Average Waves in Unprotected Waters Analysis
by Anne Tyler

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

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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 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...

(The entire section is 2,171 words.)