Average Waves in Unprotected Waters

by Anne Tyler
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Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882

Memory
Memory plays an important role in almost all of Tyler’s fiction. In ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ memory is a disconnecting as well as a connecting force, both allowing characters to make discoveries about themselves and serving as a means of alienation. The first acknowledgment of memory, or lack of memory, occurs when Mrs. Puckett gives Bet cookies for Arnold. The boy passes the older woman without acknowledging her. He does not seem to know her or have a memory of her. Bet has worried over Arnold’s lack of memory for objects, but his inability to recognize the woman who baby-sat him from birth irritates her. Later, on the train, the act of remembering is an act of selfrealization for Bet. As she remembers her childhood and marriage, she learns about herself and her ability to endure. Parts of her memory are idealized. She decides that ‘‘her old life had been beautifully free and spacious.’’ In many ways, her memories are contradictory to her present situation. But, she realizes that she is the same person throughout her memory, and from that, she gleans comfort and understanding.

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Family versus Individual
As the most constant theme in Tyler’s work, the family provides a contradictory force in the characters of Tyler’s fiction. On the one hand, family nurtures and sustains an individual and provides him or her with a basic identity. Family is also a unit of stagnation and can strip individuals of their identity. Bet Blevins defines herself as a mother throughout the story, and her role as a single mother in her family of two is complicated by the fact that she is the mother of a developmentally disabled boy. The traditional family and traditional motherhood, the idea of nurturing a child from birth to adulthood and then watching that child leave ‘‘the nest’’ and make his own life, is not a possibility for Bet. She must decide, perhaps before she is ready, to release Arnold into a life that is appropriate for him. Acting alone, Bet defies the traditional definition of the successful family. Ultimately, she believes that her decision will save the family and herself. Her memories of her family serve as a catalyst to help Bet find herself and find in herself the ability to make a necessary decision.

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Identity
In many ways, ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ is a story about the search for self, from the most miniscule gene to the more intangible character traits that truly make a person unique. As Bet Blevins searches her son’s unresponsive face and his spastic limbs for some sign of identity, she questions not only where his disability originated but the motivations for her own biological and emotional character. She wonders about the gene that she possibly gave him that caused his disability, which has, in a way, prevented Arnold from having a true identity. While questioning who her son is, she makes discoveries about herself, particularly her ability to endure hardship. One hardship she endures is seeing others interact with Arnold. As she watches, she is often induced to try and prove that Arnold is ‘‘real.’’ Throughout the story, she projects personality traits onto Arnold, hoping to prove to those around him that he is like other children and that she has not failed, either through the passage of her genes to him or through her actions as his mother. She does define herself as a mother. Yet, at the conclusion of the story, she has given up her role as mother, and in doing so chooses a kind of lack of identity that is the result of passivity. Bet becomes a mere observer of ‘‘something on a stage.’’

Clean versus Dirty
Throughout ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ images of cleaning and the concern for tidy appearances prevail. The first reference to the apartment building in which Bet and Arnold live reveals that the place is ‘‘crumbling’’ and that there was nothing anyone could do to ‘‘lighten its cluttered look.’’ The building’s degraded appearance is irritating and depressing to Bet as a physical manifestation of her poverty and hardship. With Arnold, Bet struggles between wanting him to be tidy and wanting him to appear more ‘‘real.’’ Arnold, whose jeans are unfaded, has a crooked collar. Bet does not fix it, because she thinks it makes him look more real, like other children. Later in the story, Bet is concerned that Arnold remain clean. She begs him not to get messy. She then tidies his collar. She wants anyone who meets him to see that he has been well cared for, ‘‘cherished.’’ Appearance is a clue to economic comfort and love, but it is contradicted by Bet’s need for Arnold to appear ‘‘real.’’ Those elements that are not tidy in the story are manifestations of economic hardship, but they are also manifestations of real living and personality. Ultimately, Bet shuns this reality and the messiness of life. When the mayor’s entourage arrives in their clean gray suits with their bunting and microphone, Bet feels she can surrender herself to them. The welldressed government people represent comfort and an ease in life, both economic and emotional, that Bet is ready to embrace, even if, ultimately, it is a betrayal of her true identity.

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