Average Waves in Unprotected Waters

by Anne Tyler

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Historical Context

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When ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ appeared in the New Yorker in the winter of 1977, it arrived in a climate of economic instability and social sobriety. The 1970s, the post-Vietnam years in America, were marked by feelings of disillusionment. Working-class people lost faith in government, believing that their vote would not make a difference, and high unemployment created a sharp contrast between the wealthy and the poor.

Households headed by women, similar to Bet Blevins’s in Tyler’s story, were especially hard hit economically. Salary discrepancies for women and men working in similar jobs became a focus of the feminist movement, and efforts of the movement elicited slow change for economically disadvantaged female workers. The positive news for working mothers was a shift in social perspective that freed women to work and raise families without feeling social ridicule. More and more mothers entered the workforce out of financial obligation, but increasingly, women entered the workforce as they searched for self-fulfillment.

The search for self-fulfillment became a prominent theme in 1970s life, one that Bet shares in the story. She questions her identity and feels a palpable need to escape her current life and its hardships. Many Americans felt that need in the post-Vietnam era and, like Bet, were hindered in their quest by socioeconomic situations that greatly limited their possibilities.

The search for self-fulfillment led, for many, to a shift in priorities that placed personal needs ahead of family. This shift would ultimately mark the birth of the ‘‘Me Generation’’ that became prevalent in the 1980s. In the late 1970s, this growing attitude had a negative impact on marriages, resulting in a dramatic rise in the divorce rate. A society that had once admired marriages in which difficult circumstances were endured and obligations to others were placed ahead of personal happiness gave way to disillusionment and the normality of divorce and abandonment. Bet’s absent husband, Avery, is an example of this trend and the relational wreckage that scarred many lives.

Self-fulfillment also led to rampant self-expression, which came in many forms, some of them unlikely, such as denim jeans. For rich and poor, the personalization of jeans in the 1970s provided contrast to the plain jeans and black, beatnik sweaters of the 1960s. Whereas only collegians and rebels wore jeans in the 1960s, jeans in the 1970s became a national uniform. In ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ Bet worries that Arnold’s jeans are not faded or worn enough, and that this makes him appear unreal. The use of jeans to symbolize her worries about her son’s character is an apt one for the 1970s, an era when jeans helped defined the person.

The person of the president was defined in the decade first as Republican Richard Nixon, who resigned from office after the Watergate scandal and was later pardoned by his former vice president, Gerald Ford. In 1977, Ford relinquished his inherited presidency to a man many people called ‘‘the non-politician,’’ Jimmy Carter. Formerly a peanut farmer, then Governor of Georgia, Carter won the election as a Washington outsider. At the end of the decade, just as at the end of ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ an ambiguous view of government and patriotism took the stage. Bet is ‘‘saved’’ by the mayor in what she believes is a kind of act of fate. She believes that the government people ‘‘had come just for her sake.’’ As the decade came to a close, there was a similar public attitude toward government. The Democratic Party was leaving office and the country was welcoming Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party to Washington along...

(This entire section contains 709 words.)

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with a new era of politics that promised to focus on individual needs.

Tyler’s ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ manifests 1970s ideologies, cultural phenomena, and values, but what is most notable about the story is that its time and place are relatively irrelevant. Tyler’s story, and much of her other work, has a distinct universality about it that allows it to speak across generations. This is one reason this story, in particular, keeps cropping up in anthologies. Students of the text still find something relevant in its message and find the historical and cultural framework of the story easily adaptable to the current day.

Literary Style

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Setting Throughout ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ the settings of different scenes augment the plot by mirroring Bet’s feelings. Bet Blevins’s apartment is crumbling and provides the ‘‘feeling of too many lives layered over other lives, like the layers of brownish wallpaper.’’ The description of the place mirrors Bet’s feelings of suffocation and loneliness. Though there are ‘‘too many lives,’’ she is living hers alone and must act alone.

Later, in the train, the movement of the engine lulls Arnold and provides Bet with an opportunity to travel back into her memory. The journey motif occurs on two levels, on a physical level as Bet and Arnold travel to Parkinsville, and on a more symbolic level as Bet travels back in her own memory to find answers about herself and her life. When they arrive at the state hospital, everything is sterile and white and the story states that ‘‘there wasn’t a sign that children lived here except for a tiny cardboard clown picture hanging on one vacant wall.’’ The environment elicits some action in Bet, who begins to tell the nurse that her son is a child who needs his ‘‘special blanket’’ and that he is not ‘‘vacant’’ but that ‘‘there’s a whole lot to him.’’ The sterility of the environment mirrors Bet’s perception of her son’s personality. She finds him vacant and sterile, and she attempts to explain away these characteristics and prove that he is special and that he does have a personality.

At the conclusion of the story, the train station is described as ‘‘bombed out—nothing but a shell.’’ This mirrors Bet’s life now that her son is gone. She has found identity as his mother and earlier as Avery’s wife and her parents’ daughter, but now, all these roles are completed and she is abandoned in a ‘‘bombed out’’ train station, without any of the roles that have defined her. Like the train station, she is empty, suddenly void.

Symbolism Though on many levels setting plays a role as symbolism in ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Water,’’ by mirroring and representing characters’ feelings and actions, the largest symbolic reference is expressed in the title of the story. The title, ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ speaks to Bet’s memory of her childhood at the shore, when her father ‘‘couldn’t arrange his day till he’d heard the marine forecast. . . the height of average waves in unprotected waters.’’ The marine forecast and the height of waves determined if the water was safe for swimmers. As a child, Bet’s father tried to teach her to body surf in these average waves, but she couldn’t do it. She just stood in the waves, ‘‘as if standing staunch were a virtue.’’ How does this tie into her life now? Instead of water, the ‘‘average waves’’ that appear in her life are the average troubles that appear in every life. They are the loss of a husband, the loss of parents, and ultimately, the institutionalization of her son. She is not the only one who has dealt with such troubles. Such troubles are ‘‘average waves’’ in the water of life. The symbol of ‘‘average waves in unprotected waters’’ acts as a metaphor. It simultaneously represents the true oceanic waves of her childhood memory and the rather ordinary troubles she faces in her current life.

Point of View ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ tells Bet’s story from a third-person point of view. In ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ this perspective accomplishes two things. First, it allows the reader to fully empathize with Bet’s motivations and understand her position as she institutionalizes her son. Second, it allows Bet to suggest the motivation of the other characters. Bet’s perspective induces the reader to believe that Arnold is both completely catatonic and potentially violent, that he has no personality and then that he may indeed have some distinguishing characteristics. Because of point of view, the reader is taken on a labyrinthine journey through Bet’s psyche on this difficult day. The perspective provides unique insight for the reader into the inner workings of Bet’s mind, while leaving doubts about Arnold, the nurse who is to care for him, and even the absent husband. Are their personalities and actions accurately portrayed as they are filtered through Bet’s perception and memory? Tyler’s choice of this point of view speaks about her motivations as a writer as well. She chose to look at the day through Bet’s eyes and engage the reader through Bet’s thoughts and feelings.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: The 1970 census reveals that three million women are raising families by themselves.

Today: The 2000 census reports that over ten million women, many of them by choice, raise families as single mothers.

1970s: Late in the decade, British scientists report that they have determined, for the first time, the complete genetic structure of a living organism.

Today: Scientists from the Human Genome Project finish drafts of the human genome, one of the largest scientific undertakings of all time, and determine that the human genome contains between 26,000 and 40,000 genes.

1970s: Post-Vietnam America, plagued by economic instability, widespread civic distrust of government, and an energy crisis, begins to rebound as government agencies concentrate on the domestic agenda.

Today: Post–September 11, 2001, America, plagued by economic instability, concerns over national security, and threats of bioterrorism, focuses on a domestic agenda that strives to make America safe and economically stable once again.

1970s: ‘‘Let’s talk about me,’’ a line borrowed from author Tom Wolfe, becomes the unofficial slogan of America, creating an atmosphere in which people begin to publicly share personal history, strife, sacrifice, and turmoil. Complete disclosure becomes a distinctive national style.

Today: American citizens tell their personal stories on daytime television programs and sell their stories to national magazines, while nightly news is criticized for featuring private glimpses into the lives of elected officials and celebrities.

Media Adaptations

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The Accidental Tourist was adapted as an Academy Award–nominated film and released by Warner Brothers in 1988. The film stars Kathleen Turner and William Hurt.

Almost all of Tyler’s novels appear as books on tape from Random House, including Back When We Were Grownups, which appeared in 2001. Other Random House audio books include Breathing Lessons, The Clock Winder, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bachelder, Frances H., ‘‘Manacles of Fear: Emotional Af- fliction in Tyler’s Works,’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, edited by David Salwak, University of Iowa Press, 1994, pp. 43–50.

Croft, Robert W., An Anne Tyler Companion, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 1–14, 28–29.

Godwin, Gail, ‘‘Celestial Navigation,’’ in the New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1978.

Gray, Paul, Review of A Patchwork Planet, in Time, Vol. 151, No. 16, April 27, 1998, p. 80.

Hawley, John C., ‘‘The ‘Wrong’ Rebecca: Review of Back When We Were Grownups,’’ in America, Vol. 185, October 8, 2001, p. 33.

Iannone, Carol, ‘‘Novel Events,’’ in National Review, Vol. 41, No. 16, September 1, 1989, pp. 46–48.

Levenback, Karen L., ‘‘Functions of (Picturing) Memory,’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, edited by David Salwak, University of Iowa Press, 1994, pp. 77–85.

McPhilips, Robert, Review of Breathing Lessons, in the Nation, Vol. 247, No. 13, November 7, 1988, pp. 464–66.

Petry, Alice Hall, Understanding Anne Tyler, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 1–21.

Shapiro, Laura, Review of Ladder of Years, in Newsweek, Vol. 125, No. 17, April 24, 1995, pp. 60–61.

Templin, Charlotte, ‘‘Tyler’s Literary Reputation,’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, edited by David Salwak, University of Iowa Press, 1994, pp. 175–98.

Updike, John, ‘‘Family Ways,’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, edited by David Salwak, University of Iowa Press, 1994, pp. 11–119.

Further Reading Chekhov, Anton, The Comic Stories, edited by Harvey Pitcher, Ivan R. Dee, 1999. The Comic Stories includes forty of Chekhov’s stories from the simple and unsophisticated to the sophisticated and complex. As a student of Russian, Tyler read Chekhov’s work, and many critics have observed a connection between the two writers’ styles.

Hicks, George L., Experimental America: Celo and Utopian Community in the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 2001. Hicks explores American utopian communities and the effort to revitalize America using these models in the 1930s and 1940s. His exploration largely revolves around the Celo Community in North Carolina, where Tyler spent five years of her childhood.

Welty, Eudora, The Collected Stories, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. This volume includes work from The Curtain of Green and Other Stories, The Wide Net and Other Stories, The Golden Apples, The Bride of the InnisFallen and Other Stories, and two uncollected stories. Tyler has said that Welty’s ability to write the lives of ordinary people was a tremendous influence on her own work.

Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984. Prenshaw has collected twenty-one essays from respected authors and critics about contemporary southern women writers, including an essay by Doris Betts about Tyler and her work.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide