, ‘‘she never could do anything as well as most people,’’ and this revelation seems to include not only her biological contribution to Arnold’s life but also her role as Arnold’s caregiver.

As Bet wonders about her son and her worth as a mother, she also questions her own identity and the road she has taken to arrive at this time and place in her life. Bet recalls her ‘‘old life’’ that was ‘‘beautifully free and spacious.’’ The beauty and spaciousness of her remembered home is juxtaposed, or set in opposition, with her current life. As Croft states about many of Tyler’s characters, ‘‘the individual sometimes begins to feel restricted or even imprisoned.’’ Because her life is restricted, Bet chooses memory as a way to understand. She recalls her father trying to teach her how to body surf, how before he could ‘‘arrange his day’’ he had to listen for the tides and the ‘‘height of average waves in unprotected waters.’’ Bet recalls being unable to body surf instead, just standing ‘‘staunch’’ and letting the waves ‘‘slam into her.’’ This whole series of images acts as an extended metaphor, or a story that ultimately illuminates another story. Here, Bet’s past life illuminates her present life. Like herself as a child, Bet has yet to learn how to live flexibly, how to body surf over the waves, which are the ordinary problems that make a life. She stands staunch ‘‘as if standing staunch were a virtue.’’ She even stayed in the apartment after Avery, her husband, left her because she ‘‘took some comfort from enduring.’’ The average waves in unprotected waters are the ordinary problems and challenges that characterize every life. Instead of rolling over them and adapting to change, Bet lets these challenges hit her full force. Bet lets them ‘‘slam into her.’’ As Croft states, ‘‘What to do in a world of change becomes a critical question for Tyler’s characters.’’ Bet’s answer thus far has been to do nothing except to simply endure.

The act of remembering is critical for Bet as she deals with change. Croft says that Tyler rarely ventures far from themes of home and family, yet the journeys her characters make ‘‘are nevertheless far-ranging, for they are journeys of self-exploration. During these journeys Tyler’s characters attempt to learn more about themselves and their places in the world.’’ Bet’s journey through memory parallels the actual journey Bet and Arnold are taking on the train. As Bet’s life literally changes, her memories help her determine how to live beyond this point. The journey on the train and the act of remembering are also necessary for the reader in understanding Bet’s character and motivations. As Croft says,

‘‘As she (Bet) rides along in the train, the reader becomes aware of the hardships and isolation that this brave woman has had to endure. Thus, Bet’s decision to give up her son for his own good becomes more sympathetic and her action as an act of heroism.’’

Ultimately, however, the action of institutionalizing her son paralyzes Bet. Arnold will finally get the care he requires from trained individuals, but Bet, who has identified herself as a mother and caregiver and has endured hardship, no longer has a son to raise or a hardship to endure. In one day, she has lost the things that define her, thus, it is her identity that is in peril.

At the conclusion of ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ Bet indicates that she is prepared to disengage from life. Life has become ‘‘just something on a stage for her to sit back and watch.’’ Bet’s pivotal journey through memory has led her to a kind of understanding that does not initiate action but creates a kind of paralysis. Karen Levenback in her article ‘‘Function of (Picturing) Memory’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, says, ‘‘The key to using memory wisely and well has less to do with realizing the significance of memories today than with what we do with this sense tomorrow.’’ Bet’s choice for tomorrow is to let go of life, to watch it rather than live it. For one who has defined herself in terms of endurance and standing staunch in adversity, the sudden freedom coupled with her perceived failure as a mother, creates paralysis. She idealized her ‘‘old life’’ as one that was ‘‘spacious’’ and free, but when provided with these very things, the decision to live spaciously and freely is too great a burden. She is the one, not her son, who ends up losing identity, because her identity has been so tied to the things she has just lost: her son, her family. Charlotte Templin, in her article ‘‘Tyler’s Literary Reputation’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, cites a review by Vivian Gornick in the Village Voice, that talks about Bet’s very decision to disengage. Gornick writes, ‘‘A pity: A good writer being rewarded for making virtue out of the fear of experience.’’ Gornick’s reflection on Tyler’s use of fear pertains to Bet, who finds the possibility of experience paralytic. But, the question about virtue remains. What is the reader to understand about Bet? Is she a hero? And is Tyler truly making virtue of Bet’s fear?

What readers glean from this text has been and will continue to be a response to the elements of their own ordinary lives found within it. Gornick seems to suggest that literature should provide role models, or people from whom the ordinary person can model behavior. With Bet, Tyler seems to suggest that daily decisions are difficult decisions and sometimes they simply get the better of people. Through Bet, Tyler teaches that learning to surf through the difficulties of life is perhaps the only way to ensure a future in which a person has enough energy and hope to remain actively engaged. Bet never learned to live flexibly, or body surf. She stood staunch and took every slam life had for her, and the end of her story finds her in a bleak kind of nothingness. A reader may not find something in Bet to emulate or model but may empathize with her hardship and realize that her choice is not the choice to make and not the life to emulate, but to avoid.

Tyler has been criticized for being either too rosy or too bleak, opposites that ultimately must be resolved by her reading audience. Just as Bet can be read as a hero and coward, so can many of Tyler’s characters. The reader is the final arbiter of truth, and hence literary categories, which have emerged to explain the writing of contemporary authors and place them in tidy categories, do not work for Tyler. Her work defies pre-defined categories and does so under the guise of writing about average life. The ordinary life, it seems, is a multifaceted, nuanced endeavor that thousands of readers have found and identified with in Tyler’s fiction. Readers of her stories and novels meet in Tyler’s words what Croft calls the ‘‘typical Tylerian situation—a person attempting to endure the hand that life has dealt him or her.’’ Critics are conflicted about the typical Tylerian situation, offering both praise and criticism, which Tyler seems to suggest, throughout all her work, is just one of ordinary life’s complications.

Source: Erika Taibl, Critical Essay on ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Themes and Imagery

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Anne Tyler is a prolific novelist who has developed a strong literary reputation. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Gail Godwin has said,

‘‘Her fiction is filled with displaced persons who persist stubbornly in their own destinies. They are ‘oddballs,’ visionaries, lonely souls, but she has a way of transcribing their personalities with such loving wholeness that when we examine them we keep finding more and more pieces of ourselves.’’

The short story ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ first published in 1977 in The New Yorker, centers on one episode in the life of Bet Blevins, a single mother who places her mentally disabled son in a public institution after having exhausted herself trying to care for the child. Although Tyler dramatizes only the trip to the institution, the reception Bet and Arnold experience there, and the wait in the station for the train to arrive, the author uses Bet’s reminiscences to place the traumatic moments of the story in the context of her life and her character.

Most of the story consists of the mother’s memories and reflections about her son, her marriage, her parents, and the anxiety and guilt she feels in having to institutionalize the boy who has grown too large and too wild for her to control. It is apparent from the outset that her son Arnold is profoundly different. In the initial paragraph Tyler, describes the boy as ‘‘a knobby child with great glassy eyes and her own fair hair,’’ emphasizing both his distance from the world and his closeness to her. Unlike normal children, he never wears out his clothes, and he seldom changes his expression. Although the precise nature of Arnold’s problem is never explained, it is evident that he is utterly incapable of growing into a self-supporting individual. Unaided by husband or family, Bet has been worn out by the efforts she has made to care for her son. Tyler typically shows Bet or other characters speaking or in action; then she makes a transition into Bet’s thoughts and imagination, preoccupied as they are by her son’s predicament.

Bet struggles both with her son and with a shabby, depressing poverty. They live in rented rooms in an old house, where ‘‘there was always the feel of too many lives layered over other lives.’’ She wears a worn beige dress that visually echoes the brownness of the wallpaper that Arnold peels from the corner. The color brown also appears in the corduroy coat he wears, one he does not like, but which has set her back half a week’s pay.

Tyler’s imagery further reinforces the emotional bleakness of the piece. ‘‘She felt too slight and frail, too wispy for all she had to do today.’’ This early in the story, it is still unclear to the reader what will happen, but Tyler foreshadows the outcome by portraying the emotional devastation of a neighbor, old Mrs. Puckett, who, with tears in her eyes, presents Arnold his favorite cookies, though he is too distracted to take them. Bet hopes Arnold might make his ‘‘little crowing noise’’ to the old woman. Bet immediately feels guilty again, but she tells herself that she has done the best she could, only giving up when the child grew to be too much for her to handle.

On the bus and train to their destination, Bet constantly worries that Arnold will make a scene. As Arnold becomes more quiet, fighting against sleep, Tyler explains that the child has never slept well, leading her to remember her husband’s abandonment of the child soon after they learned of his disabilities. Bet alternates between guilt and resentment, alternately blaming herself, then her husband, for the boy’s condition. This complex mix of emotions makes Tyler’s story remarkable.

An author telling such a poignant tale must be careful to steer clear of sentimentality. If the reader comes to suspect that he or she is being manipulated into pity, then the story fails. In this story, Bet must be sympathetic but not pathetic. She has made some mistakes of her own, especially marrying too early, against her parents’ wishes. She had wanted to get away from life at home with her parents, but now she remembers her parents, both dead, with a longing fondness she had not known as a girl. In retrospect, her life in a trailer near the harbor of Salt Spray, Maryland, seemed free and idyllic. Going far back into memory, Bet thinks of her father, who ran a boat that took tourists on fishing expeditions, and how for him ‘‘everything had been run by the sea.’’

It is at this point in the story that Tyler introduces the phrase that becomes the title. As a man who went out on the water, her father regulated his life by the weather forecasts, ‘‘the wind, the tide, the small-craft warnings, the height of average waves in unprotected waters.’’ Good authors almost always choose titles that are significant to their stories, and this line is no exception. We may ask the signifi- cance of this phrase apparently unrelated to the main narrative of the exhausted mother and disabled child.

This central image, the key word being ‘‘unprotected,’’ parallels the conflict of the story. Bet is utterly unprotected, having no husband, father, or mother to shelter or support her. Neither does she possess the financial resources that might partially alleviate the situation. She is a woman, presumably still fairly young and lacking advanced education, with a needy child and stuck in a low-paying job. She is average in all respects but one: her dogged devotion to her son. This determination proves to be in character, as Bet remembers her childhood, when her father tried to teach her to body surf. She failed to learn how, because she could not let the breakers take her away; instead she stood rigid against them, letting them slam into her ‘‘as if standing staunch was a virtue, really. She couldn’t explain it. Her father thought she was scared, but it wasn’t that at all.’’

Robert McPhilips, writing in The Nation, says, ‘‘Tyler’s strongest card is her ability to orchestrate brilliantly funny set pieces and to create exasperating but sympathetic characters.’’ There is certainly much that is sympathetic and admirable about Bet. She would never have left her husband, even before Arnold’s birth, not even when the marriage had ‘‘turned grim and cranky.’’ Her efforts to raise a profoundly disabled son, alone and unprotected, are nothing less than heroic. Additionally, though, Tyler suggests another side to Bet, a stubbornness of personality, a tenacious rigidity in the face of forces larger than herself. Perhaps her tragic flaw and her greatest virtue arise from the same source. She is a woman who ‘‘took comfort from enduring.’’ It is difficult to fault her for her love and her determination to cherish and protect her child, and perhaps simple endurance might not have been her most fruitful strategy, but she acts according to the best that is in her. Tyler often writes of characters who manage to endure what life throws at them. In her novel Saint Maybe, the protagonist, Ian Bedloe, takes upon himself the burden of raising his brother’s orphaned children. As he moves from a golden childhood to a harried middle age, he searches for redemption from his guilt over his small role in his brother’s suicide. Bet Blevins also is consumed with guilt, yet she, like other Tyler characters, appeals to us through her humanity.

Following this passage of exposition, in which the author provides important information about the past, Tyler adroitly switches back to the present, dramatizing a little scene in which the conductor berates a small black woman in a purple coat for not paying her fare. This episode is simultaneously funny and sad and a bit grotesque, an illustration of Tyler’s keen eye and ear for humor. Bet is mortified at the confrontation before her, but suddenly, inexplicably, Arnold starts to laugh. Something about what he has seen strikes him as funny, and he reacts the same way he does to ‘‘Sesame Street.’’ This abrupt juxtaposition of embarrassment and laughter epitomizes the author’s ear for the absurd and incongruous situations that make for off-beat humor in a very grim situation indeed.

Bet’s plans, it seems, involve admitting her son to Parkinsville State Hospital and leaving just as quickly as she can. Something eccentric, even odd, emerges from her desperate attempts to flee. She nervously asks the taxi driver to wait for her outside the hospital, and she must reassure herself repeatedly that he will be there. Once at the institution, she is met by a nurse, who is brisk and polished though not particularly sympathetic. Bet lingers, trying to say things about her son. She adjusts a picture of a clown, the only evidence that the barracks-like room where her son will sleep was meant for children. The institution is cool and efficient, and Bet is conflicted and exhausted. On her way out the door, ‘‘she heard a single, terrible scream, but the nurse only patted her shoulder and pushed her gently on through.’’ She rushes to the train station, expecting to get on the train at the last minute, only to discover that the train is twenty minutes late. She asks the ticket agent in despair what she will do for twenty minutes. Her obsession with getting away is not very rational, but she’s a mother in extreme emotional pain. ‘‘‘Twenty minutes!’ she said aloud. ‘What am I going to do?’’’

She finds relief in an unexpected source. A crew comes in and sets up a lectern, some red, white, and blue bunting, and a public-address system so the mayor can make a twenty-minute speech. Bet is grateful for the diversion. The story ends poignantly. ‘‘They were putting on a sort of private play. From now on, all the world was going to be like that—just something to watch on a stage for her to sit back and watch.’’ Tyler’s protagonist has enA dured the unendurable. She has been so involved with watching out for Arnold for so long that now she disassociates herself from life, which becomes a thing to observe. She is still in unprotected waters, though the storm has passed, and she faces life with detachment and endurance.

Source: Frank Pool, Critical Essay on ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Pool has published poetry and reviews in a number of literary journals. He teaches Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate English in Austin, Texas.

Average Waves in Unprotected Waters Overview

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The Precarious State of Well-Being When Tyler deals with the ever-precarious state of human safety and well-being, she shows how mysteriously disaster awaits us, whether in the genetic makeup of an infant or in the presence of a dangerous intruder. One of Tyler’s best and most moving stories, ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ (1977), confronts the problem of a mentally deficient child and follows the mother, driven to the limit of her resources, as she commits her son Arnold to the state institution. The disorder of agoraphobia is pervasive in Tyler’s fiction, from the severe condition Jeremy Pauling suffers in Celestial Navigation to the somewhat lesser form of this disorder that Ira’s sister, Junie, suffers in Breathing Lessons. Jeremy has not left his Baltimore street block for years; Junie will not step out of the Baltimore apartment unless she has dressed in full disguise, replete with a flaming red wig. As irritating and serious as their conditions are, they do not touch Arnold’s severe malady, a tragedy for Bet, the anguished mother in ‘‘Average Waves on Unprotected Waters,’’ who ‘‘felt too slight and frail, too wispy for all she had to do today.’’

When Arnold’s problem had become evident, Avery, the boy’s father, abandoned the family. For a long time Bet agonizes over the reason for Arnold’s condition: Was it from a bad gene her husband possessed? that she possessed? Was it because she and Avery married too young and against their parents’ advice? No answers, of course, come, and she is left with the arduous daily routine of caring for Arnold and providing a living. On the day the story takes place, Bet dresses the child carefully and frets to keep him neat and clean during the train ride to the state institution—her gesture to show that Arnold was special, was cherished. As the nurse locks doors that will keep Arnold inside, Bet hears ‘‘a single, terrible scream’’—this unearthly sound is the last contact with her child.

With few exceptions, Tyler uses her story and novel titles within the texts themselves, thus deepening and layering the titles’ significance. The title ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ comes from Bet’s childhood, when she lived with her parents in Salt Spray, Maryland. Her father operated a fishing boat for tourists and could not set out for the day until he received the pertinent weather information: ‘‘the wind, the tide, the small-craft warnings, the height of average waves in unprotected waters.’’ So, the title suggests, by arming ourselves we may avoid danger, may ensure safety. Bet, however, cannot protect herself or Arnold from the fate that was his from birth. Precaution cannot always guarantee safety. Tyler suggests by the conclusion of the story that Bet has suffered an extreme loss. As she waits out a 20-minute delay for her train home, local figures scurry about, setting up for the mayor’s plan to take ‘‘about twenty minutes of your time, friends.’’ Bet watches, sensing that ‘‘they were putting on a sort of private play. From now on, all the world was going to be like that—just something on a stage, for her to sit back and watch.’’ Her real self was tied to Arnold, who is hers no longer.

Frequently in Tyler’s fiction, characters must face the absurd twists of fate—those inexplicable chance moments that create an Arnold who, locked in his mental chaos, finally goes beyond his mother’s reach. Or the irony of time that in ‘‘A Misstep of the Mind’’ causes what the rape victim, Julie Madison, describes as the worst minutes of her life. In this story Tyler exposes several layers of contemporary life in a world where neighborhood safety is no longer a fact and where the violation of rape is made worse by the indignity the police cause the victim, and even by the hapless blunders of neighbors.

Rape, the story insists, implies the total loss of innocence, an episode that opens and closes the story. Tyler begins, ‘‘Julie Madison was raped and robbed on a Tuesday, a warm and sunny noontime when you would least expect anything to go wrong,’’ and ends, ‘‘Yet what she remembered, after everything else had gone, was the packed feeling that the air has when an intruder lies in wait, the capacity for betrayal in a cheerful world where dust floats lazily in sunbeams, the knowledge that it is possible to die.’’ The private trauma is counterpointed by the public dilemma: the police bombard Julie with questions about the man’s physical description and his gun, their concern less over her experience than in their capturing the intruder, ‘‘because Baltimore had recently had a plague of burglaries by someone fitting the same description: tall and black, very young, wearing a pale yellow windbreaker.’’ The old problem of racial tension comes full circle after Julie identifies the man in a lineup (his scar had floated persistently in her dreams), because she must on leaving the police station pass ‘‘a black family all dressed up and sternly erect.’’ If this is the rapist’s family, they give a picture of dignity far removed from the crime that has occurred. The racial tension that society endures is manifest in the reality of city life, where each day someone like Julie Madison discovers that ‘‘safety had crumbled in a second, as if it had never been more than a myth.’’

In concrete detail Tyler describes the plight of a private citizen caught in the world of police investigation. Julie must examine mugshots as a bored policewoman, ignorant of manners, ‘‘sighed and cleaned her fingernails with a door key.’’ Then closed in the booth alone to view the lineup, Julie must obey these instructions: ‘‘If you can positively identify any of these men as having done you harm, you have ten seconds to call out his number.’’ The real world, Julie discovers in this moment, is a far cry from the world of television, where a victim viewing the lineup could, if she chose, just take all the time in the world. This experience has marked Julie’s educated, dignified, and sensible family for life, and Tyler’s point hits hard: Julie Madison’s mother has worked with the Urban League to find better jobs for blacks. Now she can only say of Julie’s ordeal, ‘‘Oh, it’s ironic.’’ Ironic indeed, and regardless of the complicated social conditions that precipitate such crimes, for Julie Madison, the safety she had assumed and enjoyed had indeed crumbled in a second.

Source: Elizabeth Evans, ‘‘The Short Stories,’’ in Anne Tyler, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 21–43.


Critical Overview